Directed by Philipp Kadelbach the new five part BBC dramatic television series SS-GB explores what may have happened if Germany had won the battle of Britain and taken over ruling in London. Three years in the making, the series has been adapted from the critically acclaimed novel by Len Deighton published in 1978.
Set in 1941, it’s not a pretty picture; King George VI has been taken captive, Winston Churchill assassinated and Buckingham Palace is shown half bombed away and adorned with Swastikas. Pockets of Resistance still exist, as citizens show off their defiance, making it harder for everyone to go about their daily lives.
“We need nothing from you but loyalty to your country…” Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer of Scotland Yard, who looks very dashing in dark shirts, bold ties, black hat and trench coat, is determined to keep law and order in service to his country, but whose law is he enforcing now?
Britain’s or the Third Reich’s.
Smouldering actor-fashion model Sam Riley features as detective Douglas Archer heading a stellar cast.
He becomes embroiled in the Resistance movement only as a result of his investigation into what will be a very puzzling homicide.
The occupation of London is especially difficult because he has to work under the Nazi regime while trying not to become known as a collaborator by the locals. His life is being turned upside down as he learns not to trust anyone.
One of the biggest worries he has is keeping both his primary school age son, as well as his lover Sylvia, who endangers everyone around her as she tries to create problems for the Germans, safe.
Archer is investigating the murder of a physicist who specialised in nuclear warfare. He must unravel complex clues while balancing his relationship with the German SS led by his superior Gruppenfuhrer Kellerman (Rainer Bock) with all the people he knows who belong to the British Resistance, including George Mayhew (Jason Flemyng).
Archer’s realisation that the crime he’s sent to investigate may be something much more than it seems, makes for a gloriously intriguing storyline. It has more twists and turns than you can possibly imagine, demanding full attention with its underlying sub plot about those in charge of the German Army.
Bafta winning scriptwriters Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, who have co-written five Bond films, including Skyfall and Spectre, have ensured the series is engrossing, starting with what must be the last Spitfire, landing on the mall.
Don’t Read Any More if you Don’t Want Spoilers.
The German Army are seeking to humiliate high command members of the SS elite, whom they view as rivals and as history proves time and time again, institutions that fight within themselves, definitely implode in the end.
Arriving from Berlin Dr Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger) unexpectedly arrives at the Yard where he warns his new colleague Douglas Archer not to try to “play off both ends against the middle”.
Huth is a member of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the Nazi intelligence service and has been sent to supervise the investigation, warning Archer to choose the battles he can win because the ‘axe never mourns the tree it fells’.
In the first episode Archer finds the joint from an artificial arm at the scene of his murder, which he finds very puzzling and pockets it before the rest of his team, including his old mentor and friend Harry Woods (James Cosmo), arrives.
Archer finds a number of leads and meets the glamorous American reporter Barbara Barga (Kate Bosworth) at the crime scene, finding her many charms almost impossible to ignore.
She is looking for film from a camera and he is compelled to admonish her by taking her to bed, as he knows the old adage ‘it is always good to keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’.
As he proceeds Archer finds himself in a more treacherous situation, questioning his own patriotism about how far he will go in the fight against fascism. It takes patience to make a lure that works and have the fish swallow the hook, without knowing what is happening.
The first two episodes are like peeling the layers off an onion, with assignation attempts, conspiracies rife, lots of smoking and a plot to finally bring America into the war by rescuing the King from Nazi clutches.
By Episode 3 Archer is being blamed by his colleagues for collaborating with the Germans… they kill a young man to make their point and he’s now accusing them of being as bad as the Nazis.
He’s also attacked in the tube on the way home, after going to see Sylvia and asking her to flee. He makes an arrest, a one armed man who is the brother of the dead officer who was going back to the depot where his artificial limb came from. He accepts a cyanide cigarette given to him by German officer Captain Hesse and dies horribly.
Archer now does a detailed examination of the artificial limb joint left behind at the murder scene and finds it has secret plans hidden inside. His affair with Barbara continues and she accuses of him of confusing interrogation with seduction.
He finds she has an answer for everything… and while she informs him she is not a spy… he’s not sure whether to believe her or not. Basically everyone lies to him and he asks has she heard about a plot to free the King and is unhappy with her reaction.
Colonel Mayhew is in the German Army Intelligence brothel Archer follows Hesse into … what the hell is going on… he discovers the German army are going to try and free the King of England from the clutches of their own SS.
What would they get out of it… the failure of the SS and rise of the Army elite to power from London all the way to Berlin. What is the catch…?
This thriller series in five parts has bags of atmosphere, and it’s certainly hats off to all those involved in imagining England under Nazi occupation with such chilling realism.
Throughout the series Archer finds the sinister Huth not only hard to ignore, but eventually a German he can respect and they are left working through their mistakes together when the rescue of the King goes south.
People all over the country are being shot and the realist Huth knows Kellerman will arrive and gather he and his ‘rogue unit’ up to use him as a scapegoat…so he gives Archer the opportunity of living another day to look after his boy, by walking north, to unoccupied Britain.
Like the other great success in the past year, The Night Manager, the author of SS-GB Deighton did not write a follow up book. In this day and age when we are used to stories continuing, it can feel frustrating for many people who are left with the feeling of unfinished business at the end.
In this case though, you could look at it as metaphor. The GB (Great Britain) part of the heading is now certainly defunct. Article 51 of Brexit having been enacted means that island of endless green and discontent has reverted to being called just plain old Britain again.
This earlier vision of it losing its ‘greatness’ may not have been so far fetched after all! In winning the Battle for Britain some nearly three quarters of a century later, they may now have really lost the war, as well as peace for Europe. Time alone will tell!
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Watch the Trailer of SS-GB