Saturday 25 March 2017

SS-GB: The occupation of the UK. Mainly by HBO.

Having last written about the difficulty of finding a shared entertainment experience, even about something such as Game of Thrones, the most watched TV show in the world, I want to look at something that maybe no one else saw. So this may be doomed from the outset.

BBC1 recently concluded its 5 part Sunday night drama SS-GB. Based on the superb book by Len Deighton. Its the tale of Britain losing the second world war after Dunkirk. The Nazis invasion of 1940 succeeds and they occupy most of the UK. 

The adapters for the BBC decided to use a very large chunk of the original dialogue. Good move. It has some superb lines. They stuck very closely to the original plot which revolves around a murder. The Atomic bomb and a plot to free the King from the huns and fly him to Canada.

The acting was good. The sexy scenes sexy enough. The violence gory enough. Len Deighton often wrote his books in the Shakespearean fashion of having the action of stage. So a good fit for a TV series. All in all, and bearing in mind this is one of my top ten desert island books being translated to TV, I thought it a decent 7/10 affair.

However, as someone who recently got Netflix and baby Sky {Now TV} something was quickly apparent. The BBC don't have the budget for big drama anymore. They have well and truly been eclipsed by the others. 

Bearing in mind this was a showpiece, it clearly suffered from cash limitations. See those props of anti-tank obstacles above? They were in almost every outside scene. Along with more substantial concrete blocks. Those 'Czech hedgehogs' were for stopping tanks from making a breakthrough and blocking streets. Despite being cheap to manufacture from any old metal, they weren't the just plopped around any old how. The picture above is of a POW camp. Why would that have anti-tank obstacles? Who has tanks in occupied Britain to threaten the Germans? But enough of the history nerd. The point is they kept appearing and I guess that was because that was what they had bought to look Nazified.

The interiors were great. Usual top notch BBC period. But almost every time someone looked out of a window, they would describe what they saw. There was no view for us. No money to film what was being seen. all the curtains were closed. Occupied Britain would have had a curfew.  But the blackout would have been over. Yet the streets were dark. Again, the limitations of budget requiring close in narrow focus shots. And the closed curtain interiors.

In one chilling scene in the book the SS arrest all the teachers and elder boys at a school. They are loaded into army trucks and driven away. This was in the TV show too. But only the inside scene where the SS officer orders their arrest for questioning. No exterior of old men, women and children being loaded up for God knows what fate. This wouldn't matter too much. If The Others weren't piling in with extravagance. result for SS commander Huth's centre of operations. result for house of cards inauguration

The Crown, top left, is THE most expensive TV show ever made. I've only seen one episode but it is classy. Just look at that scene. The whole show is like that. Underneath is game of Thrones. Just a still from nothing very much. Its not a CGI. Not a centerpiece battle episode. Its just some castle they film at with extras. But its still impressive.  It looks as it should. GOT costs around $10 million an episode for the last season. HBO's other big block buster, Westworld, had a similar budget.
Doctor Who, the flagship BBC drama, costs around $800,000 an episode.

Bottom right is the inauguration scene from House of cards. Maybe a fairer comparison as that is largely an internally shot political drama. This is not when Spacey becomes Prez. The other chump does. his inauguration is full on. Could be taken straight from the Trump one. 
And there is SS-GB. This IS the main scene. Highgate cemetery and USSR-Nazi friendship ceremony. 

Its not a bad scene at all. And there are many more people and soldiers and such in other shots. But this is fairly representative. The actor in the centre is the Gestapo chief of the UK. He has no aides. No guards. There is one sentry. A Nazi flag and that's it.
This is supposed to be the returning of Karl Marx to the Germans current allies, the USSR. Just imagine what a propaganda spectacle that would have been. From both regimes.
in the scene where Heinrich Himmler turns up, he's walking around in a warehouse. Then he leaves by car. 
Himmler wasn't Heydrich. He traveled in his own train. With a Presidential convoy amount of SS trucks and cars following him around wherever he went.

Viewers complained about the sound. The mumbling. The Eastenders style of breathy, menacing acting. 'Leaf it art!" 
 I just thought it lacked the budget to make it convincing in the way the BBC's competitors now routinely do. One scene where  the main cop needs a film secretly developed is handled entirely through dialogue and requires a second scene to explain itself. Better to have had him visit the developer's studio. It would have been obvious what he was doing then. But ... Budget ?

