17 February 2017
Produced by Sid Gentle Films Ltd, SS-GB has been adapted from Len Deighton’s intriguing, alternate history novel of the same name by one of the UK’s most successful writing partnerships – BAFTA Award winners Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (SPECTRE, Skyfall, and Casino Royale).
Set in Nazi-occupied London, the five-part thriller is based on the premise that the Germans won the Battle of Britain. SS-GB is a complex thriller focusing on British Detective Douglas Archer. Forced to work under the brutal SS in occupied London, Archer is determined to continue to do his job in the service of his country, but against impossible odds.
Acclaimed British actor Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer and actress Kate Bosworth plays Barbara Barga, the leads in SS-GB. Other names starring in the drama include Jason Flemyng, James Cosmo, Aneurin Barnard and Maeve Dermody as well as German actors Rainer Bock and Lars Eidinger.
Sally Woodward Gentle, Lee Morris, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are Executive Producers on SS-GB for Sid Gentle Films Ltd. The ambitious series is produced by Patrick Schweitzer and directed by multi award-winning director Philipp Kadelbach.
Here Len Deighton offers us an intorudction to SS-GB and executive producers Sally Woodward Gentle and Lee Morris offer an insight to adpating SS-GB for TV.
SS-GB began over a late-night drink with Ray Hawkey, the writer and designer, and Tony Colwell, my editor at Jonathan Cape. "No one knows what might have happened had we lost the Battle of Britain," said Tony with a sigh as we finished sorting through photos to illustrate my book, Fighter: The True Story Of The Battle Of Britain. "I wouldn’t go as far as that," I told him. "A great deal of the planning for the German occupation has been found and published."
I had read some of that material and, after this conversation; I sought out the official German publications and began wondering if Britain under German rule would make a book. It would have to be what was then called an alternative world book and that was outside all my writing experience. On the other hand, research for Fighter and Funeral In Berlin and particularly Bomber, had brought me into contact with many Germans, mostly men who had fought in the war.
I work very slowly so I don’t embark on a story until I am confident that I will be able to get the material for it and live with it for many months, perhaps years. The plot problems seemed insurmountable. Would I create a hero in the German occupation army? I wouldn’t want a Nazi as a hero. If I told the story through the eyes of a British civilian how would such a person have enough information to make the plot work? A notable member of the resistance would qualify as a hero but such heroes would all be dead, or fugitives.
This story had to be told from the centre of power. The police would be the people who connected the conquerors with the conquered but that sort of compromise role was not attractive to me. I went round and round on this until I thought of a Scotland Yard detective as a hero. A man who solved crimes and hunted only real criminals could have contacts at the top and yet still be acceptable as a central character. I would frame it like a conventional murder mystery, with a corpse at the start and solution at the end.
I like big charts and diagrams. They serve as a guide and reminder while a book is being written. Using the German data I drew a chain of command showing the connections between the civilians and the puppet government, black marketers and quislings and the occupying power with its security forces and bitterly competitive army and Waffen SS elements. My old friend, and fellow writer, Ted Allbeury had spent the immediate post-war period in occupied Germany as what the locals called 'the head of the British Gestapo'. Ted’s experience was very valuable indeed and I used his experience and anecdotes to the full.
For the London scenes, I used only places that I had known in the war, so in that respect there is an autobiographical element in the story. I remembered London in wartime: the dimly lit streets, gas lights that hissed and spluttered, tin baths in front of the fire, rationing that made food a constant subject of thought and conversation, and bombed homes that spewed their intimate household contents into the streets.
The Scotland Yard building had to be the stage upon which my story was played but the police were no longer using it. It had become an office building for members of parliament and was strictly guarded. The Metropolitan Police were very cooperative about letting me into their new building and they let me use their fascinating library and their archives too without restrictions of any kind. I spent many days studying wartime crimes and looking at pictures of Scotland Yard detectives in the natty suits that were mandatory at that time. But the obstacle remained, the police had no authority over the building they had vacated.
By a wonderful piece of luck, I found an elderly ex-policeman who knew the building from cellar to attic. I recorded hours of his descriptions but I still could not get into it until a friend named Freddy Warren devised a method by which I could explore every nook and cranny of the historic Scotland Yard building. Freddy’s authority as an official of the Whip’s office was to allot the offices to the politicians. He took me on a guided tour. With him I went everywhere; opening doors, interrupting conferences, awakening sleepers and declining liquid refreshment. No one was going to risk upsetting Freddy. I remain indebted to him and I hope that this record of the Scotland Yard building, as once it was, justifies the trouble he took on my behalf.
When writing the main text begins I have found it beneficial to step away from phones and friends and any social commitments. Together with my wife Ysabele and two small children I climbed into an old Volvo with its trunk crammed with research material. We went to Tuscany. My friend Al Alvarez, the writer and broadcaster lent us his wonderful mountainside house near Barga. It was winter and, no matter about the pictures in the brochures, winter in northern Italy is cold and wet. I searched far and wide for an electric typewriter and failed to find one. All I could find was a tiny lightweight portable Olivetti Lettera 22. Yes, I know the Lettera 22 is an icon of the nineteen fifties and is found in design museums, but after the soft touch joys of an electric machine, pounding the mechanical keyboard took a lot of getting used to. My fingers swelled up like salsiccia Toscana. But rural Italy worked its magic. Our elderly next door neighbours adopted us. Signora Ida and her husband Silvio lavished our children with love, made pizzas for us in their outdoor oven and showed us the secret of making ravioli and the secret of happiness on the slim budget that a few olive trees provide. We will never forget those two wonderful people. They made my time in Tuscany writing SS-GB one of the happiest times of my happy life.
