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Slow Horses Apple TV Review
Image: Apple TV

TV

Slow Horses: A Le Carre-Esque Thoroughbred Winner

Follows a team of British intelligence agents who serve as a dumping ground department of MI5 due to their career-ending mistakes.

I learned to write fiction from John le Carre.

I don’t mean that he was an actual teacher of mine.  We’d never met, we’d never had any communication with each other, and we were geographically separated by the world’s second biggest ocean.  Or, if you want to look in the other direction, we were the world’s biggest ocean and three continents apart.  My point is, well you get my drift – we never personally knew each other.

But I learned early on in what one might laughingly refer to as my “career” that the way you learn to write is to read good writing, and if you want to write genre stuff, read the best genre writers because what makes them the best is they don’t play by the unspoken but tacitly accepted genre rules which make so much genre work feel ritualistic.  To me, when it comes to espionage fiction or genre fiction in general, le Carre was, is, and always will be Hall of Fame-caliber.

I didn’t start reading him until the 1990s, even though I’d seen several film and TV works based on his fiction:  The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965), The Deadly Affair (1967 – based on his novel, Call for the Dead), and the two pieces that really hooked me, the 1979 miniseries of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its 1982 sequel, Smiley’s People.  At a certain point, I figured, “Jeez, I really owe this guy a read,and after the first novel of his I read – Tinker, Tailor – they were like potato chips, me gobbling down one after another.

Here’s what I learned from him as a writer:  no matter how extraordinary the circumstances, no matter how far from common experience the lives of your characters may be…they’re still people.  Human beings like the rest of us.  They love, they cheat, they squabble, they have petty ambitions, they screw up, and in this, they are recognizably – sometimes frightfully so – ordinary.

That was what struck me the most about all of le Carre’s work; that his ongoing portrait of MI 6, the British intelligence service, through novel after novel, was like that of any large, bureaucratic organization.  Whether it’s General Motors, or an agency charged with the security of a nation, they’re all prone to the same office politics, office backbiting, turf wars, petty egos and petty vindictiveness, personal ambitions, personal vices, office love affairs, office broken hearts…  In short, they’re as much a microcosm of the human condition as they are about espionage dirty tricks and stealing state secrets, and all that cool spy stuff (take my word on this; I worked corporate for almost thirty years and le Carre’s MI 6 was painfully recognizable).

What gave all this its authenticity and sense of truthfulness is that le Carre was in a position to know whereof he spoke…because le Carre – real name David Cornwell — had been a spy himself.  From 1958-1964, le Carre served in MI 5 and later MI 6.

The 1960s-1970s were a heyday for le Carre’s kind of spy writing.  Novels like Elleston Trevor’s The Berlin Memorandum (1965, adapted for the movies as The Quiller Memorandum [1966]), Noel Behn’s The Kremlin Letter (1966 and movie-ized in 1970), and especially Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer’s novels (The IPCRESS File [1962, adapted for film in 1965], Funeral in Berlin [1964, adapted 1966], and Billion Dollar Brain [1966/1967]) all shared, to one degree or another, something of le Carre’s sensibility.  Alan Burton, author of Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction, characterized that le Carre-esque vibe as “…a more insolent, disillusioned and cynical style…”

And that was the other aspect of le Carre’s work that impressed me:  that disillusionment and cynicism.  His spies, like any soldier who soldiers on too long, may prefer “our” side to “their” side, but becomes – often bitterly – aware, that the covert war between Us and Them was not one of Saints vs. Sinners.  TV critic Alan Sepinwall once described the British spy story of the 1960s as “…a melancholy account of the cynical standards of cold warriors.”  The spies of le Carre and Deighton et al fought a twilight war whose amorality wore them down, desensitized them, numbed them, and where, on the invisible front lines, they saw very little distinction between the character of either side.

Even before the 1960s were out, however, despite the enduring popularity of written le Carre and other authors who shared his flavor, on-screen their box office was dwarfed by the more spectacular, more incredible, and the moral clarity of the James Bonds, and that brand’s clones i.e. the Matt Helms, the Derek Flints, and a host of one-offs.  Even on the page, at a certain point, Tom Clancy was doing better business hijacking submarines and making war on drug cartels than the grubby little businesses of le Carre’s spies.

John le Carre’s particular brand of life-sized, morally muddy spying couldn’t hold a candle to gun-packed Aston-Martins, cigarette lighters with a bazillion functions, and all sorts of derring-do, even when carried out by Clancy’s all-American “just an analyst” Jack Ryan.  Think of Bond and Ryan and super-spy Jason Bourne and measure them against le Carre’s description of real-life spies in this self-disgusted tirade by Richard Burton’s two-faced, manipulative Leamas from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold:

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong? Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he is evil and my friend. London needs him. They need him so that the great, moronic masses you admire so much can sleep soundly in their flea-bitten beds again. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me….  

Ouch.

Gary Oldman, who played what is perhaps le Carre’s most iconic character – George Smiley — in the 2011 feature version of Tinker, Tailor, told The Los Angeles Times’ Emily Zemler about conversations he had with the author on whom he called regularly during filming for grounding in how real spywork worked:

I always remember I said, “So it’s not James Bond, what’s it like?”  And he said that there are long periods of boredom with nothing happening…  But he said the most terrifying (and) worst thing about being a spy was the paranoia, that one day you would hear the footsteps on the stairs that your cover was blown.  You don’t sleep very well.  I would imagine that is true, but I could see how attractive and how addicting that would be.

