How thriller writers must miss the Cold War! Early John le Carré and Len Deighton had it easy when trying to create a convincingly menacing enemy: the Soviets, obviously. But their successors are forced to go through all manner of desperate contortions to generate their bad guy McGuffin. They can’t do Muslims because that’s Islamophobic; they can’t do the Chinese because the entertainment industry (like everywhere) is too in thrall to the CCP. So they end up promoting paper tigers like ‘right-wing extremism’, as Mick Herron does in the first of his Slow Horses series.
Herron has been rightly hailed as the new Le Carré. His black-comedy novels about a scuzzy sub-branch of MI5 at a decrepit east London outpost called Slough House create a universe at least as plausible, vivid and involving as Le Carré’s Circus. And now Apple TV+ has done him proud with perhaps the most rounded, best-acted old-school TV spy drama since Smiley’s People. Such a pity about those implausible baddies.
I was hoping to be able to let Herron off the hook. Maybe, I thought, he’d done it through gritted teeth in order to slip his bleak, cynical and – I’d fondly hoped – apolitical texts under the radar of the now relentlessly woke publishing industry. But no: I learn from a recent interview that his first publisher, Constable, was ‘unconvinced by the theme, about a resurgent far right’, and that Herron is indignant about this. Plus, he thinks Brexit is a ‘disaster’, he has a chip on his shoulder about his time reading English at Balliol in the same period as Boris Johnson (‘the very sight and sound of someone like that was anathema to me’) and he appears to have nothing to say about any of the most pressing geopolitical issues of our era.
But never mind. At least he can create memorable characters, such as Slough House’s resident chief sleazebag, the drunken, jaded, flatulent Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) and his cruelly put-upon underling, the keen-as-mustard River Cartwright (Jack Lowden).
Cartwright, who reminds me rather of Simon Pegg’s Nick Angel in the classic police spoof Hot Fuzz, is desperate to redeem himself after an unfortunate incident shown in the drama’s opening sequence. A terrorist is about to blow himself up at the airport and Cartwright, being fed information through an earpiece at the MI5 control centre by his ice-cold head of operations Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her slippery underling James ‘Spider’ Webb (Freddie Fox), nobbles the wrong man. Dozens die as a result of his error.
Actually, it was only a training exercise, we later learn. (Of course! Perish the thought that any viewer should imagine there were such a thing as real Islamist suicide bombers.) Nonetheless, as a punishment, Cartwright must be consigned to purgatory in Slough House, performing menial tasks such as rifling through the bin bags of nobodies vaguely associated with ‘far-right extremists’ like Peter Judd MP (Samuel West).
You might wonder whether there’s really such a thing as a ‘far-right’ MP in Westminster. Even centre right ones seem pretty thin on the ground. My guess – given the Brexit comment – that the character was created as a subtle-as-a-dead-horse dig at Nigel Farage. Whatever, we’re invited to believe that Judd has inspired a far-right group called Sons of Albion to capture a perfectly innocuous student called Hassan Ahmed whom they are planning to behead live on the internet.
Quite where it goes next I don’t much mind. Slow Horses is something you enjoy for the atmosphere rather than the plot. I love the scene, for example, where Cartwright has to deliver a message to his former, much more glamorous HQ in Regent’s Park and we share his irritation and humiliation: the receptionist hasn’t heard of his department, won’t let him into the building without an escort, and there’s smug, too-handsome-for-his-own-good ‘Spider’ Webb, whose mistake was responsible for Cartwright’s demotion, swanning around in his own fancy office. This isn’t really about spying; it’s about perennial life miseries like frustrated ambition, wronged decency, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes.
It’s so good that you can easily ignore the irksome politics. Everywhere you look, there are well-known actors at the top of their game – Jonathan Pryce, for example, as the ex-intelligence-services guru grandfather – and relative newcomers, like Olivia Cooke as Sidonie ‘Sid’ Baker, the supremely competent agent unaccountably assigned to this team of losers, winning your instant affection and admiration. James Hawes directs the first episode in exactly the right way: downbeat, sardonic, reminiscent of the Ipcress File, the 1965 movie version rather than the glossified and too slickly nostalgic TV update. There’s even a rather good theme song by Mick Jagger.
It’s the kind of drama series that the BBC hasn’t been capable of making since the 1980s. If it were, it would still be worth the licence fee.
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