Backpackers Tokyo

Slow Horses. Show caption ‘I’m not saying Kristin and Garry could have phoned their performances.’ Slow Horses. Photograph: Slow Horses/Apple TV+/PA
TV review

This thriller about washed-up spies is certainly tense, but it feels like we’ve seen the Tinker Tailor actor – and co-star Kristin Scott Thomas – play these roles before

The suspect is carrying a suspicious backpack towards a plane loaded with fuel and filling up with passengers. Destination? Marrakech.

Suspect? Male. Age? 20s. Appearance? Asian. Racial profiling? Check.

Mood? Tense. Kristin Scott Thomas’s eyebrows? Arched. Lips? Pursed. “Dogs are standing by, Ma’am,” says her comms guy as she and her team assess the unfolding situation at Stansted airport over TV monitors. Does he mean real dogs or is that code for MI5 operatives in the field? Queries later. National emergency now.

Uber-quiffed maverick espionage hero in improbably well-tailored suit vaults barriers, shoves civilians who get in his way, pins down suspect on the asphalt while bystanders, counterintuitively, don’t film the scene for their Instagram.

Is that an apple in the suspect’s carry-on – or explosives? The former. Damn! MI5 has got the wrong man. “You said Asian male. Blue shirt. White T,” complains our hero, River Cartwright, played by Jack Lowden, to his co-working nemesis, “Spider” Webb, played by Freddie Fox. “No, I said ‘White shirt blue T’,” says Spider who, because he has slicked-back, oleaginous hair and wears braces, clearly can’t be trusted.

Incidental music at 130BPM? Check. Maverick hero chasing after the new suspect, White Shirt Blue T, who is heading to the Stansted Express? Check. On the platform, the new suspect stands smiling even though he is now in our hero’s crosshairs. Detonates device? Check. Screen dissolves to white? Check. Three-figure death toll? You’d think. Scott Thomas’s lips? Incredibly pursed.

And so it begins. Another spy drama, like the recent Ipcress File but more now and, disappointingly, featuring no leopardskin pillbox hats.

Slow Horses (Apple TV+) is adapted from Mick Herron’s sardonic spy franchise about disgraced spooks banished to a dump called Slough House (think: Sandra Oh’s office in series one of Killing Eve) for drunkenness, lechery, sociopathy and incompetence. We’ve all worked in that office, am I right? “Another day dawns,” says Gary Oldman as head of Slough House’s loser brigade, “on MI fucking useless.”

Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, a washed-up case who farts himself awake on his office sofa each morning before tackling the leading business of the day: another hangover. On the plus side, he must save on alarm clocks. Have you ever farted yourself awake? Try it. You’ll never need caffeine again.

I’m not saying Scott Thomas and Oldman could have phoned their performances as jaded spies in from their respective poolsides, or that the storyline could have been sketched on a spreadsheet, printed out and left in a dead drop in Regent’s Park for the director, but deja vu is my primary experience of Slow Horses.

Scott Thomas’s eyebrows, the rest of her lemon-sucking froideur and Oldman’s world-weary shtick ought to be modules at Rada, if they aren’t already. At least when Oldman played George Smiley 11 years ago in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, he was dapper even in his world weariness, whereas here he has holes in socks and what looks like last night’s dinner on his tie.

I imagine Putin’s FSB lickspittles will see this tale of their British equivalents’ incompetence as funnier than Johnny English. But MI5 may well have the last laugh: after all, it’s possible that British TV and cinema is part of a vast misdirection industry that represents our spies as blundering boobs or self-involved martini shakers obsessed with intercontinental legovers. In reality, our spies could be saving Blighty from Johnny Foreigner 24/7. Of course they could.

It turns out that the Stansted incident was a training exercise that our maverick rookie hero failed miserably. As a result, River (his mum was a hippy) has been banished to Slough House to be tormented by Oldman’s old farts, while shuffling towards pensionable age like his sad colleagues in their unacceptable knitwear.

But, of course, that’s not what happens. Instead, River stumbles across a thumb drive belonging to a sleazy blowhard hack (modelled, most likely, on me) containing loony rightwing conspiracy theories. Our hero connects this find to the recent kidnapping of a Leeds University student by the Sons of Albion, who are not, sadly, West Brom fans, but white-pride morons striving to keep Britain British by, without any irony, emulating Islamic State videos.

These plums now threaten to behead the student, ostensibly for an offensive standup comedy routine (which puts Chris Rock’s punishment slap into chastening context). Only our hero, possibly with Sid, the glamorous spy with whom I’ll bet he has a snog during episode three, can redeem his career and British espionage’s reputation. Mood? Tense. Genre? Hokum. Script? By numbers. Likelihood of you catching whole series? I’ll get back to you.

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