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Gary Oldman had 'free rein' in spy thriller 'Slow Horses' — now back for Season 3

In Apple TV+'s <em>Slow Horses</em>, Gary Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, the slovenly, brilliant spy who's in charge of a group of failed British spies. The series is based on Mick Herron's <em>Slough House</em> novels. Herron says Lamb might not have "a heart of gold" but he does have "a moral code."
Apple TV+
In Apple TV+'s Slow Horses, Gary Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, the slovenly, brilliant spy who's in charge of a group of failed British spies. The series is based on Mick Herron's Slough House novels. Herron says Lamb might not have "a heart of gold" but he does have "a moral code."

The hapless spies and their boorish leader are back.

The third season of the Apple TV+ drama Slow Horses, based on Mick Herron's Slough House novels, debuts Nov. 29.

Gary Oldman plays Jackson Lamb, the comically unpleasant leader of a gang of dejected British spies. He smokes and drinks on the job, needs a shower, eats junk and has flatulence issues, which he seems to use strategically.

Lamb's band of spooks became Slow Horses, as they're called, after messing up their careers in a variety of mishaps, including botching a surveillance operation and leaving a top secret file on a train. They've messed up good and Lamb never lets them forget it.

"Working with you has been the lowest point in a disappointing career," he tells them in a supposed pep talk.

"Despicable characters are more interesting to write about than kind, humane characters," says Herron.

Lamb "has a lot of unpleasant habits, very poor personal hygiene and a tendency to be as rude as he possibly can to his subordinates," Herron explains, "What we don't know is how much of this he actually means."

Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), right, and MI5's second in command Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) are formidable adversaries who constantly try to outplay each other.
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Apple TV+
Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), right, and MI5's second in command Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) are formidable adversaries who constantly try to outplay each other.

Oldman is a 'constant wonder'

Herron says Gary Oldman called him before they started shooting the first season, which debuted in the spring of 2022.

"He wanted to talk about what I could tell him about Lamb that wasn't in the books," Herron recalls. "And the fact is ... anything that's not in the books hasn't happened as far as I'm concerned. So Gary in many ways had free rein to add his own bits of history to the character.

"He likes to know what a character has in his fridge. He likes to know where characters went to school and what sort of childhood they had. And I've never written about any of that sort of thing. But Gary thinks about it when he's delivering his performance, and it's all part of the perfectly rounded spectacle that he brings to the screen."

Rosalind Eleazar and Christopher Chung play spies in Apple TV+'s <em>Slow Horses</em>.
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Apple TV+
Rosalind Eleazar and Christopher Chung play spies in Apple TV+'s Slow Horses.

"He's a constant wonder to me," says Slow Horses writer and executive producer Will Smith of Gary Oldman.

Smith says Herron's take on the spy genre is refreshing — and a natural for TV — because his characters are so believable.

"People struggling with kind of relatable issues everyone goes through: divorce, grief, feeling they're not in the right place in their careers. They hate their boss," says Smith.

Critics have raved about Slow Horses. The first two seasons were so successful, Apple TV+ ordered two more.

'Surrounded by losers, misfits and boozers'

Another high-profile fan of the books is Mick Jagger who co-wrote the theme song. "I really enjoyed creating the theme track for Slow Horses with Daniel Pemberton," Jagger writes on Instagram. "I've read a lot of the books and was familiar with some of the more dark and unsavoury characters and knew the direction I wanted to take it...hope you enjoy it!"

Season 3 is based on Real Tigers, Herron's third novel in the Slough House series. The villains are different but Lamb and his spies are still very much the underdogs.

"Fiction is full of heroes," says Herron. "I'm not averse to adding to their number but with Lamb, I'm more interested in his failings than I am in his virtues."

Lamb isn't all bluster. Herron adds that he might not have "a heart of gold" but he "does have a moral code."

"Fiction is full of heroes," says Herron. "I'm not averse to adding to their number but with Lamb, I'm more interested in his failings than I am in his virtues."
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Apple TV+
"Fiction is full of heroes," says Herron. "I'm not averse to adding to their number but with Lamb, I'm more interested in his failings than I am in his virtues."

This story was edited for audio and digital by Rose Friedman.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.