By Simon Basketter
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‘MI-fucking useless’—the misfit British spies of Slow Horses

This new series combines a spy thriller with dark comedy and grungy realism for a close adaptation of the Slough House novels
Issue 2800
Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb in Slow Horses

Gary Oldman is gone to seed spy master Jackson Lamb

It begins with a breathless action sequence at London’s Stansted Airport—nine minutes of earbud commands, sprinting, yelling, tackling and fatal errors. It’s a deliberate false start in a number of ways.

The fallout is what brings River Cartwright (Jack Lowden), an earnest hero type, to Slough House. While “not in Slough, nor is it a house”, it is a shabby warren of offices near the Barbican.

It is where “MI-fucking useless” sends its washed out or malfunctioning agents when it can’t easily fire them. It is overseen by flatulent, gone to seed master spy Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman).

Stinker, failure, Oldman’s spy has an excess of contempt for the slow horses as they are nicknamed under his command. He snorts, “Bringing you up to speed is like trying to explain Norway to a dog.”

Everyone except Lamb dreams of getting back to Regent’s Park, the glitteringly modern headquarters of MI5. They carry out pointless grunt work while enduring Lamb’s constant, finely wrought insults. “Working with you has been the lowest point in a disappointing career.”

The slow horses drown in paperwork, bicker over tea bags, have fragile flirtations, and lie to each other to make their personal lives sound less pathetic. In the place of an opposing foreign power the series has as antagonist Diana “Lady Di” Taverner, “Second Desk” at MI5 (Kristin Scott Thomas).

It’s an acidic but low-key ride through the night streets and dull days of London. It’s focused as much on pub dates and desultory stakeout conversations as on tradecraft. The resigned gestures and disdainful dialogue is just right.

When Lamb is asked what they are going to do about the public kidnapping of a Muslim student by a group of white nationalists, he replies, “What we always do here—absolutely nothing.” And inevitably they then find themselves involved in the kidnapping case.

The subterranean connections between thugs and Tory politicians lie about the place. Characters with decency may be derided for being slow horses, but the fast ones are heady on power and self-promotion.

The show is a fine complicated conspiracy thriller crossed with an office comedy, and it lightly dusts it with grungy realism. It’s faithful to the novels by Mick Herron in a good way. Despite the frantic start it takes its time with the developing plot twists.

Slow Horses gets to have its cake and eat it too. It combines a tense thriller plot with the comedy of the people trying to solve it being outcasts of whom nothing is expected.

Taverner asks Lamb, “You care about them, don’t you?” She’s looking for a chink in his armour, but Lamb replies, “No, I think they’re a bunch of fucking losers.” Unsmiling, he adds, “But they’re my losers.”

  • Slow Horses is available now on Apple TV

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