Bonus Episode: Mick Herron's 'Slow Horses'
Bonus Podcast: Slow Horses
CLIP I don't normally do these kind of speeches, but this feels like a big moment. Working with you has been the lowest point and a disappointing career.
Meet Jackson Lamb, the inspirational leader of Slough house.
Cinema Junkie The Theme bump 1 (drums)
Welcome back to listener supported KPBS Cinema Junkie. I’m Beth Accomando.
Cinema Junkie The Theme bump 1 (Horns)
You won’t find Slows Horses in cinemas but it’s absolutely cinematic. The new Apple original show brings Mick Herron’s book to vivid life and delivers a British spy story but with a twist.
JAMES HAWES [director] These are the screw ups. They're about as far away from James Bond and Jason Bourne as you could imagine them to be.
Screw ups like River Cartwright who gets sent to Slough House where the agents are derogatorily referred to as “slow horses.” The boozing, farting Jackson Lamb oversees these misfits and I’ll be speaking with actor Gary Oldman as well as the director and other cast members about Slow Horses.
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Cinema Junkie is officially on a break for another month but the chance to interview Gary Oldman was just too good to pass up so here’s another bonus episode for you. In addition to Oldman, I’ll be speaking with actors Jack Lowden and Kristin Scott Thomas as well as director James Hawes.
I got to speak to Gary Oldman and Jack Lowden during an AppleTV+ virtual press day. The chemistry between the two actors was readily apparent and I was delighted that they decided to end the interview with a fart joke… absolutely fitting.
I began by asking Oldman about if author Mick Herron was involved in the series to any extent because the characters appeared so faithful to what he had written.
[00:00:20.190] - GARY OLDMAN
Well, first of all, you approaching the characters, as you say. You've got these books, so you've got a great roadmap that you're following. And also the scripts, the writing team, we try to keep very much to what Nick has written. It's created such a fantastic world. Obviously, there are things we lose. We don't have that thing that you have with a movie where you're trying to put a book into a two hour window, but we got 6 hours, which is plenty. But there's still things that you lose along the way. But overall, I think they're pretty. Do you know the books?
[00:01:18.350] - BETH ACCOMANDO
No, just a little bit of the first one I started reading that, yeah.
[00:01:26.310] - GARY OLDMAN
The series is pretty true to the source material.
[00:01:32.490] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And Jack, you are one of the quote unquote slow horses. So explain who they are and what that term means.
[00:01:42.330] - JACK LOWDEN
There are a group of agents who have made mistakes and they're very difficult to fire because they are civil servants, essentially. So they are thrown in this office block right at the very bottom of the service, doing all the things that nobody wants to do all the menial tasks. And it's to sort of encourage them to leave their dead weight. They are an embarrassment to the service. And that's very much Jackson's point of being in his position is to make it as horrible as possible for them so that they leave it's a very, very specific skill that he has to make it as miserable as possible. You imagine that he's the one that went, they thought, who should we get to run slow house? And they went to you. Although there is another reason why he's there. But that's not revealed.
[00:02:43.230] - GARY OLDMAN
Well, it's that thing. It separates the men from the boys. I'm going to treat everyone the same, but when they come in, I know who's going to stay, who's got the stomach for it. And the ones I can imagine going down the list and thinking, yeah, give him to me. I'll give him six months, he'll be gone. No, she won't last. I could drive are absolutely mad. I give that six weeks should be gone. And he knows who he's getting on the list. And the ones that he thinks have got stamina too, perhaps ultimately.
[00:03:33.790] - JACK LOWDEN
And they all have a bit of an attitude.
[00:03:37.750] - GARY OLDMAN
Yeah, they've all got an ego. I'm going to break that ego piece by piece. I'm going to take your path, boy.
[00:03:57.590] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Gary, how does it feel to have played two very iconic and very different spies in Smiley and Lamb?
