A new season of the wildly (and deservedly) popular British TV series Slow Horses puts fans like me in a quandary (trailer). Do watch the whole thing in can’t-get-enough mode, or do I parcel it out, one or two episodes a week, to make the experience last longer? I did wait until the distractions of the December holidays were over before starting the new season, and so far, I’m taking it slow. But when an episode’s closing credits roll, it isn’t easy to turn away.
If you’re a fan of British crime/spy/mystery dramas, you probably already know that Slow Horses is based on the Slough House novels of Mick Herron. The first season aired on Apple TV+ last spring (6 episodes) and the current season began in December (6 more).
The premise is that MI5 agents who’ve messed up in some way are transferred to Slough House, where the “slow horses” are put out to pasture. There, under the harassing oversight of profane and obnoxious Jackson Lamb, they receive mind-numbingly dull assignments in the hope they will quit the service altogether. With everything going on in the world and in the U.K., MI5 faces innumerable internal security challenges. Even agents on the far fringes of the security establishment can find work to do.
New Yorker staff writer and historian Jill Lepore spent time with Herron recently and her article on Herron appears in the December 5 edition of the magazine.
Apparently the books were a bit of a hard sell in the beginning. Publishers didn’t know what to make of it. Too much humor. “Is this a thriller or is it comedy?” In fact, the audio narrators say they have to stop recording occasionally, so they can laugh off-mike. The Daily Telegraph has called Slow Horses one of the best spy novels ever written and Herron is widely considered the heir-apparent to the late John le Carré. Heavy burden, that.
What makes the books and the tv show so irresistible are the great characters. And, in the tv version, the cast is absolutely up to it. Lepore says Jackson Lamb (played by Gary Oldman, who makes Colombo look like a fashion plate) is “an old joe who’s straight out of Dickens, if Dickens had ever invented a character who used the word ‘twat’ all the time.” A decade ago, Oldman received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of George Smiley in le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. According to Lepore, Oldman believes Jackson Lamb “is Smiley if everything had gone wrong, although arguably, everything has.” In the age of Brexit, she says, Lamb is like Britain—“angry, embarrassed, and coming apart at the seams.”
If you’ve missed the books or tv series so far, do yourself a favor and get acquainted. And don’t miss the show’s theme music sung by Herron fan Mick Jagger. Just the right notes of discord and the impression everything is going off the rails.
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