Sam Riley tackles violent crime — and the SS — in Nazi-held London
A RED FLAG emblazoned with a giant swastika hangs from the ceiling at Central Saint Martins art school in London. Beneath it, two SS men slouch against a wall; rifles in one hand, iphones in the other. Dressed in a navy overcoat and trilby, Sam Riley leans out of a window and lights a cigarette. Empire is on the set of SS-GB, Robert Wade and Neal Purvis’ take on Len Deighton’s 1978 thriller. It’s set in an alternative 1941 where Germany has won World War II, the Nazis control London and Scotland Yard is run by the SS. Still, “no smoking” signs must be obeyed.
The five-part BBC One series pitches Riley into this murky world as homicide cop Douglas Archer, who faces a bleak moral dilemma: collude with the enemy or join an unstable resistance. “He’s ambiguous,” says Riley. “He’s not a Nazi, but he thinks there has to be law and order... His neighbours see him driven to work by the Gestapo and don’t know if they can trust him.”
The adaptation sees Bond screenwriting pair Wade and Purvis working on the small screen for the first time. “We had more freedom than with the Bond films, which are so heavily deconstructed,” explains Purvis. “It’s great fun having a large canvas to tell a story with twists, turns and subtle plot [shifts].” And if SS-GB seems to be following in the jackbooted steps of Amazon’s The Man In The
High Castle, the writers disagree. “We see that as science-fiction,” stresses Wade, “whereas we’re exploring the consequences of what living through the occupation could really have been like.”
The series will be long on historical verisimilitude and short on heel-clicking clichés. “We have Germans playing crucial roles, instead of English actors putting on dodgy accents,” says Riley. For the actor, a “film noir with Nazis” was too good to turn down. “As my dad put it, people might actually watch something I’m in now,” he laughs. “Plus, I’ve always wanted to play a detective and my ego saw I was in every scene. I’m hoping it will up my odds for playing Bond, too.” Well, now he has Purvis and Wade to put in a good word.
above: Sam Riley as Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer; Director Philipp Kadelbach (right) on set; Kate Bosworth plays American journalist Barbara Barga; Archer with his boss, Fritz Kellermann (Rainer Bock), head of the police force in Great Britain.