Style over substance: thoughts on SS-GB

12 Mar

Sam Riley in the BBC’s adaptation of SS-GB

Whitehall draped in swastikas. Nazis riding the King’s horses in the centre of London. Churchill’s death. These are the moments in the BBC’s new adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB that are meant to give us that little thrill associated with the taboo, or perhaps a pleasant relief that history took a different turn. It’s funny, though. Given the drama’s fortunate – or unfortunate – relevance at a time when nationalism, white supremacy and even outright Nazism seem to be emboldened, what should be searingly topical instead falls rather flat.

It’s not just the incomprehensible dialogue. Where SS-GB really fails is in its focus on Archer, a star detective at Scotland Yard. It attempts to present a moral dilemma: Archer has sworn to uphold the law, but the law is now in the hands of the Germans following our defeat in the Battle of Britain. He must decide whether to honour his office or his nation. Should be compelling, but the show is mired in a meandering murder mystery that moves at snail’s pace, interspersed with dull scenes of Archer’s angst that do little to rev up our interest.

Worse still, Archer’s choice is frustratingly banal. Working alongside the SS seems like an inconvenience at most, as they take over the office space and get preoccupied by their spat with the German army. Obergruppenfuhrer Huth’s rather homoerotic fixation on Archer may border on the sadistic, but as a villain he is all high-camp-leather-coat-swirling-tropeyness with little to sink our teeth into. The biggest danger to Archer so far seems to be the British Resistance, characterised as bloodthirsty avengers (and sometimes unhinged extremists) with little regard for human life.

Their zeal seems even more extreme when we are given little sense of how Britain is being changed, the global situation now that Germany has reached the UK, and what is really at stake. Largely, the battle seems to be about sovereignty and little else (which I guess appeals to some kind of audience in these dark Brexit days). Yes, there is the notion that they might get the bomb, which is obviously a Bad Thing, but I want to know a lot more about daily life.

Here, the worldbuilding is thin. There are a few small references to the more serious impact of Nazi rule – yellow stars in one scene, prostitutes being harrassed in another, art and music declared degenerate -but the true meaning of occupation is skimmed over and the characterisation is at fault. Women are reduced to stereotypes: the blonde femme fatale, the plucky Resistance girl, the nurturing housewife – all of them conveniently in love with Archer, of course. There is little sense of what life in the new world holds for them. And what of London’s diverse population? What of those for whom the new regime would herald the biggest dangers? We see and hear almost nothing of them.

Perhaps the fault lies with the source material, which, I confess, I haven’t read. But then why did the BBC make such an unadventurous choice?

For balance, I watched the first few episodes of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a version of Philip K. Dick’s alt-history classic, which I have read but such a long time ago I’d forgotten most of it. With a bigger budget, High Castle can afford to furnish its drama with bolder flourishes designed to tickle – Nazi gameshows or a San Francisco bedecked in Japanese signs. However, it doesn’t need CGI to make the stakes of occupation clear. One character, noticing a fall of ash, is informed that it comes from a nearby hospital where they are ‘burning cripples’; this information will come into play later when another character must make a tough choice about a loved one. The main characters include a man who lives in fear of his Jewish ancestry being discovered, a young woman trying to find her place in a harsh world, and Rufus Sewell’s chilling John Smith, a family man and SS officer who makes Huth seem even more ridiculous and yet somehow less sinister. Quiet character moments are interspersed with the more dramatic Resistance operations, allowing us to explore more fully the experiences of people living in this world.

High Castle is not perfect. There’s a lot more I’d like to know about how ordinary Americans reconciled themselves with the regime and even embraced it, as John Smith did.  Then again, perhaps we need only look around ourselves now to understand it. I also think the Japanese characters are weak, with Tagomi driven by a mysticism that’s pretty much a racist stereotype (albeit true to the book). However, the show is a lot more interesting than SS-GB because it takes time to explore the real stakes of an Axis victory. Even in its subtle reimagining of the 60s as a dismal and drab time soundtracked only by country music, it is infused with the horror of fascism.

A book I’d really like to see adapted is Julie Mayhew’s YA novel The Big Lie. The story takes place in an alternate modern day, a 2014 Britain in the Reich, which already gives it a slightly different spin. Even better, it focuses on two teenage girls who chafe against their expected life path – the Bund Deutscher Madel followed by marriage to a suitable Aryan man. For one, the realisation that she’s falling for another girl sparks a confusion made worse by the knowledge that living as her true self is completely forbidden. It’s a perspective that the traditional alt-history doesn’t usually cover, and as such it is well worth a read.

To come back to the purpose of this post: SS-GB is stylish. It’s a fairly typical noir thriller (shadows, hats, red lippy) that revels in the interplay between taboo imagery of Nazism, our nostalgia for Blitz London and old-time spy-flick glamour. But style is not enough, not when white supremacists openly announce that looking good is a recruitment tool. It’s even more important that we ask for more from our fiction, these days. There are real life consequences to a lurch to the right, and well-off, comfortably employed, white, straight men like Archer are not the first in the firing line. As such, SS-GB is utterly unprovocative and frankly pointless as anything other than a bit of fluff.

Writers/directors/commissioners: be bolder.


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