The skill of Downton Abbey was, regardless whether it actually was or not, it looked exactly as authentic as you imagined the period would look. 
As did Boardwalk Empire. And the Rome series. And the Tudors. 

Wolf Hall,  the 2015 great BBC hope looked really good. It had a strong cast and loads of actors and used plenty of the UK's numerous Tudor buildings to good effect. A huge critical success. Not so much an audience one as it slumped in the ratings pretty quickly. It was dark to the point of blackness when shot in candle light. And as mumbly as ever.  It can't just look good. It has to be good too. 
Can't help thinking the Beeb are using these 'authentic issues', candle lit rooms and sleepy voices, not actor projection oratory, to try and disguise a lack of money. Realism over Hollywood excess.

So, how can the BBC compete with the big budget, big ratings shows from other broadcasters? Should it even bother? Should it just buy them in? The BBC aired the Tudors which was a Canadian venture. It didn't commission it. Call the Midwife is a hit for the BBC and its global sales. Should it stick to that sort of easy period drama? The guts of it coming from the period charm mix with social realism 
{I had to pinch that from the Guardian. I've never seen it!}

Personally I thought SS-GB a perfect fit for the BBc's budget limitations. 

Its set in the UK. It requires period British actors. It's WW2, which is relatively easy to do. It doesn't need much CGI. There aren't many really expensive scenes to make. The rivalry between SS, SD, Gestapo and Army of occupation is great for intrigue. The Americans have a main role. Perfect for selling the show overseas and attracting US money. And its a police, crime, spy, love story. Ticks so many boxes for Sunday TV.

But I feel it needed quite a bit more cash and a bit more thought into making London look like we imagine occupied London would look would have made it great.
Instead of just good enough.


dustybloke said...

I think Deighton himself thought it was one of his weaker stories. Generally, his books are terrifically well paced, but this one is a bit fits and starts. Probably enough has already been said about the appalling voice acting and the wretched audio. Suffice it to say my 2016 Dolby 7.1 system didn't enable me to hear more than 20% of the dialogue.

I always think a mini series needs excellent actors. The other series you've quoted can get away with merely good actors as the viewers have time to develop them in their own minds over a longer period.

Overall, I suspect the BBC has forgotten how to do this stuff. It lakes a different set of technical skills to capture the allure of a sponge cake.

Electro-Kevin said...

"Listen carefully - I shall *visper* zis only vunce."

Which is why I switched off halfway through the first episoded and never went back. I am sick of self-important actors attempting gravitas and failing to project whilst doing so. "Ah. But what I do is of such genius that the onus is on you to make the effort to listen."

Nick Drew said...

they did Night Manager justice, IMHO

then again, Close to the Enemy was rubbish

Y Ddraig Goch said...

"I suspect the BBC has forgotten how to do this stuff."

Have they forgotten, or do they now have other priorities? I've lost count of
the number of times I hear about hundreds of BBC staff at Davos, or some
climate change conference or Glastonbury or ... All the cash that went into
those jollies could otherwise have gone into program production. Plus, of
course, there is always the primary requirement to enforce political correctness -
padding the production team with the correct proportions of BBC-approved
demographic groups - regardless of competence or contribution.

People like Netflix have to appeal to an audience, but the BBC is just
spending other peoples' money on metropolitan-lefty vanity projects.

Steven_L said...

Night Manager was gripping and good to watch. SS-GB was rather dull, it went off after 3 weeks.

They've had a lot of women's fiction on recently about people being abducted and sexually abused etc. I dunno why they like it so much but a quick look at any airport paperback stand confirms they sure as hell do. I found the girls stuff a bit tedious but the other half was hooked.

This Nazi war stuff is boys drama really, so it needs a lot more excitement and action if you ask me.

Nick Drew said...

women's fiction on recently about people being abducted and sexually abused etc. I dunno why they like it so much but a quick look at any airport paperback stand confirms they sure as hell do

SL - the whole business of ghastly crime stuff being written by and for women (if Val McDirmid counts) is Very Odd. What would a feminist say? Yentob had an hour on this stuff recently, but didn't dare to ask the obvious qns.

there we go - crap BBC programmes again!

Bill Quango MP said...

John Miller. - Len didn't think this was his best work. But the characters were some of his best.
People I know stopped watching quite early on. Too dark and too slow and too quiet. Mrs Q loved it though.
It was interesting that the reviews for the vest actors were for the Germans. Huth and Kellerman. Though to be fair, those were the best roles.

