Witnesses is a global crime/mystery series in the now familiar long-form narrative format. It has inevitably been compared to various other examples of what is becoming a global model, derived from the success of The Killing and The Bridge. Like the Scandinavian serials, the second season was broadcast on BBC4 in the UK ending a few weeks ago. (Season 1 was broadcast on Channel 4.) The key common element is a pair of police investigators in which the woman is the lead figure. What makes Witnesses ‘different’, at least in the first two seasons/series/serials, is the setting and the inclusion of some of the tropes of the horror film.
The location is Northern France. The police team is based in Lille and the action seems to range across the whole Nord-Pas de Calais region with an emphasis on the coast in both series. In fact, the action spreads all the way to Mont-Saint-Michel and Granville in Normandy several hundred kilometres away. The distances are so great that they detract from the realism of some of the plot devices, but conversely heighten the fantasy elements. Some of the Scandinavian narratives make use of similar settings but it occurred to me that Witnesses might also share something with the Welsh serial Hinterland. A second possible reference for me was the stories of Fred Vargas whose crime novels have the same mystery elements and sometimes use similar locations (e.g. by the coast or in rural Normandy). Although Vargas has been adapted in France, I’m not aware of any overseas sales.
The two central characters are Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) and Justin (Jan Hammenecker). Sandra is the typical ‘maverick’ cop and Justin is the more stable partner who is generally in the background , but whose personal life is also explored. Each of the two seasons so far features a similar credit sequence with Sandra striding towards the camera along a ‘boardwalk’ past a row of bathing huts. She then reaches a dilapidated hut which blocks her path and she opens its doors to reveal a fantasy figure. In the first season this is a wolf (see below) and in the second three strange children. The music in the title sequence by the UK ‘trip-hop’ artist Tricky with Francesca Belmonte has an ethereal tone which underlines the potential fantasy of the stories. The song’s title is ‘We Don’t Die’ and the lyrics fit the stories so well I’m intrigued to see what the writer-creators Marc Herpoux and Hervé Hadmar (who also directs) will come up with next. The first story begins with the discovery of the corpses of people recently buried but now dug up and arranged in family groups in public places such as a show house on a new estate. As Sandra investigates she uncovers a connection to her former boss in Lille who has become something of a local celebrity.
In Season 2, the story begins with the discovery of a bus parked on a country road. Inside the bus are 15 frozen corpses of men who disappeared some time ago. Eventually the investigation will uncover a complex interweaving of stories which will eventually entrap Sandra herself and in which she will team up with a woman who herself disappeared and is then discovered three years later, unable to remember what happened to her. This is Catherine Keemer, rather confusingly played by the wonderful Audrey Fleurot, the rather tempestuous lawyer from Engrenages (Spiral). My confusion was because Series 6 of Engrenages followed Witnesses a week later on BBC4 and I found myself ‘catching up’ on Witnesses while watching the first episodes of Engrenages. Sandra and Catherine end up sleuthing together in Witnesses and a rather stylish couple they make – two tall, slim, thirty-somethings with flowing tresses and a similar dress sense.
Apart from the characterisation around Sandra and Catherine, there two noticeable aspects of this second narrative which distinguish it from similar series. First are the aesthetics, dominated by occasional uses of aerial shots of the coast and forests of the region, the cinematography in general and the use of music, the overall effect of which is to create a sense of mystery and unease. Ironically, there is a sense of the romantic and the gothic, even when action takes place around a wind farm. The mystery/horror tropes are signified in several ways, all of which take us into the complex plotting around the history of an orphanage located on Mont Saint-Michel. This is a great location (and a world heritage site). The best recent orphanage narrative is arguably El orfanato (Spain 2007) and this one uses some of the same tropes with drawings by children and photographs from some time ago. The children seem to have been fascinated by the story of the Minotaur. The focus on children also draws in both Catherine and Sandra. Catherine is close to her eldest child, a young teenage daughter and Sandra has two younger daughters. I won’t spoil the plot any further but the links seem clear as well as the dangers for the two women. I’m always intrigued by the ways in which these kinds of crime narratives share sometimes quite specific plot ideas and details with others released around the same time. Witnesses reminded me of elements in both Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman (2017) and the UK TV series The Fall (2013- ). Witnesses is a female-centred narrative created, written and directed by men. That’s just an observation, but I’m now intrigued by Engrenages 6 in which Audrey Fleurot is again a leading character in a narrative with Caroline Proust as top-billed – but with a largely male supporting cast. Gender is clearly an issue in the episodes I’ve seen so far and perhaps it’s time to think again about gender and crime fiction?
