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SS-GB, episode 2 review: dystopian Nazi drama sounds good and deserves our full attention

Does the UK need to clean out its lugholes? The first episode of  Len Deighton’s SS-GB (BBC One) detonated a nationwide rant about sound quality in BBC drama. That’s right, another one. Many comments focused on the return of the curse of mumblegate (see also Jamaica Inn).

There are sundry technical explanations for all this: wafer-thin wall-mounted TVs with feeble speakers, terrible laptop sound, etc. My hunch is that TV drama increasingly aspires to the production values of cinema, but forgets that modern fleapits have surround sound. Not every gogglebox is plugged into a subwoofer.

Without me wishing to be all ad hominem about it, there’s also the specific issue of Sam Riley’s rasping manly baritone. His normal speaking voice would blow the bloody doors off, so DS Douglas Archer, who is often confiding with people in corners, tends to keep things sotto voce. The result: ear trumpets and/or much rewinding.

The glorious centrepiece of the second episode was a spiffing card game in which Riley plus three actors in dinner jackets sat puffing on cigars and carefully sounded one another out about internationalising the resistance to German occupation. Every word came up clear as a bell – luckily, as there was a lot of plot to get through.

Robert Wade and Neil Purvis's adaptation of SS-GB is simmering nicely. Archer couldn’t play bridge so the chaps had to resort to whist. Riley has given him the poker face of a man caught between conscience and instinct, heart and head – and between three women. At the moment, the peachy femme fatale Barbara Barga (Kate Bosworth) very much leads the field.

The murder plot, involving an internecine German tussle to claim the nuclear future, is a labyrinth requiring all your attention. But there’s plenty of production design to admire too. Every detail has been lovingly crafted, down to the occult iconography that obsesses Himmler. When hideous SS fanatic Dr Oskar Huth raided the cluttered hideaway of Archer’s secretary Sylvia Manning, he had a pair of beautifully mocked-up decadent Thirties portraits slashed. Meanwhile, lurking silently and uncredited on the wall of Huth’s office was a Piero della Francesca from the National Gallery. How classy is that?

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