Oh, le Carre’s brand of covert creepiness has popped up now and then, sometimes in adaptations of his own work – The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Constant Gardener (2005), and that wonderful big-screen condensation of Tinker, Tailor – but they’ve often been relegated to the indie movie house circuit.  Attempts to go beyond that, well, it’s been mixed.  Ronin (1998) nicely tried to blend le Carre’s grit and moral ambiguity with the kind of action it seemed a new generation of audience demanded, but its box office plateaued early.  Other star-laden efforts like Spy Game (2001) and The Recruit (2003) seemed to suggest that, well, there’s no nice way to put this:  we didn’t know how to play le Carre’s game anymore.  Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) did decent box office ($96.1 million worldwide) but that was against an $80 million budget and did so by completely missing the point of the original (that point being not the nifty brainwashing plot but that our worst enemy is our own exploitable paranoias).  By the time we get well into the 2000s, say “spy movie” to someone and they’re probably going to think Bond, Bourne, Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise (with the first part of a two-part seventh installment coming next summer).  That’s what the spy movie is today:  massive threats, massive action, one-man-army-type spies.  It may be that with all those spectaculars taking up screen space, there’s simply not enough air on the big screen for something life-sized le Carre-esque to breathe.

But then there’s this other, smaller screen and that brings us to possibly the best filmed le Carre that le Carre never wrote:  Slow Horses.

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Image: Apple TV

Apple TV’s six-episode Slow Horses is based on the first of a series of novels by Mick Herron set in Slough House, a seedy building in a seedy part of London that acts as a sort of Botany Bay for MI 6’s cast-offs:  screw-ups, undesirables, and any agent who in some way has offended, displeased, or misstepped in the eyes of MI 6’s overlord, Taverner (played in the series by Kristin Scott Thomas).  Agents are sentenced to Slough House to live out their careers doing pointless work, quit, or redeem their way back into the agency’s good graces.  Presiding over Slough House is Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman) whom Herron describes as a “…former Cold War operative gone to seed.”  Slovenly, regularly knocking back tumblers of whisky, looking like he hasn’t changed clothes…well, ever, and that includes the holed socks in which he prefers to pad around his grubby office suite rather than shoes.

I’ve never read any of Herron’s books (a failing I hope to soon redress), but if there’s an heir to le Carre and the series truly reflects the character of the novels, it’s Herron.  Oldman has even said in Slow Horses interviews that Herron “…is such a fan of le Carre” and it shows in the dense insider’s lingo, the bureaucracy and hierarchies, and an organization rife with human foible and frailty:  self-interest, ambition, hubris, cynicism, self-interested cowardly betrayal, and here and there in the corners, a little love, a shred of moral obligation, and even a badly dented sense of honor.

The driving engine for the series is the kidnapping of UK-born Pakistani Hassan Ahmed (Antonio Aakeel) by right-wing radicals threatening to record their beheading of the poor guy protesting the diluting of the English race (where have I heard that song before?).  But typical of le Carre, nothing and nobody is what they seem, and from one episode to the next, director James Hawes and his writers (Morwenna Banks, Mark Denton, Will Smith, Jonny Stockwood) have us wondering who are really the pawns and who are really the masters…and are there times when some players are both?  In an era when so much mainstream entertainment follows predictable and satisfying courses, Hawes & Co. zig when we expect them to zag (and vice versa) and feel no obligation to leave things tidy in the end.  

But there’s more to Slow Horses (and this is also very much in the le Carre vein) than a labyrinthine maze of domestic spy work.  The series teases tauntingly about the human interconnections and guilts, especially the three-way web between Taverner, Lamb, and Lamb’s aide-de-camp, the brooding Standish (Saskia Reeves), all three connected to the fate some years before of Standish’s husband, dead of what she believes was a suicide…and maybe it was…or maybe it wasn’t.

The anchor of the series is Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb, and if you want a testament to why Oldman may be one of the finest screen actors of his generation, throw his Jackson Lamb up against his George Smiley (for good measure, throw in his Oscar-winning turn as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour [2011]).  Oldman totally inhabits these polar opposites:  Smiley — soft-spoken, reserved, quietly precise, and Lamb – loud, uncouth, abrasive, condescending, deriding and abusing his Slough House charges (constantly declaring them “…a bunch of fucking losers”) almost every time he opens his mouth.  Lamb, says Oldman, is “…a distant cousin to Smiley.  He’s Smiley just everything has gone wrong.”  But both share a brilliant, analytical mind that susses out truth, intuits connections between disparate hints and clues, calls out bullshit, and (although Lamb camouflages it quite well) a dedication to doing right.

Slow Horses Apple TV review
Image: Apple TV

Both also share a certain, subtle melancholy:  Smiley over the dissolution of his marriage, but Lamb…  Well, the series only gives us a glimpse of what may have gutted someone acknowledged to have been a hell of an operative in his time in its last episode.  Oldman gives us Lamb’s one moment of believable vulnerability as he explains to Standish that he’d wanted the Slough House post because he knew he couldn’t go back to being a civilian but wanted a place “…where no one gets hurt.”

I don’t know if it’s in Herron’s novels, but one thing the series gives us that le Carre usually lacks is a thick undercoating of a dark, often morbid humor.

Best example and my favorite moment.  The Slough House crew are on the run, set up by Taverner to take the fall for the operation she’s set in motion that’s gone (in Lamb’s words) “tits up.”  Lamb has his crew rendezvous in a London cemetery.  When they all meet up, he addresses them thusly:

Look, I don’t normally do these kinds of speeches, but this feels like a big moment, and if it all turns to shit, I might not see any of you again.  You’re fucking useless.  The lot of you.  Working with you has been the lowest point in a disappointing career.

Apple TV already has a second series of six eps shot based on Herron’s second Slough House novel, Dead Lions.  For a le Carre fan like me, who likes his heroes life-sized and with all the flaws that entails, although the original passed away in 2020, it’s something like a gift to see Herron, Hawes, Oldman and the rest of the Slough House bunch picking up the torch, and a bright torch it is.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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