No spoilers in this one. Nice, right?
Following the success of Amazon’s Man in The High Castle, I was excited to hear that the BBC had commissioned an adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1978 novel. The BBC’s latest attempt to compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon and HBO is just that: an attempt (bare breast included). It opens with a bang and for a moment, you might think that it will be able to carry Leighton’s well-respected story.
The plot follows Sam Riley’s Douglas Archer, a metropolitan police detective under the management of the now-Nazi regime in a 1941 London where the allies lost the Battle of Britain. As the investigation into a murder unfolds, so does a conspiracy of resistance involving both Archer himself and the people who surround him.
“I highly doubt that, based upon this first episode, any awards will be headed to Sam Riley”
Visually, this first episode has the high production value of any new primetime series one would expect of the BBC. It captures the noir style and the production designers should be commended for it. The world building is also done well, clearly borrowing some of the techniques found in Man in The High Castle – of course, an inevitable comparison to make. London becomes a believable Nazi state and the locations also feel in-keeping with the time period. However, there are times when the use of green-screen and post-production CGI are clearly visible, which feels jarring when the same effect can be gleaned from easier or more simplistic methods. Despite this, costuming, set and make-up are all solid (if lacking a little flair, but what flair can you give wartime 1930s chic and SS uniforms?)
I highly doubt that, based upon this first episode, any awards will be headed to Sam Riley for his portrayal of Douglas Archer. When one character so clearly drives the narrative, it would be helpful for them to be slightly more engaging than Riley’s insatiably bland performance. Whilst he does the espionage and intrigue well – although that might be down to his incredibly large fedora – he simply appeared bored. His character could yet develop into something more nuanced later but as a starting point, one can’t help but worry. Similarly, the ensemble cast do their best to hold up but quite simply haven’t been given the resources to do so. Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have a script that stands alone based on its narrative, but is simply plot point to plot point with little to nothing in between. It would have been great to see just a little more of what London has become rather than just a lot of shots of landmarks with swastika flags draped over them. Even the villain, Dr. Oskar Huth, played by Lars Eidinger, is introduced via an extraordinary cliché with shadowed face overseeing an autopsy in an abandoned wharf. No wonder Jez Butterworth was called to help the writing duo liven up the Skyfall script. Although the writing is by no means well-rounded what makes it at least followable is the focus on the murder investigation, temporarily offering the sensation that there was a solid mystery to be solved. It’s just a shame that this episode ended rather abruptly.
If the BBC wish to follow the trends being set by the “big boys” of streaming and pay-to-view TV, then SS-GB doesn’t appear to be the series that is going to send the corporation into the stratosphere. We know that the Beeb can do heavy, concept-led drama and has done so previously, so why does SS-GB seem so far off the mark? Poor performances and dull writing might be the crux of the problem in this first instalment, but the audience will have to wait to see whether this new drama can pick up the pace if it wants to keep ahead of the game.
Image: BBC One