We may expect spy stories to be suave and elegant, like James Bond, but new AppleTV+ series Slow Horses, starring Gary Oldman, Jack Lowden, Kristin Scott Thomas and Olivia Cooke, gives us the grittier version, almost the antithesis of the usual British spy genre, based on the books by Mick Herron.
“It feels quirky enough, I would see the trailer and think, 'I think I would tune into that,'” Oldman said. “I think [it’s] a very unique take on a genre that we're all familiar with, but it's sort of subverted, and it's just another look at the world through the imagination of Mick Herron and the writers."
Unique, as per Oldman’s description, is definitely appropriate. You likely wouldn’t expect a spy series where our first introduction to the Harry Potter, Darkest Hour and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy actor’s character involves him letting out a massive fart, that wakes him up from his slumber in a dirty office and his big toe sticking out of a ripped sock.
Passing gas aside, Slow Horses is centred around a group of misfit spies, essentially MI5 rejects, who have been demoted to Slough House under Jackson Lamb (Oldman), a previously well-respected spy who has been relegated to being the boss of the “slow horses,” defined as “a group of dysfunctional misfits from the British Intelligence, condemned to a life of admin-hell in a dumping ground of MI5 due to career ending mistakes and personal failures.”
“[Jackson Lamb] is a bully, he farts a lot, and he's disgusting,” Saskia Reeves who plays Catherine Standish, Lamb’s assistant, said. “He's got disgusting personal habits but everybody respects him in a weird way.”
River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is the newest addition to Slough House, after a training exercise went terribly wrong. Even Cartwright’s legacy, with his grandfather, played by Jonathan Pryce, a retired spy himself, couldn’t keep him out of Slough House.
“I am surrounded by f–k ups in this building but you are the gold standard of f–k ups,” Lamb says to Cartwright, adding that the only reason he avoided “going down for glue” was because of his last name.
At the main MI5 headquarters, called The Park, Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) is second in command and, begrudgingly, sometimes needs to connect with Lamb to coordinate the menial Slough House tasks.
At the outset of the series, the “best” spy at Slough House, Sid Baker played by Olivia Cooke, gathers information about a right-wing journalist.
“I think what a lot of women do is try and hide their brilliance to make other people, mainly men, feel more comfortable, and I could recognize that in Sid, and also she's doing that for a particular reason,” Cooke said.
Reeves added that Standish does the same, hiding her brilliance initially in the series.
“I think Catherine's reasons are more to do with self confidence but she has a particular job to do, which is to run the office as best she can, and all her other desires or talents are ignored really, by others, although she gets the odd moment to show off,” she said.
Cartwright is tasked with delivering Baker's discovery to The Park but of course, Cartwright is eager to get out of the dog house and wants to take on the investigation of this case himself. This ultimately leads to the Slough House team getting involved in the kidnapping of a Pakistani student and aspiring comic, by a far-right extremist group.
'You could say every single line, if you wanted to, with sarcasm'
Slow Horses, unlike many shows, was able to execute a story with great cynical sarcasm, which isn’t often well-translated on the screen.
“You don’t often get to play it,” Gary Oldman said.
“Sarcasm, in my opinion, is one of the highest forms of wit,” Jack Lowden added. “It’s just ladled throughout this piece.”
“You could say every single line, if you wanted to, with sarcasm. It just adds to the world of it and it adds to their cynicism, and their self-interest and just how unhappy they are with the world. It pushes you into making jokes all the time, and the dark things that they see, you've got to be funny, you've got to have a sense of humour.”
Gary Oldman, known as a great film actor in particular (aside from his brief appearance on Friends), stressed that some of the best stories are being told in series format.
“I've said over the years that some of the best acting, directing, cinematography, production design, storytelling, writing has all come out of TV,” he said. “What I love about long form, and particularly I think with Slow Horses,...it's got plot, it's got story, but it's ultimately a character piece.”
“What I've always loved about long form is you can get lost in the characters… In movies what happens often is if you've got two hours to tell a story, a lot of character behaviour, all of that has to be cut, it goes because you've got to tell the story and keep it moving. With this, you can really indulge in the characters and you sort of go off the rails for a bit.”