After the disappointment that Taboo ultimately proved to be I am slightly hesitant about recommending another new British TV drama. But SS GB has begun so brilliantly, and is rooted in such strong material, that I just have to tell you about it.
This BBC mini-series is based on a 1978 novel by Len Deighton, a superlative spy novelist and military historian. It details the Nazi occupation of London after the British defeat in World War 2.
In other words, it's an alternate history story. And it's not the first work of fiction to explore the idea of an Axis victory in the Second World War. Crucially, Philip K. Dick wrote about the fate of America in such a world in his 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle.
I say crucially because I have little doubt that it's the recent success of the TV adaptation of The Man in the High Castle which led the BBC to green light SS GB. But whatever the circumstances, we should be grateful.
Because SS GB is a winner from its very first shot. This is almost entirely due to the talent of the people who are adapting it — Neal Purvis & Robert Wade have written the scripts and are also the producers.
Purvis & Wade are a distinguished British screenwriting team. Notably, they have been credited on the scripts of every James Bond film since The World is not Enough (1999). This background has given them a flawless command of their craft.
Whereas Deighton's novel begins with a low key conversation in an office, Purvis & Wade's script begins with a fighter plane soaring through the sky and a naked woman wrapped in a Nazi flag.
This is everything screenwriting should be, enhancing the source material while remaining true to its essence, making it more visual and dramatic.
That fighter plane is one of the last Spitfires being flown into London by a Nazi air ace, prefatory to being handed over to the Russians as a gesture of friendship.
The German pilot is promptly assassinated by a member of the British resistance, and the show is off to a flying start.
Throughout the episode Purvis & Wade show their respect for the book — and their gratitude for having such a strong foundation to build on. This is professional screenwriting at its finest — "Daddy, do you work for the Gestapo?"
And, best of all, the moment where a mystery piece of metal, which is the clue from a murder scene, slides into an artificial arm with perfect smoothness. "Show, don't tell" is screenwriting's highest commandment.
SS GB engages the complex flow of our sympathies and loyalties. It features excellent performances by Sam Riley (as Douglas Archer), Kate Bosworth, Maeve Dermody, James Cosmo and many others, and the music by Dan Jones is absolutely smashing. It's a high water mark of British screenwriting and television drama.
The show is also amazingly faithful to Deighton in many small particulars. Archer's costume — dark shirt and wide brim hat — is exactly as described in the novel.
And the date the first episode was broadcast, 19th February, is exactly the date of the British surrender in Deighton's book. Either a wonderful piece of serendipity or a masterstroke of planning.
There is a gratifyingly informative BBC media pack available which includes an interview with Deighton and you may like to check it out. But before you spend any time on that, I urge you to watch the show itself.
It looks, at last, like we might have a great British television drama on our hands
(Image credits: The DVD cover is from IMDB. The Spitfire is from iNews. Maeve Dermody wrapped in a flag comes from The Daily Mail where if you read the comments you can find some amazing individual complaining that the show is unpatriotic. All in capital letters, of course. The rest — rather a rich and unexpected cache — are from Sindy Loves Vintage.)