­With six consecutive James Bond scripts to their credit, from The World is Not Enough to Spectre, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade are no strangers to the spy genre. For their first TV project, they’ve combined it with two other genres – crime and war – in a 5-part BBC series based on Len Deighton’s novel SS-GB, helmed by award-winning German director Philipp Kadelbach (Generation War).

Brighton Rock star Sam Riley plays Scotland Yard detective Douglas Archer, investigating a murder in Nazi-occupied London in 1941, who becomes embroiled with the German SS, the British Resistance, rogue A-bomb scientists and a seductive American journalist (Kate Bosworth).

SS-GB is Purvis and Wade’s twelfth produced screenplay, and has been bought for US TV distribution by Weinstein Television. Other forays into espionage include an unproduced adaptation of John le Carre’s The Mission Song, and an original script, Our Man in New York, based on the true story of the Stasi’s top agent in the US and currently slated to be directed by David Mackenzie.

Creative Screenwriting talked to Purvis and Wade about adapting a complex plot into series format, turning budget limitations into creative opportunities, and delaying the moment when the gun come out.

Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

Was SS-GB a passion project of yours, or was the book brought to you?

Robert Wade: It was brought to us, but I’d read it many years ago. Both my parents were big Len Deighton fans, so his books were always around the house. I remember it coming out, and I liked the cover: a British postage stamp with Hitler on.

There’s a whole genre of “Hitler wins” books, so Len wasn’t the first, but it’s a great, thought-provoking book – and the thing which made it really interesting for us is that it’s set in 1941, 14 months after the Battle of Britain, so history is still fluid, whereas all those other books are about aftermaths and consequences.

Neal Purvis: And for us it was good was that it was a book: you’re doing TV, but you’re doing something where you can see the end, so we could structure it as five hours. It was conceivable for us.

The five-hour structure was your idea?

Neal: We were given freedom for four, five or six hours, whatever felt best.

Robert: And it just felt organic. It’s going to be six parts in America – six times 45 minutes – whereas this is five BBC hours. Which are real hours.

Neal: More daunting.

Robert: When you spread it out over five hours you’re still losing a lot of stuff from the book, but you’re also having to manufacture things which aren’t there in the book – so that, for instance, a character will appear in an episode, whereas in the actual narrative flow they wouldn’t. If it was a two-hour movie it would be fine that the character’s not in this bit, but if they’re not in an episode at all that doesn’t work, so you have to find new ways of doing things.

Neal: The structure of the book, and the way we were going to do it, was all through Archer’s point of view. So the other characters have got to be interacting with him, because we don’t cut away to other scenes until towards the end, when we felt it was justified.

Robert: Then the cuts are motivated by the building pressure, the tension.

Neal: But until the last episode, Sam Riley is in every scene.

Robert: Also, because of that structure, the point of view Len Deighton observed, two of the characters in the book die off-screen, as it were. But it’s just not acceptable in a modern entertainment to have people you care about die without seeing what happens to them, and that led us to reconsider both of those characters.

Sam Riley as Douglas Archer and Kate Bosworth as Barbara Barga in SS-GB

© Sid Gentle Films Ltd and BBC Pictures

Did you meet with Len Deighton before you started?

Robert: Yes. Sally Woodward Gentle [producer of SS-GB] is friendly with him and managed to persuade him to meet us, and the prospect of meeting with Len Deighton was extremely exciting.

Neal: He asked us if we had any questions – holes in the plot, that kind of thing – and at that point we were so pleased to be talking to him that we hadn’t analysed it in that much detail. Then when we came down to writing it we realised it probably wasn’t meant to be analysed in that much detail.

Robert: When we initially met him we thought that we’d understood the plot, then when we really did understand the plot we realised that we hadn’t understood it before, and there were some quite big things that needed to be… finessed.

How did you set about adapting the book?

Neal: We broke it down and split it up into episodes, then worked on an episode structurally, because it was all about getting the structure right. Then when we were happy with how much we had in an episode, we worked in exactly the same as we do on a film script, taking a scene each in the leap-frogging way that we operate.

In a film script, the hardest part always seems to be in the middle, getting that kick-start towards the end. But in 60 minutes it’s somehow easier: you don’t feel that sagging in the same way as you do in a 2-hour or a 90-minute piece. So that was an advantage structurally.

What was harder was that in a film script a scene should only last a couple of pages. If it lasts longer there’s got to be a very good reason for it, because film is all about moving on. TV is more about staying there for some time, partly because they can’t afford to keep moving on.

