What if Germany had won World War II?

That’s the chilling question at the heart of new BBC drama SS-GB, adapted from Len Deighton’s best-selling thriller.

Robert Chilton May 14, 2017

Winston Churchill is shot and killed in SS-GB – how do you think audiences will react to that part of the plot?
Len Deighton’s wonderful book is dense with details of the Nazi invasion. He slips in so many telling details. For instance, the information that Churchill was shipped off to face a firing squad in Berlin and that the British forces managed to hold off the Nazis for long enough in Colchester to enable the Royal Family to escape to New Zealand. At one point in the drama, Huth, an SS officer, dismisses the idea that Churchill defiantly gave a V-sign in front of the firing squad as “pure propaganda”. So there was fake news back in 1942! 

What moments during filming drove the idea home for you that Germany won WWII?
The incredible set had an impact on me every day. There is something that is still very chilling about the Nazi uniform and insignia. It’s so frightening still, particularly on the days where we had lots of supporting artists wearing yellow stars. One supporting artist told me that as a boy during the war he’d been put on a transportation train in Germany, and now he was playing a role in an outfit not dissimilar to the one his father wore. It’s so disturbing. That never really wears off. 

What do you like about your character Douglas Archer?
I liked the fact that he’s conflicted. He is a detective at Scotland Yard, but he has to tell himself that he is not working for the Nazis. He was widowed during the Nazi invasion of Britain, and now he’s left with a son he has to protect.

What is Archer’s state of mind at the start of the drama?
At the beginning, he’s telling himself that his job is vital and that there has to be law and order. He tells himself that if he doesn’t do that job, everything will descend into chaos. So he convinces himself that he’s working on the side of law and order rather than for the Nazis. But his neighbours don’t see it like that.

What is the dilemma for Archer?
He knows what the Nazis are doing is wrong, but does he want to carry on looking after his son or fight the regime? When the Nazis first come to Britain, they bring organisation and advances such as direct flights from New York to London. But when they start to suggest more horrific ideas, it makes Archer’s stance much harder to bear. If your son begins asking if you work for the Gestapo, that’s difficult to take. The heart of the drama is how Archer is drawn into the Nazi world and whether he’ll continue to remain there.

Are you interested in WWII?
Yes, I am. What we were fighting against seems very clear-cut: barbarism and fascism. You knew which side you were on although, ironically, at the beginning of SS-GB, Archer doesn’t. As long as the Nazis were opposing us, there was something unifying for Britain. 

How are the Resistance depicted in SS-GB?
They are not portrayed as the patriotic Rule Britannia brigade. Some of them resemble radicals who are willing to harm civilians for their cause. The Resistance covers the spectrum from people prepared to undertake terrorist acts to those who put sugar in the Nazis’ petrol tanks to be a nuisance. 

Why did you want to be an actor?
As a child, I always wanted to be the people I was watching in TV dramas. Those were the first hints of me being a luvvie. How did that manifest itself? I took things more seriously than my friends and I loved dressing up. If they said, ‘We’re going to play this game now,’ I’d reply, ‘I’ll be out in half an hour. I have to find the right costume.’ So I think I did go into the right profession.

How did your family react?
After I’d been dressed as Lawrence of Arabia for several weeks I remember my father saying, ‘Enough!’ – he wanted his towels back!

SS-GB starts April 21 on BBC First (OSN) at 10pm; bbcworldwide.com