I fancied City of Gold would be a good drama. But, as outlined, I suspect well beyond the BBc's budget to really do justice with.

Do you think these constant sound issues are an attempt to carve the BBc a realism niche?

E-K - there are many reviews complaining of the sound. One TV journo said she watched the whole thing with the subtitles on and it was much better.

As an adaption it was very faithful to the original and the changes were either for increased drama, building a bigger role for a lesser character or a bit more action.
But not enough for to keep you hooked.

I recall the first episode of Downton Abbey I saw, it was on the final episode on TV already, I bought the boxset immediately next day. Showed it to Mrs Q and said 'This is terrific.'

Steven_L said...

What would a feminist say?

I guess it depends what you mean by a 'feminist'? Do you mean one of these stereotypical generation wuss types that goes around campus talking about 'rape' a lot? You wouldn't need three guesses to suss what they go to bed and fantasise about.

I guess we all 'daydream' and have non-sexual fantasies, I know I do about work, hobbies, holidays and the like. I reckon women must just either like daydreaming about being kidnapped, abused and murdered or they must like fantasising about being CID officers. But I doubt it's a sexual thing in the way a man would relate to arousal. They are strange emotional creatures we simply don't understand.

Bill Quango MP said...

Y Ddraig Goch - Might be something in that. The BBC had all kinds of problems with Top Gear and Dr Who. Which might be that they didn't shower them with all the love that they required.
We all know that punching out a co-worker is a sacking offence. The BBC tried hard to find a way through. But if the aggrieved won't accept apologies and compo, out the guilty go.
But surely some of that whole Top Gear problem was the BBC treating those 'mavericks' {by bbc standards} the same as a countryfile celeb presenter.
They aren't. And they weren't even then.

ND: Did you watch any of Ss-Gb? It was decent enough.
Women have long bought and read books much more than men.

Steven_L Some of the changes that could have increased the acyion would have been to feature the british resistance in a more traditional 'French resistance ' way. Make that a sub plot.
They did. But it was quite a dull one about Archer's former Jewish lover.
And sticking with the dodgy ambulance plot-line for the King. That's a hangover from the book and didn't need to be in there at all. especially when they tacked on a flat tire to get some shooting {film and guns} in at a farm.

dearieme said...

The mumbling is beyond a joke. Here's a useful comparison: the commentary on football matches is always easily heard even above the hubbub from the crowd, and even though the commentator and commentator's mate have no drama training. Yet luvvies, for all their training in Voice Projection, Laddy, can't make themselves comprehensible. Pabloodythetic. Shoot the ruddy lot of 'em.

Nick Drew said...

Did you watch any of Ss-Gb?

first episode only - & wasn't gripped by any aspect

having had my time wasted by Close to the Enemy (despite several truly ridiculous sub-plots* I was sure there was going to be a good twist at the end - but it was a very lame twist indeed)

OK I shouldn't have given Poliakoff the benefit of the doubt but I did; so there was none going spare for Deighton

When you know you can get series like Night Manager or Homeland#1 which grip you from the start, well, that sets the standard
** e.g. uniformed Blackshirts running around the Home Counties knifing people in 1946 / the head of British aviation research being a black woman etc etc

Y Ddraig Goch said...

"the head of British aviation research being a black woman"

I guess that's to be expected from writers that know every detail of Mary Seacole's
life yet have never heard of Frank Whittle.

Wildgoose said...

In the spirit of showing up the BBC for their continual Politically-Correct amateurishness, may I recommend people watch "It Happened Here".

For those who don't know, this is a film about the German Occupation of England made over a period of 8 years and started by the film-makers when they were just teenagers.

A professional film made by genuine amateurs which was made controversial (and certainly not Politically Correct) by the inclusion of footage of genuine (and apparently unapologetic) British fascists.


Anonymous said...

excellent and to my mind disturbing film.Highly recommended.
I also read SSGB many moons ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.
As to BBC output, whatever it is I don't watch or listen.

Electro-Kevin said...

I'm offended by BBC output too. It's not simply that it's PC - it's that it assumes that I am not.

I am a million miles from being my father yet that is not good enough - and so the vice gets turned tighter.

Having been a police officer I have long been sick of police drama (which, unfortunately, make up most of their shows.)

Since The Bill there has been nothing for real coppers to watch (and how we did watch that in the Section House TV lounge.)

