You’ve heard of history in the making? Well, on Sunday night on BBC One you’ll witness history in the remaking. New thriller SS-GB has been adapted from Len Deighton’s 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 of SPECTRE, Skyfall and Casino Royale fame.
Set in Nazi-occupied London, the five-part thriller is based on the premise that the Germans won the Battle of Britain. Acclaimed British actor Sam Riley (Control) plays Douglas Archer and Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns) plays Barbara Barga are the series’ two leads. Other names starring in the drama include Jason Flemyng (Primeval, X-Men: First Class), James Cosmo (Braveheart, Troy), Aneurin Barnard and Maeve Dermody as well as German actors Rainer Bock and Lars Eidinger.
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.
Here, the cast and crew introduce you the characters and concepts behind the series which has been four years in the making.
C0-scripter Robert Wade: “This example of alternate history is particularly interesting because it’s so close to what might have happened. I would make a distinction from The Man In The High Castle, which is more sci-fi and less close to what happened, and with Fatherland, which was set in the 1960s and deals more with the consequences of a Nazi victory.”
It’s historically accurate… in a sense
Executive producer Sally Woodward Gentle: “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.”
Author Len Deighton: “SS-GB [the book] 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.’”
Director Philipp Kadelbach: “They have asked a German to tell the story of the Germans invading London – there is an irony to the whole thing. One other advantage is that I am working with German actors on SS-GB. It’s very brave of the BBC to cast real German actors – I really like that. I know all these actors from Germany. It helps that I can talk to them all in German.”
In vogue with prestige Netflix/Amazon series, it will have very long scenes
Director Philipp Kadelbach: “The script was extremely beautifully written. It was very exciting to read. I was not planning to do another period movie at the time, but the script was so strong, I couldn’t resist. It challenged me. Some of the scenes last 12 pages and are set in just one room. Usually these days scripts have really short scenes, lasting just 30 seconds. They need to climax very quickly. But this wonderful script takes its time; it is like the best from the old days.”
C0-scripter Robert Wade: “We were nervous before [having lunch with him] because we’re such huge fans, but he very quickly put us at our ease. He told us that the book originated when he got hold of the Nazi plan of how Britain would be administrated once it had been occupied.
“I brought along a copy of one of his cookbooks that my mother had given me. He put an inscription in it, which was lovely. Having lunch with him is very exciting because he knows so much about good food. In fact, he knows an awful lot about an awful lot of things.”
The series had to wait for technology to catch up with the ambition of the book
Executive producer Sally Woodward Gentle: “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.”
C0-scripter Robert Wade: “Archer is on screen the whole time, and yet he can’t converse with other people about what he’s really thinking. He is deeply compromised because he’s doing a job for the Germans and they need him because he’s the top murder detective in the country. And yet his wife was killed in the invasion and he has a 10-year-old son. What can he do? It’s a very heroic role.”
Sam Riley: “In the past, TV had always scared me. I was frightened off by the idea of being in a long running format and having to play the same person over many years. But this is very different. It’s great. You have five hours of material to really get your teeth into it. Also, my ego saw that I was in every scene – although my body is now regretting that!”
So who is Archer?
Sam Riley: “Archer is ambiguous – that was another thing that appealed about SS-GB. He has an important job and can speak German. He’s looked on favourably by the Germans. He’s a totem for them. Before the war, he caught a serial killer and got the nickname Archer of the Yard. But he is unsure about his role now.
“He is not a Nazi, but neither is he willing to join The Resistance. He’s happy to keep his job. He thinks that there has to be law and order or things will fall apart. If he’s not there to do it, then who will? His neighbours see him picked up for work by the SS and are suspicious. I think that’s a really interesting place to start a drama.
“He has a young son. It’s very easy for people who don’t have children to resist the Occupation. But once you have a child – which I do in real life – it makes you ask whether you’d stick your neck out, or whether you would make sure your children are safe and hope it all blows over.”
Executive producer Lee Morris: “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.”
It’s deliberately film noir
Executive producer Lee Morris: “When Archer arrives at the murder scene [that initiates the plot], 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.”