I enjoyed Witnesses but I think it was too long (8 x 1 hour episodes) and too complicated. By the end I had forgotten elements of the first two episodes and I’m not sure I fully appreciated the narrative resolution. The first season was only six episodes and that seemed right.
Feud is unusual and intriguing. I’m not sure it works, but having started watching it, I found myself hooked and watching all eight episodes over six days. It’s important, I think, that I never usually watch any US TV. The last American TV I watched with any interest was The West Wing ten years ago (and the Anglo-American serial Humans more recently), so I’m approaching Feud from a different position than most audiences. The narrative is set over the ten years from 1962 to 1972, which was a period when I was much more involved with American film and TV.
Feud is described in reviews as an ‘anthology TV series’. I vaguely remember this term from the 1950s, used to describe shows like The Dick Powell Show (1961-3) and, most famously perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65). These series comprised single dramas of 25 mins or 48 mins performed by the same actors (or a selection from a ‘pool’ of actors) and/or introduced by a host like Powell or Hitchcock each week. The shows were written and directed by both the developing stars of TV and some of the directors who moved between cinema and TV, such as Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards or Ralph Nelson. The actors were often well-known Hollywood names.
The new anthology series like Feud seem to me rather different. Feud is produced by Fox TV for the FX cable channel. The same ‘showrunner’, Ryan Murphy, has already set up two anthology series called The American Horror Story (2011- ) and The American Crime Story (2016- ) which are now both into multiple seasons. The first season of Feud, titled ‘Bette and Joan’ ran for eight 45-58 minute episodes in March-April 2017 in the US. It has recently been broadcast on BBC2 in the UK. The eight episodes recount the supposed ‘feud’ between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, centred on the production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 and continued over the events of the next few years. The series is designed to be an anthology in the sense that the next serial will be concerned with the story of the marriage of Charles and Diana and its aftermath. It seems more sensible to me to call it a serial, a long-form narrative or simply a form of televisual biopic. But US TV has its own terminology. More to the point, the BBC decided to follow the Netflix model and release all eight episodes on iPlayer before the end of the broadcast transmission run of two episodes shown as a double bill each week (following the precedent of Scandinavian drama serials on BBC4).
Outline (no spoilers as such – the story is based on real events)
Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in 1962 were A List Hollywood stars in their fifties struggling to find roles worthy of their talent in Hollywood (Davis had actually returned to the stage). Crawford found the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and persuaded Jack Warner (whose studio had made successful films with both Crawford and Davis) to agree to distribute a film adaptation. The film was made by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) using his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich. Warner (Stanley Tucci) believed that Psycho had introduced mainstream audiences to shock/horror films and he gambled on an unusually wide release. The film proved to be a significant hit and was nominated for several Oscars. This caused further problems between Crawford and Davis. A sequel was then suggested . . . Joan Crawford died in May 1971 and was remembered during the 1972 Oscar ceremony. (Davis continued working until her death in 1989, but the serial ends in 1972.)
