Mr. Palfrey is a British spymaster.
As a couple other in this compendium who have that job description, Palfrey occupies his time hunting down those who spy on and against the British Government. This can and does mean he goes up against, as the common American parlance puts it, "all enemies foreign and domestic".
It is his patch to seek out enemy agents seeking to seduce via money or sex members of the ruling party or bureaucrats to work for them.
It is part of his job to sniff out those at and around Whitehall who have already been turned or who, for greed or spite or just for a lark, turned themselves.
And it is his task to help prove a negative at times when evidence might accidentally or deliberately implicate a truly honest person, threatening to destroy a reputation or eliminate an obstacle. This last job is particularly difficult at times because "proving a negative" is always a challenge.
Mr. Palfrey does all this while, as he puts it a couple of times, working for the Home Office. He, or his associate, will be asked at times if he is MI5 and MI6 and he will honestly affirm that he is connected to neither.
This makes for a wonderfully mysterious aspect to Palfrey because he speaks the truth here when he says he is not with those organizations but being with the Home Office leaves much unsaid.
Who or what he works for does, though, have considerable authority and connections. Palfrey answers to a person known only as the Coordinator but that person speaks on a very regular basis directly with the Prime Minister (unnamed but certainly Margaret Thatcher considering the time frame and the frequent references to her being female). This Coordinator, who for most of the time we know Palfrey, is herself an interesting woman, wielding a considerable amount of authority and yet prone to be concerned with pinching pennies.
When we first meet Palfrey, he enjoys a quite spacious and nicely furnished office which seems to lack for nothing a person might want, except for windows which Palfrey does not seem to mind. But just because he, and those visiting him, cannot look out, others can and do look in for we find that his meetings are constantly being monitored and recorded by a spooky fellow in a basement office. We assume (dangerous for this line of work) that Palfrey is not only aware of the surveillance but is the one who set it up. [Note: this was presented in the first 'pilot' episode known as The Traitor.]
However that all changes drastically when he returns from an enjoyable extended fishing vacation [i.e, when the actual series begins] and he finds that his then Coordinator has been shuffled out and a new one brought in and Mr. Palfrey is moved to totally different digs.
Palfrey is not a fan of change and the change is rather drastic. He goes from his windowless office to a rather drab one room office in an old building immediately adjacent to what seems to be either a boys high school or a prep school. The office is unfurnished when he first sees it and lacks any working heater, though he is assured it will be attended to. [I got the impression, though I could be wrong, that this austerity was more a sign of the frugality of the new Coordinator than any indication of displeasure at Palfrey whom she had not yet met.
Palfrey will also find that no one he has worked with before has made the transition so the little spooky monitor watching fellow in the basement has gone. He will be joined soon after he moves into the new digs by a very young, quite pretty, female secretary named Caroline who will prove to be more than capable of handling her duties and his comings and goings, all while enjoying a life outside the office with her share of friends and male suitors (no one particularly serious nor long lasting).
He will also have pushed on him a very sinister looking ginger-haired muscle- and leg-man named Blair. Palfrey does not seem very pleased to have to associate with Blair at first but this soon changes and before too long the two (or three since we should count Caroline) will make an impressive team.
Blair is himself a fascinating mad, rather similar in lethality and intimidation to but without the guilt and angst. Blair will stake out places or break into places as such a normal part of his job that he never blinks when given an order. Nor will he show any particular hesitation or remorse if told to get physical with someone. And when asked if he knows how to get rid of a body (just in case, you know) he admits he does and has. Blair is a deadly man but he does have a surprising knowledge of and appreciation of good wines.
Back on Palfrey, it is fun to watch him tackle the various assignments handed to him by the Coordinator and to observe him having to dance around her particular idiosyncrasies. She is a relative novice to her position but it is clear she is not a newcomer to how to play the power game. She is not perfect by any means and she will have to be schooled, respectfully, of course, by Palfrey more than once. But she is extremely sharp and can deal with those above her as well as the other sister and cousin agencies far better than Palfrey likely could or would ever want to. Palfrey may chafe at times under her direction but it seems a very good thing she can be his buffer.
Palfrey is a man who likes to do things his own way and in his own time. He will take orders and he will do what he is told to do but he maintains a wonderfully enjoyable ability to interpret those orders rather loosely at times. This could easily get him sacked or demoted were it not for the fact that Palfrey inevitably is proven correct. It is hard to argue with success.
I have switched back and forth during this discussion on the man between calling him Palfrey, as a lot of people did when talking both about and to him, and referring to him as Mr. Palfrey, which is also quite commonly done especially by those a tad frightened by his reputation. At no time have I mentioned a first name because in all the stories we are shown about him, neither he nor anyone else ever once mentions one. That in itself says quite a bit about the man and his station.