SS-GB, London 1941. 'Fourteen months after Germany won the Battle of Britain. The Resistance movement fights on.'
So begins another new drama, we’re being spoilt this year, aren’t we? This is not ordinary Sunday night romp though, this is serious and thoughtful. You can tell from the twinkly piano music during the credits and watercolour shots of various characters standing about staring intensely. Concentrate. Con-cen-trate.
We begin with a British Resistance fighter shooting a German pilot, staring his enemy in the eye as his life drifts away before being hoisted into the back of a truck, no doubt to meet some grizzly fate. The symbolism of these two men flat out on the concrete staring at each other over the smallest of gulfs isn’t lost; here we are, enemies, or just men, waiting to die.
There’s something about the premise, a ‘would be’ future, that reminds me of The Man in the High Castle and, like that reimagined timeline, SS-GB is based on a novel: Len Deighton’s 1978 text. Fitting, perhaps, for this to be commissioned now, with Brexit hovering on the horizon and Britain theoretically giving Europe the two-fingered salute – something Churchill supposedly did to his fictional firing squad.
Sam Riley plays Archer, a Scotland Yard detective looking a bit like he’s recently stepped out of a 1940’s black and white movie. It’s his voice that stands out, a husky murmur of a thing, no doubt one of the reasons so many viewers have always complained about the mumbled dialogue. You can’t help but feel it fits the mood though; there’s a washed brown palette decorating the backdrop and anything above a whisper might seem like a party in a graveyard.
The mystery lies in whether Archer is working for the Nazis or is part of the resistance. “One day the Germans will be gone and we’ll get back to how we were,” Archer tells his young son when quizzed on whether he works for the Gestapo. You’re none the wiser after sixty minutes have passed; clearly he isn’t entirely in the Nazi camp, going on his willingness to protect former lover Sylvia Manning (Maeve Dermody).
There’s a fair amount of women in Archer’s life and none of the relationships seem simple. Sylvia’s opening scene suggests she’s nothing more than an annoyingly silly flirt who likes to drape herself in a Nazi flag following sex. Clearly this is nothing more than an act, there’s the suggestion she is of Jewish heritage and soon quits her office job to work full time with the Resistance, infiltrating a Nazi cell.
But it’s the blonde in the lilac coat in a sea of grey that’s obviously going to draw Archer’s attention on the romance front. Kate Bosworth stars as American journalist Barbara Barga, a suitably fancy stage name for a suitable femme fatale. She’s not quite sure whether to trust Archer yet, join the club love, but no doubt she’s going to provide him with useful information at some point in the future.
This all works quite nicely and there’s a fitting amount of intrigue and the class that comes with most BBC pieces. I might even go as far as to say that by the end I’d enjoyed it. Yet it’s perhaps a bit too thoughtful for a Sunday night. Place it mid-week and I might be able to stick with it but I found myself dozing halfway through and needed a bit of a mental prod to get back into the plot. Perhaps more my fault than the show’s, but who knows?