Let it be known that anything set in the mid-20th century will be watched and no doubt loved in this house. I love the aesthetics – the clothes, the furnishings, the language – which basically means that I could and would watch someone piss into a pot for an hour if it was set in the 30s, 40s, 50s or early part of the 1960s. Thankfully, this glossy five-adaptation of Len Deighton’s terrifying story of ‘alternative reality’ has a lot more to say for itself than pot-pissing, and the fact that it depicts an occupied London in 1941 after the Nazis won the war gives it a strangely topical element, especially as our own strands of reality have mingled to fractious effect.
NB: There are spoilers inside
We start proceedings with disorientating imagery – German aeroplanes swirling over London’s major landmarks; a half-bombed Buckingham Palace swathed in Nazi banners; and Pall Mall ringed with tanks and barbed wire. It’s something the nation would have dreaded, and somehow, generations later, strikes the same spark of fear within all Britons. Perhaps we here on this sceptred isle are genetically predisposed to feel this anxiety of our ancestors, who felt it so acutely during the War. Perhaps this affront to freedom gives us the same kind of willies any mention of messing with the Constitution does to Americans.
At a checkpoint outside the Palace (the Royals have fled to New Zealand), a top-ranking Nazi is assassinated by a partisan and immediately we understand what is happening in this parallel Britain: Nazi occupation and an underground resistance, striking when it can.
We then meet DS Douglas Archer of The Yard, an ashen-faced, gravel-voiced detective of the old-school variety in young man’s body. He’s taciturn, attractive, and wears all-black, a Fedora crowning his noir appearance just right. He’s in bed with his colleague (OF COURSE HE IS) Sylvia Manning (Maeve Dermody, who we saw in Sarah Phelps’ And Then There Were None), in a plush hotel room usually used by high-ranking Nazis, its symmetrical Deco stylings giving their illicit meeting a waft of decadence. As he dresses, and she mockingly drapes herself in a Nazi flag, you get the impression she’s concealing something; some layers of personality. She seems to want to flout rules and has a touch of the devil abut her, but there’s also sorrow beneath her bravado, too.
Archer is called to the scene of a murder: that of antiques dealer Peter Thomas. Teaming up with his wily, veteran partner Harry Woods, they investigate the scene like any players in a solid procedural would. They find burned papers in the fireplace, and evidence of forgery about the musty apartment. Except this cadaver – shot dead – has some interesting characteristics: he has a kind of cataracts the louche doctor has never seen before. As the doc and Woods depart the scene, Archer has a snoop around, finding a wire leading up through the ceiling; a sure-fire sign of a resistance radio antenna. As he’s about to get down from his ladder, through a window he spies a vision in lilac cutting a swathe through the grey and beige commotion outside: she has a shock of blonde hair, moves stealthily and the colour of her outfit suggests grace, intrigue and… otherness. Sure enough, he finds her at a nearby eaterie, where they exchange the kind of tit-for-tat dialogue that’s pure golden-age noir. Not quite a zingy as Chandler or Hamnett (in fact nowhere near to be fair), but you gotta take what you can these days.
The woman’s name is Barbara Barga (Kate Bosworth), a journalist commissioned to write a piece on this new Britain. She’s lying through her teeth about her interest in the dead man and why she was in the vicinity.
But that platinum hair, that lipstick, that detached, coolness… the way she proffers her cigarette for Archer to light it… he’s obviously smitten (or at least intrigued) with her and, despite the fact that this is now an SS matter, he wants to follow the case because of her and because there’s adamn fine chance he’ll see her again. An alliterative femme fatale?
An alliterative femme fatale? Yes please.
So there we have the set-up: a resistance-linked murder victim with some strange physiology; an occupied London where the Nazis are beginning to make their presence felt (medically profiling and assaulting sex workers, vetting and racially profiling the public); and a semi-tormented widower and dad-of-one lead character who’s trying to keep his nose clean in all the madness that surrounds him.
The madness increases when the Nazis send over a top SS intelligence officer to assist him on the case – a humourless, scrupulous and über-diligent chap called Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger) – who’s all over the Peter Thomas murder like a Waffen leather overcoat. He confides to Archer that the murder victim’s physiology might be something to do with a pathogen the Nazis not only know about but are terrified by. Huth himself was sent by the Führer himself to oversee the investigation, and he wants Archer to work with him. (Actually, he demands it.)
Archer is torn – he’s being drawn into the world of the resistance thanks to an on-the-run Sylvia, a hard-to-resist Barbara and a final-scene threat to his son, but at the same time he has to kowtow to an eagle-eyed Huth. And this is the conflict that elevates SS-GB, because take away all the gorgeous production design, alternative reality intrigue and Germanness, it’s really a fairly traditional procedural. I enjoyed it a lot, but I have to say that something nagged at me – and that something was Sam Riley. As much as I enjoyed him in the Ian Curtis biopic, Control, that made his name, I think he might be miscast for this. He feels a bit too young, a bit too unweathered by the whole war and his wife’s loss. In fact, it feels like – with is ever-present growl – he’s doing an impression of a young John Hurt. The pace and dialogue, too, doesn’t zing like a really good noir should. And make no mistake this is what it wants to be – a noir story, not just for Archer, who’s edging into something more complex and dangerous as the minutes tick by, but also for a nation. Britain as a whole has been plunged into chaos. It’s unsettling.
There’s a lot here to like, and I’m intrigued to see where it goes – I got the impression that the first episode was a bit of a scene-setter and it was just warming up. And, of course, it looked gorgeous and often made me swoon.