[00:04:09.350] - GARY OLDMAN
I feel very lucky and very privileged to have been really embraced as I was by La Carre, because he had the ultimate say of who was going to play Smiley. So to have been part of that world and Mick, who is really the heir to the Kingdom of La Carai, to be a part of this world. So I feel very lucky, very privileged. That opportunity like this comes along once in really it is a one time thing, once in a career. To have had my feet in both those worlds is a wonderful privilege.
[00:05:09.470] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Now, even though this is very intense and very serious a lot of the time, there is a lot of very dark, kind of Savage humor as well. So how do you kind of play all the different notes? And what kind of a challenge is that for an actor?
[00:05:24.950] - GARY OLDMAN
Do you want to answer that one?
[00:05:27.710] - JACK LOWDEN
It's a different job for me on this than it is for Gary. River is quite often the butt of the joke, and Lamb is quite often the Joker. And his whole point of being there is to be there and take as much abuse as he can, and it almost becomes another level of his training. It's to just receive that constant abuse and also not forgetting that these people, some of whom I think are trained in interrogation and how to take interrogation. But this is a very different kind of abuse. I think river would probably be far better at receiving some pretty horrible torture. But this kind of sort of like schoolroom abuse probably, I think, throws them off balance a bit. And it's quite a difficult thing to take. And it's just Lamb is so quick witted and so sharp that you can never defeat him. You can never outwit him. I think he'd be a wonderful stand up on one of those.
[00:06:45.450] - GARY OLDMAN
Like, I tell you what, he could handle a heckler.
[00:06:50.960] - JACK LOWDEN
Well, he could handle a heckler. He'd be wonderful on a panel, you know, like panel shows where they get comedians on.
[00:06:57.950] - GARY OLDMAN
He could be on what is it, America's Got Talent?
[00:07:03.660] - JACK LOWDEN
Oh, my God. Imagine that. Imagine that. Just there in a clod as Smoke.
[00:07:13.130] - GARY OLDMAN
What's his name? Simon Cowell Jackson. What do you think?
Oldman and Lowden might have been getting a little punch drunk from sitting on zoom all day doing interviews. I wish I had had more time but hopefully their interplay will whet you appetite to see the show. Next up is Kristin Scott Thomas who plays Lamb’s boss Diana Taverner.
[00:07:46.990] - KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS
The key to Diana Taverner is she's number two, and number one is about ten years younger than her. So that's the key. And she is very angry about it. And she's beautifully turned out, which may seem like a sort of futile observation, but actually it's also a very important part of her character because it demonstrates her utter control and her obsession with keeping everything under a lid and under very she's just in charge of everything. She won't let anything escape her attention. Well.
[00:08:35.840] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And also that makes her a character who doesn't want to reveal a lot. So as an actress, how do you tackle that challenge, and how do you let us see things that she doesn't want to show?
[00:08:48.330] - KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS
Well, that's the exciting bit about playing a character like that is how much to show when. And it's fun to do when you have a very experienced director like James Haws, who probably reveals I haven't seen the whole thing. I've seen the first three episodes, but he will probably reveal more than I was aware that he was revealing or less than I was aware of because my job as an actress is to give him raw material to make his film with. So I turn up and I Act the scenes, and then he will manipulate them to get what he wants. So that's what I do. And it was difficult to do for me in a way, because it was the first time I'd actually done long form TV. So I wasn't very good at pacing myself. And luckily, because Gary is such a rock, I felt I was in a safe company and in a safe environment and able to explore and expand. And I knew that people would be able to respond if I did something that they weren't expecting or coax other things out of me if they felt what I was doing was too boring.
[00:10:12.610] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Since you brought up Gary Oldman talk about the relationship between Diana and Jackson Lamb and how you build that on screen relationship in the series?
[00:10:21.050] - KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS
Well, they are like cat and dog. They came up together through the service. We learned from Diana that he had service in the field and that he did some terrible things, and she knows what terrible things and he knows stuff about her. And we will find out as time goes by what those things are. But there's an animosity there, but there's also a kind of respect, a mutual respect, because each of them knows how terrifying the other one can be.