I hate the way ordinary police officers are shown as bigoted idiots and spoken to like children, I am fed up with sternly correct female leads and their withering contempt of their 'incompetent' male colleagues - the identikit Politically Correct casting... it goes on.

HBO doesn't just have the budget it has the freedom to be 'incorrect'. Note how it makes use of so many British actors too - freed from their shackles to play exciting roles, perhaps.

HBO is refreshing and liberated. The BBC stifles free thought and is politically nepotistic. Its drama tries to brainwash minds and its news tries to set agendas.

I'm also fed up with their version of '80s music on R2. The only stuff allowed is Queen or anything that was played in a disco. That's not how I recall the 80s at all.

Electro-Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Electro-Kevin said...

Line of Duty

Sternly correct interracial female Ch Insp (single mum career break) with mild and considerate young female understudy (future series p'raps) - white, ignorant, middle aged cop trying to shaft her over and cause a miscarriage of justic... yaaaawn.

Electro-Kevin said...

OMG - it gets worse... now he's going to saw her up !

What utter bollocks.

Anomalous Cowshed said...

Hmm. I certainly enjoyed SS-GB, and I think the other half did as well, sort of.

No problems with the sound; only had to turn it up to hear it over the dog gnawing a bone somewhat enthusiastically. I suspect that if there is a problem sound-wise, it's probably got more to do with modern TV speakers and virtualised surround set-ups. I certainly find that there is a problem with sound levels when switching between various sources - iPlayer via NowTV seems to have a consistently different level from the NowTV output, as do different channels on Freeview.

Not too fussed about the apparent budget issues either; as you say, the general structure is ideal Sunday night drama.

But; there was a serious problem with it; the whole damn characterisation thing proceeded pretty much via info-dump. Archer's apparent ambivalence is explained in a single scene; talking to the two boys in the car about respecting the law so that things return to normal when the Germans have gone home; we know that Harry is in the Resistance, because Sylvia tells Archer. Which is fine, but these points are never shown to cause conflicts for the characters. Harry (or Sylvia for that matter) are not actively shown to be choosing different actions accordingly. Archer just seems to wander into the whole situation by accident, depending on who spoke to him last.

The only real protagonist is Huth, and to a lesser degree, Kellerman, as they actively get to choose their own actions, and are shown doing so. Everyone else is merely reacting passively.

Bill Quango MP said...

Anomalous Cowshed:
Its a very tricky thing to do. Build in a character and motivations.
i feel the BBc made a mistake making Harry Woods and Archer's landlady too hostile to him. In the novel Archer and Woods had worked together for years and years.Woods isn't in the hardcore resistance. Just the local former Home Guard letting down army truck tires. The landlady has plenty of dialogue that explains what the public think of the police and Archer's reactions to it. But in all fairness very difficult to convey.

Kellerman also uses his charm to try and bind Archer and then uses his power to amiably force him to his side.

If you haven't read the book I cannot recommend it enough. Deep characters like Deighton's spoiled me as a teenager. Derek Robinson. Adam Hall. Stephen King. John Le Carre. Tom Wicker. Thomas Knelleay.

These geniuses ruined popular fiction for me.

Adam hall would have "I had cracked the side window down despite the cold. Condensation was forming on the inside of the windscreen. I left the snow on the car as it was good cover. But had made an eyehole with a gloved finger through to the windscreen and i could just see the hotel boot scraper. With this much snow and ice he would stop to use that before he went in."

When I read a Dan Brown "The Moscow snow was white" that's game over.

Anomalous Cowshed said...

BQ - Yes, I agree it's difficult; but surely not beyond the wit of a half-decent, experienced screen writer? I think YDG is spot on here - the BBC has forgotten how to do it.

I've not read the book (nor any Deighton at all, I think), but there was no real sense that Harry and Archer had been colleagues for years, apart from a single line about Archer being his protege, IIRC, and their relationship comes across as very officer/subordinate. The landlady was a real balls up; I kept thinking that there would be several chunks of dialogue to explain the situation that Archer finds himself in, but we got too many shots of him being moody while listening to jazz, she was reduced to "will I ever see my little Willy again?" and to add insult to injury, had to listen to Archer delivering his own little info-dump on the unoccupied zone and the POW camps.

Ho hum.

Bit unfair to compare anyone to Dan Brown; ISTR an essay on writing style by Michael Crichton, who wrote pretty much within the same "airport blockbuster" structure. Dan Brown's novels are good examples of how not to do it...