Gary Oldman in Slow Horses

Passed-by spies

Slow Horses depicts the insecurity service

On Television

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The first question facing every spy novelist is whether the protagonist is an expert or everyman. James Bond — and his successors — are experts: trained intelligence officers who can handle a gun, groom a potential asset, conduct and evade surveillance. An everyman protagonist is harder to write but allows for more character development as he or she responds to pressure, obstacles and crises. Eric Ambler’s novels, such as his classic The Mask of Dimitrios, often feature an everyday person rapidly sucked into a deadly vortex of intrigue and betrayal. 

Herron has no personal experience of the intelligence services

Among Mick Herron’s many literary achievements is the creation of a new archetype: the inexpert expert, aka the Slow Horses. The Slow Horses are MI5’s internal exiles: the failures and screw-ups who have been exiled to Slough House, a dreary office building in central London. 

The Slow Horses are the anti-heroes of the espionage world: unglamorous, their careers in shreds, prone (understandably) to depression, self-doubt and drinking. It is a clever idea, especially when delivered in a best-selling series of books written in Herron’s trademark, dry, witty prose. There may even be a bit of the Slow Horse in Herron himself. 

Unlike numerous other spy writers, Herron has no personal experience of the intelligence services. He worked as a sub-editor until 2017, writing a steady 350 words a day until the first volume was finished, the start of a steady, determined path to his current career success, overcoming bumps and obstacles along the way.

All of which leads to the big question for Herron’s legions of fans: how will his imaginary world translate to television? The answer, thankfully, is so far, so good, at least for the first three episodes of Slow Horses, now showing on Apple TV. 

Gary Oldman is masterful as Jackson Lamb, the greasy-haired, cranky, foul-mouthed, flatulent, spy master. “Another day dawns, on MI-fucking useless,” he intones. This is a performance from an actor at the peak of his career — and a remarkable contrast to Oldman’s quiet, understated portrayal of George Smiley in the adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. 

In many ways Smiley and Lamb are the antithesis of each other. “Lamb casts the biggest shadow because of the things he says, but he is not a spy hero in the usual mould,” Herron told me in an interview for the Financial Times. “He has turned his back on that. He is full of self-loathing for the way he has lived and things he has done. That is the key driver of his character — but what triggers him is when his Slow Horses are in danger.”

The initial plotline — far-right nutcases kidnap Muslim university student — is not very original but strong characterisation helps carry the story. Kristin Scott Thomas is brittle and convincing as the director of MI5, marching around its headquarters, ramrod backed as she snaps out orders while playing a dangerous game of intrigue and double-cross with Lamb and his team. 

The cinematography is evocative, adding depth and nuance. The camera zooms on the holes in Lamb’s socks before panning out to the ashtray and half-empty whisky bottle as he snores. Outside long, wide shots of central London at night, drab storefronts half-lit by yellow streetlights are suffused with shadows and yearning. 

Slow Horses is fine entertainment, but like the books, it has a much wider resonance. Most of us, at one time or another, have failed at something. But still we persist. The horses may be slow, but they can still gallop when needed. 

I would love to see a television series about espionage that looks forward rather than back

Secrets of the Spies, a three-part documentary series on Britbox, takes a factual look at the world of espionage, focusing on deception, assassination and manipulation. Episode one feels choppy, rapidly revisiting a string of old cases. Kim Philby’s story is retold yet again, although his granddaughter Charlotte, now a spy novelist, brings an interesting personal perspective to the life of the master traitor. 

There is an insightful interview with Matthew Dunn, a former MI6 officer, also turned thriller writer. Dunn once had to remember the details of various aliases as he travelled the world, but London is now the main theatre of the action, he explains. 

The pace and focus pick up in episodes two and three. Unlike James Bond, real-life MI6 officers do not have a licence to kill. British governments, it seems, do. We learn intriguing details of how Anthony Eden ordered a series of inept attempts to have President Nasser of Egypt killed in 1956, the year of Suez. Poisoned chocolates failed and so did an attempt to bribe Nasser’s doctor who absconded with the money. 

I would love to see a television series about espionage that looks forward rather than back. The advent of Open Source Intelligence techniques to data mine the internet — and encrypted communication channels such as WhatsApp and Telegram — mean that tools previously restricted to government agencies are available to all. 

The near real-time coverage of the conflict in Ukraine is revolutionising our understanding of war and our ability to accurately document war crimes. Video footage can be swiftly geo-located and checked for authenticity. What does that mean for the future of intelligence gathering? 

These are revolutionary times for the intelligence services, for all of us. Documentary makers, over to you.

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