“I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm,” an observation by Franklin D. Roosevelt came to mind when I was watching the first two episodes of Slow Horses. It is a new television series that debuted on Apple TV+ this past weekend.
Slow Horses is a spy-genre novel of the same name by Mick Herron, an author widely regarded as a worthy inheritor of the crown worn for decades by John Le Carre. There is a special reason why I like Herron, as pointed out in an earlier blog post.
If le Carre’s books gave you a glimpse into the art of spycraft from a professional, Herron does a great job of giving a contemporary feel to his books. This is a unique skill — we live in a society with an increasing attention deficit, and the recent past gives the book more relevance. This blurring of reality and imagination is quite a heady mix, so I can’t stop reading Herron’s books.
It all starts with Slow Horses. The novel and the series feature a motley crew of characters discarded by Britain’s MI5 agency for one reason or the other. They are all banished to a branch of the spy agency dubbed Slough House, though it is neither in Slough nor is it a house. Instead, it is an anonymous, dilapidated four-story walk-up over what we call a bodega and a Chinese restaurant.
The office houses “rejects” from the M15 who, for some reason or the other, can’t be fired but are no longer worthy of being associated with the parent agency with headquarters in Regent Park. These are folks modern society labels losers. Many of the characters who end up in the Slough House are a victim of circumstances that are tragicomedies.
Whether it is a top-secret dossier forgotten on the train, mistaken identity, or alcoholism, nonetheless, they are at Slough House, under the care of Jack Lamb, a legendary spook who knows too much has seen too much, and is burned out by the past that haunts him too much. The agency can’t get rid of him — just yet. He is a misanthropic, chain-smoking alcoholic who only speaks in insults and has outward scorn for those who work under him.
In reality, they are his losers, and you can feel that he has a particular pride associated with his brood. The series, as it unfolds, will be a reminder that how our lives turn out is a series of circumstances. I fell in love with Jack Lamb’s character when I read Herron’s book back in 2010, and I have read the subsequent ten books faithfully. And the day I learned that Apple TV was going to turn the book into a series was indeed one of the better days in recent times.
The first two episodes of the six-episode drama do not disappoint. Oscar-winner Gary Oldman, the actor who played George Smiley in the movie version of John le Carre’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is outstanding in the role of Lamb. He inhabits the role of Lamb with such ease that in the future, I will never be able to read a Herron book without imagining him any other way. Like the rest of his crew, he elicits disgust, sympathy, sadness, and ultimately empathy.
As a viewer, you don’t feel love for the characters, just an understanding that life sometimes happens. The other characters in the series include the ever-so-chic Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays the conniving MI5 boss Diana Taverner. My second favorite character is River Cartwright, played by Jack Lowden.
The story revolves around a British Asian Muslim man who a far-right group kidnaps in Leeds, in West Yorkshire in England. The kidnapping is tangentially linked with the Slough House spooks. If you have read the book, you know what happens next. If you haven’t, watch the show —- it is worth it.
My gold standard for spy-genre TV series is the 1979 and 1980s rendition of two John Le Carre novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. They were both quite faithful to the original books, and the recent movie wasn’t. They both managed to create an element of surprise and sustain intrigue despite most of us have read the books. Alec Guinness, playing the role of George Smiley, was flawless. The first two episodes of the Slow Horses point to a series that might live up to my gold standard. As I said earlier, Oldman as Jack Lamb will be memorable.
Being faithful to the original books is an important thing — Hollywood tends to bastardize the books as it tries to replace nuance with motion and action. The Bourne series of movies lost the subtlety of the books because they were crafted for a shorter form movie format. Tom Clancy’s books, too, were conveniently manipulated.
Television series, however, have the luxury of time to unfold and stay true to the books languidly. If you have not seen The Night Manager, another series based on le Carre’s book, you should watch it. If you have seen the Kurt Wallander series — either the Swedish or the British versions – you know they are an honest interpretation of what you read on the page.
Slow Horses, so far, is getting top grades from me. I like how the moodiness, and melancholic atmospherics of the show, help me relive and reimagine the written word. The cinematography, the color grading, the soundtrack, and the general pace of the show are such that you experience the show rather than watch it.
I recommend it.