Making the acclaimed new Apple TV+ series Slow Horses has been a dream come true for director James Hawes, who grew up in Cornwall. Not only did he work with such towering acting talents as Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Jonathan Pryce, he persuaded Mick Jagger to write and sing the theme song.
Based on a series of acclaimed books by Mick Herron, Slow Horses is a darkly funny spy drama which follows a team of British intelligence agents who have cocked up and have to serve in a dumping ground department of MI5 – Slough House on the outskirts of London. Oldman stars as Jackson Lamb, the brilliant, irascible and somewhat scuzzy leader of the shamed spies who have to navigate the espionage world’s smoke and mirrors to defend England from sinister forces. The six-part series launched globally on Apple TV+ on Friday (April 1).
James, who grew up in Constantine, near Falmouth, and attended Truro School, is no stranger to big shows – he launched David Tennant as the tenth Time Lord in Doctor Who and has directed episodes of Black Mirror, Snowpiercer and Penny Dreadful among many other shows and documentaries. However, Slow Horses is his biggest job yet. “I was sent the first couple of scripts by the production company See-Saw, who made The King’s Speech and The Power of the Dog. I pitched my take on the material and was very keen to do it, but there’s always a contest. Thankfully, I landed it and had an angle. I wanted to make it special. We talked a lot about the tone. It’s classic spy genre but we’ve evolved it; it’s a strong character piece with a dark humour to it.”
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Unusually for big series these days, which tend to have a showrunner but a different director per episode, James helmed all six episodes, filming for 117 days which was “very demanding”. He told CornwallLive: “There are advantages in that you’re the sole author of the world and get to have a singular conversation with the actors. Gary had come from film and had never done any television before and was keen to have the same director throughout, which meant my head was on the block. Gary plays the loathsome Jackson Lamb. He’s having so much fun. You can tell, can’t you? It was so brilliant to see him go from rehearsals to appearing on set where his physicality completely changed – he adapted his skin to fit Jackson Lamb.”
The brilliant opening episode is testament to James’ talent – switching from a thrilling edge-of your-seat opening to the dirty twilight world of Slough House. The director added: “The opening is like a Bond sequence. In the book it’s set at Kings Cross station but we couldn’t film there as it was too busy, so we reimagined it and what you see is what we came up with – before making a sharp handbrake turn into the grunge and f**k-ups at Slough House.”
As well as working with such acting legends as Oldman, James is over the moon that he managed to persuade rock royalty to write and perform Slow Horses’ theme song. He said: “We always wanted a song to set the tone for the show and there was only ever one name in my mind – Mick Jagger. He’s never done a TV or movie soundtrack – he’s licensed Rolling Stones songs but never recorded one himself. I dared to ask and found out he knew the books and he knew the composer Daniel Pemberton. It was just before Christmas and I got a text from Daniel, saying wait till you hear this, and he played me the demo Mick had recorded on his iPhone. Hearing the track for the first time was utterly thrilling. It was a ‘pinch me now’ moment. Mick’s lyrics and performance have totally nailed the mood of Slow Horses, with all the humour and swagger I dreamed of.”
On working with such high calibre actors, James added: “It was such an honour to work with a cast of this scale – it wasn’t just Gary, there’s Jonathan Pryce, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jack Lowden. They are some of the best actors of their generation. They challenged me, so I had to have my ducks in a row. Gary set the tone for the ensemble and everybody raised their game, while Jack is a great mix of action star and comedian. Gary has fun – he enjoys the process. He lives in Palm Springs these days, so he’s not the London lad he once was, though he has a lot of family here, so enjoys coming back.”
As James was raised in Constantine and Kristin Scott Thomas was born in Redruth, did they discuss Cornwall? “Very much so. I talked to Kristin about Cornwall and what draws us back. The one word we both agreed on was ‘elemental’. She’s very much aware of her roots. Actually, I used a Cornish accent here and there when I was directing which got some giggles from the cast.” Slow Horses has already been greenlit for a second series, while James is waiting to hear about a big film project. “I’ve got a movie in the offing and am just waiting for the pieces to come together, but I don’t want to say any more in case I jinx it.”
James’ dream to work in drama started in Cornwall, where his father worked for mine engineering company, Holman’s. “We’d been abroad in South America and then my father came home to work in Camborne. It’s proper tin mining heritage – his mother’s family, the Richards, go back generations of Cornish tin miners, something he didn’t know when he joined Holman’s and moved to Cornwall. So he returned not just to the land of his ancestors, but to the same industry.”
James added: “I started at the county primary in Constantine and then went on to Truro School. I was supposed to become a soldier, a lawyer and all sorts of establishment things until a teacher called Watson Weeks introduced me to drama and I didn’t look back. In fact, he and I were in touch right through his life. He really was an inspiration and a mentor, as he was for many others in the industry too.
“I was really lucky at Truro School – partly because of Watson Weeks, but I was also a chorister and I got on really well with the choir and music teacher Henry Doughty and Derek Burrell was an energetic, involved, musical head. I spoke at Watson’s funeral. I was able to say there were producers, actors, directors and drama teachers who couldn’t be there because they were working thanks to Watson.
“You look at the creative arts side of things and Truro School has done very well. You tend to think of Roger Taylor and Benjamin Luxon but there’s many, many more out there. [Lord of the Rings actor] John Rhys-Davies very much acknowledges his career to Watson. I owe the school a lot.”
Slow Horses is available to watch on Apple TV+