When he wrote “Slow Horses,” the first of his Slough House series of alt-spy thrillers, the British novelist Mick Herron helpfully included some casting advice. He described his most vivid character, Jackson Lamb, perhaps a bit redundantly, as “Timothy Spall gone to seed.”
Twelve years later, “Slow Horses” has made it to the screen (premiering Friday on Apple TV+) and Herron’s advice has been ignored. But with all due respect to Spall, it’s hard to imagine anyone better as the ill-tempered, acid-tongued Lamb than the man who got the part, Gary Oldman.
Sporting an unruly sweep of graying hair and shapeless suits that look like they were bought at the height of the Cold War, Oldman is the backbone of “Slow Horses.” Lamb is the boss of the fictional Slough House, a shabby warren of offices where agents of the British intelligence agency MI5 are sent if they make a sufficiently embarrassing or costly mistake. There they carry out pointless grunt work while enduring Lamb’s constant, finely wrought insults. His idea of a pep talk: “You’re useless. The lot of you. Working with you has been the lowest point in a disappointing career.”
It would be easy to overplay or theatricalize Lamb — to turn him into a one-note martinet — but Oldman is so relaxed and natural that he makes the splenetic has-been fully human, and suggests the greater depths of compassion and capability that will be revealed as the story progresses. At the same time, he’s deadly spot-on in his delivery of withering disparagement — Lamb is a comic, sarcastic extension of his brilliant portrayal of another over-the-hill spook, George Smiley, in the 2011 film “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
The show around Oldman is not entirely up to the standards set by his performance, but it’s not too far off — “Slow Horses” is a highly satisfying celebration and sendup of the John le Carré novels that clearly inspired it. It’s a complicated conspiracy thriller crossed with an office comedy, and it lightly dusts grungy realism with off-kilter, absurdist touches that only occasionally misfire. It also showcases a great cast — Oldman is joined by, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as MI5’s steely head of operations, Jonathan Pryce as a retired spymaster and Jack Lowden as a young agent recently arrived at Slough House, and they’re all fantastic.
If there’s a problem with the show, it’s the inverse of what’s sometimes referred to as Netflix bloat. “Slow Horses” demonstrates that six episodes — a standard length for British crime dramas — isn’t necessarily enough time to adapt a complexly plotted, fully characterized book. The show is more faithful to Herron’s novel than you might expect, with the result that the turns in the story can seem arbitrary and be hard to follow.
The show begins with a breathless action sequence now set atLondon’s Stansted Airport— a nine-minute scene full of earbud commands, sprinting, yelling, tackling and escalator misbehavior. (The unspoken joke in the book is that nothing nearly as invigorating, or as tritely cinematic, happens again; several subsequent chases have been added in the series, a bit of audience pandering that reads as a failure of imagination.)
The fallout from that scene is what brings Lowden’s River Cartwright, who is rash, idealistic and actually highly capable, to Slough House, where he’s surrounded by other disgraced agents who are more or less resigned to being sidelined. He chafes against his demotion, which he believes was undeserved, and against Lamb’s put-downs; when an assignment to go through a journalist’s garbage appears to be connected to a hostage crisis, hedisobeys Lamb’s orders and investigates, eventually pulling the rest of the Slough House crew with him.
As directed by James Hawes and mostly written by Will Smith, who worked on the Armando Iannucci political satires “Veep” and “The Thick of It,” it’s an enjoyable, acidic but low-key ride through the night streets and dull days of London. It’s focused as much on pub dates, office gripe sessions and desultory stakeout conversations as on tradecraft, and every line of dialogue threatens to turn into a creative insult or a bitter joke. (A favorite: “Bringing you up to speed is like trying to explain Norway to a dog.”)
The first executive producer listed on “Slow Horses” is Graham Yost, which makes sense, because good shows follow him around — two of his most recent gigs were with “Justified” and “The Americans.” And there’s another name in the credits that stands out: The original theme song, “Strange Game,” was written (with Daniel Pemberton) and sung by Mick Jagger, who is a fan of the book. Now there’s an endorsement that means something.