[00:11:11.030] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And even though the story is very intense and serious, there is also a lot of kind of dark, Savage humor that comes up through this. And how is it kind of doing the tone shifts or hitting all those different notes?
[00:11:25.320] - KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS
Well, I love all of that. That's right up my street. That's one of the things that really appealed to me, because I find that tension and humor go absolutely hand in hand, because if you make somebody feel relaxed and you give them a laugh, then you really can astonish them with something else afterwards. It's almost hitting below the belt, really. But you can also build once somebody's relaxed, then you can build tension much more easily, I think, and it's an old trick in the theater. You give them confidence and then you can take them anywhere. So I think it's really useful, and it's something that I really enjoy is the flip flopping between tragedy and comedy, between something very dark and something very light. I really enjoy that and last question.
[00:12:25.820] - BETH ACCOMANDO
I was just curious if you had been familiar with McCarron's books before you took on the series.
[00:12:31.070] - KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS
No, I had no idea. And then suddenly, out of the shadows, all my friends, I discover huge MC Heron fans, and there's a sort of whole cult thing going on with Slow Horses novels. And people got terribly excited and people rang me up just to talk to me about it. It was astonishing. All right.
[00:12:55.060] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Well, thank you very much, and thank you for the wonderful work in the series.
[00:12:58.430] - KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS
Thank you very much.
That was Kristin Scott Thomas. My final interview was with director James Hawes. I asked him to provide an introduction to the world of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses.
[00:13:10.310] – JAMES HAWES
Mick has created a world that is inspired by the whole British genre of spy fiction. But it's got a twist. These are the screw ups. They're about as far away from James Bond and Jason Born as you could imagine them to be. If that is the Aston Martin and Martini of the spy world, then we're on a broken down escooter. We're drinking half poured pints of beer. It doesn't sound that beguiling, but there is such charm and character and accessibility to these characters that these are the guys you really want to hang with.
[00:13:50.090] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And what attracted you to doing this series?
[00:13:54.710] - JAMES HAWES
I was drawn because, listen, that spy world is many directors dream. It's a world you want to be part of building. You want to go and play in the genre that has the legacy of all those great ticket soldiers, spy and the American conspiracy movies like all the President's Men and Three Days of a Condor. All of that is somewhere in the DNA. Then there is this extra vein of dark humor that runs through it that makes it, I think, special. So it's not just a reinvention. It's a really natural growth of the genre. And then somebody said, Gary Oddman, and who's going to say no when you've got that combination of elements?
[00:14:45.990] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Now, I have some friends who are spy ficionados and have been looking forward to this series forever, and they were so impressed by the accuracy with which you captured the characters and the books. So I'm just wondering, was Mkharan involved to any extent in the actual series or what were you doing to kind of ensure that accuracy?
[00:15:12.630] - JAMES HAWES
Mikheran was involved in the writer's room, so from the moment that it left the page of the novel and started to take shape in the minds of the writers, particularly Will Smith, who was heading up the writing team, Mick was there to talk about the characters. Now, without wanting to state the obvious, too blandly TV, the screen, it's a different form. You've got to lift the story and the characters off the page. The storytelling takes a different shape, so we needed to make changes for it to adapt to the screen. Mick was there to say, well, okay, you can do that, but such and such a character wouldn't behave in that way. But what if, because I always had in my mind that a backstory might be so it's those kinds of elements.
[00:16:06.390] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And one of the things that's really fascinating to watch or fun to watch, too, is the interplay between the characters of Jackson Lamb and Diana Tavener and the interplay between these actors you have of Gary Oldman and Christian Scott Thomas. So talk a little bit about their dynamic.
[00:16:27.750] - JAMES HAWES
Well, I think what you have is a sense that these are two spy Legends, that they have real history and status in the British Intelligence Service. They've come down different career paths. One of them has been very much more in the field during the Cold War. One has played the politics and played the game and gone up the ranks because that sort of power broking was what she wanted to achieve. And now you have two people that are ostensibly within the same organization but could not be more different in their approach. And what happens within so horses is you meet these two incredible characters played by two legendary actors, come head to head, face to face. They're locking horns. And there are, I think, some of the best scenes of the show when those two have to face off either beside a wintry canal in North London or in the office of one of the others. And those are some of our classic movie moments within the story.
