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The Sunday Post: Alternative Histories

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Sam Riley plays Detective Superintendent Archer in the dramatisation of Len Deighton's alternative history novel SS-GB, which concludes tonight on BBC One

SS-GB, which concludes tonight on BBC One, is the latest in a modest genre of dramas which take a “what if” look at established history, and imagine a different outcome to major historical events.

Based on the 1978 novel by Len Deighton, SS-GB’s only previous broadcast was in 1987, as an abridged reading by Paul Daneman, in the Radio 4 series Thriller! The premise of the book, that Britain lost the war in 1940 and has been invaded by the Nazis, has also been covered in different ways in the 1964 feature film It Happened Here, and the 1978 BBC drama An Englishman’s Castle.

Another alternative take on World War Two history, with wider consequences in which North and South America were invaded by the Nazis from the East and Japan from the West, can be found in Philip K Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, recently made into a US TV series.

Other literary alternative histories have included Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration, which imagines that the Reformation never took place and Western Europe is still controlled by the Holy Roman Empire, and Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea, which is set in an early 19th Century Britain still ruled by the Stuart dynasty. Amis’s novel, which is critical of Catholicism, has never been adapted for broadcasting, but Black Hearts in Battersea was made into a children’s Sunday tea-time serial beginning on the last day of 1995.

Alternative history of course should be distinguished from that much wider school of fiction, predictions of the future, often assumed to belong to the genre of science fiction – though there is not always much science on show. Some future predictions such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have since been overtaken in time, but as these works are mainly satires about the author’s own time, the date is often immaterial.

The 1965 remake of Nineteen Eighty-Four starred David Buck as Winston Smith and Jane Merrow as his lover Julia - long thought lost, a copy was found in the US Library of Congress in 2010

Nineteen Eighty-Four was the source of much satirical comment about how accurate it had turned out to be when that year came around. The BBC’s 1954 production, as discussed in the recent Genome blog about Nigel Kneale, was one of the first great television classic plays, whose influence lived on long after its transmission. So much so, that when a new production was mounted in 1965 as part of a George Orwell season on BBC2, the same script was used for the new cast: the effect was somewhat diminished although the production standards had improved.

Nineteen Eighty-Four shows a ruthless totalitarian state which constantly monitors the population, while feeding them propaganda which is doctored to keep up with changing events, to preserve the image of the state as omniscient. Dissidents live in constant fear of denunciation, and the possibility of being tortured and brainwashed back to a state of subservience.

In a less extreme vein was Wilfred Greatorex’s series 1990, starring Edward Woodward, which from the point of view of 1977 extrapolated what life might be like in 13 years’ time. Its premise was that Britain was under an oppressive regime which spied on its citizens and used techniques similar to those then in use in South Africa and the USSR against dissidents, but some aspects of life in the contemporary UK were also being satirised, such as the increasing dependence on computers to the detriment of freedom.

Other future fictions set in the year 2000 and thereabout have also been overtaken by reality, and we are only 10 years ahead of the time predicted by the 1987 series Star Cops, where there are multiple manned space stations and bases on the Moon – and the Cold War never ended. Doctor Who has inevitably had such future predictions overtaken by actual time in its long history, but it has also played with the possibilities of alternative present days caused by tinkering with the past, alternative universes, and the chance of reshaping the future by what we do today.

Philip Mackie's An Englishman's Castle portrays the moral dilemmas of Peter Ingram (Kenneth More), a television producer and writer, who lives in an alternative present where Nazi Germany has ruled Britain for three decades

An Englishman’s Castle was first transmitted in the BBC2 Play of the Week strand in June 1978. It was a series of three plays – effectively a serial, but commissioned by the plays department. The scripts were by Philip Mackie, who had been a BBC staff writer alongside Nigel Kneale in the 50s and was currently best known for his screenplay of The Naked Civil Servant for ITV. 

The series was set in the then-present day, in which the German invasion of Britain 30 years before now manifests itself as an almost invisible presence, with a puppet government running the country on behalf of the conquering power.  Kenneth More plays television writer/producer Peter Ingram, who helps to keep the population quiescent with his soap opera set at the time of the German victory, also called An Englishman’s Castle, which shows the Germans as a benign presence and promotes peaceful submission.

Ingram gets into trouble when he wants to introduce a Jewish character into his series – the Jews having disappeared from Europe under the Nazi regime. However, it eventually transpires that not only is his lover (Isla Blair) in fact Jewish – some Jewish people having escaped genocide by hiding in plain sight in the population – but she is part of an ongoing underground resistance movement, despite the initial resistors to the occupation having been coaxed into an armistice many years before.

Many scenes in An Englishman's Castle depict genuine production conditions, such as the opening of episode 1, which shows the production gallery of the series-within-the-series

With its authentic portrayal of the production of a popular television serial of the same name (which somewhat resembles the early 1970s ITV drama A Family at War), An Englishman's Castle has much to say about the nature of censorship. In one scene, Ingram's boss Harmer (Anthony Bate) instructs a news editor to tone down references to changes in the German government, as it draws attention to the unacknowledged influence of the Nazis on Britain.

By this period the old Nazi hierarchy are dying off, but there is a real possibility of their younger successors being hardliners. Those in the upper echelons console themselves that one day they will be free again to make their own political decisions, but it is hinted that this is a delusion designed to keep "civilised" people from rebelling. They know what freedoms they have can still be lost.

As the serial proceeds, the compromised and complacent Ingram, who has done very nicely out of the regime, comes to realise his position is untenable. It is a story about loyalty and betrayal, on the personal level as well as in professional and political terms. Ingram betrays his wife (who is used to ignoring his string of indiscretions) by having an affair, but finally decides which side he is on politically by personally broadcasting a code word which gives the signal for an armed uprising by the British underground resistance – even if it is at the cost of his own life.

Of all the possible alternative history scenarios, it does seem to be the outcome of the World War Two which most inspires those writers who have tackled the alternative history genre. It is perhaps a shame that more have not imagined fictional worlds on this global scale – perhaps there is a worry that audiences who are not too well-versed in history will either take the alternate reality as fact, or that people will just be confused and not bother to watch. SS-GB has taken that risk, without crudely signposting that this is not what happened in fact. It's up to the audience to judge if it succeeded.

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