The narrative is supported by the insertion of a quasi documentary element in the form of a series of interviews which on-screen titles date as conducted in 1978. The interviewees include characters directly involved in the story such as Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) as well as two other leading actors who knew Crawford and Davis – Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) – and others involved in the events depicted. This re-inforces the sense of a tension in the presentation of the mise en abîme – the ‘making of’ not just the films, but also the Oscar ceremonies. We are familiar in biopics with current well-known actors playing Hollywood figures from the past, but in Feud this becomes overwhelming. At the centre of the narrative, Sarandon and Lange are very good indeed – and like Davis and Crawford, they both have a producer credit on the serial. Sarandon could pass for Davis, although she’s actually about 15 years older than Davis was in 1962. Lange doesn’t have anything like Crawford’s eyes so her performance has to create an illusion of Crawford’s look (she’s also much older than Crawford was in 1962). Lange also has a role in one of Murphy’s other anthology titles – The American Horror Story – and has played two other celebrity figures, Frances Farmer, the 1930s Hollywood actress in Frances (1982) and country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985). I’m not sure what this means, except that I think I ‘read’ Lange/Crawford differently than Sarandon/Davis. I’m more familiar with Davis’s work than Crawford’s but while I admired and respected both stars, my own preference was always for Barbara Stanwyck – not mentioned in Feud, perhaps because she was still successful after moving into TV in the 1960s.
Feud is very ‘self-enclosed’ and most of the action takes place on set, in the homes and offices of the principals, or in exclusive restaurants. There is little awareness of the world outside Hollywood itself. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? actually opened a few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the US, which is not mentioned. I didn’t notice any references to the Civil Rights movement (I don’t actually remember any African-Americans in the whole serial) or Vietnam. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation about the enclosed world. One sequence in which Crawford travels to the UK to make a horror film for Herman Cohen Productions looks very strange. As far as I’m aware this horror film was shot in Berkshire, but the set is by the Thames in East London and there are other strange elements in the presentation of characters. The final episode of Feud includes some hallucinations suffered by a central character.
The focus, as the title emphasises, is on the feud between the two stars, but how much of this was invented to suit the publicity for Baby Jane and how much was ‘real’ isn’t clear. The serial also uses the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) as a device to increase the animosity between the two actors. In reality, Hopper died in 1966 aged 80, so this is possibly a fanciful presentation? Hopper’s rival Louella Parsons doesn’t feature in Feud – she retired in 1965. Overall, I feel that the serial is an odd mixture of ‘feud’ (which is accessible to any audience), a presentation of the dying days of ‘studio Hollywood’ and a rather intimate drama about two ageing stars. I found these two latter narratives more interesting than the feud – but both are frustratingly restricted in the overall mix. Bob Aldrich’s story features quite promisingly in the opening episodes but then disappears – a real shame.
As is usual in American TV, this serial is written and directed by a large group of people. There are five writers and five directors who mix and match across the episodes. Some write on one episode and direct another. Interestingly, in the present climate, four of the episodes are directed by (different) women and one woman was involved in writing three episodes. Despite this large number of creative inputs, I didn’t notice an inconsistency of styles – which is either a tribute to the showrunner’s overall control or a comment on a conventional TV drama approach. I’m not really able to tell which!
What Feud does have is some snappy one liners which recall those ‘women’s pictures’ of the 1940s and some great performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones is especially good.
Here’s the official trailer:
This is the first of the series to use a contemporary setting. It’s another early 1950s story but it has been transposed from California to present-day Woking in Surrey in the London ‘commuter belt’. There are some odd decisions here since the London commute is so different to the kind of journey Dick envisaged in the 1950s. I was surprised that this adaptation uses the same names for the characters and for the mysterious town of ‘Macon Heights’ – an unlikely English name.
The episode is adapted by the acclaimed film, TV and stage writer Jack Thorne and directed by one of his early collaborators, Tom Harper (Scouting For Boys 2009). It also has a strong cast led by Tim Spall and Tuppence Middleton. I was especially delighted to see Hayley Squires after her breakout appearance in I, Daniel Blake earlier this year. The odd nature of The Commuter partly derives from the sense of moving between a realist presentation of Woking station and then taking a journey not towards London, but out further into the fantasy countryside. This is because a woman (Tuppence Middleton) approaches Ed (Tim Spall) at the booking office and asks for a ticket to ‘Macon Heights’. When she is told no such station exists on the line, she argues that it does and then instantly disappears. Ed goes looking for this mysterious destination and stumbles across it. His strange experience is also related to his home life with his wife and son – presented again in a social realist environment. Thorne has remained faithful to Dick’s short story material and then extended the narrative to make much more of these links between the fantastical new town and Ed’s problems at home.