[00:17:25.050] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And what's interesting about those characters, too is there's a certain level at which they are not openly expressing a lot of emotion or showing things. There's a lot that they want to keep kind of especially with Diana, like, kind of press down and controlled. And so kind of what's the fun or the challenge of getting these characters on screen when part of what they're doing and part of what a lot of it is going on is hiding things?
[00:17:56.710] - JAMES HAWES
Well, yeah, it is a challenge. But also, I think there are two things. I think that kind of suppression. It's a very British thing. It's very true to the world of spies and the way those characters behave. They don't express and they do contain their emotions. They've both got to be very sharp and pragmatic and objective when they're making decisions mid mission as we meet them. And I think with actors like Kristen and Gary, they've done so much work with their back stories. We've talked about it in rehearsal. We know how those characters might have met in the past. And all they have to do is live with that character, live with those emotions, and those will play them within a scene. And I think with both of them, when you're uptight on those shots looking at their faces, you know, the layers of other character information, the other bits of story, the other bits of history that are going on behind the eyes.
[00:18:52.090] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Well, I've just been speaking with some Editors for another story I was working on. And watching this, I felt, too it's something in the editing room where you're just getting those split seconds of a glance or a look that really makes the scene just kind of Ping in just the right way.
[00:19:10.980] - JAMES HAWES
Yeah. And we had two great Editors working with me, both of whom have a particular talent for cutting dialogue and for seeing the rhythms of the scene, letting it breathe within the pace of the performance, not trying to desperately speed it up and obviously feel some of the silences and the spaces in between the words, which can be very tense, very telling in any relationship.
[00:19:37.090] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Now, a very different relationship you have going on there is between Lamb and river, and I had a chance to interview the two of them, and they were together, and they felt like they had this almost comic rapport going on. And talk a little bit about the tone of those scenes because you mentioned that there's this kind of dark humor that comes up, and yet you don't sacrifice any of the tension or drama to get there. So talk a little bit about kind of the tonal changes that are going on.
[00:20:09.430] - JAMES HAWES
The tone was the most frightening thing for me in taking on this show because it is so particular. It's such a narrow, delicate line to have to walk. And that is part of what makes the horses different to other shows you might have seen before. The guns are loaded, people die, there's blood on the pavements, and yet on a dime, the story in the mood and the scene changes, and you're laughing about Lamb corners and Lamb's flatulence. So finding that it came from all the humor comes from character. As long as the characters are rooted and real and you believe them in the world, I think there's a lot more space to move in terms of how we achieved it. It was rehearsal. It was conversation. It was then testing it on the set with actors as good as Gary and Jack to see where the envelope lay. How hard could we push against the walls before it became too big? We needed to be sure that we kept the idea of these guys as spies real, and then we could let the humor live alongside.
[00:21:19.630] - BETH ACCOMANDO
I have to say one of my favorite moments was when Lamb returns the car that they've stolen, and he's sitting in there just listening to music. And there was something about that scene that was just so pitch perfect about getting his tone and his interaction with the other characters.
[00:21:39.430] - JAMES HAWES
And he's a guy who uses his own humor as a weapon to destabilize people that he is negotiating with. He doesn't need to turn up arm to the teeth with some conventional sidearm. He can do it by just unsettling people who expect a certain way of behavior. And then he meets them with something completely different.
[00:22:05.410] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And you mentioned that The Slow Horses are kind of the rejects of Mi Five. You have a great opening song from Mick Jagger for the series that really from that first moment you hear, it kind of sets the tone. How was it to get him involved and to create that song for the show?