Sally Woodward Gentle and Lee Morris
Can you please tell us how this project came about?
SWG: I worked with Len 23 years ago on a documentary called Edward VIII, Traitor King. We stayed mates. I’ve always loved SS-GB and always wanted to make it. When I asked Len, he said: “I think that television is now in a place to achieve a novel's ambition”. The thing about SS-GB is that it’s a very rich novel and has such a clever central conceit. It doesn’t feel like sci-fi. It feels like real life.
SS-GB also has a terrific central character, doesn’t it?
LM: Yes. At the start, Archer is trapped. He doesn’t have much choice about working for the Nazis because of his domestic circumstances and his belief in the importance of stability. As the story unfolds, feelings are aroused within Archer that lain dormant up until that moment. It brings the fight out in him, and prompts the idea that he could make a difference.
SWG: Archer is amazingly compromised and that is fascinating. He is in mourning for his wife who died during the invasion and has a young boy, and yet he has an incredibly responsible job as a detective. He sees the job as something that needs to be done. No matter what, the country needs to be stable to the point where he hopes the occupiers will no longer be there.
When we join him at the start, he doesn’t yet know about the real nature of the occupiers and their global ambition and extremist vision. But he is surrounded by people with a very strong moral code, and he is gradually awakened by that. He knows he has to act. Ultimately, Archer is compelling because he represents us. He is at the moral core of this story.
Can you explain the significance of the murder at the beginning of the story?
LM: When Archer arrives at the murder scene, he’s thinking that it’s a standard black market killing. But he soon begins to think there’s something odd about it. When he gets the call to say that a high-ranking Nazi is coming over to examine the case, that confirms to Archer that this is actually very important. He has unwittingly stumbled on something that is much bigger than he thought.
Does Archer’s growing realisation about the significance of the murder isolate him?
SWG: Yes. He has to carry around a lot of secrets. He can’t confide in anyone. He has to protect all these people, and yet he is party to these extraordinary secrets. He is in a terribly compromised position. That’s when he decides to take a heroic stance.
Why is Sam Riley so right for the role of Archer?
LM: Everyone in the office fancies him! Even I can see why! His performance is superb. He manages to convey things without actually saying them. That’s why it’s such a great performance.
SWG: He’s a brilliant actor and hasn’t done TV before. He lives in Berlin, so the director went for coffee with him. Afterwards, he told us: “Sam’s perfect!”
Tell us about Kate Bosworth’s performance as Barbara.
SWG: Barbara’s a brilliant American journalist, and what is great about Kate’s performance is that you are never quite sure where you stand with her. Kate brings glamour and romance, but at the same time until the very end you don’t know which side she’s on. The chemistry between Kate and Sam is fantastic. You really believe in the relationship between the two of them.
Why did you choose Robert and Neal as the writers?
SWG: They’re both big Len Deighton fans. Len’s knowledge of history is fantastic. He understands that history is often created by the minutiae of people’s lives. He talks about how history can be generated by someone having a row with his wife, late at night. Robert and Neal absolutely get that sense of historical accuracy. They also know how to tell a story with real tension and how to create a good soundbite. In addition, they’re fantastic at developing female characters.
Why is the idea of alternate history so compelling?
LM: I t’s a natural thing to be curious about. It goes back to the book and the fact that we very nearly did lose the Battle of Britain. It was very close run thing. If the RAF hadn’t been so skilful and courageous, and the weather had been more favourable, it could have all been so completely different. That’s such an opportunity for a writer. It opens up so many possibilities. It shows that history could go in different directions at any point.
Does SS-GB remain relevant?
SWG: Absolutely. It hasn’t dated at all. The book is still extraordinarily pertinent. Len is incredibly clever. He is always a few steps ahead of everyone in his conspiracy theories. He knows a good story when he sees one, and he based this on documents from the Nazis about what they would do in the event of an invasion of the UK. There was also a handbook which was to be issued to German soldiers, we have copies in the office. They were going to save Blackpool as a playground for the troops.
What Len is really, really good at is dirty politics, and that hasn’t gone out of date at all.
What effect do you hope that SS-GB will have on audiences?
LM: The central question in this drama is: what would you do in that situation? Robert and Neal have framed the drama around that.
We are the generation that is fortunate enough to have grown up between big global conflicts. But SS-GB is a reminder of the fact that Britain was very nearly occupied. It feels fantastical, but who knows how many steps away from that we actually were?
Those storm clouds did gather very quickly. I’m not saying we are about to be plunged into another world war, but we always have to be vigilant. First and foremost, we are making entertainment, but like all the best thrillers, if you sit and think about it, SS-GB gives you plenty of food for thought, too. It’s absorbing and portrays a world that people can become really immersed in.
SWG: It’s a thriller set against the backdrop of what might have happened. But it should also make us ponder. When you see the rushes and step back, it’s really chilling. You realise that we were incredibly lucky that we weren’t occupied.
It really chimes with today’s world. Recent politics have made it feel more pertinent than ever. The message in this drama is that you can never be complacent. It’s not enough to maintain the status quo. You have to stand up and do something.