Win­ston Churchill is dead and Lon­don is oc­cu­pied by the Nazis in this grip­ping novel adap­ta­tion by the BBC

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell SS-GB,

In 1962, with a novel called The Ipcress File, Len Deighton changed the con­ven­tions of Bri­tish spy fic­tion at a time when they needed breach­ing. It was a genre then dom­i­nated by the hard-liv­ing “su­per­spy” agents of the Cold War era who, in deadly chess games, saved the world from vast crim­i­nal or­gan­i­sa­tions bent on rul­ing the world.

His first pro­tag­o­nist, a work­ing-class agent who cared more about din­ner (a pas­sion too of his au­thor) than trade­craft, was name­less in the novel and the six se­quels but was chris­tened Harry Palmer in the films star­ring a be­spec­ta­cled Michael Caine that fol­lowed and that made the au­thor fa­mous. Deighton quickly es­tab­lished him­self as a ma­jor force in the genre, then went on to show him­self to be an ac­com­plished mil­i­tary his­to­rian and nov­el­ist as well, a metic­u­lous re­searcher fas­ci­nated with men and their big machines.

I still have a copy of the paper­back of The Ipcress File with the iconic Ray­mond Hawkey dust jacket — Hawkey was a writer of well-re­ceived thrillers, too — with its twopenny-half­penny Bri­tish stamp fea­tur­ing Hitler’s head and a Novem­ber 14, 1941, post­mark, sit­ting on a shelf along­side nov­els by John le Carre and Adam Hall, aka Elle­ston Trevor, those other great spy novelists of the 1960s and 70s. Their sto­ries — in­tri­cate ver­sions of dis­so­lu­tion, dis­loy­alty, treach­ery and in­ep­ti­tude within the se­cret es­tab­lish­ment — were re­quired read­ing dur­ing a pe­riod when it was easy to be­lieve in right­ist con­spir­a­cies deep within the up­per cir­cles of gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate es­tab­lish­ment.

Many of Deighton’s char­ac­ter­is­tic themes re­cur in his great al­ter­na­tive his­tory thriller SSGB, first pub­lished in 1978. It’s another con­vo­luted and down­beat story still seen as one of the clas­sics of the genre, rated along­side Robert Harris’s ex­cel­lent Father­land, pub­lished 14 years af­ter Deighton’s book in 1992. (The al­ter­na­tive his­tory or “coun­ter­fac­tual” novel has a long his­tory dat­ing back at least to 1836 and Louis Ge­of­froy’s His­toire de la Monar­chie Uni­verselle, which cel­e­brates Napoleon’s 1811 tri­umph over the Rus­sian hordes and his 1814 in­va­sion of Eng­land.)

In Deighton’s novel tyranny flour­ishes in an oc­cu­pied Lon­don af­ter the Bat­tle of Bri­tain has been lost; the city is wracked by poverty and star­va­tion, mass ar­rests and sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions. It has been adapted by the BBC into a lav­ish five-part se­ries that, like the novel, is thor­oughly en­gross­ing — if equally byzan­tine in its plot­ting — and en­ter­tain­ing, like the novel wit­tily mix­ing gen­res: cop pro­ce­dural, spy nar­ra­tive and con­spir­acy thriller.

Pro­duced by Sid Gen­tle Films, the script was writ­ten by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who co-wrote six James Bond films, in­clud­ing Casino Royale, Sky­fall and Spec­tre, and like so many se­ries that start with an end in sight they’ve con­ceived it more as a five-hour movie than as a TV show. The 88-year-old Deighton ap­par­ently read the fi­nal script be­fore pro­duc­tion be­gan but made no changes and the once some­what reclu­sive au­thor is ob­vi­ously de­lighted by the re­sult and at hav­ing been re­dis­cov­ered, to judge from the press he has re­ceived.

The pro­duc­ers, not with­out some irony, em­ployed Ger­man di­rec­tor Philipp Kadel­bach, who won the In­ter­na­tional Emmy for the hugely suc­cess­ful Ger­man World War II minis­eries Gen­er­a­tion War, to tell the story. And timely it is too. “In this post-truth, self­ish, pop­ulist, mo­ment SS-GB raises im­por­tant ques­tions,” ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Sally Wood­ward Gen­tle told The Guardian. “We see peo­ple scared and vul­ner­a­ble. They feel un­der at­tack. They are torn be­cause peo­ple they loved, and they thought they knew, aren’t do­ing what they con­sider to be the right thing. Peo­ple they thought they could trust have af­fil­i­a­tions else­where. Peo­ple are driven by self-in­ter­est. So in that sense the show feels top­i­cal.” She cer­tainly got that right; this is a se­ries with some top­i­cal res­o­nance.

It’s 1941, 14 months fol­low­ing the de­feat of the RAF by the Luft­waffe, and Hitler’s Wehrma­cht has con­quered south­ern Eng­land. Win­ston Churchill has been ex­e­cuted it seems, mak­ing a two-fin­gered V-sign in the face of his fir­ing squad, King Ge­orge VI has been im­pris­oned in the Tower of Lon­don, and swastika ban­ners adorn the bombed-out ruins of Buck­ing­ham Palace.