[00:22:25.810] - JAMES HAWES
Well, it's thrilling. I've described just a couple of times that you have pinched me moments in a career. And the first time that the composer Daniel sent through Mix first version of this song, recorded on his iPhone, just to stand there listening. I was on a train platform halfway back from center of London to where I live. And it was just extraordinary. It was just before Christmas. It felt really like a Christmas present. Again, we're talking about the tone of the show. After this quite dynamic and more conventional opening. We then have to adapt the tone into Sloughhouse and meeting three rejects. I always thought that a song would be a good way to do that, and I wanted somebody to perform it who was British through and through, who had London in his roots, who probably had some sense of the 70s and 80s, so dated from the years of the Cold War when Jackson Lamb was at his strength. But he's also somebody then and now somebody who, like Jackson, is still at the height of his powers. And that was Mick Jagger. And to have somebody who is such a poet as Mickey, to write those words, to come to those lyrics.
[00:23:44.400] - JAMES HAWES
So we happened to have a music supervisor, a brilliant music supervisor who knew somebody on Mix producing team. So conversations were begun and we sent through a little snippet of material, the tune that Daniel Pemberton had written, and the writer and I just came out with a few paragraphs about the essence of the show and what we thought might be a good tone, which was about second chances for Mick to explore. And well, as he describes it, it came very easily. So there was this serendipitous thing that he knew the books, he'd read the books. So he was always already very familiar with McMahon's characters. He knew the way of the world. So I think he didn't have to go and do a whole research. So the sort of thing Gary Oldman always says, it's not how well you know the script, it's how long you've known the script. It's about having lived with it and let it come through. And so we end up with this quite amazing opening song.
[00:24:47.910] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And what do you feel that McCarron is getting to in terms of contemporary espionage? That's different. You've mentioned things about tone, but is he giving us kind of a different insight or a different sensibility about what kind of drives contemporary espionage?
[00:25:10.170] - JAMES HAWES
I'm not sure it's that different. I think he's allowing us a more Democratic point of view. If we went back to the 50s and 60s, I think we'd be thinking of them as we certainly the British would be unquestioning of security forces and trusting them absolutely in what they were doing to defend their realm. Nowadays, both sides of the Atlantic, we as populations are perhaps rather more scrutiny and questioning of our great authorities and institutions. And we know that not everything is always quite as black and white as we might like it to be. And with transparency and being able to see through the chinks of the doors, we discover some things that are a little bit more uncomfortable for us. And I think Mick is showing us some of that. Some of the game playing that goes on, some of the humanity spies are still humans. They still want to achieve in their careers. They still want to go home. At the end of the day, they still have ambitions. And I think some of that is being shown to us. It's also I think there's something about seeing a British spy series now when Britain is perhaps not the power that it was when Fleming and Lakari were first writing.
[00:26:34.000] - JAMES HAWES
And we're having to accept the fact that we're not quite as big a player on the global stage, but we're still placed halfway between Europe and America. We're still very good at intelligence and security. So perhaps this is one of those dramas that encourages us to believe we still have a place on the global stage.
[00:26:53.070] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And what have been some of the biggest challenges in terms of getting this onto the screen and getting it to be the way you want it to be?
[00:27:02.970] - JAMES HAWES
Well, I can't talk about the making this without mentioning the pandemic. Everybody's bored about talking about Kobe, but obviously in our industry, you can't shoot remotely. We had to at some point come face to face. We lost cast members, we lost locations. We had to suspend because of we had to box very clever to achieve everything we wanted to. Things like the opening sequence. We didn't have crowds in the airport like you would on the street outside Sloughhouse. Any crowd that came down was in masks. And we didn't want to do a spying in the time of COVID kind of movie. So we had to create all the traffic and everybody on the pavement is us manipulating rather than shooting within the real world. So there was that much more logistics and world building to have to do so that's I think, a particular challenge that just has to be talked about, really.
[00:28:12.630] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And now that the first season is coming out, what are you feeling kind of most proud of or what was the most rewarding aspect of this?
