Former James Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade discuss their work adapting Len Deighton’s iconic alternate history novel SS-GB which takes place in a world where the Germans won the Battle Of Britain and now occupy the UK.
Why is the idea of alternate history so intriguing?
RW: Because it constantly makes you think: “What would I have done?” 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.
In SS-GB, the British are living through the Occupation. The game is still not over. History is alive – and that’s what’s particularly clever about this story. It’s very important that we talk about this stuff. It’s become part of our mythology that we stood alone. We did, but it was a very close run thing.
What do you think viewers will find especially fascinating about this story?
NP: It has a compelling moral dilemma at its heart. To what extent is our hero collaborating with the Nazis as he is helping to run the occupied country? Since the SS run Scotland Yard, is Archer in fact working for the SS? Is he fooling himself? These questions are really gripping.
RW: The Germans have won. They’re enjoying the spoils of war, and Britain is full of good things to loot. But because they are the victors, there can be infighting. They have no enemy, so they start fighting themselves. Archer is in the middle of all that. It is a very rich dramatic situation.
Will it also send a chill down viewers’ spines?
NP: Definitely. Seeing Lars Eidinger, who plays SS officer Standartenführer Oskar Huth, coming into a church to arrest someone – that was properly scary. Watching a man in an SS outfit with that distinctive long leather coat really brings it home. Even though we know they’re actors and are just pretending, just seeing a high-ranking SS officer inside a British church is really chilling.
What could have changed history?
RW: We could have lost the Battle of Britain if the weather had been different. In fact, it was miraculous that we won that battle. Britain was alone at that period. America wasn’t involved. They were looking the other way. It was before Pearl Harbour. Winston Churchill’s great objective was to bring the Americans into the war, but for a long time he couldn’t do it. In 1941, Churchill wasn’t popular, although he’s been borne out by history. So SS-GB has a sophisticated plot because as well as concentrating on a murder, it’s also about how we got the Americans to commit to the war.
Were you pleased with the casting of Sam Riley as Archer?
NP: Absolutely. We loved the idea of him in the role. We wanted a film actor, and this is Sam’s first TV role. Not to denigrate TV actors, but the casting of Sam has given it more oomph. It also helps a great deal that Sam lives in Berlin and can speak German.
The character of Archer is particularly interesting, isn’t he?
RW: Yes. 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.
Tell us about the role of Barbara Barga, played by Kate Bosworth.
NP: She’s one of the very few Americans in the drama. She’s an American journalist who has just arrived in London on the inaugural Lufthansa flight from New York.
She might be working for the Resistance or spying for the Germans. She’s very attractive to Archer, and there is an intriguing dance between them. He’s trying to figure out what her involvement in the murder is. She’s a satisfyingly complicated character.
It’s like film noir. She’s the femme fatale and Archer is the Sam Spade character working his way through the shadows and clouds of smoke.
How did you go about adapting the book?
RW: We approached it in the way that we approach movies – the design is the producers’ problem!
We wrote it on as big scale as we could and let other people tell us that we couldn’t do it! Also, Len Deighton’s dialogue is great and his characters are superb.
There is a lot of humour, but he also really knows his stuff. He does very detailed research and has always got something new to tell you.
Why have you never done TV before?
NP: We’ve been approached by TV a lot, but we’ve always said no. And this is the first time we’ve agreed because the thriller is a genre we feel very comfortable with. Also, Len Deighton is a great writer. We love The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. SS-GB is very definitely five-hour-able!
I believe that you met Len Deighton for lunch. What was that like?
RW: We were nervous beforehand 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.
Did you try to get Len Deighton to perform a cameo in SS-GB?
NP: Yes. It’s Len Deighton’s hands in The Ipcress File breaking eggs. We really wanted his hands in this, but unfortunately we didn’t have an egg-breaking scene! Perhaps we could have his hands making ersatz tea instead!
Why do you think this story works so well in the TV format?
RW: The key thing is that because it is on TV, it will be broadcast into people’s living rooms. But perhaps you will also be able to picture yourself in the same situation as the characters in SS-GB, who have to compromise and pick up the pieces after the Occupation. The French had to face that, but we never did. Also, it’s our first TV drama. Having a large canvas is great. It allows us to tell the story with lots of twists and turns and subtle elements over five hours. It gives us the freedom that we don’t have over the course of a two-hour movie.
NP: A one-and-a-half-hour movie wouldn’t have done this story justice. It’s so sophisticated and complex. We now view it as a five-hour movie. Also, we have a great relationship with the production company Sid Gentle. The BBC has been really good, too.
What do you hope audiences will take away from watching SS-GB?
NP: Hopefully the entire family will sit down and watch it together. It is entertainment, but at the same time, it throws up some seriously thought provoking aspects.
Why does your writing partnership function so well?
RW: It’s great to have a sounding board. Writing on your own, you’re never sure if something is rubbish or good. But by now, we can tell each other honestly what we think. Four eyes are better than two. Six would be too many!
NP: We’ve written together for a very, very long time. There’s more to it than just writing. It can be a pressurised situation, so having two people to deal with it is good. It gets the job done more efficiently to be able to discuss things together. When things are going well, you can go down the pub together. And when things are going badly, you can go down the pub together!
Starring Sam Riley and Kate Bosworth, the series launches on BBC One on February 19th.