Category: Global television

Apple Tree Yard (UK 2017)

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Yvonne (Emily Watson) emerges from the holding cells at The Old Bailey

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.

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Mark (Ben Chaplin) and Yvonne (Emily Watson)

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.

The Bureau (Le bureau des légendes, France 2015 – )

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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.

Reading Blue Eyes (Blå ögon, Sweden 2014)

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Blue Eyes is a TV serial from SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, made as a co-production with the regional film fund Film i Väst and various other Nordic partners including the major player Nordisk and effects house Chimney Pot. Blue Eyes is very much a high-profile property and was broadcast on the UK channel More4 as one of the ‘Walter Presents’ series of European drama productions. It’s a 10 x 58 mins serial. Made in 2014 and broadcast in Sweden in late 2014/early 2015, its UK début came during the long campaign leading up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in April/May 2016. There are certain parallels between Swedish and British political developments over the last few years and this production focuses on the rise of nationalism and a ‘disguised’ far right party – not unlike UKIP in the UK. Watching Blue Eyes on ‘catch-up’, these parallels are even more stark with the senseless and tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox.

Blue Eyes is the creation of Robert Aschberg of Strix TV, Alex Haridi and a team of writers. Haridi was also a writer on Real Humans, the original Swedish drama remade/adapted as Humans, a UK/US series for Channel 4. The opening titles for Blue Eyes are distinctive and to me suggest a political thriller. Much of this comes from the music, which I find difficult to describe, but which seems very familiar with its incessant urge to sweep through public events. It made me think of House of Cards (the original UK series). The titles include low angle shots of official buildings with clouds racing across the sky. This sequence is cross-cut with similarly low angle views of ordinary Swedes involved in various mundane activities, but again with speeded up clouds hurtling across the screen. Finally, the third element is a montage of blown up TV sequences, seemingly related to political campaigns. The overall effect is very unsettling suggesting a coming ‘storm’ overtaking Swedish society.

(There is some spoiler material in what follows, but only enough to enable a description of the genre mix in the serial.)

The serial narrative offers a large number of characters, some introduced very briefly (and therefore making the links between characters later on quite difficult to follow). There is one clear central character, a young woman, Elin Hammer (Louise Peterhoff). She is invited in mysterious circumstances to return to her old job as ‘Office Manager’ for the Swedish Justice Minister at the start of an eight week election campaign. The Coalition Party is in power but is facing a fight against the growing Security Party – a right-wing populist party. Elin is possibly an ‘investigator’ in two ways. First, she wants to discover what happened to the previous Office Manager who is now officially on ‘sick leave’ but whose disappearance seems odd. Later, Elin will find herself questioning the motives of everyone in the Swedish political system, including herself – an ‘internal’ or ‘self’ investigation perhaps. This narrative alone would make a political thriller, but a second narrative combines politics, crime and family melodrama. Sofia (a striking portrayal by Karin Franz Körlof) is a working-class young woman in a bad relationship with an abusive man whose behaviour threatens the couple’s young child, ‘Love’. Sofia has a teenage brother Simon and her mother Annika has been selected by the Security Party as a local spokesperson. What makes Blue Eyes so powerful – and disturbing – is that this family group becomes the locus for a discourse about working-class life in Sweden. When a tragic incident occurs, Sofia is pushed into joining a violent right-wing group with terrible consequences. But despite her fierce looks and aggressive stance as well as her extreme political views, Sofia remains a figure that many audiences will find sympathy for. In addition, there is at least one Security Party politician who also evokes some sympathy. At the same time, the Coalition Party is not all ‘above board’ and Elin will find various rotten apples in the barrel.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

The second narrative involves Sofia and Simon with a neo-Nazi group intent on terror aimed at breaking Swedes’ trust in their democracy. The terror is created by extremely violent actions (a reference to the activities of the Norwegian extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011?) and simply by the two central characters responsible for these actions – one, older and seemingly ‘respectable’, one younger and highly-focused as a killer. There is a connection between the two narratives – involving problems at the heart of the Coalition Party. The key to this is briefly introduced in the first few minutes of Episode 1. Many viewers (me included) will struggle to remember these few minutes when the link becomes more obvious later on. Along with the resolution of the overall narrative (which leaves the possibility for a second series) and the large cast of characters, I think this makes the series a difficult (but still absorbing) watch for viewers outside Scandinavia. Reading subtitles is always a trade-off against missing visual cues and is also subject to the difficulties of translation. I’m not sure that the Swedish secret service organisation Säpo is ever properly explained. Also confusing for overseas viewers is the geography of the action. The Swedish government offices are in Stockholm, but much of the action takes place around Uddevalla, a small coastal town in Västra Götaland County on the other side of the country. This is where Simon, Sofia and their mother live – again a parallel for the run-down industrial towns of North-East England which have suffered from austerity and voted for UKIP and Brexit. Presumably this plot detail was necessary to justify funding from Film i Väst by filming in the region. The genre mix in this serial is unusual and that too might work against it. It was a massive hit in Sweden and perhaps the DVD box set may allow a more leisurely ‘reading’ environment. Kudos to Channel4/More4 for showing this but I do find the long advertising breaks tedious – I wish it had been on BBC4. But if this has crept under your radar, I recommend tracking it down

Hinterland (Y Gwyll, UK 2013–?)

DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) with trademark frown

DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) with trademark frown

(The first part of this posting was first published on https://msb5.wordpress.com in 2014)

Hinterland is a good example of the global/local. Like some other modern states, the UK has statutory requirements and cultural policies that protect the other languages in the Home Nations and this means support for both Welsh and Gaelic broadcasters and film and television production in those languages. Now that Cornish has been recognised as a ‘European identity’ perhaps this provision will be expanded in future?