Sam Riley: “ I love film noir movies. So to be able to wear these wonderful film noir costumes and have my Humphrey Bogart moment is amazing. To play a detective solving crimes and meeting a femme fatale is number one on the list for most actors to play. And now I get to tick that off!”
Kate Bosworth’s Barbara Braga is the Femme Fatale
Sam Riley: “She is a mysterious character. London has become a very drab town. With rationing, everyone is having to make do. Then this glamorous platinum blonde bombshell appears near the scene of the crime. She ingratiates herself with Archer, which he is not unhappy about. What’s interesting about the relationship is that Archer is not sure what Barbara’s motives are – whether she has genuine affection for him, or whether she is linked with the Americans or Germans.”
Executive producer Sally Woodward Gentle: “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.”
Kate Bosworth: “Barbara has been sent over by the New York Times to cover the story. It’s a little bit ambiguous as to what side of the line she stands. This project is mysterious in that we are left wondering what every character’s motivation is exactly. That mystery means she’s a little bit of a femme fatale from the 1940s. She’s been a really interesting, enjoyable character to play.”
Barbara was influenced by Lauren Bacall
Kate Bosworth: “She’s essentially like a leading lady from the 1940s. So I watched a lot of those films starring people like Lauren Bacall. I wanted to be inspired by that, but I didn’t want to do a caricature of the time. What is wonderful about having those leading ladies’ performances is we can watch and learn from them. But I also wanted her to be rooted in a deep sense of humanity and modernism that was important to the piece as well.”
Maeve Dermody (Sylvia Manning): “Sylvia is quite mysterious. She is working in the office alongside Archer. They’re in a romantic relationship, but she won’t commit to it or play along at Scotland Yard. But quite quickly, it’s clear why, as her other life emerges. It’s evident that she would rather put her life at risk and fight the Nazis. She works in a cell infiltrating the Nazis. The idea was based on the French Resistance.
“Sylvia’s motivation is deliberately hazy. She works in the moment. She’s fiery, impulsive and confused. She improvises a lot of the time. The 1940s was full of ingenuity. It was a time of great invention. In the end she is given a task that matches her will and motivation. I loved playing her.”
James Cosmo (Harry Woods): “Harry is Archer’s partner at Scotland Yard. Archer has been university educated and fast-tracked through The Met. Harry is a safe pair of hands to accompany him on his investigations. He resents the Occupation tremendously but unlike Archer, he’s making his own secret active stand. It’s very easy to say that we would have fought the Nazis on the beaches. But if it had happened, there is no doubt that we could have been like the French. I think many people would have said: ‘Listen, we just want to keep our families alive and eat.’”
The German characters are not clichéd Nazis
Lars Eidinger (Dr Oskar Huth): “To be honest, as a German I am quite cautious with stories that take place during the Second World War because I think that artists who re-enact the Third Reich carry a great responsibility. I think that in particular showing the cruelty of the Holocaust is not possible in a filmic way because it is something that is beyond imagination. So I was very happy that SS-GB is not founded on historical facts, which makes it much easier to interpret it and frees you from the risk of falsifying history.
“I think it is very interesting to deal with personalities like Huth, because he is a very complex character full of contradictions, which attracts me as an actor of course. Sometimes Nazis in movies are quite one dimensional and clichéd, but Huth is a very authentic person, with a lot of facets and several layers.”
Rainer Bock (Fritz Kellerman): “Kellerman is a high ranking Nazi officer who is now chief of the police of London. He loves the English way of life: tea time, whiskey, tweed suits and – one of his main interests – fishing. But he can be hard and brutal.”
Dr Huth’s suit was deliberately figure-hugging
Lars Eidinger (Dr Oskar Huth): “I admire the work of costume designer Emma Fryer. For me the costume is 80% of getting into a character. I remember that I asked Emma during the fitting whether we could give the whole uniform a slimmer cut, to give Huth a sharp silhouette, which we did. That helped me a lot, because it led me to his physicality.
“In the script Huth always has his cane with him. That gives me a lot of playing opportunities and a kind of theatrical touch, which I enjoyed.”
- SS-GB Photo Gallery