There’s a new ‘alternative history’ drama hitting TV this week, and it’s set to give The Man in the High Castle a run for its money. SS-GB screens on BBC1 in the UK this Sunday (there’s no word on an American air-date yet) and like its Amazon counterpart, is set in a world where Germany won WWII.
Based on the book of the same name by Len Deighton, the show is written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – the dynamic duo responsible for Casino Royale, Skyfall and SPECTRE – and is both intriguing murder-mystery and chilling account of what life would be like under Nazi rule.
We’ve seen the first episode and were gripped from the off. So the following is a spoiler-free preview of what to expect, and how it compares to the aforementioned and similarly themed Man in the High Castle.
Based on the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle is set in America in 1962. But it’s a very different America to the one we know. The Axis powers won WWII, and the U.S. has been divided into three territories – the Greater Nazi Reich in the east, the Japanese Pacific States in the west, and the Neutral Zone splitting them in the middle.
Where that show deals with the aftermath of an Allied defeat, SS-GB is set slap-bang in the middle of the action. The show opens in London on November 14, 1941 – 14 months after Germany won the Battle of Britain. The ‘United Kingdom’ is therefore anything but, with the capital under Nazi rule, the SS overseeing the police force, and the ‘Department of Illegals’ weeding out undesirables.
The twisted appeal of both shows is in seeing wholly alien versions of America and England onscreen. In the High Castle pilot there are brown-shirts on the street, swastikas in Times Square, and an ageing Adolf Hitler on television. The Bible is banned, while the country celebrates VA Day – Victory in America Day.
SS-GB features Nazi flags draped over London landmarks while the Luftwaffe fly overhead; a Luftwaffe that is doubtless the reason Buckingham Palace is now a crumbling wreck. Rationing and curfews are in place, while an underground Resistance continues to fight the good fight.
In both instances, it’s a deeply disturbing vision of what was very nearly reality.
The mystery at the heart of Man in the High Castle is a film entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It features newsreel footage of the Allies winning the war, suggesting that there might be some alternate reality to the one the characters are living through, and giving proceedings something of a sci-fi spin.
SS-GB is a little more grounded, revolving around a seemingly straightforward murder-mystery. A man has been killed in a room above an antiques shop in Shepherd’s Market; shot twice in the chest. There’s something strange about his eyes, which look like they’ve been damaged by the glare from magnesium shells.
Clues include a railway ticket, petrol coupons, an expensive cigar, and scraps of burnt paper by the fire. A beautiful American woman is seen heading in the direction of the crime scene before hurrying away. And the SS are suddenly taking an interest, suggesting that the case is far from simple.
With Man in the High Castle 20 episodes in, we reckon you’ve probably got a handle on those characters by now. So the following are the main players in SS-GB.
Played by Sam Riley – of Control, Maleficent and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies fame – Douglas Archer is a police officer working for the German authorities. A Detective Superintendent, Douglas apprehended a serial killer before WWII, earning himself the nickname ‘Archer of the Yard’.
His wife died during the war, while he has a young son. “He is not a Nazi” Riley tells the BBC. “But neither is he willing to join the Resistance. He’s happy to keep his job. He thinks there has to be law and order or things will fall apart. If he’s not there to do it, then who will?”
Barbara Barga is an American journalist who works for the New York Times. She’s been sent to London to cover the Nazi Occupation, and is the aforementioned woman seen hurrying away from the crime scene at the start of Episode 1.
Barga played by Kate Bosworth – best known as Lois Lane in Superman Returns – and the show’s writers say they see her as something of a femme fatale to Archer’s Sam Spade-like character. Bosworth concurs, saying, “It’s a little bit ambiguous as to what side of the line she stands.”
Harry Woods is Archer’s world-weary partner, and played by James Cosmo, who starred in the likes of Braveheart, Trainspotting and Troy, and recently made the news by reaching the final of Celebrity Big Brother in the UK.
Cosmo says, “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.”
Sylvia – played by Maeve Dermody – works in Archer’s office, and early in proceedings, it’s clear they are more than just colleagues. It’s also clear that there’s much more to Sylvia than meets the eye.
“Sylvia’s motivation is deliberately hazy,” Dermody tells the BBC. “She works in the moment. She’s fiery, impulsive and confused. She improvises a lot of the time. The 1940s were full of ingenuity. It was a time of great invention. In the end, she is given a task that matches her will and motivation.”
SS-GB is on BBC1 at 9pm this Sunday (February 17), while there’s no word yet on a U.S. air-date. The Man in the High Castle is currently streaming on Amazon.