REVIEW Slow Horses (S1 E1&2/6)

I’m not normally a fan of spy thrillers, but Slow Horses promised to be something a bit different.

Based on the award-winning novels by British novelist Mick Herron and featuring a seriously great, starry cast, the six-episode series is indeed a spy thriller of sorts, but at its heart is a broken, irascible, downbeat and downright Falstaffian anti-hero. We’ve gotten so used to spy thrillers being slick, glamorous and almost celebrating and fetishising the espionage genre and those who perpetrate it. However, one minute in the presence of Jackson Lamb tells you all you need to know about Slow Horses.

In an oh-so-British twist, Lamb heads up Slough House, a backwater branch of MI5 that is the refuge of the failed, the knackered and the can’t be arsed. Inside, the ragtag of operatives have all spectacularly cocked up their careers – it’s like the spy equivalent of Siberia.

Lamb himself is intensely charismatic and intensely dislikable. He likes to remind everyone in Slough House why they’re there, berates them for having ideas above their station and tells everyone who enters his office to “fuck off”. Inside he smokes cigarettes and drinks whiskey all day.

He’s also played by Oscar-winner, Gary Oldman.

Also in Slough House is operative River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), who, after his terrible cock up, is convinced he’s better than he is. So when a British Muslim man is kidnapped and held hostage by a far-right group in Leeds – a case that links to the surveillance of a tabloid journalist Slough House has been tasked with – he sees a way in… or at least a way back into the fold.

Lamb isn’t having any of it.

With the plot established, it’s the characters that take centre stage. We have fellow young Slough Houseian, Sid (Olivia Cooke), as well as Lamb’s secretary, Catherine (a superb Saskia Reeves as a character who might be the most intriguing of the lot), Louisa (Rosalind Gray), and River’s dad David (Jonathan Pryce). On the other side of the fence, Kristen Scott Thomas is no-nonsense MI5 boss Diana Taverner and Freddy Fox is her entertainingly loathsome underling.

What’s interesting – or at least one of the most interesting things – about Slow Horses is the way they use Jackson Lamb. In these first two episodes, Lamb is an enigma, staying out of the limelight in his office as River and Sid get involved in the case. It’s clever usage because Oldman as Lamb chews everything and everyone around him as soon as he spends any extended time on-screen.

However, even though Lamb is warning his two young operatives River and Sid to stay well clear of the new case and focus on what they’re (not) good at, there’s a sense that even he thinks that there’s something fishy about this one and is also interested in doing some lowkey work.

And, with a shocking cliffhanger at the end of episode two, I’m pretty sure that Lamb is going to turn out to be much wilier than these first two episodes give him credit for.

A very strong start.

Paul Hirons

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Slow Horses streams a new episode every week on Apple+ TV

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