Two very different versions of England have launched on American streaming platforms this week. The London of Disney Plus’ Marvel series Moon Knight is a tourist fantasy – an open-top bus of a city, one populated by EastEnders caricatures and Oscar Isaac as the scarily accented love child of Russell Brand and Anne Hathaway in One Day. Comparatively, Apple TV’s Slow Horses, a pitch-black comedy about not-very-good spies, is English to its core. Everyone is miserable, the streets are dirty, and the camera filter is the colour of a damp paperback stuffed in the backroom of an Oxfam. It feels like home.
Perhaps it’s that stench of failure that feels distinctly English, too. Slow Horses revolves around the dregs of MI5, or the secret agents lacking the renegade panache of 007, or even the raw sexual magnetism of Austin Powers. After a training exercise at Stansted Airport goes awry, nascent spook River Cartwright (Jack Lowden) is dumped in a grubby office block called Slough House as punishment. There, espionage grunt work is taken care of under the semi-watchful eye of the louche Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), who serves as an intermediary between his “donkeys” and the “grown-up spies” barked at by MI5 boss Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Cheered on by his grandfather, a veteran agent played with twinkly shrewdness by Jonathan Pryce, River decides to intercept the cases he’s expected to just ferry along. Soon a conspiracy emerges involving a far-right terrorist group, the media establishment and potentially River’s superiors.
Based on a series of novels by Mick Herron, Slow Horses has been adapted for TV by comedian Will Smith, whose previous work includes The Thick of It and Veep. There’s a sliver of familiar comic apathy that runs through it as a result; characters seem to speak in sighs, offsetting serious subject matter with dry wit. Unexpectedly, it all meshes well: the show never veers too far into levity as to overpower the drama, and vice versa.
If the terrorist plotting feels dated at times – its approach to white nationalism and terrorist blackmail feel deeply mid-Noughties, right around the time Herron began writing his Slough House series – there’s enough elsewhere to make up for it. Principally, the show’s stars, with Oldman and Scott Thomas a particularly fizzy double act. With their grumpy nonchalance and old-school glamour, they almost make you proud to be British.
‘Slow Horses’ begins today (1 April), with episodes dropping every Friday on Apple TV+