This is not science fiction as much as speculative fiction or indeed fantasy. It’s quite different to the first two episodes and Tom Harper uses different techniques (more associated with art films) to explore the fantasy elements. I also noted one aspect of ‘Macon Heights’ that reminded me strongly of The Truman Show (US 1998), Peter Weir’s film written by Andrew Niccol which is my favourite ‘Dickian’ film not from a PKD story. The Macon Heights scenes were seemingly shot at Poundbury in Dorset. This new town project is built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and the eclectic mix of architectural styles is influenced by the views of Prince Charles – and subject to much criticism. It makes an intriguing setting for The Commuter – but the series producers didn’t solve the problem of the different railways systems in Surrey and Dorset. Overall though, this episode offered a different type of Dickian story, demonstrating the diversity of his ideas at the start of his writing career.
I enjoyed this second Dick short story adaptation much more than the first. If it had been on BBC4 without the annoying ad breaks it would have been perfect. This slight story, like The Hood Maker written in 1953, is a deep space narrative set far into the future. Irma, a very old woman (played by Geraldine Chaplin as a 342 year-old) visits a travel company in deep space wanting to make one last trip before she dies. The only problem is that she wants to go to Earth – now widely regarded as a mythical place, or at least one which can’t be traced in the records (it’s now the 25th century). The two travel agency men (Benedict Wong and Jack Reynor) decide to take the large sum of money Irma has saved and give her what she wants. To do this, they find the nearest Earth-like planet on the database and set off with her.
The narrative here works because writer-direct David Farr retains Dick’s original structure and his characters. All he changes is the narrative resolution, fleshing out the relationships between the characters to make the ending work effectively. Dick’s ten pages might have made a 30 minute story but the additions work to fill the 50+ minutes of Electric Dreams very well. The resolution does change the narrative – making it both more romantic but also leaving it open-ended. Interestingly it’s Dick’s ending that would seem more ‘timely’ today, but that doesn’t mean the new ending fails. This production is less ambitious and more successful than the first episode of the series. In some ways it reminds us of the comedy series like Red Dwarf or perhaps early Star Trek, where the interest is in the relationships between characters rather than in actions or special effects. The portrayal of the travel company and its ‘constructed’ viewing experiences of the stars in the galaxies is very Dickian.
Next week we get Timothy Spall in an adaptation of a short story I do remember reading years ago – ‘The Commuter’, written in 1952. This is a real SF story set in the present – in which something mundane but disturbing happens. The first three adaptations are all from the Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick Vol 2. Second Variety which also includes the stories used for the film adaptations Screamers, Imposter and The Adjustment Bureau (one of the more interesting adaptations). I haven’t yet checked out the other episode titles, but these early stories may be the easiest to acquire for rights or, because many are short, the most attractive for contemporary writers to adapt.
The first of the adaptations of Phil K. Dick short stories was something of a disappointment for me. I’d read that the changes made to the narrative were only minor but in fact they are fundamental. Does it matter? I’m not sure. The adaptation is by Matthew Graham who wrote the ‘going back in time’ TV seriesLife on Mars and Ashes to Ashes in the 2006-10.
The ‘Hoods’ of the title are protection for ordinary citizens who don’t wish to be ‘probed’ by telepaths (‘teeps’) working for the government in this alternative future. The hoods are not yet illegal but an ‘Anti-Immunity Bill’ is in the works which would mean refusal to be probed (to prove ‘loyalty’) would become an offence. Dick was writing in the early 1950s and created the ‘teeps’ as the children of parents affected by a nuclear explosion.
