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Loser spooks

Loser spooks

Gary Oldman excels as Jackson Lamb, chief of MI5’s team of outcasts, as Mick Herron’s spy thrillers are at last brought to the screen

Warning: includes spoilers

“You’re fucking 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.” 

Jerry Westerby, a sports reporter who is also an occasional agent, complains to Smiley that he has been “put on the shelf”. In Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, Maurice Castle finds that disillusionment with the service leads him to a form of internal exile and then outright treachery. (For a gripping account of a real-life MI5 officer’s burnout and PTSD, try Tom Marcus’s Soldier Spy.)

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, published in 2010. Six more have followed, with the eighth, Bad Actors, due in May (Herron has also turned out three Slough House novellas).

The masterstroke of Apple’s adaptation, meanwhile, 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; a has-been who shouldn’t even be trusted with the tedious grunt work assigned to the inmates of Slough House. 

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.

There is a wonderful symmetry, of course, in the fact that Oldman played Smiley so memorably in the 2011 movie version of Tinker Tailor. John le Carré’s great spymaster was a meticulous, scholarly and fastidious character, reticent to the point of passive aggression. Lamb is the diametric opposite: a slob, a loudmouth, a powerhouse of incivility. If Smiley was the post-Bond fictional spy, then Lamb is the post-Smiley spook for our own more roughly hewn times.  

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 2011

Drawing heavily on Herron’s original dialogue, the screenplay by Will Smith (no, not the Oscar-winning actor and pugilist) gives Oldman plenty of scope to enjoy himself (“MI-Fucking Useless”) but also liberates a fine ensemble cast: Jack Lowden as River Cartwright, a young agent convinced his exile is the result of sabotage; Olivia Cooke as the suspiciously able Sid Baker; Christopher Chung as the insufferably arrogant tech genius, Roddy Ho; and Saskia Reeves as the enigmatic Catherine Standish, keeper of many of the service’s secrets. Back at Regent’s Park, Kristin Scott Thomas holds court as “Lady” Diana Taverner, unleashing her pack of hard-men – the “Dogs” – whenever trouble looms.

This first, six-episode season – a second has already been commissioned – 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, giving Cartwright a chance of redemption and return to the mainstream (with the guidance of his grandfather David, a legend of the service, superbly played by Jonathan Pryce).

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.

Slow Horses is set in a landscape of disappointment, shoddiness and making do, in which Taverner’s grandiosity is undercut by Lamb’s insistence that getting the job done may be less tidy than she would wish. 

This is what keeps him loyal to his slow horses, for all their flaws: “They’re a bunch of absolute losers. But they’re my losers.” 

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.


Kite Festival – 10-12 June, Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire

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 lineup 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 per cent off tickets here.


Round One: The Greatest (BBC Two, 3 April)

It takes a documentarian of Ken Burns’s artistry, insight and experience to bring fresh perspective to the life of a figure as culturally familiar as Muhammad Ali – which is why this eight-part series, co-directed with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon, has been so eagerly anticipated. Mingling archive footage and new interviews with the dexterity that one associates with Burns, this account of Ali’s life roots the phenomenon that he became in a prodigious self-belief that predated his emergence as a boxer of brilliance. Aged only 18, Cassius Clay (as he then was) won gold in the light-heavyweight division at the 1960 Rome Olympics, but was also the king of the Olympic Village. “This kid is irresistible,” remarked one reporter. “He even made friends with the Russians.” Observing the show business techniques used by wrestlers, he quickly grasped the potential to turn sporting success into the power of global fame. And, as Burns shows in the first two episodes, this made his friendship with Malcolm X, membership of the Nation of Islam, and change of name no less important than his capture of the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston in 1964. Mesmerising stuff.

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 has a genuine movie-star presence that will not surprise viewers of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (see Creative Sensemaker, 3 February). And Wilson (best-known as Alice Morgan in Luther, as her real-life grandmother in the BBC drama Mrs Wilson, and as Alison Bailey in Showtime’s The Affair) is simply formidable as Kate: brittle determined, fixated. She can also be seen in Cocteau’s The Human Voice at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre, booking until 9 April.

