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SS-GB: The occupation of the UK. Mainly by HBO.

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Having last written about the difficulty of finding a shared experience, even about something such as Game of Thrones, the most watched TV show in the world, I want to look at something that maybe no one else saw. So this may be doomed from the outset.

BBC1 recently concluded its 5 part Sunday night drama SS-GB. Based on the superb book by Len Deighton its the tale of Britain losing the second world war after Dunkirk. The Nazis invasion of 1940 succeeds and they occupy most of the UK. 

The adapters for the BBC decided to use a very large chunk of the original dialogue. Good move. It has some superb lines. They stuck very closely to the original plot which revolves around a murder. The Atomic bomb and a plot to free the King. 

The acting was good. The sexy scenes sexy enough. The violence gory enough. Len Deighton often wrote his books in the Shakespearean fashion of having the action of stage. So a good fit for a TV series. All in all, and bearing in mind this is one of my top ten desert island books being translated to TV, I thought it a decent 7/10 affair.

However, as someone who recently got Netflix and baby Sky {Now TV} something was quickly apparent. The BBC don’t have the budget for big drama anymore. They have well and truly been eclipsed by the others. 

Bearing in mind this was a showpiece, it clearly suffered from cash limitations. See those anti-tank obstacles above? They were in almost every outside scene. Along with more substantial concrete blocks. Those ‘Czech hedgehogs‘ were for stopping tanks from making a breakthrough and blocking streets. Despite being cheap to manufacture from any old metal, they weren’t the just plopped around any old how. the picture above is of a POW camp. Why would that have anti-tank obstacles? Who has tanks in occupied Britain? But enough of the history nerd. The point is they kept appearing and I guess that was because that was what they had bought to look Nazified.

The interiors were great. Usual top notch BBC period. But almost every time someone looked out of a window, they would describe what they saw. There was no view for us. Occupied Britain would have had a curfew.  But the blackout would have been over. Yet the streets were dark. Again, the limitations of budget requiring close in narrow focus shots.

In one chilling scene in the book the SS arrest all the teachers and elder boys at a school. They are loaded into army trucks and driven away. This was in the TV show too. But only the interior scene where the SS officer orders their arrest for questioning. No exterior of old men, women and children being loaded up for God knows what fate. This wouldn’t matter too much. If The Others weren’t piling in with extravagance.

The Crown, top left, is THE most expensive TV show ever made. I’ve only seen one episode but it is classy. Just look at that scene. The whole show is like that. underneath is game of Thrones. Just a still from nothing very much. Its not a CGI. Not a centerpiece battle episode. Its just some castle they film at with extras. But its still impressive.  It looks as it should. GOT costs around $10 million an episode for the last season. HBO’s other big block buster, Westworld, had a similar budget.
Doctor Who, the flagship BBC drama, costs around $800,000 an episode.
Bottom right is the inauguration scene from House of cards. Maybe a fairer comparison as that is largely an internally shot political drama. Not when Spacey becomes Prez. The other chump. Could be taken straight from the Trump one. And SS-GB. This IS the main scene. Highgate cemetery and USSR-Nazi friendship ceremony. 

Its not a bad scene at all. And there are many more people and soldiers and such in other shots. But this is fairly representative. The actor in the centre is the gestapo chief of the UK. He has no aides. No guards. There is one sentry. A Nazi flag and that’s it.
This is supposed to be the returning of Karl Marx to the Germans still Allies, the USSR. Just imagine what a propaganda spectacle that would have been. From both regimes.

Viewers complained about the sound. The mumbling. The Eastenders style of breathy menace acting. ‘leaf it art!” I just thought it lacked the budget to make it convincing in the way the BBC’s competitors now routinely do. One scene where  the main cop needs a film secretly developed is handled entirely through dialogue and requires a second scene to explain itself. better to have had him visit the developer’s studio. it would have been obvious then. but … Budget ?

The skill of Downton Abbey was it looked exactly as authentic as you imagined it would look. 
As did Boardwark Empire. And the Rome series. And the Tudors. 

Wolf Hall,  the 2015 great BBC hope looked really good. It had a strong cast and loads of actors and used plenty of the UK’s numerous Tudor buildings to good effect. A huge critical success. Not so much an audience one as it slumped in the ratings pretty quickly. It can’t just look good. It has to be good too. 

So, how can the BBC compete with the big budget, big ratings shows from other broadcasters? Should it even bother? Should it just buy them in? The BBC aired the Tudors which was a Canadian venture. It didn’t commission it. Call the Midwife is a hit for the BBC and its global sales. Should it stick to that sort of easy period drama? The guts of it coming from the period charm mix with social realism 
{I had to pinch that from the Guardian. I’ve never seen it!}

Personally I thought SS-Gb perfect for the BBc. 
Its set in the UK. It requires period British actors. It’s WW2, which is relatively easy to do. It doesn’t need much CGI. There aren’t many really expensive scenes to make. The rivalry between SS, SD, Gestapo and Army of occupation is great for intrigue. The Americans have a main role. Perfect for selling the show overseas and attracting US money. And its a police, crime, spy, love story. Ticks so many boxes for Sunday TV.

A bit more cash and a bit more thought into making London look like we imagine occupied London would look would have made it great.
Instead of just good enough.


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