The major change in the adaptation is to shift the narrator character from an older man who receives a hood and becomes an unwitting tool of the ‘rebels’ to the pairing of a police ‘Clearance’ officer and his teep partner. In the original, the teep is male but in the adaptation she is female. The other change is in the presentation of the alternative world. Dick barely describes his worlds in the early stories, but they are easily imagined as rather sterile cities and their suburbs not dissimilar to Eisenhower’s America of the 1950s (these are also the settings for Dick’s non-SF novels). Since the film adaptation that became Blade Runner (1982) the ‘dystopian city of the future’ seems to have become a standard presentation. In this new adaptation there isn’t the budget to go the whole hog so we get an odd mash-up of architectural styles and 1960s/70s cars. The ad breaks also featured a trailer for the Blade Runner sequel due out in a couple of weeks – a truly Dickian touch. But I do worry that Ridley Scott’s conception is pushing out Dick (Scott is the Executive producer of the new film directed by Denis Villeneuve but he seems to have a major say in the look (and music) of the new film).
The result of the changes eventually leads us into an emotional relationship between cop and teep (similar to blade runner and replicant?) which makes this quite a different narrative to the original. Dick’s sympathies are clearly with the rebels but the new version makes the police officer more sympathetic and the teep’s motives are more difficult to understand. Dick’s 1953 story ends with a certain twist which was then traditional in science fiction. The ‘threat’ to humanity from a teep takeover is ended by something simple and central to the teep’s existence – so the effect is like the common cold contracted by the Martians in the War of the Worlds and also like the problems of humanity in Children of Men. The new version has an ‘open’ ending – again a Blade Runner link? I think that it is actually more powerful to contemplate the incipient fascism of suburban 1950s America than to create Ridley Scott-type dystopias.
Holliday Grainger and Richard Maddern are good leads (and Grainger copes well with the hair and make-up) but I struggled to hear the dialogue – I recorded the show and I should have thought about subtitles. The next episode in Electric Dreams is based on an even shorter story (10 pages) with a single narrative enigma. I wonder how that will be extended? I’m going to record all the episodes and then perhaps make a final judgement.
One last point – I’m happy to greet the next reviewer who refers to Dick adaptations as ‘sci-fi’ with a metaphorical ‘slem gun’ blast (the weapon used in these early 1950s stories). It’s SF or science fiction!
This blog isn’t too concerned about US TV series, but we are interested in co-productions, particularly when they involve the work of Phil K. Dick, a literary hero for many in Europe. A new season of 10 x 60 mins shows, each offering an adaptation of a Dick short story, starts on Channel 4 in the UK on Sunday. Electric Dreams is co-produced by Channel 4 and Sony Television and I hope that it turns out to be as good as the two series of Humans (US-UK 2015-16). Following that opening will be the release of Blade Runner 2049 in October. At the same time, Amazon Prime is running the second series based on Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle.
Dick was actively writing for three decades from the early 1950s to the early 1980s and he died aged only 53 a few months before the release of Blade Runner, the film which arguably introduced him to a world beyond the then relatively small group of SF/science fiction readers of his novels and short stories. For a long time Dick was idolised by only a coterie of SF fans and fellow writers and a similarly small group of academic scholars and avant-garde writers. When Hollywood discovered Dick, he wasn’t immediately popular (partly because he was soon deceased) but gradually the number of film adaptations grew and 65 years after he first began to publish short stories he is now a key figure. I’ll declare myself as one of those SF fans from the late 1960s and I’m still waiting for a really satisfying film adaptation (which, for me, Blade Runner isn’t). I’ve seen only part of one episode of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and so I can’t comment on that, but often it has seemed to me that the films which are ‘Dickian’ in concept are often better than those which are official adaptations. I await Electric Dreams with trepidation.
