BBC’s adaptation of Leigh Denton’s 1978 bestselling alternate history novel, SS-GB makes its debut exclusively on BBC First. Written by BAFTA-award winners Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the screenwriters of SPECTRE, Skyfall and Casino Royale, and directed by multi-award winning director Philipp Kaldelbach.
And today, we speak to Neal and Robert to find out more about SS-GB and their thoughts behind it.
You’ve recently crossed over into the realm of TV adaptations with your screenplay of SS-GB – what made you decide to get involved in television?
Neal: We’ve over the years had a number of projects come to us for TV, and simply put the thing that attracted us is that we are both Len Deighton fans. I hadn’t read the book but Rob had, and he assured me it’s very good. So it was something that – for us starting it, it’s good to have a book and have that support and the structure, even though we had to alter a certain amount. So you can see the beginning, middle and end, and keep those five episodes (or however many episodes it will be around the world), and we can view it as just a five-hour movie. So it’s an extension of what we’re used to doing.
Neal: And one of the reasons why we felt this in particular would be a really good thing for us to do as our first television, was that because the book that Len wrote is very focused on a kind of domestic scale, so that you’re seeing what life would be like in a Nazi occupation, and we felt that that was very appropriate – you know, that it would be beamed into people’s living rooms every week, and families sit together watching television and you can easily imagine that it could be going on outside right now, outside your front door. So we thought rather than cinema, it was suited to television. Which made it appropriate. And also, I think that two hours in a cinema wouldn’t do the story justice.
Would you say there are any parallels to draw between the plotline of SS-GB and our current political climate?
Rob: Well I certainly think the uncertainty in the world is very much placed in SS-GB, and how the individual has to decide how he or she is going to act when the world’s in a strange place. Also it just shows you how it’s easy for the right wing to come up in the world, and I think people need to be reminded that they need to fight that kind of thing.
Neal: And interestingly enough, when we started work on this, it was unthinkable that we would have Brexit and that you’d have Donald Trump in the White House. We’d be absurd to say it would’ve happened. So within the space that we’d been working on it, those things are now true, so reality has changed. And a lot of assumptions that we’ve all grown up with are under question now – about the general progress of society.
Neal: I suppose what is partly true is that we were thinking about the idea of how there would be people wanting Brexit when we were writing the show. But we just didn’t really think it would happen. But we did think this show would be relevant to that – I mean the idea of deliberately choosing disharmony with people, and seeing the consequences of what could happen through these countries at war with each other.
Rob: So it was sort of context for us when we were writing, but we never thought anything like this would happen.
What’s been your favorite part about writing a screenplay that imagines a dystopian society, and what’s been the most difficult?
Robert: I suppose the challenge was to make it credible. And I think in the book – what happened in Paris and the way the Nazi’s took over France was useful as a template, plus Len Deighton had attained a document that showed the plans for how the Germans would actually administrate Britain, once they’d taken it over. Even though those plans were drawn up before the plans as to how they would take it over. So I think that the challenge was just making it credible – within the budget of what you can do on television.
Robert: And a major challenge was that they really shot in London, and you could probably fake it somewhere else more easily – surprisingly. But I suppose the most fun was that we came up with this idea of the spitfire landing on the Mall. To actually see the Spitfire on the Mall outside Buckingham Paris was quite good fun. That’s one of the fun things about writing outrageous things, and then someone has to actually think about how you do it.
Any thoughts on what you might be working on next?
Neal: We’ve got about four things that are at different stages of maturity. They’re just what you call irons in the fire. We’ve got a number of films – we still love films – but television has certainly become more attractive, particularly as the fact that film actors now are moving into television means that film and television are becoming really similar.
Robert: Also, the quality of the filming has improved a lot as well. I mean, we think SS-GB looks really great. Especially when you see it on the big screen. So it feels like a movie, I think.
Robert: There’s a lot of good television out there. But there’s nothing that we should talk about, because the thing is, if you get talking about one and then it doesn’t happen for awhile – we’ve learnt that there’s no point talking about something until you know it’s actually shooting.
The series is available on-demand here