[00:28:23.790] - JAMES HAWES
We had a Premier last night, and I think one of the things for those people who made the show is that you become overfamiliar with it. So the things that are scary aren't quite as scary. The things that are funny, you forgot funny so to sit there and hear people laughing as much as they were laughing, to feel people tense, actually literally grabbing the side of the chair in the opening sequence, worrying about some of our characters, that was hugely satisfying, and I think it's the scale of it as well. One of the things that working with a network like Apple allows you to do is to imagine and dream of bigger scale, and I think this is a show that delivers, certainly in sequences, a cinematic scale that we're beginning to want more of on our television, and that's really thrilling to achieve.
[00:29:16.770] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Well, it's interesting you mentioned watching it with an audience because for a TV series, do you get much of an opportunity to actually watch it? I mean, I understand other people watch it, but that sense of being in a cinema with a large community of people watching something. Are there test screenings of TV series in that kind of a context?
[00:29:40.470] - JAMES HAWES
Not that this director is aware of. There are moments in the edit room and moments where you're obviously talking about it with your executive and editorial team, where it's like offering your homework as a director to be marked, but it's being marked in front of the class. And something changes in the Cosmos of the room. When other people are there, you feel everything more acutely. It's like being a traffic accident. When everything goes Super, super slow, you're aware of every movement you feel where things maybe need to be tightened still further or you worry that where you thought you were laughing. They're not. So it is a very different experience watching, just even with people over your shoulders, you don't even have to be looking into their eyes to feel how something is being responded to. But no, the vast majority of it is done with the writers, the executives, the production team, the Editors, and we really take our time stress testing the stories, Stress testing the moods, until we are confident that we've made the very best we can out of the material.
[00:30:53.130] - BETH ACCOMANDO
And I believe two of the books were shot back to back. Are there plans to go further into McCarron's Gallery of books?
[00:31:03.990] - JAMES HAWES
There are certainly hope to go beyond this. There are two that you're right. They've already shot the next six. Those are in the editorial process and will come out sometime later in the year, I think is currently the plan. And there are all kinds of talks and hopes and aspirations for more beyond that.
[00:31:28.650] - BETH ACCOMANDO
Well, thank you very much for talking about slow horses and giving us quite a fun and tense ride for a new spy show.
[00:31:39.390] - JAMES HAWES
It's been a huge pleasure. It's lovely talking to you.
That was director James Hawes. Thanks for listening to another bonus episode of Cinema Junkie. I want to suggest that you check out my earlier podcast episodes focused on James Bond and the real world spies of John Le Carre. Those podcasts offer the perfect complement to this one. And I want to give a shout out to Jeff Quest, Gary Dexter and Shane Whaley and direct you to their podcasts Barbican Station – A slough house podcast and Spybary Spy Podcast where you can get some insights on the show and Mick Herron’s books from some spy aficionados.
Cinema Junkie will return to regular biweekly podcasts in May.
Till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando your resident Cinema Junkie.
Micke Herron's acclaimed spy novel "Slow Horses" has arrived on AppleTV+ and is a stunning, character-driven thriller that will hook you.
Cinema Junkie is officially on a break for another month but the chance to interview Gary Oldman was just too good to pass up so here’s another bonus episode for you. In addition to Oldman, I’ll be speaking with actors Jack Lowden and Kristin Scott Thomas as well as director James Hawes.
I got to speak to Oldman and Lowden during an AppleTV+ virtual press day. The chemistry between the two actors was readily apparent and I was delighted that they decided to end the interview with a fart joke… absolutely fitting for Oldman's character of Jackson Lamb who is plagued by flatulence.
I want to suggest that you check out my earlier podcast episodes focused on James Bond and the real world spies of John Le Carré. Those podcasts offer the perfect complement to this one. And I want to give a shout out to Jeff Quest, Gary Dexter and Shane Whaley and direct you to their podcasts Barbican Station – A Slough House Podcast and Spybary Spy Podcast where you can get some insights on the show and Mick Herron’s books from some spy aficionados. Quest and Dexter were Cinema Junkie guests for my spy podcasts so you will get great and entertaining information from them.