The real question is why does Dick’s work still appeal in 2017? I think it’s partly because his fiction is about ideas primarily and that his concerns, partly fuelled by his own paranoia have proved to be remarkably prescient. For instance, it wouldn’t be too difficult to go back through Dick’s work and find references to TV celebrities and android politicians. Donald Trump-style US presidents and ‘fake news’, information gathering by robots, invasions of privacy etc. were all being discussed by Dick in the 1940 or 50 years ago.
The first episode of Electric Dreams is based on ‘The Hood Maker’, a short story written in January 1953 and originally titled ‘Immunity’. It first appeared in a magazine called Imagination in 1955. My copy is included in Volume 2 of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Second Variety, first published in the UK in 1989. I don’t know how much of the 15 page story is used in the new adaptation and I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the thrill of watching this first story in the 10 part ‘anthology’ of short stories. I will however whet your appetite by telling you that on page one of the story, an old man on the street is attacked by a youth who lifts the man’s hat and removes a metal band round the old man’s head. He announces to the crowd forming around him that the old man is ‘another one’ resisting the probe. A crowd forms and a robot police car arrives. Two robot cops disperse the crowd and usher the old man into a building. The youth delivers the ‘hood’ – the metal band – to the Clearance Corporation. He’s a ‘teep’ – a telepathic mutant. Well, I’m hooked. All of this makes sense in a world where possibly the majority of people carry mobile phones which are always on and always broadcasting where they are and what they are doing. I feel like some kind of anarchist because my phone isn’t switched on and I’ve blocked all the location finding software etc. Perhaps soon I’ll be attacked for not conforming? Welcome to the Dickian universe!
‘The Hood Maker’ is directed by Julian Jarrold, a near veteran of British film and TV who I remember best for his contribution to the Red Riding Trilogy on Channel 4 in 2009. It also features Holliday Grainger in a lead role and she will have the honour of appearing in two primetime TV shows at the same time, since she is currently the main reason why I am watching the adaptation of the J.K. Rowling crime fiction stories Strike on BBC1. Both series air at 9pm.
Emily Watson’s performance as the geneticist who becomes involved in an adulterous affair and ultimately a murder trial is one of the best I have seen in TV drama. This TV serial has been the subject of discussion by audiences and critics with some arguing it is a narrative that ‘punishes’ a woman who has desire and others defending a woman of 50 who expresses desire.
I don’t want to get into that argument but it is worth pointing out that this is a serial produced, written and directed by women. What interests me more is that I read the original novel by Louise Doughty but, although I could see the skill and intelligence in the writing, I didn’t really enjoy the book. What’s more, I couldn’t remember what it was that put me off. I wasn’t going to bother with the TV adaptation but I decided to give it a try, partly because of Emily Watson’s casting.
I was surprised at how gripping I found the first episode to be and I stayed with the serial to the end. Why did Emily Watson’s performance carry so much weight? I’m not aware of stardom or performance studies that look at the difference between film and TV. I’m sure that they must exist but also that many scholars and critics now see the boundary between small and large screen as increasingly porous. In UK TV drama there has been a tendency to cast lead roles using TV stars such as Sarah Lancashire or Amanda Redman. An actor like Emily Watson feels like a different kind of presence. Her persona comes from theatre and film. She became known in cinema for appearances in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Hilary and Jackie (1997), both of which gained her Oscar nominations. Her subsequent career has involved theatre work and a number of more recent roles in which she has been cast as mother figures. This is partly why Yvonne comes as such a welcome role.
Emily Watson exudes a certain kind of decency and determination with the possibility of vulnerability. Her casting as Yvonne is perfect. By chance I also recently caught her performance in Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (2010) in which she plays a social worker seeking the truth about children in care who were sent to Australia in the 1950s. ‘De-glammed’ in that role she again embodied decency and determination. It is these qualities which are called into question in her role as Yvonne.
