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.