How Gary Oldman’s farting, belching and manic charisma made Slow Horses one of the best shows on TV

Gary Oldman plays a half-soaked, foul-mouthed espionage maestro  (Apple )
Gary Oldman plays a half-soaked, foul-mouthed espionage maestro (Apple )

It’s great to not give a f***,” Gary Oldman has said of his role in Slow Horses, the spy drama that’s up for the top gong, Best Drama Series, at the Baftas this weekend. In the meticulously groomed, refined world of screen acting, Oldman’s performance as Jackson Lamb – the sublimely repulsive leader of a group of outcast MI5 agents – has been just that. A decoupling from the customary f***s of the industry.

The story of Slow Horses, which has become a cult hit for Apple TV+, begins and ends with Oldman. His performance as the perpetually half-soaked, foul-mouthed espionage maestro has elevated the show from the vast mire of British spy thrillers. Funny – the show’s creator, Will Smith, is a veteran of The Thick of It – and irreverent, it’s tempting to see it as a breath of fresh air. But with Lamb around, it’s more likely to be an acrid fog of cigarette smoke and vodka burps.

“Everybody wants to work with Gary,” casting director Nina Gold told Spotlight. “When he said yes, we were absolutely thrilled. Then we took it from there.” The casting of Oldman – fresh off the back of his Best Actor Oscar for The Darkest Hour – was a huge coup for the show’s producers, and the streamer.  Oldman is a classic “film actor” who has largely eschewed the small screen. Before stepping into Slough House, an outpost of MI5 inhabited by people who have irreparably screwed up their careers, his last TV appearances were in the early Noughties: playing himself in short-lived adult puppet comedy Greg the Bunny, and making a guest appearance as a foppish actor in Friends.

But times have changed since then (even if the flip phones and gel pens are back in fashion). “There was always that sort of snobbery of ‘I’m a film actor’,” he told Newsweek, back in 2022. “That really doesn’t happen anymore. You will see some of the best writing and acting and cinematography and set design in your home, on your TV.” With top-drawer thespians such as Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Matthew McConaughey migrating to the format, TV has become an increasingly starry proposition. And in Apple and Amazon – two of the leading players in the streaming revolution – the world’s most valuable companies are now bringing the financial clout of Big Tech to the high-status, but low-margin, world of television.

After The Darkest Hour, in which Oldman played Winston Churchill through a thick mask of prosthetics, the idea of him as a quirky, but eminently fanciable, character actor evolved. Roles like dreadlocked pimp Drexl in True Romance, or Leon’s maniacal villain Norman Stansfield, had demonstrated Oldman’s willingness to push into unsavoury territory – but with Lamb he goes full grotesque. The role has been described as “Falstaffian” and “flatulent” (the latter is undeniable); the sort of showy role that most actors avoid, for fear of ruining their chances of getting cast as some spandexed superhero.

But Lamb is a superhero of another kind. The grotesquery – he farts and belches, and appears greasy-haired and unshaven, his pit stains colouring his unwashed shirts – is coupled with a manic charisma. “Tell her she best interrogate me in a room with a window,” he announced in the show’s first season. “I had lamb bhuna earlier that’s gonna make its presence felt.” From “arse-timing” the Pope to Paraguayan prostitutes and paper condoms, all of the show’s best lines are gifted to Lamb.

And yet, unlike Falstaff – the bumbling Shakespearean braggart who appears in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor – Lamb is not boastful or vain. In point of fact, compared to those around him – not least the icy Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) or the preening River Cartwright (Jack Lowden, up for a Bafta for his performance) – Lamb is a devastatingly consistent agent. It’s a very British contradiction: he wears the glasses and trench coat of a sex offender but has the operational brilliance of James Bond.

Oldman’s Jackson Lamb is a superhero of a sort (Apple)
Oldman’s Jackson Lamb is a superhero of a sort (Apple)

Far from being unassuming, he is all-assuming. A voodoo doll channelling all the negative associations and assumptions of the viewing public. “He’s become unstoppable,” Mick Herron, author of the Lamb novels on which the show is based, told The Guardian on the eve of the show’s premiere. “I can’t have him suddenly becoming nice, or showing that he has a heart of gold.” Quite right too: in a world of perma-tanned, six-packed leading men, whose jawlines look like they’ve been chiselled by Bernini himself, Lamb is a welcome antidote.

The success or failure of Slow Horses is not predicated on the result of the Best Drama Series Bafta this weekend (which will likely go to Happy Valley, anyway). Seasons four and five of the show have already been announced, and, unlike other prestige dramas, the series has a good, and distinctly un-British, track record of on-time delivery. Since we’ve been waiting for a second chapter of fellow Apple TV+ drama Severance, which began in February 2022, Slow Horses has released three excellent series, with another coming this year. In a world where hit shows feel licensed to tantalise their viewers, Slow Horses serves up the sort of feast Lamb would be found slurping back at the New Empire Chinese restaurant.

The show’s long-term success may, instead, be contingent upon Apple TV+ broadening its audience. Estimates put the service at around 2 million subscribers in the UK, significantly behind both Netflix and Amazon, which have broken the 10 million figure, and Disney+, which is pushing at that door. For all the critical acclaim and the riches of the bods in Cupertino, broadcasting on Apple still involves an exile from the commercial mainstream. But for the disgraced denizens of Slough House, maybe that’s precisely where they want to be.

The Bafta TV awards air at 7pm on BBC One on Sunday 12 May