Written for Television by Will Smith, Morwenna Banks, Mark Denton & Jonny Stockwood
Based on the novels by Mick Herron
Release Date: 1st April 2022 – 29th April 2022
It’s not a question that one can say they’ve maybe ever asked or pondered, but if you’ve ever had an inkling to know what the BBC series Spooks, or a Jason Bourne movie, or even 24 for that matter, would have been like if it had been written by one of the writers of The Thick of It, then Slow Horses would be your answer.
There is a abundant level of wit on display here. At times Slow Horses is not only very funny, but it’s also got a withering observational anger directed towards the British government (especially the Tories), not to mention the ineptitude and dangerous stupidity that can befall British institutions that are supposed to have the interests and safety of the public at heart.
Jackson Lamb, played with gusto by Gary Oldman, and his team of disgraced espionage losers may be the only spark of humanity and decency within MI5, but it says something that the character is secluded to the lower echelons of the service and spends his days trying to avoid anything resembling responsibility; he drinks too much, eats a plethora of non-healthy foods and is frequently flatulent in the presence of others.
You might not think it was possible, but these are amongst the funniest and classiest fart gags in the history of television.
The casting of Oldman is the masterstroke that makes so much of this work. Having previously played the iconic George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (why did we never get more Smiley adaptations?), the series knowingly subverts the quiet, subdued and dignified nature of that performance with a more foul mouthed and occasionally potty one that still retains a spark of decency even when he might declare otherwise.
Yes, the final episode’s twist hints that there are dark and very violent moments in his past that he is trying to get away from, but the combination of Mick Herron’s novels, and the adaptation being delivered here by a writer’s room led by The Thick of It’s Will Smith manages to deliver a series that is both a ferociously entertaining binge (at six episodes, it goes by very quickly and is paced to perfection), but also has a humorously disdainful observational quality that makes characters like Samuel West’s Tory MP feel like they should be getting delivered the riot act by Malcolm Tucker.
Ineptitude and stupidity run rampant in nearly all branches of the British government here. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where the so-called lower branch of the tree, thought of as losers by everyone else but the audience knows differently, are the only decent ones around and even then they’re being led by someone with sins in the past that he’s trying to run away from.
The cast are all perfect and by the time the season comes to an end you’ll care more than you might have thought possible for these characters, even if they’re bravery and sense of right over wrong is undone by occasional errors like not filling up the car with petrol during a time of crisis.
Beginning with an airport set-piece that reminds one of the glory days of shows like Spooks, if you want that type of slickly delivered entertainment, you’ll get that here too. Like the BBC classic of the 2000s, it manages to wickedly observe and portray government types that need to be put in their place but who unfortunately never will because justice is either fleeting or unfairly absent. Slow Horses benefits from having writers like Smith and Morwenna Banks writing the one-liners and having a brilliant ability to slow down the action for gentle yet devastating character moments, but also a sense of anger at the direction the UK, and politics in general, has gone in these post-Brexit times.
When the set-pieces and suspenseful moments arrive, they are superbly delivered and it’s here that one can maybe detect the hint of executive producer Graham Yost (Justified), but it’s a resolutely British series in the best possible way. The depiction of London is never glossy or sugary like a Richard Curtis film; it’s all darkly damp and moody streets, mostly depicted at night with the possibility of either deception or violence lying in wait, usually accompanied by an acidly delivered line of dialogue by either Oldman or Kristin Scott Thomas.
Lying and subterfuge are explored to a devastating degree, and it manages to have its cake and eat it when it comes to being both a magnificently suspenseful thriller with high stakes, but also gently prodding at the less glamorous monotony of spying life. After introducing us to Jack Lowden’s character of River Cartwright in an action sequence that could almost be an audition piece for future James Bond, a sequence which culminates with a high body count that is later revealed to be a training exercise, the next we see of him is rooting through a pile of rubbish in the middle of his office which sits there for what feels like the remainder of the season.
It’s equal parts John le Carré, equal parts spy thriller the likes of which always make for great television series or movies, but the humorous undercurrent to all of this, and the spiky one-liners delivered by Oldman, gives this a unique flavour of its own and one that you’ll be desperate to return to for its second season.