A few weeks ago, while reviewing Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle, I confessed to a particular weakness for ‘alternative history’ fiction. one example of the genre that I failed to cite at the time was Len Deighton’s 1978 novel SS-GB for the simple reason that despite having owned a copy of the paperback for 25 years, I’d inexplicably – and inexcusably – failed to actually get around to reading it until only a few weeks ago, finishing just in time for the start of this new BBC adaptation that started at the weekend.
Like The Man In The High Castle and Fatherland, Deighton’s story postulates a world in which the Nazis win the Second World War. However while those other stories are set several years later in the 1960s, SS-GB takes place in 1941 only months after Britain has lost the aerial battle and been forced to capitulate to the Nazi invaders. The first scene of the television version sees a Spitfire land on the Mall in London in the shadow of the bombed-out shell of Buckingham Palace, with swastikas plastered on every building as the subservient British people scurry about their business beneath the harsh gaze of their new masters.
Into this situation comes Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, who despite the occupation is able to continue his work investigating non-political crimes which allows him to maintain his self-respect and reassure his young son that he does not in fact work for the Gestapo. However that all begins to change when Archer is assigned the case of the shooting of a black marketeer. It looks straightforward, but strange burns and cataracts on the body leave Archer fearing there’s more to the case. He tries to pass it on to the Germans, but word comes down from the highest level (which is inferred to be Hitler himself) that Archer must stay on it – and he’s transferred to the command of the formidable SS-Standartenführer Doctor Oskar Huth to get the job done. Suddenly Archer is right in the middle of the political intrigue he’s being trying to avoid, distrusted by the Germans and a target of the British resistance who view him as a collaborator.
That theme – the question of what we ourselves would do if ever the British Isles were occupied by a hostile force – runs throughout the story. In a similar situation, would we find a way to accommodate the new rulers, or would we risk our lives – and those of our family, friends and colleagues – to resist at all costs? We all like to think we’d be in the latter group, the heroes, but the reality is that most of us would knuckle under, just as much of Europe actually had to do in the war years. SS-GB reminds us of how we were so very lucky as a nation never to be have to forced to answer the question in reality.
SS-GB is an impressive production. Written and executive produced by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (Skyfall, Spectre), the story sticks very close to Deighton’s novel (at least so far, one episode in.) Where there are changes – such as that first scene with the Spitfire, or a sequence in which German officers roust a local pub for subversive – they’re done for intelligent creative reasons and in such a way as not to disrupt or unsettle the narrative.
The first episode does rather take its time – five hour-long episodes is a lot of airtime for a single novel these days, and a mark of how much of a prestigious production the BBC views this. To be honest it could do with a bit of compression to pick up the pace, but if it did that then you’d lose all those careful little details such as the period wrist irons or the postage stamps with Hitler’s profile that are so necessary to make this eerie and unsettling alternative reality of a Nazi-occupied Britain so chillingly authentic to behold.
That’s not to say that the production is without fault. To be honest I’m struggling with the casting of Sam Reilly as Archer – not because he’s a bad actor by any means, but just because he seems too young for the character. He tries to counteract this by adopting a stern visage and a gruff, husky voice straight out of a bad film noir and this too proves distracting to the story. It’s also hard to understand what he says at times, although that’s more of a production problem than the fault of the actor. In fact there’s been a lot of complaints since the first episode aired about the sub-par quality of the dialogue as a whole, to which I’d have to say: “Thank goodness it wasn’t just me!”. At least the parts with German officers speaking between themselves come with subtitles – and having just read the novel, at least I was in the privileged position of knowing what was happening with the plot.
Overall though it’s an impressive production which delivers on its promise, with excellent work by director Philipp Kadelbach and great turns by James Cosmo as Archer’s assistant Harry Woods, Maeve Dermody as his secretary Sylvia, Rainer Bock as his boss General Kellerman, Aneurin Barnard as a young PC, Kate Bosworth as American journalist Barbara Barga and Lars Eidinger as the scary Huth.
We’ve barely started the story – Nicholas Farrell, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Jason Flemyng all play important roles in the story but they don’t make their bows yet until episode two, so hopefully things will start to take off and the pace will pick up now that the initial groundwork to the story has been laid. And let’s hope that the sound mixers have a chance to take another pass at the dialogue to make things a little easier on the straining ears of the audience in the remaining episodes!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
SS-GB airs in the UK on Sundays at 9pm and is available for a month afterwards on the BBC iPlayer catch-up service.