As an actor, Watson does a great deal with her eyes and she is well-served by costume and hair style as Yvonne. But she also has that indefinable sense of ‘presence’. It helps too that Ben Chaplin as her lover is also more of a film than TV star. The two together make an odd but compelling couple with Chaplin thoroughly loathsome, but presumably a turn-on for Yvonne. Many women in the TV audience must have identified with Watson’s convincing presentation of Yvonne.
France has been slow to come to the table in the so-called quality television revolution. In France more than in most countries, television is seen very much a second-class art form. For a long time, a paradox has been evident in French screen culture: the cinema industry was creative and successful; the television industry – which helped to subsidise cinema – was dull and unadventurous. But that has been changing. One of the series that acquired some international recognition was Spiral/Engrenages which has already run for five seasons with another in the offing. Since then, a number of French series are available on our screens, both free-to-air, on pay-TV and subscription services which can be accessed by a wide variety of devices including ‘smart’ TVs.
I’ve just finished watching one of them, The Bureau, a 10-part geopolitical espionage drama which is available for streaming in the UK and other territories from Amazon Plus Video. It came with very positive reviews from the French critical press (some have argued that it is the best ever French series) and has been praised in particular for its authenticity.
The French title is Le bureau des légendes (‘The Office of Legends’) which refers to a section of the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), the rough equivalent of the American CIA, Israeli Mossad or the British MI6. From its base in Paris, it trains and directs the undercover agents of the French foreign intelligence services. Operating in the shadows, as “legends”, that is to say, operating abroad under identities fabricated from scratch, living in the shadows for many years, their job is to identify people to be recruited as sources of information.
The main character of the series is Guillaume Debailly (Matthieu Kassovitz), known in the service as Malotru, who returns from a six-year mission in Damascus to be work at HQ in Paris. Contrary to security rules, he has not abandoned his fictitious identity under which he operated in Damascus, as academic and writer Paul Lefevre. It is under this identity that he resumes an affair started in Damascus with the beautiful Nadia El Mansour (Zineb Triki), a prominent Syrian academic specialising in the history and geography of the Middle East who goes to Paris after Debailly’s’s return to the city. Suspicions are aroused about her status – a spy for the Syrians? For France? Or someone simply over her head in situations she is hardly aware of?
Debailly’s boss at the department is the wily Henri Duflot (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who is a friend of Debailly (they had worked together before his departure to Syria) but he has never been an agent in the field and is a little jealous of Debailly’s “legend” (in another sense of the word). Another important character is Marie-Jeanne Duthilleul (Florence Loiret-Caille) who is one of the “veilleurs” (watchers or handlers). She played that role in relation to Debailly when he was in Syria and is preparing to do the same in relation to a young agent, Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudou). She and Debailly are training her to infiltrate an organisation in Iran where, in the guise of seismologist, she can investigate possible nuclear installations.
Another prominent member of the operations is a former army psychiatrist, Dr Balmes (Léa Drucker), who joins the team early in the first season. She carries out psychometric testing for the department and helps agents to manipulate their targets. From her earliest appearance there is something not quite ‘right’ about her. As a spy drama it is, as you would expect, full of double dealings, double agents and double crosses. A sinister CIA agent John Cassady (Brad Leland) enters the drama towards end, prefiguring developments in Season 2, and this relates to actual events of a few years ago where a German agent in Bonn was found to be working as a CIA agent.
The conflict in Syria is one of the main elements of the plot which involves three main (and overlapping) narrative arcs. The first is an attempt to save agent ‘Cyclone’ who was arrested drink-driving charge by the Algerian police and his subsequent disappearance into the Algerian intelligence system (or a maverick element of that service), ending up in the hands of ISIS. His role in this investigation earns Debailly the job of Duflot’s assistant.