Bri­tain has not only been oc­cu­pied but is col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Third Re­ich. All is not set­tled, how­ever. Tanks are still on the streets of Lon­don, the SS are round­ing up the city’s “un­de­sir­ables” and weed­ing out the city’s pros­ti­tutes to cre­ate a huge of­fi­cial Wehrma­cht brothel for its sol­diers. Mean­while, the clan- des­tine re­sis­tance move­ment fights on. Bri­tain is un­der mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion but the em­pire re­mains at war with Ger­many, and in Scot­land and in the north there is still con­fronta­tion.

Renowned Lon­don de­tec­tive Dou­glas Archer (Sam Ri­ley), cel­e­brated in the press as “Archer of the Yard”, is caught be­tween his bru­tal new SS bosses and a ruth­less Bri­tish re­sis­tance move­ment that needs him on the in­side, as he in­ves­ti­gates what looks like a black mar­ket-re­lated mur­der above a dingy an­tiques shop in May­fair. The vic­tim, Peter Thomas, ap­pears to be a small-time hus­tler sup­ply­ing drugs and “painted ladies” to the Ger­mans.

Archer dis­cov­ers the shop is re­ally a re­sis­tance safe house, with a trans­mit­ter con­cealed in the ceil­ing. He also finds the metal joint from an ar­ti­fi­cial arm. He meets Amer­i­can re­porter Bar­bara Braga (Kate Bos­worth), a soft-talk­ing beauty in a pink coat who, some­what sus­pi­ciously, is look­ing for some cam­era film. The vic­tim turns out to have se­vere burn marks on his face, re­mind­ing the coro­ner, who has been dragged into the case by the Ger­man hi­er­ar­chy, of the dam­age caused by mag­ne­sium shells dur­ing World War I.

Abruptly, Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), of the Nazi in­tel­li­gence ser­vice the Sicher­heits­di­enst, ar­rives to su­per­vise the mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It seems the vic­tim was ac­tu­ally an atomic sci­en­tist in­volved with the re­sis­tance and the mur­der was some­thing to do with information he had about nu­clear physics.

Archer is played with in­sou­ciant style by the baby-faced Ri­ley with vo­cal echoes of Humphrey Bog­art. He is a cop with a strong code of hon­our, charged with and de­ter­mined to up­hold the law. It’s the only way he can see to guar­an­tee the fu­ture. In the new or­der the po­lice are seen as non-po­lit­i­cal. Asked by a re- porter if that’s still the case, Archer says curtly, “And we al­ways will be.” But as his in­ves­ti­ga­tion de­vel­ops, he will have to de­cide if he is work­ing for Bri­tain or for the Re­ich as it emerges his case is part of a much larger op­er­a­tion in­volv­ing Hitler him­self, called Fi­nal Act.

At the cen­tre of this drama is the ques­tion of col­lab­o­ra­tion or re­sis­tance, with all the dis­or­der and dan­ger that it brings. Like all of Deighton’s an­ti­heroes, Archer is a man in a per­verse re­la­tion­ship with author­ity and, like the hard­boiled hero con­ven­tions Deighton adopted, he has per­sonal in­tegrity, per­sis­tence and nat­u­ral tough­ness — and a taste for most of the women he en­coun­ters. (Watch for Aus­tralian ac­tress Maeve Der­mody as the mys­te­ri­ous Sylvia Man­ning, Archer’s sec­re­tary and lover who is fond of pro­tect­ing her mod­esty with a Nazi flag but re­ally works in a re­sis­tance cell in­fil­trat­ing the en­emy.)

The se­ries was made en­tirely in cen­tral Lon­don, the pro­duc­ers be­liev­ing no other city could look like the cap­i­tal re­gard­less of cam­era tricks. Cen­tral St Martin’s Col­lege stands in per­fectly for Scot­land Yard, the stage on which much of Deighton’s story plays out, and still rather drably wartime in tone with its clas­sic wooden doors, brass pan­els and mas­sive stone walls. There’s an eerie res­o­nance in see­ing fa­mil­iar Lon­don land­marks and in­sti­tu­tions un­der the jack­boot, a re­minder of how close it was.

Kadel­bach, who is good with ac­tors and in­no­va­tive with style, clev­erly uses hand­held cam­eras to cre­ate an al­most voyeuris­tic ef­fect, fo­cus­ing tightly on the main char­ac­ters rather than re­ly­ing on wide an­gles, which would have re­quired ex­pen­sive CGI and thou­sands of ex­tras in pe­riod wardrobe. He keeps his cam­eras at Archer’s eye level as they fol­low him on his in­ves­ti­ga­tion, giv­ing the im­pres­sion of some­one shad­ow­ing him as he du­ti­fully searches for clues. Ev­ery­thing is hemmed in as if claus­tro­pho­bia has be­come a gen­eral con­di­tion. And the city, its mi­lieu and re­la­tion­ship to Archer, coun­ter­points and an­tic­i­pates the ac­tion al­most as another char­ac­ter might.

The streets verge upon nico­tine-stained, in sharp con­trast with the Nazi scar­let, but most of the ac­tion takes place in smoky, smudgy in­te­ri­ors lit from out­side, char­ac­ters im­pris­oned by bars of shad­ows that fall across their faces. It’s so well done it will have you rac­ing on­line to buy the rest of the won­der­ful Deighton’s nov­els.


Sun­day, 8.30pm, Show­case.

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