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'Slow Horses' offers a gleefully corrosive vision of British intelligence

Gary Oldman heads up a ragtag crew of intelligence agents in <em>Slow Horses.</em>
Apple TV+
Gary Oldman heads up a ragtag crew of intelligence agents in Slow Horses.

If decades of thrillers are to be trusted, the essence of espionage is not intelligence, but betrayal. The average fictional spy inhabits a world in which their fellow agents may be moles, their bosses may be on the take, and their governments will casually sacrifice them, like so many pawns, in a grand political chess game that only a fool would call idealistic.

Such duplicity takes jauntily amusing form in the work of British novelist Mick Herron, whose Slough House books are the finest spy fiction since the heyday of John le Carré. The series is now being adapted by Apple TV+, starting with the first of the novels, Slow Horses. Boasting a slew of crackerjack actors, this six-part thriller makes an excellent introduction to Herron's gleefully corrosive vision of British intelligence — and of present-day Britain.

Herron's heroes are not Yoda-like geniuses like George Smiley or murderous ladies' men, a la 007. They're a motley bunch, mockingly known as the "slow horses," who've blown their careers through bungling or bad luck and have been farmed out to a ratty building known as Slough House, near the Barbican station in London. There they do mortifying menial tasks under the contemptuous eye of repulsive Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), a one-time master spy in Berlin who abuses his underlings with his insults and kazooing flatulence.

One of the series' main jokes is that these losers inevitably keep stumbling into the center of national security crises. That's what happens here, when the swiftest of the slow horses, River Cartwright — played by the terrific Scottish actor Jack Lowden — is assigned to dig through the trash of an ultra-rightwing journalist for reasons that aren't explained. As the grandson of an MI5 legend, River burns to do something important, and so, along with his talented colleague Sid Baker (Olivia Cooke), he begins investigating the reporter on his own.

This digging plunges Slough House into the middle of a huge story — the kidnapping of a wannabe comedian of Pakistani heritage, by the Sons of Albion, a white nationalist group that plans to behead him on camera. The slow horses get caught up in the scheming of MI5's icy second in command, Diana Taverner — played by a perfectly cast Kristin Scott Thomas — and by a posh, amoral conservative M.P. who might remind some of Boris Johnson. If the kidnap victim gets killed, Taverner will seek to pin it on Lamb, who's her bitter enemy.

In moving from print to TV, one loses the witty inventiveness of Herron's prose, yet director James Hawes and screenwriter Will Smith — no, not that one — have done a nifty job of recreating the Slough House universe. They preserve Herron's clever plotting and funny, stylized banter. If they spend a shade too much time with the bickering white nationalist dolts, that's OK. They understand that, in setting up a new series — they've already filmed the second book, Dead Lions — you need to let scenes breathe.

This gives us time to get acquainted with other slow horses. We discover the transcendent obnoxiousness of computer genius, Roddy Ho, played by Christopher Chung, and feel the vulnerability of on-the-wagon Catherine Standish — that's Saskia Reeves — who's essentially Miss Moneypenny fallen into disgrace. We get to watch the surprisingly competent Louisa Guy — played by Rosalind Eleazar — fall in love with sweet, not-so-competent Min Harper, played by Dustin Demri-Burns. Although sometimes inept, these folks care whether they save the kidnapped young man.

For all his scuzziness, so does Lamb, a role that allows Oldman to revel in a rude, liquor-stained riff on le Carré's austere Smiley, whom he played earlier in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Oldman is so effortlessly good that I can see why Smith's script expands his role in the plot — you want him on-screen — though I wish the show had resisted the temptation to sentimentalize him a bit. Lamb's better if we don't think that, beneath it all, he's a good guy.

Now, like all of the Slough House stories, Slow Horses is attuned to what's actually going on in British life — in this case, the subterranean connections between thuggish nationalists and ambitious Tory politicians. Yet rather than fulminate about, say, the decline of the British Empire, the show turns the characters' folly and corruption into a dark comedy about a culture gone off the rails. While the characters with any decency are derided for being slow horses, the fast ones are thoroughbreds of self-promotion who dine at the trough of power, and whenever the manure hits the fan, race to cover their well-tailored backsides.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.