The second is the preparation of Marina for her role in Iran for which she has to be selected by the head of an Iranian agency, a task which will involve a sharp learning curve both in Farsi and in seismology. She has much natural ability – she is a highly successful graduate of the élite National School of Administration (ENA), and she manages to learn enough Farsi and enough advanced seismology over a weekend to deliver a convincing lecture on the subject – sometimes the much vaunted realism and authenticity is somewhat overstretched. Her delicate frame and slightly childish voice belies her tough and resourceful character. She is trained to deal with the sexual advances of the older Iranian man who has to make the selection for who will go back to Iran with him – not to succumb but to hint that it might have been a possibility in other circumstances. But all these attributes aren’t enough so the service steps in to scare the most likely candidate out of his wits so he will withdraw. It shows how the system has little regard for the ‘innocent bystanders’ whose lives are shown to be badly affected by the ‘ends justify means’ perspective of the ‘defenders of France’ and their rivals abroad.
And finally there is Guillaume Debailly’s complicated reinsertion into the service HQ in Paris and his continuation to operate under his clandestine identity (against all the rules) because of the continuation of his love affair with Nadia. Debailly’s continuation of his ‘legend’ identity after his return seems like an addiction. He had never hidden that relationship during his videoconferences with his handler but has no doubt downplayed its importance and he has overestimated his ability to separate his spy persona and his feelings. It is clear that this relationship will be one of the main drivers of the story.
The atmosphere in the series is tense as is to be expected but it is interesting to see how the series deals with the minutiae of the espionage genre: the safe houses, the complicated business of following suspected foreign agents, and all the technical paraphernalia we have come to expect of the genre; and while there are plenty of plasma screens and powerful computers at HQ, the technology is not allowed to drown the story and the mise en scène which is anti-spectacular and clinical.
On the human side the drama explores the problem of identity and, despite the complex precautions taken by the agents, it suggests that it is impossible to separate the personal and the professional, because your job is what you do and you are your job. The ‘personal’ is underlined the by the difficulty Debailly has in re-establishing his relationship with his daughter (he has already separated from her mother) when he comes back to Paris. She is now 18 and ‘difficult’ and her mother insists she stay with him for a while. The relationship widens the emotive scope of the drama and at one point she is in danger because of her connection to him. Marina’s personal life is also involved: she is kidnapped and subject to extreme interrogation, not knowing with certainty that it is part of her training. And when her superiors decide she has had enough and that she has passed the test, she starts a relationship with the very agent who has carried out her interrogation, even borderline torture. Masochism much?
In some respects The Bureau could be compared to the BBC’s Spooks (2002 -11) which ran for 10 seasons (most of which had 10 episodes) but Spooks was more concerned with action, in contrast to The Bureau’s emphasis on character development. A better comparison would be the BBC’s miniseries of 1979, Tinker Tailor Sailor Spy, based on John Le Carré’s novel, and far from the world of James Bond or Jason Bourne. And unlike Tinker, Tailor, there are number of strong female characters – four of the leading characters in the first season and another two in Season 2.
There was some discussion in the French press which suggested relatively low viewing figures – not surprising in a series that demands some familiarity with geopolitics, is often low-key in terms of action, and much of it is subtitled into French (obviously a different sort of problem for overseas audiences). However, subsequent research has suggested a significant underestimation of the sections of the audience which time-shift – almost as many as those who watched it live. The various audience-research mechanisms seem not yet to have found ways of accurately capturing the way audiences watch television in the present era. Canal+, however, was sufficiently convinced in the prospect of success that they green-lit the second season before the first one had ended (and have since become committed to a third).
The series raises interesting questions about its emulation of American series production methods – showrunner, large ‘writers’ rooms’, a very much a secondary role for the directors. It also follows a recent trend in French TV series in using well-known film actors for lead parts – in this case, Mathieu Kassovic and Jean-Pierre Darroussin. I’ll perhaps come back to these issues after the next season is available to view in the UK .
I managed to watch the second series on video before it was available on Amazon in the UK (next month) and so to avoid spoilers I’ll limit my comments to the fact that it spends a lot more time ‘in the field’ (mainly Iran and Syria) and that it has the has managed to maintain or even surpass the high level of achievement of Season 1.
Here’s a teaser for the Season 2 – no subtitles necessary.