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'People call him a traitor': Sam Riley works for Scotland Yard AND the SS in BBC1 thriller SS-GB

SS-GB/ Sam Riley
(Image credit: BBC/Laurie Sparham)

English star Sam Riley talks about playing a detective in Nazi-controlled England in new BBC1 thriller SS-GB, plus his own home life in Germany

Hitler has won the war. The year is 1941 and the Nazis have been in occupation in England for 14 months since triumphing in the Battle of Britain. Churchill has been executed by firing squad, the King is being held prisoner in the Tower of London, and Swastika banners hang from the Houses of Parliament…

That’s the terrifying alternative world we enter in BBC1’s new five-part thriller, SS-GB, adapted from the best-selling novel by Len Deighton.

Sam Riley plays Superintendent Douglas Archer, a Scotland Yard detective who is now working under the notoriously savage, SS, in new BBC1 historical drama SS-GB, which imagines Great Britain controlled by the Nazis.

Archer just wants to get on with his life quietly, but that all changes when he’s asked to investigate the murder of a black-marketeer in a seedy part of London. We met Sam to find out about the thriller...

Can you tell us about your character? “I play detective Douglas Archer of Scotland yard and before the war started because we’re in 1941 and before the war started I was the golden boy of Scotland Yard and solved a big horrible crime and now they call him Archer of the Yard, which he doesn’t particularly like.

"Then we lost the Battle of Britain and the Germans occupied England and my character still works for Scotland Yard, but his new boss is the SS and he’s torn because he still wants there to be law and order, but that means he’s slightly compromised in the eyes of other English people because he’s working for the Hun.”

Where does he meet Kate Bosworth’s character Barbara? “I see her near the scene of a crime. The story is also based around a murder mystery set within this alternative history and I see Barbara near the scene of the crime so I’m suspicious of her. So you never really know if she is exactly who she says she is.”

There’s a lot of mistrust all round and people double bluffing… “It’s a lot like it was in occupied France at the time. If you had a good life before the war a lot of people wouldn’t want to rock the boat and it didn’t necessarily ruin everything them being here, so it’s also about what side people are on.”

Is there a resistance movement? “Yes there is and, of course, the Germans didn’t take the north. They got as far as Huddersfield. There’s a resistance movement and they don’t know what side Archer’s on and at first he doesn’t know what side he’s on. He speaks fluent German, he studied German at Oxford so the Germans kind of love him, they’re using him as a sort of totem of Scotland Yard.

"One of the main Germans is an Anglophile as well, he likes to wear tweed and ride the King’s horse and that sort of thing. He doesn’t really know where he stands at the beginning either and the resistance are trying to lure him and threaten him as well and the journey is, along with the murder case, where his loyalties lie.”

Does he have sympathy with the Nazis? “Well, that’s the thing, people wonder that about him because he can speak their language and then people don’t understand what he’s saying to them, it adds to that level of mistrust. He doesn’t have any sympathy with the fascist regime, I think, he just hopes they’ll sit it out, it’ll end and that things will go back to normal. But he realises during the journey that that probably isn’t’ going to happen unless you start doing something about it.”

Did it make you think about what it would have been like living at that time? “Archer’s widowed, but he’s also a father and if you’re a parent you’re more vulnerable to these sorts of things. It’s easy for a young man who isn’t a parent who doesn’t have that responsibility to say 'F*** that, I’m not going to accept this!' But if you have a child you probably just keep your head down in order that nothing could possibly happen to them.

"By the time they took France they were really amazing at what they did. They were bullies, they terrified people and they knew how to do that because very few people would stand up to it out of fear and especially if you have a lot to lose, like you’re a parent or something. So I’d like to think that I wouldn’t stand for it, but it’s difficult to say.”

Do they call him a traitor? “Yeah. The neighbours do when they send a nice car to pick him up. The fact that he speaks their language and works for them and even his son asks if he’s working for the Gestapo because his friends at school think I might be, so it’s interesting.”

Was your connection to Germany (Sam is married to Romanian-German actress Alexandra Maria Lara) part of the appeal in taking the role? “I love these types of old movies and to wear a nice suit and a trilby… It’s all about the dressing up. I read the first two episodes and really loved it. It’s very different to anything I’ve done before, it’s almost like hard work and not why I wanted to be an actor at all!”

What can you tell us about the actual murder? “There’s a murder at a pawn shop in Shepherd’s Market, but the body displays strange… the eyes have strange cataracts and there are burns on the body and there’s something not quite right about it and before I’ve even filed the report there’s a very high ranking German officer who’s on the first plane from Berlin getting the main pathologist, the best in the country, to dissect this body and send the bits back to Berlin... and it’s like what’s going on?

"There’s a huge amount of interest in what seems to be a fairly run of the mill murder investigation. The interest of the SS in Great Britain is piqued to the point where I’m more or less doing the investigation with this German officer, we do the investigation together. That’s another huge relationship within the project.”

What do you enjoy about living in Germany? “We are the most alike race within Europe I’d say. We’re cousins. We’re not like the French or Spanish or Portuguese, but we’re a lot like the Germans. I love being there and I can afford to live there. I don’t know how anyone can live in London. I’ve been there eight years and it’s my home now.”

How do they feel about the war being raked up? “I have about as much to do with the war as my friends in Berlin do. It’s the sins of the great grandfathers and the grandfathers not even the sins of the fathers any more, but I think they see a huge amount of responsibility still to distance themselves from their history which is also why they’re doing more than anyone else to help the refugees. I don’t know a single German actor who hasn’t had to play a Nazi! That’s just something they just have to lump. It’s just one of those things.”

SS-GB premieres on BBC1 on Sunday, February 19 at 9pm