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (selected cinemas; 1 April, Netflix)

Richard Linklater has long been the stoner Proust of directors, obsessed by the dreams and details of the past. In Dazed and Confused (1993) he bequeathed to the world Matthew McConaughey’s great catchphrase (“alright, alright, alright”) in a memoir of school days in Austin, Texas in the Seventies. The ambitions of Boyhood (2014) were more expansive, engaging a core cast for intermittent production between 2002 and 2013 to plot the childhood and adolescence of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) between the ages of six and 18. In the charming Apollo 10½, he goes back to the late Sixties of his own youth in Houston – a city dominated at the time by the work and dreams of Nasa – to tell the tale of ten-year-old Stan, voiced by Milo Coy and then, as an adult narrator looking back, by Jack Black. Linklater also returns to the rotoscope animation that he deployed so strikingly in Waking Life (2001) and the Philip K. Dick-inspired A Scanner Darkly (2006): a hyperreal, sometimes psychedelic cinematic technique in which digital animators work on live-action footage. Immersed in the world of space flight and lunar heroism, Stan fantasises that he is secretly recruited to a top-secret moon landing mission after Nasa “accidentally built the lunar module a little too small”. In fact, this is is only the fabulist plotline over which is draped a recollection of childhood – much, though not all of it happy. “With nostalgia,” Linklater said recently, “you can’t look back pure. There was a lot of unhealthy and crazy stuff… I didn’t want it to be smarmy nostalgic or too goofy. It has dark edges.” 


My Fourth Time We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route – Sally Hayden (4th Estate)

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.

The Joy of Science – Jim Al-Khalili (5 April, Princeton University Press)

Perhaps best-known for his BBC Radio 4 show The Life Scientific, Professor Jim Al-Khalili of Surrey University is a distinguished theoretical physicist who has also worked wonders in making science accessible and engaging. This short book encapsulates his achievement in its combination of concision (under 200 pages), lucidity and rigour. Yes, Al-Khalili wants to make science comprehensible; but he is quite open about the need to accept and engage with complexity – and not to fear it. Of course, the contemporary attacks upon science are closely connected to broader cultural pathologies: disinformation, conspiracy theories, post-truth and the denial of objective reality. Al-Khalili is admirably firm in his insistence that “there are still facts out there in the world – objective truths that exist whether or not someone believes them.” He is also excellent on cultivating a readiness to change one’s mind in the face of evidence and argument. In practice, this is not just a book about science but a short guide to how we live now.

The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt (Folio Society)

“Once again we are living in a world that Arendt would recognize; a world in which it seems ‘as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives’. The Origins of Totalitarianism forces us to ask not only why she was too pessimistic, in 1950, but also whether some of her pessimism might be more warranted now.” So writes Anne Applebaum in her introduction to this majestic new Folio Society edition of a classic text. Lavishly and intelligently illustrated in two volumes, Arendt’s greatest work seems more pertinent than ever – in its excavation of the past, analysis of the 20th Century and premonitions of what might come next. What strikes the reader, chapter after chapter, is not what she got wrong (only the religious believe in flawless prophecy); but the alarming extent to which she got it right.


Gifted – 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 ten 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 (as on the title track: “Pray to di Father, seh, ‘Kumbaye’/Full up mi plate and bruk my tray, yeah”). There’s plenty of fun here – references to Balenciaga and Prada, comparison of lockdown with monogamy – but also a commitment to political themes, notably on the tracks ‘Shine’ and ‘Defend’ (‘Emergency state, we can’t escape it/ Inflation crazy for the old lady’). Still only 22, Koffee has what it takes to become the most successful and consequential reggae artist in the world.

Mirror, Pause, Breathe – Peter Gregson

Like Max Richter, Peter Gregson has established himself as one of the most significant composers at work today by the sheer versatility with which he puts his talent to use. Just as Richter reimagined Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, so Gregson dared to do the same four years ago to Bach’s Cello Suites. He is a prolific composer of movie and television soundtracks and of the music to video games (including last year’s Boundless). These three tracks showcase his own virtuosity as a cellist and, experienced in sequence, have a haunting depth and melancholy that linger in the mind long after the final note has been played. (For more of this musical magician’s work, try last year’s album Patina.)

This is Taylor Hawkins – Spotify Playlist

Great drummers much too rarely achieve the eminence they deserve – Buddy Rich, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, Moe Tucker and Dave Grohl being among the exceptions – and it was typical of Grohl’s creative generosity that, having made his mark as Nirvana’s drummer, he ensured that his own band, Foo Fighters, had a true star behind the kit. Taylor Hawkins, who died suddenly, aged only 50, on 25 March while on tour in Colombia, played drums for the band on eight of the ten studio albums it has recorded to date, starting with There is Nothing Left to Lose in 1999 (the most recent, Medicine at Midnight, is up for three Grammys on Sunday). This playlist is a fitting tribute to Hawkins’ contribution to the band’s sound over the years – and to his other projects, Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Raiders and NHC. Like Grohl, Hawkins was also a talented singer – which is why I would add his live performances with Foo Fighters of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’ and Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love’. It is heart-wrenching to reflect that the latter was recorded only 13 days ago in Chile. RIP.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs courtesy Apple TV+, Working Title/Studio Canal, David Levenson/Getty Images, Ai Weiwei Studio, BBC Films, Netflix, BBC/PBS International/John Rooney/AP Images, Paul Natkin/Getty Images