Categories
Film and TV

SS-GB – The Hoarse Whisperer

This is a slightly longer version of something that appeared in the TLS a couple of weeks ago:

Typical, you wait years for a World War Two counterfactual drama and then two come along at once. In 2015 Amazon launched the Man in the High Castle an adaptation Philip K. Dick’s novel. It is now on its second series. Then last month the BBC broadcast the first parts of a mini series based on Len Deighton’s SS-GB. It’s tempting to see this as a reflection of today’s troubled times. Certainly a rabble-rouser in the White House, a possible (likely?!) Front National president in France and the return of anti-Semitism on the Continent certainly gives these programmes an added frisson.

In all the inevitable contemporary comparisons, however, we shouldn’t forget that counterfactual stories are a perennial favourite. They turn the conventional British and American triumphal history narrative on its head and ask difficult questions: would we have saved our Jews like the Danes did or collaborated enthusiastically like the Petain government in France? And on a more base level: swastikas sell. In recent years there was Robert Harris’s Fatherland made into an HBO film in 1994 with Rutger Hauer and Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. More obscure is the 1978 BBC drama An Englishman’s Castle set in a fascist German-dominated Britain. Or on a similar theme, It Happened Here, a film shot in the 60s over the course of eight years by two teenagers with amateur actors and a miniscule budget.

It’s a far cry from the glossy  productions of SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle. The opening of SS-GB features a Spitfire (from a later year as history buffs  have gleefully pointed out) landing by a bombed-out Buckingham Palace all rendered in slightly queasy CGI. Technology has progressed to the point where one can easily drape London or New York in swastikas which might be why both adaptations have only appeared now; these would both have been very expensive series to shoot 20 years ago.

SS-GB is set in 1941, the Germans won the Battle of Britain and successfully invaded. Churchill has been shot and the King is being kept in the Tower of London. Sam Riley plays Archer of the Yard (as the tabloids call him) a fresh-faced detective superintendent. Though nominally independent he reports to an SS Gruppenfuhrer Kellerman. In the opening episode, a body with mysterious burns on it is discovered in a dingy flat in Shepherd Market.

Len Deighton based his novel on real plans drawn up by the Nazis for how they would have ruled Britain. The scriptwriters Robert Wade and Neil Purvis (the team behind the last five Bond films) have stuck closely to the novel which isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s a typically labyrinthine Deighton plot involving rivalry between different factions of the German armed forces, nuclear secrets and schemes by the British resistance to involve the neutral Americans in the war. The opening episodes will be hard work for anyone who hasn’t read the book. Intelligibility isn’t helped by Sam Riley speaking in a hoarse whisper much of the time.

SS-GB is firmly rooted in the wartime London that Deighton grew up in. Here the BBC adaptation struggles to convince. None of the characters feel like Londoners and they’re not helped by a clumsy script with lines such as: “get your hand off me you bloody Gestapo bastard” or the inevitable “you just don’t get it, do you?” Both Riley and Kate Bosworth, who plays an American journalist, Barbara Barga, who Archer falls in love with, are curiously inexpressive so much so that Bosworth in her pink suit reminded me of Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds. If the Allies are wooden, the Germans have the opposite problem. SS Standartenfuhrer Huth arrives in the first episode looking like Herr Flick from Allo’ Allo’ flicking his gloves and camping about in a tight leather overcoat.

Despite being rather broad at times, SS-GB does show some of the complexity of relationships between occupier and occupied. Archer’s boss Kellerman wears tweed suits like a parody of an English gentleman. Meanwhile Archer’s son asks his father with awe whether he works for the Gestapo. Archer is caught between trying to do his duty as a policeman whilst avoiding being drawn into open collaboration or resistance. The Resistance can be as cynical and ruthless as the Nazis but what SS-GB lacks and, this is a fault of the novel, is any sense of Nazism finding a fertile soil in Britain. The premises of It Happened Here, An Englishman’s Castle or Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, are far more unsettling because the real enemies are British.

I can’t help thinking that SS-GB would have worked better stripped back into a taut feature film a la Ipcress File or Deighton’s novel used as a starting point for a longer series like Amazon’s the Man in the High Castle. As it is SS-GB doesn’t really get to grips with the full horror of occupation and collaboration. Instead we’re just left with an unusually confusing police procedural.

