TV Review: ‘SS-GB’ Is An Absorbing Alt-History Drama Where England Lost The War To The Nazis

The writers of six James Bond movies serve up a different kind of spy with a licence to thrill.

Based on the cult novel by Len Deighton, SS-GB is set in an alternate 1941 where Hitler’s Germany has won the war and now occupies the UK. Yikes. At first blush, this show has all the makings of a major snore fest. For starters, it’s visually dull. (Save for the red of swastika flags, the show is a sea of depressing monotones.) But give it some time and you’ll be sucked into the intriguing spy games played Sam Riley’s brooding London detective Douglas Archer and his new SS bosses, the British resistance, and other assorted dubious characters — including Kate Bosworth’s glamorous American reporter — with hidden agendas. Warning: Riley’s husky voice makes it hard to hear what he’s saying sometimes. So pay close attention.

Four things we learnt about SS-GB:

ss gb writers
Robert Wade (left) and Neal Purvis, the writers of SS-GB

1/ SS-GB is the first TV show by Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, the British screenwriting duo who’ve worked on all the Bond flicks since The World Is Not Enough.

The five-part series, based on the 1978 novel by renowned spy novelist Len Deighton — the man behind The Ipcress File — is set in an alternate 1941 where Germany has won WWII and the Nazis run London. Sam Riley stars as Douglas Archer, a Scotland Yard detective whose loyalties are divided between the local resistance and his Third Reich boss. “We’ve turned down a lot of TV projects over the years, but the book was brought to us and we’re big Len Deighton fans,” says showrunner Neal Purvis, 55. He and writing partner Robert Wade, also 55, decided to turn the book into a mini-series instead of a movie “because two hours wouldn’t do the characters justice”. Wade says the book is appealing because it raises interesting questions about how British politics would’ve been shaped if Britain were occupied by foreign powers.

2/ Wade and Purvis wanted to play with a hero who isn’t like James Bond.

“Archer is a much more compromised man than Bond,” says Wade. “If you think about Bond, he’s almost defined by the fact that he doesn’t have a family. He doesn’t have a child to worry about. He can’t afford to have any weaknesses like that, whereas Archer has a 10-year-old son [which forces him] to act in a very different way. And that’s the realism of it.” Interestingly, SS-GB does have an unlikely James Bond connection. “We had lunch with [Len] and we had a very interesting conversation about how he had worked on the first draft of From Russia With Love.”

3/ SS-GB is very different from The Man in the High Castle, another alt-history thriller in which the US is occupied by the Nazis and the Japanese. “We had already written the first episode when we first heard that Amazon was producing The Man in the High Castle,” says Purvis. “We look at that show as a full-on science fiction idea by a science-fiction writer [Philip K Dick] that deals with the concept of multiple realities. The giant difference between the two shows is that SS-GB is set in 1941 shortly after the defeat in the Battle of Britain. It’s very realistic, and what with Len’s research and what we looked into, it’s how history could have been.”

4/ The German characters are played by German actors, not British actors with a German accent.

“We felt it was very important to be realistic, explains Purvis. “One of the advantages of having a German director [Philipp Kadelbach] — and this is his first English-language TV show — is that he’s able attract very good German actors. It also means that they’re doing it all properly. We wanted the show to be as authentic as possible, even if it means the viewers have to read the subtitles in some scenes.” And having subtitles is a good thing. Says Wade: “The viewers have to concentrate on the story because they have to read the subtitles.”  (Photos: BBC, TPG News/Click Photos)

Watch It on: BBC Player 



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