I’ve not blogged for a bit because I’ve been immersed in re-writing my Irish satirical Sci-Fi novel. You remember the one? Of course you do… oh well if you don’t, here’s a link to Compound 19: Don’t hold your breath – it’s not got to the editor yet, so it’ll be a while before it’s available.

With my nearest and dearest back in the Land of The One Pound Pint for a couple of weeks, I’m under instruction to live “like a monk,” so I have plenty of time on my hands to watch a spot of telly.

If you read my last blog, you’ll know that I didn’t like the series Berlin much. In fact I didn’t like it at all. It was so forgettable that I can’t even remember what it was about now.

So, I thought I’d share one that I really did like.

Slow Horses, the first in a five-book series of darkly humorous spy-thrillers by novelist Mark Herron, has been brought to life on the screen in an eight-episode Apple production.

The narrative is set around a group of dysfunctional James Bond wannabes, ejected from MI5 HQ – Regent’s Park – where the real spooks operate. They spend their days corralled in the bowels of a fetid and damp Slough House, desk-bound and forever obligated to count paperclips or sift pointlessly through bags of rubbish, under the supervision of the seedy, alcoholic, and frequently flatulent Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman).

Their misdemeanours range from careless inefficiency (leaving a top-secret disk on the train) to “crashing” Stansted airport.

Some are resigned to their fate, others are not. But when British-Pakistani student Hassan Ahmed (Antonio Aakeel) is kidnapped by the far-right group Sons of Albion, who announce they will behead him on livestream at sunrise the following morning, there is a sense, in the bowels of Slough House, that this presents the sliver of an opportunity for redemption.

If you read and enjoyed the novel, you’ll love the series

Lamb is quick to snuff this aspiration out: “You’re going to do what you’re best at… absolutely nothing. Now get back to your desks and get on with it.”

But when a former Slow Horse – Jed Moody, banished from The Park for sleeping with the Venezuelan ambassador’s wife while on protection duty – turns up dead in Slough House, it becomes clear to even the slowest of the Slow Horses, that there are other sinister forces behind Ahmed’s abduction.

Lamb and his merry bunch of disgraced misfits find themselves enmeshed in the race to find and save Ahmed, if for no better reason than to save their own arses. Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) the Deputy Director General of MI5, makes it abundantly clear to Lamb that blame for a covert operation gone west will be squarely pinned upon his bunglers.

Slow Horses is a wonderful, cleverly constructed blend of fast-paced narrative, pithy dialogue peppered with interchanges worth rewinding and giving a second airing, and a solid old-school spy-thriller. Yes, the characters are cliched, and Herron didn’t re-invent the wheel with this one; but he needed to in the way Chris Martin had to reinvent the four-chord song. Spy thrillers that thrill must follow the well-trodden path of classic genre (think John le Carré here) and while Slow Horses strays into the long grass on occasions with the bleakest of dark humour, this serves to enhance rather than to confuse or diminish.

“Zippy, mordant, a little silly, bracingly violent in places, and extremely British in its celebration of irascibility, rainy London streets, geopolitical decline, and governing class contemptibility.”

Taylor Antrim, writing for Vogue
Jackson Lamb – cooler than James Bond… with or without an ice cream?

The humour is mainly in the dialogue. “Bringing you up to speed is like trying to explain Norway to a dog,” Lamb tells his team. But there is also situational comedy: Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns) and Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar) chasing the bad guys in a car in which it’s impossible to turn Coldplay off on the stereo. Nightmare.

If Slow Horses has a flaw it is perhaps that some of the characters are somewhat underdeveloped and two-dimensional. It’s not difficult to imagine Harper leaving a top-secret disk on the train; less credible is how he ever got admitted to The Park in the first place.

Oldman’s performance as Lamb is captivating, and leaves you pondering how much he really cares about his team. Is his hatred of losing stronger than his desire to get shot of the group of duds he’s fated to babysit until his pension kicks in, or until his lifestyle kicks him into a moderately early grave? As a former Cold War field operative – or “Joe”– he knows the inside of a Stasi interrogation holding unit better than he knows how to restrain the grumbling of his guts after a Phaal Curry. Revolting as he likes to present himself, there’s just something about him which suggests some residue of humanity.

I watched the entire show in two nights, and it was so absorbing that I’ll be watching the second season, Dead Lions, tonight.

And I might even have a chicken vindaloo first to get into the mood.

Care to share?
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2 Responses to SLOW HORSES

  1. Stewart says:

    Whereabouts in Regents Park?

    I live near there – know the SAS once used barracks on the east side, but not aware of spooks in the area…


    • Richard Grainger says:

      It’s not in Regents Park. The fictional HQ is called “Regent’s Park” (or The Park). Dosen’t detail where it is situated, but Slough House is close to the Barbican and Smithfield market.

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