“I’m sure if the Nazis had invaded the UK, there would have been more of us collaborating than we’d like to think,” says Sam Riley, star of SS-GB. “In France the landowners and the wealthier classes had more to lose so they collaborated, having champagne parties with the SS — the working farmers were the heroes of the resistance. I’m a father now, with a three-year-old.
“If I was 26 and not married, I’d like to think I probably would have fought. But when you have something to lose — that’s what makes these regimes so powerful.”
That dilemma is the reason Riley, 37, lobbied so hard to play DS Douglas Archer — “Archer of the Yard,” he says with a grin — in SS-GB. He’s the best cop on the force under an “alternative history” German occupation, investigating a murder that draws him into the resistance.
“He tells his son he wants to ensure there’s law and order so when the Nazis leave it will still be in place, but I think he knows that’s not quite good enough.”
Lobbying wasn’t too hard — the German director Philipp Kadelbach had the same agent as Riley’s German wife. Riley gave him a call and they met in Berlin — Riley’s home town since he broke through in 2007 playing Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control. He met his wife, Alexandra Maria Lara, on the Control set.
Her parents are Romanian and fled Ceausescu’s Communist regime to give her a better life — so living in Berlin and talking to them has given him an insight on totalitarianism.
“My father-in-law was a theatre director and he talks about the security police watching rehearsals and how you couldn’t trust a soul. Fleeing was a brave decision — had it gone wrong, Alexandra would have been put in an orphanage, and God knows what would have happened.”
Having lived through both Communism and the Second World War, Riley’s father-in-law is very worried about Putin and the new Cold War. Riley is more circumspect. “A lot of people want me to talk about the connotations of this show and connect it to Donald Trump. I can see why, to an extent, but I try and avoid that if I can.”
Riley took the role of Curtis in Control because his band 10,000 Things had been dropped by a record label and he ended up serving the Kaiser Chiefs (who’d once supported him) in a Leeds pub.
“I had nothing to lose at that stage in my life,” he shrugs. “I threw myself into it as hard as I could and it worked out.” He’s since played opposite Angelina Jolie in Maleficent and was Mr Darcy in Pride, Prejudice and Zombies.
“The funny thing is, when I first signed up, I thought I could use the film to relaunch my music career,” he laughs. “When the film came out, it was obvious I had a much better chance of a career as an actor.”
SS-GB starts at 9pm on Sunday 19th February on BBC1