The word “montage” doesn’t seem to exist in television, because that’s individual brief scenes that they’ve got to get together and shoot. It’s too expensive, too time-consuming. So for us it was new to spend so long on one scene, but the advantage was that we could go into more depth in the characterisation.

Robert: For example, there’s a scene in episode two which is a 10-minute dialogue scene between four men playing cards. It’s a very good scene because of Len Deighton’s dialogue, but it’s like Casino Royale: a card game, with people playing their cards close to their chest.

Sam Riley as Douglas Archer and James Cosmo as Harry Woods in SS-GB.

© Sid Gentle Films Ltd and BBC Pictures

Were you concerned about giving each episode its own three-act structure?

Robert: There’s a certain amount of plot you’ve got to get through, but in a way you’re liberated from the three-act structure within those hours.

Neal: As far as structure is concerned, what you’re aiming for is the end of the episode.

Robert: You have to know the break point, and build towards it. We also learned that you’ve got one episode to grab the audience, so you have to tell them what it is and…

Neal: Introduce everybody.

Robert: And you have to hang it on something. Like, is this about a murder investigation, or does it just seem to be about a murder investigation? You have to come down on one side or the other.

Another thing that was interesting, especially by comparison to Bond, is that there were limits. With Bond there are no limits, you can afford to do anything – and that’s really scary, because you can change anything.

For instance, the introduction of Huth [SS Intelligence officer played by Lars Eidinger] was originally a scene at Croydon Aerodrome, as in the novel. Then the producers owned up that we wouldn’t be able to afford that, so we had to think of a new way of introducing him. There was always an autopsy scene, and by putting him in that scene it saved on a location and created a more interesting introduction to his character.

So those kind of limitations can be creatively good.

Kate Bosworth as Barbara Barga and Sam Riley as Douglas Archer in SS-GB

© Sid Gentle Films Ltd and BBC Pictures

Did you include information in each episode to orientate viewers who hadn’t seen previous ones?

Robert: That was something we had questions about. We did a certain amount of due diligence, making sure certain things were in there, but we knew it was going have a “Previously”, and it was also going to have a “Coming Up Next”, so that changes your way of thinking about things.

We wanted what happened to one particular character to be a mystery at the end of the penultimate episode, but the producers said, “We’re going to be showing that character in the teaser for the final episode anyway, so there’s no point in having a mystery about what happened to them.”

As executive producers we watched all the rushes and pretty much every edit, and were very involved in the music and the sound edit. But when it comes to things like that you don’t really get consulted, and yet they’re fundamental in creating the experience.

What else did your role as executive producers entail?

Robert: Because it was a continuing narrative we wanted a single director. And in that respect our role was less than it would have been if there had been different directors, because then it would have been our job to be the final arbiter, and make sure it was all consistent. But Philipp hadn’t directed in English before, so our job was to reassure him that the plot made sense, and it didn’t matter if he didn’t fully understand every nuance. In fact, that was our job with almost everybody, wasn’t it?

Neal: It did feel like we were the only people who understood everything.

Is there ever a moment during rewrites when you lose track of things?

Neal: What we like about writing film scripts is that you can lie in bed at night and contain the whole film in your head – and if you can’t, that’s not great, because you should be able to, really. But you can’t contain a 300-page, 5-hour TV script in your head, and that does feel a bit uncomfortable.

Sam Riley as Douglas Archer and James Cosmo as Harry Woods in SS-GB.

© Sid Gentle Films Ltd and BBC Pictures

Do you enjoy adaptations as much as writing original scripts?

Neal: The book gives you an underpinning which is very useful, but the danger is sticking to the book too much. It’s a learning process as to how much you alter it. And when you are less faithful to the book, you can take more pleasure in your own work.

Robert: It’s about how much license you have: how much you can contribute and improve.

Neal: With SS-GB, although we could fiddle with the climax, we had to build on what was already there to reach it. If you started messing around with it too much, the whole thing would fall apart. So in that instance, a fairly complex espionage story, we had to stick with it for the most part.

Robert: But that’s not unenjoyable.

You’ve worked a lot in the thriller genre…

Neal: Almost everything we do has a thriller element. Even when we’ve done comedies, they’ve often had a thriller element. A thriller is only an exaggerated version of what you do in any script, and we enjoy the elevated drama of it.

Robert: The only problem is, things tend to slide into dullness the minute a gun appears. It should be a big moment when a gun appears, as it would be in real life, but guns are all over the place in thrillers. So I think the thing about doing a thriller is: delay the moment that the gun comes out for as long as possible.

Featured image: Sam Riley as Douglas Archer in SS-GB. Photo by Laurie Sparham  © Sid Gentle Films Ltd and BBC Pictures

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