SS-GB (S1, BBC1)

A lone Spitfire soars over London, landing gracefully in front of Buckingham Palace.  But the Palace is a bombed-out shell, and the swastika hangs from its gates.  Its 1941. The Battle of Britain has been fought – and lost.

Though there may be Nazi jack boots marching down the Mall, life goes on.  And Detective Archer has a murderer to find.

Focussing on the ordinary characters caught up in a mad, complex situation is a nifty way of bringing us into what is a pretty surreal setting.  Archer is a believably capable detective, but no superhuman.   He has a vague grasp of how things are playing out, at least enough to stay alive, but the bigger game is always beyond him.   It keeps things personal, the losses and choices have a real weight to them.  Big ideas like patriotism and duty seem remote compared Archer and Harry’s friendship and loyalty.

This does have the effect of making Sylvia a rather unappealing figure.  Her black and white view of things comes across as rather juvenile, even petulant.   Her willingness to put herself repeatedly in danger felt to me more a lack of pragmatism than bravery.   Not that she seemed stupid, just rather unconcerned with realities.  When she and Harry were put into the holding camps, it was him who found food for her.   Barbara is more interesting, gallivanting about the world looking for a story.  But her distance makes her chilly and difficult to trust.  What’s she up to?

Perhaps this is more to do with person taste than I realise.  Fervour is the stuff of heroes, after all.  Sylvia was at least genuine, and consistent – deriding the collaborators for selling out their neighbours for ‘a more comfortable life’.   Did she think more of the Nazis than the collaborators? They at least fought for a cause.  Her hero’s death seemed fitting; she would become a beacon, a rallying point for British resistance.  Some viewers may have been affected by her sacrifice.  Though I couldn’t help but feel that her final gesture was just that – a gesture.  Like throwing a lit cigarette into the crate of yellow stars that Jewish locals would be forced to wear – it was defiant and heartfelt, but didn’t really accomplish much.

Eternity belongs to heroes, but the world belongs to swindlers.  Mayhew’s double-cross was brilliant in design (and ruthless in execution). I did wonder if the King knew he was never going to make that plane… Austere Huth came a cropper too.  His focus was his weakness, not his strength.  It was adaptable, genial Kellerman who came out ahead.  For now at least.

The pragmatic tone carries through to the ending- optimistic, but hardly celebratory, with no great patriotic fanfare.  It’s not as though Britain won by noble means, let’s be honest.  In fact, they’ve hardly won at all.  The future looks rosy (or at least less grim than it did), but Britain remains very much occupied.   Still, I liked the sense of moving forward, resolute and just a bit crafty.  Britain won’t win because they’re better, or more noble.  They’ll win because they’re wily and stubborn.

And because they adapt.  SS-GB was written in 1978, when Britain was well and truly on its arse, still struggling with the exhausting effort of WW2 and a rapidly diminished place in the world.   Survival comes from facing realities, and putting your efforts into building for the future.  Early in the series, the Nazis and Soviets made a big show of exhuming the remains of Karl Marx to be dispatched back to Russia with great pomp and ceremony.   Their ‘friendship’ is based on the past.  By bringing about the destruction of Nazi efforts to build the A bomb and offering key research in this to the US, Britain is forging a new friendship and a new future.

Still, this isn’t a story about big events, and the small scale is echoed visually, with few big set pieces.   The opening scene was nicely done and the final fight at the aerodrome was thrilling, but the important stuff goes on in the sitting room, at a game of cards,  down the pub.   Politics and warfare isn’t just armies and ministers, it’s out on the street, how you treat your neighbour.  Would you inform on someone for a bag of potatoes?  For the life of your son?

Early on, Archer talks about keeping his head down and maintaining law and order because the Germans won’t be around for ever.  But I didn’t really buy that – he (quite sensibly) just doesn’t want to get involved.    But the real cruelty of the Reich isn’t the wrong flag above Westminster; it’s a headmaster carted off to the camps for no reason, prostitutes rounded up and abused in the street, men shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Thoug, if evil is small scale, so is bravery.  Sylvia and her plucky companions are principled enough, but they won’t win the war.  America looms large, but it won’t get involved for no reason.  Somewhere between the two, sits the ordinary people.  Only when they care enough to make those small acts of defiance – when  Archer starts to make those little moves  – can the much bigger pieces fall into place.   Starting from such a striking premise, it’s an oddly predictable resolution.  But it makes for a great story.

What did you think?  I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, how does it compare?  Did you find yourself warming to Huth in his final scene?   Did you just want to give Harry a hug the whole way through? Let me know!

