This is Britain, but not as you know it. Nazi flags are draped off buildings throughout the city of London. German soldiers are seen driving through the streets, imposing a sense of militaristic rule. This is the Britain of rewritten history books – an alternate reality drama that posits the idea that Britain fell to the Nazis during the Second World War.
SS-GB is a new six-part TV series based on the 1978 Len Deighton book of the same name. It stars Sam Riley (Control, On The Road) and Kate Bosworth (Beyond The Sea, Blue Crush, Superman Returns) in a story that will have you considering all the choices made that set history on the path it ultimately took.
A new status quo
As the series starts, we are dropped into London 14 months after the Battle of Britain. It's just long enough for life to have settled into a new pace, but not so long that the spirit of resistance has ceased bubbling away at the edges of society.
SS-GB isn't just about the takeover of London; rather it is a meaty murder mystery that uses the high-concept alternate reality of the Nazi occupation of London as a backdrop. Leading the investigation into the murder is Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer, a Scotland Yard detective who, like many people in London, are simply trying to get on with life and stay out of trouble.
Archer is determined to avoid involvement in any political activity, which isn't really possible, try as he might. It appears his efforts to keep his head down are challenged at every turn. His lover is revealed to be part of the resistance, while his work challenges him when a routine murder investigation uncovers a political assassination. Archer is also saddled with his boss, a senior officer from the SS.
Over the six-episode run of the series, SS-GB paints a confronting image of a post-war Britain in which the enemy won. The most distressing aspect of it is just how normal the new reality of London looks and feels. It is incredibly easy for the audience, drawn completely into the world of SS-GB, to start asking themselves about how they would behave in this alternate world.
The question at the core of the show
Throughout SS-GB, you will be asking yourself the same question over and over again: what would you do in Archer's situation? This is a man who continues to make excuses for the world around him to avoid having to get involved in the world around him. Archer lost his wife to the war and isn't prepared to sacrifice another part of his life to the extreme situation that has engulfed the world.
By protecting the status quo as best he can, Archer is making compromises left and right – but are his actions just? There is the well-worn Edmund Burke quote: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Archer is a good man, but how much longer can he continue to keep his head down and do nothing?
Archer is repeatedly placed in situations where he knows he should speak up or act out, but when or how can he do it when his life's on the line? What would you do?
What the critics said
"SS-GB was bold, brave and largely carried by the excellent Sam Riley, who is surely the coolest Fedora-hat-wearer since Humphrey Bogart."
– Claudia Connell, The Daily Mail (UK)
"There is something about the story that eerily resonates with the current world situation of political uncertainty and uneasiness. Strikingly, the story opens during German–Soviet friendship week, after peace has been made with the Soviet Union. Raising moral questions about resistance to tyranny, this is one fantasy with a serendipitously topical side."
– Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reporter
"It’s a handsomely noir police procedural, as Len Deighton intended. And, so far, despite my brain reeling with so many subfusc wartime retro-dramas, it’s the best of the bunch."
– Euan Ferguson, The Guardian
"There is a lot of material from the novel to pack into five one-hour episodes, but nothing feels rushed. Refreshingly, the drama is also intelligent and nuanced."
– Eleanor Bley Griffiths, Radio Times
Watch SS-GB on Thursdays at 10:30pm on SBS. After they air, episodes will stream at SBS On Demand: