BEHIND ENEMY LINES
Winston Churchill is dead and London is occupied by the Nazis in this gripping novel adaptation by the BBC
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.
THERE’S AN EERIE RESONANCE IN SEEING FAMILIAR LONDON LANDMARKS UNDER THE JACKBOOT
Sunday, 8.30pm, Showcase.