The Nazis have now gone but they were mildly entertaining while they were here. I refer, specifically, to the BBC’s five-part television adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1978 novel SS-GB which recently ended its Sunday night run.
In it, the Nazis occupy more than the Beeb. London and the soft south of England are under control; the north, however, is not fully subdued. Churchill is believed dead, which is probably just as well because it’s hard to imagine him roughing it in the Lake District like Che Guevara in the Congo.
SS-GB, like Robert Harris’s Fatherland, uses a murder investigation as the introduction to a story with a wider scope. In this case, there is nuclear espionage, a plan to smuggle the King to America and a British resistance movement operating in the shadows. The various sub-plots move around each other without too much toe-treading and the only thing that might be said against them is they are exactly what you might expect in a story about the Nazi occupation of Britain.
Sam Riley plays Metropolitan Police Superintendent Douglas Archer. Dressed unfailingly in black unless in tux or PJs, his professional commitment looks like collaboration to the resistance because the police force has been co-opted by the Nazi regime. His non-conformity, at least initially, is expressed in private: he listens to the blues when he’s at home, which isn’t very often. Drawn into a turf war between the Wehrmacht and SS, Archer has the blues worse than Leadbelly or Slim Harpo or Big Bill or Blind Lemon.
This rivalry is personified by Fritz Kellermann, who cultivates an image of bordello-induced inefficiency in the early episodes before congealing into a sadistic schemer, and Dr Oskar Huth, who generally plays totalitarianism as rank bad manners. For all that Kellermann likes to design fishing lures for use in torture, Huth emerges as the more interesting of the two. He has been up at Oxford and at one points tells Archer he only joined the Nazis because he was convinced of their will to triumph. This makes him more of a careerist than a true believer, a collaborator of sorts himself.
Archer’s loyalties are demanded by both Kellerman and Huth even while he is being made privy to the plans of the resistance. This slipping between worlds necessarily calls for some deadening of emotion: best to put your face to sleep when your brain is working overtime seems to be the principle. To his credit, Riley uses this suppression of emotion to show what he can do on the margins. In episode four, when he sends his son Dougie north, the close-up reveals a little twitch of the left eye and reconfiguration around the month to hint at the internal conflict being kept at bay. Riley’s major drawback is that he looks implausibly young to be a superintendent. Perhaps to compensate, there are regular reminders of Archer’s supposed brilliance but a good number of his superiors must have perished in some Dad’s Army type effort out at Canvey Island.
Another central character is the American journalist Barbara Barga. Played by Kate Bosworth, she has connections to the resistance and knowledge of its plans to bring her country into the war. In time, she makes a connection with Archer as well and their relationship gives rise to some of the only whip-crack dialogue in the series: “You seem to have confused interrogation with seduction”, she chides him while fending off a series of questions in her apartment. Later, with smoke thickening the air but other matters cleared up to mutual satisfaction, Archer remarks: “You have an answer for everything, don’t you?” Barga replies: “It only seems that way because you never stop asking me questions.”
Archer, taking inspiration from a hundred blues songs, is involved with more than one woman. In the first episode, he is seen rendezvousing with his secretary, Sylvia Manning, only for things to sour because of her membership of the resistance. They repair the rupture towards the end but this relationship moves too abruptly between extremes of emotion like a pendulum that’s forgotten about its swing.
There were complaints about the sound quality in the early episodes: too much gruff mumbling and concerns that decibels had been rationed for the benefit of the Nazi war machine, things of that nature. There was some merit to these grumbles and once or twice I had the volume so loud I could barely hear myself munching crisps. The series was also accused, unfairly, of being boring. That the early episodes are as much police-procedural as liberation-movement-on-TV might have something to do with this sense of thwarted expectation.
Maybe the real source of unhappiness lay at a deeper level. The narrative plays with our memory of pristine resistance to the Nazis. Our institutions and officialdom were not tainted by collaboration because the Wehrmacht was kept over there. If it had got over here, the Nazis would’ve co-opted or destroyed the instruments of state as they did elsewhere. The idea of a nation mobilised for external war against the Nazis can still seduce despite its old age but that doesn’t mean we would’ve been a nation of resistance fighters if the effort had been unsuccessful. Haw-Haw, Mosley and Edward the Abdicator would not have stood in such splendid isolation. SS-GB is really about degrees of collaboration and the proximity to terror at which compromise is made. For this reason, there are no clear cut good guys and some will always find that difficult when the Nazis are the opposition.