Gary Oldman is brilliantly grumpy (and very British) in Apple’s new spy drama
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Friday 1 April 2022 By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
Warning: includes spoilers
‘You’re f**king useless, the lot of you. Working with you has been the low point of a disappointing career.’ This is what passes for a pep talk from Jackson Lamb, the jaded MI5 veteran heading a team of rejects and misfits in Slow Horses, the terrific new series from Apple TV+ (1 April).
The exiled spook is a familiar figure in spy fiction: in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley’s sidekick and confidant Peter Guillam has been banished to run the Circus’s heavy mob of ‘scalphunters’ in Brixton, ‘stabled out of sight behind a flint wall with broken glass and barbed wire on the top.’
The masterstroke of thriller writer Mick Herron was to give this form of banishment an institutional face: to create a literal purgatory for spies on the slide. In his fictional world, MI5 has its main offices at Regent’s Park, while its screw-ups, failures and castoffs are stationed at a grotty building in Aldersgate Street in the City of London – so far from the heart of the action that it is nicknamed ‘Slough House’. Accordingly, its resentful occupants are known as ‘Slow Horses’ – which is also the title of the first Jackson Lamb thriller.
The masterstroke of Apple’s adaptation is the casting of Gary Oldman in the lead role. Subsisting on takeaways, cigarettes and booze, Lamb is a flatulent joke to many of his sleeker fellow spies. But – amid the physical comedy of his disastrous clothes, manners and sleeping arrangements – Oldman is able to communicate the steel and intelligence within Lamb that make him, for all his pratfalls, a resilient and formidable figure in the secret world. Those in the know recall that he survived the Cold War and the attentions of the Stasi; and, as a consequence, is never to be underestimated.
This first, six-episode season follows the kidnap of a British Pakistani boy, Hassan Ahmed (Antonio Aakeel) by the neo-Nazi ‘Sons of Albion’, who threaten to behead him and stream the execution online. A huge error of tradecraft by Taverner puts Lamb’s team in the frame to clean up the mess.
Herron’s thrillers arose in the aftermath of the 7/7 terror attacks, and – especially in the early books – are suffused with the atmosphere and ambiguities of that period of intense counter-terrorist activity. But the series, directed by James Hawes, also feels well-suited to post-Brexit Britain; much as le Carré’s Smiley novels meshed with the declinism and tensions of the post-Suez era.
The bosses in Regent’s Park, with their sharp suits, high-tech screens and elegant offices, maintain the fiction that everything is still ‘world-beating’. Lamb, who has seen it all, knows that the truth is otherwise, and that – as everyone in Slough House is already painfully aware – the business of national security, and anything else for that matter, is that much harder when you have lost the world’s respect.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Even more names have been added to the bill for Kite festival this week – not least Ai Weiwei, one of the world’s most famous artists and activists, who has this week made his operative directorial debut in Rome with Puccini’s Turandot. He’ll be interviewed by passionate art enthusiast and actor Russell Tovey and gallerist Robert Diament for their hit podcast Talk Art, live on stage on Saturday 11 June.
Also announced this week were live conversations with actor and author Minnie Driver and technology analyst Azeem Azhar, and joining the line-up of superstar interviewers for the event are Ari Shapiro, who hosts the most listened to radio news show in the US, and Andrew Neil, who will record an episode of his new podcast for Tortoise, The Backstory, live at Kite. The ThinkIn programme for the weekend includes conversations about rural life, reparations, democracy, feminism, and the future of work. Tortoise members can get 20% off tickets here.
True Things (general release, 1 April)
Based on Deborah Kay Davies’s novel True Things About Me, Harry Wootliff’s second feature film is even more impressive than her 2018 debut, Only You. Kate (Ruth Wilson) leads a drab and unsatisfying life, working in a Ramsgate Job Centre – into which swaggers Tom Burke (known only as ‘Blond’, as Kate lists him in her phone), boasting that he has just done four months in jail and asking her out to lunch. Instead, they have sex by his Mercedes in a multi-storey carpark: initiating a pattern of infatuation, gaslighting, and psychological cruelty. Though the plot begins to creak by the third act, this hardly matters, given the sensational performances of the leads. Burke is both appalling and alluring, and Wilson is simply formidable as Kate: brittle, determined, fixated.
My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge On The World’s Deadliest Migration Route by Sally Hayden
Already, close to four million Ukrainians have left their war-torn homeland and are seeking sanctuary elsewhere. Alas, there is nothing new in their plight and the inadequate response to it – as is clear from this astonishing investigation into the Northern African migrant crisis by the award-winning journalist Sally Hayden. The story she tells is required reading and also deeply humbling: the conditions in which refugees are kept, the bureaucracy which stands in their way, the politics that eclipses basic human decency… all are shaming. Hayden, for her part, is the very best kind of reporter, deploying all her skills to uncover injustice, but never getting in the way of the story by putting herself at its centre. Her reflections on the duties of a journalist covering a calamity, included in an author’s note, are thoughtful and subtle. One of the finest non-fiction books I have read in a long time.
Gifted by Koffee
From the sample of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ which opens the album, Koffee – aka Mikayla Simpson – leaves the listener in no doubt of her confidence, talent, and ambition. And this is really no surprise given the meteoric rise which began with her tribute to Usain Bolt, posted online in 2017 when she was still at school (‘From the dark comes the light / Lightning Bolt never less than strike’). Three years later, she became the first female artist to win Best Reggae Album with Rapture at the Grammys. Across 10 tracks, Gifted represents a significant broadening of Koffee’s range from dancehall to a more porous form of roots reggae that enables her to embrace aspects of trip-hop, Afrobeats, R&B, and Black American spiritual music. Still only 22, Koffee has what it takes to become the most successful and consequential reggae artist in the world.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner