Is Jackson Lamb a man, or a slug? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. He moves slowly, if at all, and his clothes, hanging shabbily from his scrofulous body, are moistly brown. When he does get up, you’re half tempted to look for a slivery trail on the carpet; God alone knows what would happen if you lightly sprinkled salt in his direction.
He makes me feel vaguely ill, and yet – a gentle reminder to publishers hell-bent on delivering only “likeable” characters to readers – Slow Horses would be nothing without him. Like the gas that is constantly emanating from his sweaty backside, he is (mostly) silent but deadly: a noxious presence around which the story’s many other hopeless cases endlessly circulate, like houseflies hovering over a turd.
Slow Horses is Apple TV+’s adaptation of the first book in Mick Herron’s Slough House series. It’s named after a bunch of disgraced MI5 agents who find themselves exiled from the Regent’s Park HQ to a dilapidated outpost of British intelligence near the Barbican (“Slough House”). Lamb is played by Gary Oldman with all the grimy aplomb you’d expect. When, for instance, he farts so loudly in his sleep that he wakes himself up, there’s something faintly triumphant about it, as if the actor had spent the days before the shoot eating Jerusalem artichokes in preparation, and is delighted to find his hard work has paid off.
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But then, just about everyone is perfectly cast in this series: Jack Lowden as River Cartwright, a young agent who is particularly loathed by Lamb, his boss; Freddie Fox as James “Spider” Webb, River’s snooty rival; Kristin Scott Thomas as Diana Taverner, an especially withering senior officer at Regent’s Park; Samuel West as the disgusting nationalist MP Peter Judd.
This, I guess, is what a swollen Apple TV+ budget provides: a stellar smoothness that may be somewhat at odds with the crepuscular interiors of Slough House; the greasy pavements of Clerkenwell; the bland expanses of Stansted Airport; and, of course, all of its characters’ personal and professional failures. (Also, you get a theme tune performed by Mick Jagger, apparently a fan of Herron’s books.)
Will Smith (The Thick of It, Veep) has been true to the novels, and not only when it comes to dialogue (trying to explain stuff to the agents he runs at Slough House is, Lamb says, “like trying to explain Norway to a dog” – a line lifted directly from the book). Smith understands that Herron is as much interested in character as in plot – which in this case involves the far right, a dodgy hack and a kidnapping – and that his realm is a world unto itself: one that comes with its own rules and lores, and an internal consistency that renders it utterly believable, even when it is not precisely realistic.
Yes, Slough House is a looming physical presence: a horrible office building, dark and outmoded and seething with loathing (one of the agents has been sent there after putting someone on the sex offenders’ register because they nicked his seat on the bus). But it’s also a metaphor for all that is broken and taking too long to heal. “In the old days, you’d be on your third stomach pump by now,” says Lamb, cruelly, to his assistant, Catherine (Saskia Reeves), a recovering alcoholic. It feels very Seventies, which makes it just right for the present moment.
Smith’s screenplay embraces, by necessity, frequent changes of pace. The first episode opens with a thrilling chase through an airport, Taverner watching her wired-up agents on a huge screen, in a set-up that is straight out of Bond.
But there are also longish scenes in which raffle tickets are sold on staircases, and Slough House’s dullest agent is given the slip so the others can go to the pub in peace. As a series, then, Slow Horses is both gripping and non-gripping; you won’t want to binge it, but when you do tune in, you will be required to give yourself fully to each episode.
And what of Lamb, our junk-shop George Smiley? He might be running the last chance saloon for MI5 agents, but like some mythical beast, his semi-brilliant brain motors on even as he sleeps. Though he may lack such an organ himself, he is this series’ slowly beating heart. Thump, thump. Thump, thump.
Apple TV+, available from 1 April
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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain