Where The Crown was a soothing, nostalgic view of Britain’s unique greatness, new BBC drama SS-GB – based on Len Deighton’s alternate-history novel – is a dystopian 1941 where the Nazis won the Battle of Britain and occupied the country with their Swastika flags and spiky road barriers.
Hitler’s head might be on postage stamps and Buckingham Palace in ruins, but Sam Riley’s Superintendent Douglas Archer just wants to keep on policing like nothing has happened.
He’s a Humphrey Bogart-esque detective with a throaty growl (top tip – subtitles ON). Sadly Scotland Yard’s finest hasn’t realised that his secretary and lover Sylvia (Maeve Dermody), and his old-school sergeant Harry Woods (Commander Mormont from the Night’s Watch on secondment) are both working with the British Resistance.
When the corpse of a shady antique dealer turns up with fatal gunshot wounds, things get murky, not least when Archer spies New York Times journalist Barbara Barga (Kate Bosworth) slinking away from the scene of the crime. “That outfit’s always going to get you noticed,” he growls of Bosworth, world-famous clothes horse.
She’s in London working on a piece about Americans who decided to remain under the occupation. “A journalist. AND a liar,” proclaims Archer.
As the murder inquiry becomes part of a more sinister investigation, Archer is assigned to work with Standartenführer Huth (Lars Eidinger), a haughty (naturally) high-ranking SS officer. Archer finds himself caught up in rivalry between his new SS and German Army overlords, as well as targeted by hardliners in the Resistance who see him as a collaborator.
“Do you work for the Gestapo daddy?” asks Archer’s son. No, daddy works at Scotland Yard for the Met police. The Gestapo are in the building next door…or something. Perhaps the reason for Archer’s strange ambivalence is simply that there isn’t much evidence of the repressive Nazi machine or their death-dealing ideology.
Despite its ambition, great acting and noirish intrigue, SS-GB plays more like a standard police procedural with Nazi window-dressing than a chilling counterfactual hell.
SS-GB is on BBC1, Sunday at 9pm.