 

 

 

 

Categories
Wine articles

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing

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Wine lists can be difficult for the uninitiated to understand. One restaurant in Los Angeles, Hatchet Hall*, has taken this a step further: not only is their list incomprehensible to the general public, it’s incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t work there. Rather than name producer, region, vintage and grape variety as is normal they’ve come up with cryptic descriptions such as “Ham wine” or “Vieilles Vignes  (old vines) 13”. It’s more like a crossword puzzle than a menu. The whole thing smacks of an in-joke but it actually serves a very serious purpose. It means that the even the most wine literate diner needs someone to decode it for him. It’s the latest salvo in the ongoing battle to keep wine unintelligible.

In the past wine knowledge was linked to class.  This is why it lends itself so well to British comedy which is often about social status. Think of Basil Fawlty saying to an upper class guest at the hotel: “It’s always a pleasure to meet someone who appreciates the boudoir of the grape. I’m afraid most people we get here don’t know a bordeaux from a claret.” This link between class and wine knowledge began to unravel with the rise of American super critic Robert Parker in the 1980s. He not only pronounced in an authoritative fashion on wine but he scored them out of 100. Many decried this a philistinism, asking whether you would score a Velasquez or a lover, but wine buyers loved it because it simplified or seemed to simply wine. Armed with a bit of Parker, the average wine drinker could now begin to navigate his way around a wine list. Sommeliers and merchants were still useful but customers could always appeal to a higher power like the European Court of Human Rights. Yes, you like it but what does Parker think?

In the 90s and 00s the public became better informed and wine democratised. Supermarkets began selling classed growth Bordeaux off the back of Parker scores.  With one super critic in place and good wine seemingly available everywhere, the professionals were losing their grip. Something had to be done. The answer was Natural Wine. This was ostensibly a reaction against the sort of wine that Parker liked, powerful, oaky wines made in a Bordeaux meets California style. But just as important, the producers were obscure and you couldn’t buy the wines in Oddbins. A new generation of writers, sommeliers and merchants staked their claim as keepers of arcane knowledge. Visiting a wine shop or bar now became like visiting an independent record shop. Asking for a wine Parker liked would be like requesting a Dire Straits record in Rough Trade.

Nowadays there’s a whole network of bars, shops and restaurants in London, New York and especially Paris selling Natural Wines. A further advantage of these wines from the perspective of the initiated is that some of them taste awful but they are meant to taste like that so when customers try to send them back, they can be put in their place with a “you just don’t get this wine, man.” It saves on wastage as nobody knows if a wine was faulty or not. With Parker retired, sommeliers have become the new trendsetters. When Wine Australia launched a campaign to convince the public about the merits of premium Australian wine they didn’t do it through retailers, they put on tastings for sommeliers.

But this power is under threat from technology. In 2003 a website called Cellartracker was founded by an ex-Microsoft man called Eric LeVine. Here members of the public log the wines they have tried and rate them out of hundred. We are all Parker now. There are now nearly 4 million notes and around 290,000 registered users. It really came into its own with the development of apps such Vivino  where you can scan wine labels and automatically link to reviews. The savvy wine lover can now bypass the professionals entirely. Hence the Hatchet Hall website. It was designed to be smartphone proof.

Sommeliers need not hang up their spittoons just yet because they have an ace up their sleeve: matching food and wine. It isn’t a coincidence that as public wine knowledge grows, this has become increasingly elaborate with tastings menus with a wine for each course. Wine writers devote columns to the quest for the perfect wine to go with chicken tikka marsala. There is an element of pseudo science about the whole thing. Putting wine and food together is such a personal matter, one man’s match might be another person’s clash. For the customer, it adds another element of uncertainty which is of course just what the experts want.

I’m not saying that wine is straightforward. It is an immense subject and changing the whole time, you can now buy wines from Croatia, Georgia and Greece at Marks and Spencers. And most wine professionals do do their best to illuminate but the truth is we don’t want people to find things too straightforward.  This ongoing battle between the public and professional knowledge reminds me of a passage from Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That: ‘Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the question.’

*Hatchet Hall now have a more conventional wine list. Boring!

This article originally appeared on Tim Atkin’s website.