His­tory rewrit­ten in SS-GB’s al­ter­nate take on post-war Britain

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Chris New­bould

We ap­par­ently now live in an era of “al­ter­na­tive facts”, so it is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that the al­ter­na­tive- his­tory genre has been making some­thing of a come­back in film and on tele­vi­sion in re­cent years.

Ben Wheat­ley’s film adap­ta­tion of J G Bal­lard’s High- Rise was a sur­prise in­die box-of­fice hit last year, while in X-Men: Days of Fu­ture Past (2014), Hugh Jack­man’s Wolver­ine trav­elled back in time to al­ter the dystopian fu­ture the tit­u­lar mu­tants were liv­ing in.

Then there was the 2012 re­make of the 1984 film Red Dawn, which re­placed the Soviet in­va­sion of the United States in the orig­i­nal with a North Korean at­tack. On TV, mean­while, The Man in the High Cas­tle – loosely based on the novel by Philip K Dick and set in a world where the Axis forces de­feated the Al­lies in the Sec­ond World War, and con­trol of the US is split be­tween Ger­many and Ja­pan – has been a hit for Ama­zon’s stream­ing ser­vice, with a third sea­son due next year.

Now the BBC is get­ting in on the act with SS-GB, an adap­ta­tion of Len Deighton’s High Castleesque 1978 novel set in Nazioc­cu­pied Britain in the early 1940s, shortly af­ter Britain sur­ren­dered fol­low­ing a Ger­man in­va­sion. The se­ries be­gan on BBC First on OSN last Friday.

Sam Ri­ley, who plays Scot­land Yard de­tec­tive Dou­glas Archer, notes that our fas­ci­na­tion with al­ter­na­tive his­to­ries goes back way be­fore 1970s dystopian fic­tion.

“It’s just fas­ci­nat­ing to ask your­self ‘what if?’” he says.

“Amaz­ingly, there was ac­tu­ally a Bri­tish pro­pa­ganda film on this sub­ject re­leased in 1942. Based on a story by Gra­ham Greene, Went the Day Well? is set within a year of our imag­ined his­tory. It’s about a group of Nazi para­troop­ers who ar­rive in a small English vil­lage. They act as if they’re Bri­tish, but they’re ac­tu­ally the be­gin­ning of a Nazi in­va­sion.

“It’s a bril­liantly chill­ing film. That idea fas­ci­nated peo­ple dur­ing the war – and it still fas­ci­nates us to­day.”

The con­tin­u­ing ri­valry be­tween Britain and Ger­many pro­vides an ex­tra edge, Ri­ley sug­gests. “We can be quite smug in Britain,” he says. “At Eng­land v Ger­many matches, Eng­land foot­ball fans have been known It’s very in­ter­est­ing to think: ‘Would I have been part of the Re­sis­tance or a col­lab­o­ra­tor?’ Those sort of ‘what ifs’ are what make SS-GB so com­pelling Sam Ri­ley De­tec­tive Dou­glas Archer in SS-GB to sing, ‘Two Worlds Wars and one World Cup’ – but had things gone slightly dif­fer­ently, we could have lost the Bat­tle of Britain. If the weather has had been a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent, the Nazis might have won.

“In that case, it’s very in­ter­est­ing to think: ‘Would I have been part of the Re­sis­tance or a col­lab­o­ra­tor?’ Those sort of ‘what ifs’ are what make SS-GB so com­pelling.”

Bri­tish ac­tor Ri­ley is best known for ap­pear­ing in films such as Con­trol, in which he played the late Joy Di­vi­sion singer Ian Curtis, Pride and Prej­u­dice and Zom­bies, and Malef­i­cent.

His co-stars in­clude Amer­i­can ac­tress Kate Bos­worth ( Blue Crush and Still Alice) and Scot­tish ac­tor James Cosmo ( Trainspot­ting, Brave­heart, Game of Thrones).

Writ­ers Robert Wade and Neal Purvis have writ­ten six Bond films to­gether, though Ri­ley and Wade agree that TV is rapidly catch­ing up with the big screen in terms of qual­ity and pres­tige.

“When I got my first job 10 years ago, cin­ema was still the medium all ac­tors wanted to work in,” says Ri­ley. “TV was just a step­ping stone to­wards cin­ema. But that has very much changed in the last decade. “Now you see loads of movie stars in TV se­ries. TV is re­ally not the poor re­la­tion any­more.” TV is the per­fect medium in which to tell the SS-GB story, ac­cord­ing to Wade.

“The book is com­plex,” he says. “It needs that wide can­vas that TV gives you. The pro­duc­ers en­cour­aged us not to scale down our imag­i­na­tions.

“If it’s beamed into peo­ple’s liv­ing rooms and maybe it’s a fam­ily watch­ing it on a Sun­day night to­gether, they might think, ‘Ac­tu­ally this could be hap­pen­ing out­side our door.’

“It’s the sanc­tity of the sit­ting room that’s be­ing in­vaded by this. That’s why TV is es­pe­cially po­tent. Great act­ing, pro­duc­tion and di­rec­tion have made that come to pass. For TV, it’s spot on.

“Peo­ple say, is it dis­re­spect­ful to pic­ture us hav­ing lost the war? But we could eas­ily have lost. I think it’s im­por­tant to show how heroic our an­tecedents were be­cause they ac­tu­ally stuck to it.

“The pol­i­tics of Europe are all about com­pro­mis­ing be­cause they were left to pick up the pieces af­ter the war. It changes ev­ery­thing – so hope­fully this TV show will make peo­ple think.”

New episodes of are shown ev­ery Friday on BBC First on OSN at 10pm, with re­peats through­out the week.

Getty Im­ages Chris Jack­son /

Ac­tor Sam Ri­ley, who plays de­tec­tive Dou­glas Archer in the BBC se­ries SS-GB, set in a Nazioc­cu­pied Britain.

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