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War & Peace (BBC1)

Adapting one of the longest (and least read) Russian novels for a western TV audience was always going to mean cuts and simplifications.  But has too much been lost in the translation?  Or does this 6 part series do the Tolstoy epic justice?  Having never read the book, I had no idea what to expect, but it pulled me in brilliantly.

It is 1805, and Pierre – favourite bastard son of the Count Bezukhov – returns to Russia after being educated abroad.  At the salon of Anna Pavlovna he awkwardly mingles with the highest in the land.  But as he unexpectedly inherits his father’s title and fortune, war with France is looming, and the lives of Russia’s elite look set to change forever.

The first episode did a fantastic job of establishing the setting and numerous characters.  There are a lot of players and the volley of people and names was a little disconcerting at first. But Anna’s salon succinctly displayed the luxury of life as a Russian aristocrat, and the vacuity and corruption it creates.

The show made the most of its stunning locations in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The palaces were vast and opulent, and looked so solid somehow- like they had been there forever.  It quietly hinted at the hauteur of the elite, their concern with appearances and their disconnection from the rest of society.  This contrasted with the beauty and majesty of the natural landscapes, with their vibrancy and constant changing rhythms.  The use of music was excellent too, giving a sense of time and place, as well as giving the characters nuance.

Of course, the story does suffer a bit in being compressed.  I think that the multiple coincidental meetings are supposed to reflect how much fate – rather than free will – controls our lives.  But on the screen, it does feel a bit too neat.  Such as the benign peasant who pops up to share some wisdom with Pierre, only to die when he has served his purpose.   And the pace does mean that details and intentions aren’t always clear.  Did Anatole die from his wounds?  Does Helene mean to kill herself, or is she only desperate to induce a miscarriage?  Did Boris actually marry his rich heiress?

Oddly enough, while the last episode was the longest – 80 minutes, rather than 60 – events felt more compressed than ever.   It seemed that Andrei was barely laid in his grave before Pierre was proposing to Natalia.  Which may be why the cosy bucolic finale left me cold.  After all the suffering and growth of the characters, it seemed they only learned to go have some kids and sit out in the sunshine –  a bit of cop-out, if you ask me.

But in fairness to the series, I think that the things I disliked (and there weren’t that many, honest!) are actually issues with the story itself, rather than choices made by the programme makers.  I found the whole ‘destiny’ thing rather tiresome.  Sure, many things are beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices and take responsibility for them.  Andrei didn’t die because of fate; he died because he refused to take cover when the shell landed.  Presenting events in this way might be consistent with Tolstoy’s vision, but it did sap tension from the tale. Characters felt like they were floating along, rather than active agents in their lives.  This was especially galling as they were so privileged.  Nikolai balking at his family’s reduced circumstances when he himself gambled away a big chunk of their fortune made me want to throw something at the screen.

But the quality of the performances pulled me back in.  Everyone in this massive cast did well, but Jessie Buckley was outstanding as long-suffering Marya.  Her reaction when her father died, and later when Nikolai ‘proposed’ felt so genuine.  She was glowing with happiness by the end, and it was wonderful to watch.   Paul Dano was also great in a difficult role, making ingenuous, hopeless Pierre believable.

There was also some brilliant story-telling here.  I was never once lost as to who or where or when, which is no mean feat in a story this complex and a cast this big. There were some lovely visual touches, and the costumes were excellent (if a little anachronistic at times).  Helene was pretty irredeemable, but the sight of her pregnant in that wholly-misjudged frock showed both her lack of self-awareness and her vulnerability.   The war scenes were impressive, and strangely beautiful.  Used sparingly, they conveyed the devastation and wastefulness of war, but also the strength of humanity that such horror can throw into relief.  The scene where Pierre goes to retrieve some shot from the munition dump was brilliantly handled.  I also loved the image of the retreating French army; a great line stretched across the landscape, tiny figures dwarfed by the vast, white landscape.

As events drew to a close we got a more philosophical feel, our leads grew and leaned the value of love and forgiveness.  Andrei at peace with the word on his deathbed; Natalia beside him sounding much more grown up, and much more Russian: ‘To suffer with you would be the greatest happiness for me.’  Even Pierre starts to develop, learning to savour life’s simple pleasures, rather than barrelling through looking for an answer that doesn’t exist.  ‘Where there is life, there is happiness.’

All in all, a compelling, brilliantly made series that really brought Tolstoy’s epic to life. I’m even tempted to give the book a go.  Have you read the novel?  How does it compare?  Some have argued that this is the definitive adaptation- do you agree?  What will you watch on your Sunday nights now? Let me know!