Where The Crown was a soothing, nostalgic view of Britain’s unique greatness, new BBC drama SS-GB is a nightmare vision. Based on Len Deighton’s 1978 alt-history novel, it envisions a dystopian 1941 in which the Nazis won the Battle of Britain and invaded London with their swastika flags and spiky road barriers. Hitler’s head is on postage stamps and Buckingham Palace is in ruins.
Naturally, the conquerors are busy imposing their brutal rule on the country in other ways too. But Sam Riley’s Superintendent Douglas Archer – a Humphrey Bogart-esque detective with a throaty growl that recalls Christian Bale’s Batman (top tip – subtitles ON) – just wants to keep on policing like nothing has happened.
Scotland Yard’s finest hasn’t realised that his secretary and lover Sylvia, plus his old-school sergeant Harry Woods (Commander Mormont from the Night’s Watch on secondment) are working with the British Resistance.
When the corpse of a shady antique dealer turns up with fatal gunshot wounds, things get even murkier, 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 apparently working on a piece about Americans who decided to remain under the occupation. “A journalist. AND a liar,” proclaims Archer.
He gets assigned to work with senior SS officer Huth (Lars Eidinger from Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria) – we first meet him presiding over the grisly autopsy of our murdered antiques dealer/black marketeer/resistance fighter. The investigation is now part of a more sinister operation.
It seems the Germans consider Archer “their man”. A modern languages graduate from Oxford, he’s obviously an intelligent and urbane figure, but even his young son questions his allegiances. “Do you work for the Gestapo daddy?” No, daddy works at Scotland Yard for the Met police. The Gestapo are in the building next door…or something.
The Resistance have noted Archer’s strange ambivalence, and by the end of the episode he’s in a race to stop shadowy figures from the movement kidnapping his son for leverage. Yet Archer actually has much cause to loath the occupation – his wife died in the air raids, and his housekeeper Mrs Sheenan is making sad eyes at him while her husband is in a POW camp.
Although disturbed when he sees the invaders slapping people around (mercifully there are no comedy accents – German actors have been hired), Archer sees striking back as futile. So when he says that the Germans will be gone one day, it’s not clear if he thinks they will succumb to in-fighting, or if he is banking on the Americans getting dragged in to the war.
Episode one (of five) has set up plenty of noirish intrigue, and SS-GB’s success will depend on audience engagement with Archer’s moral dilemma – if only they can get past the mumbling!
SS-GB is on BBC1, Sunday at 9pm.