Hinterland is arguably the biggest Welsh-language production for some time, with a budget of £4.2 million to cover four 90 minutes TV crime fiction films (described as a ‘mini-series’ in the US). Commissioned by BBC Wales and S4C (the Welsh language public service channel set up at the same time as Channel 4 but with its own independent broadcasting authority to oversee operations) and made by the Fiction Factory in Cardiff the films are an example of ‘multiple versions’ production. Dating back to the coming of sound in the film industry this form of production sees two or more language versions of the same script made in parallel. In this case there is an all Welsh version as shown on S4C and a version mainly in English but with some (subtitled) Welsh dialogue that has just been seen on BBC4 and which earlier appeared on BBC1 Wales..

Conceived from the outset in terms of ‘local authenticity’ being a major selling point, the films have been sold to the Danish broadcaster DR (producer of The Killing and Borgen) and are under offer worldwide through the distributor All3Media International which operates throughout the anglophone media market covering Australasia and North America as well as the UK and parts of Europe. The first four films have been so successful that a second set of five were commissioned. These five eventually appeared on BBC4 (i.e. after Welsh screenings) in April/May 2016. A third series is already in production.

Welsh noir

Ever since the success of The Killing and Wallander on UK/US TV it has been a commonplace to describe all kinds of police procedural/crime fiction television as ‘noir‘ and to make comparisons with ‘Nordic noir‘. In many cases this is not particularly helpful but Hinterland, while remaining resolutely ‘Welsh’, does have some similarities with the Swedish and Danish filmed dramas and perhaps even more with the less familiar Icelandic noir.

DCI Mathias on his morning run

DCI Mathias on his morning run

Perhaps the most distinctive noirish aspect of Hinterland is its use of landscape and the sense of isolation. The title refers to the area covered by the stories – roughly a 30 mile radius from the seaside town of Aberystwyth. This ranges from the  valleys of the Ystwyth and a second river the Rheidol (which both reach the sea in the Aberystwyth area) to the mountains of Mid Wales and the coastal strip. The whole area is underpopulated by UK standards: the local population in Aberystwyth is no more than 20,000 even counting the large number of university students and the whole county of Ceredigion has only 75,000. Aberystwyth is arguably the most isolated town in Wales and England – some 70-80 miles from the nearest large towns of Shrewsbury, Wrexham or Swansea.

The central character in the films is DCI Mathias who appears to have been ‘exiled’ in Aberystwyth. He lives on his own in a caravan but has a wife and children in London – this back story is not filled out. He acts as if he is on his own, distant from the rest of his team. It is noticeable that in the English version of the films he is the only police officer who doesn’t speak Welsh (though he does in the Welsh language version.) Ceredigion is one of the parts of Wales where Welsh is the first language of up to half the population.

The physical isolation is enhanced by the climate and geomorphology. It takes time to get anywhere by car/truck on winding roads over hills and moors. The rail service is limited. It rains a lot. Added to this is the sense of the past which bears down on the present. There is an almost mythical Celtic past and a more recent past of mineral extraction/mining that has left a legacy of abandoned quarries and mines. Agriculture, partly on struggling hill farms, forestry and tourism form the economic base of the region. The first three stories are set in an isolated children’s home, a hill farm and an abandoned quarry.

I’ve seen comparisons being made to the Swedish TV series Wallander, but this is a much more isolated and rugged area than Ystad in Southern Sweden. The Iceland of the stories by Arnaldur Indriðason seems the best comparison as it is his books that are best known in English translation and one of them has been adapted for a successful international film, Myrin (Jar City, Iceland/Ger/Den 2006). The comparison throws up one interesting question. Jar City is a ‘national’ story in a country with a capital city but otherwise sparsely populated. Ceredigion is similarly ‘dominated’ by Aberystwyth but so far none of the stories in Hinterland have had any sense of a ‘national’ Welsh dimension – even though in cultural terms, Aberystwyth is a national centre housing the National Library of Wales. The University in Aberystwyth has also been largely absent though it plays a major role in the town. One similarity with Wallander is that each episode has a self-contained narrative as in a traditional series, though the background story remains ongoing and the second series ended with a form of cliffhanger centred on DCI Mathias.

Mared posed against the familiar landscape

DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harris) posed against the familiar landscape

One of the features of isolation is that a local police officer is less likely to be bothered by  interference from senior officers based 100 miles away. However, in Hinterland there is a local police chief (Chief Superintendent) who seems to be the most underwritten character – and who initially proved to be simply an irritating presence, generally unsupportive and unsympathetic. In series two he became more obviously implicated in Mathias’ situation. The other ‘difference’ in this set of films is that there is no sense of ‘social space’ for the police team – no bar where they meet. In fact there have been few social places for anyone to meet. The narrative seems to comprise swift journeys into the hills to visit isolated crime scenes  and then interrogations back in Aberystwyth. Somehow, the usual array of SOCO photographers and local constabulary to tape off the area materialise in the wilderness. Where do they come from? Hinterland looks and feels different to most urban-set dramas. Perhaps that is an attractive feature for overseas buyers? Wikipedia has a page for the Welsh version of the films with some discussion of overseas transmissions. Netflix seems to be the least clued-in buyer of the series and I’ve seen comments suggesting that they don’t know much about the Welsh language – getting the subtitling wrong?

After viewing the first nine episodes, it appears to me that the underlying narrative of what has happened to DCI Mathias’ marriage is not going to be resolved, nor is the domestic situation of his DI (Mared Rhys) played by Mali Rhys Harries. This is frustrating and takes something away from the individual episodes. The focus on the landscape remains and for me is the chief attraction of the series (along with the performances of the four actors playing the roles in the police team). I’m intrigued to discover that the 12 episodes have seen multiple DoPs, art designers etc. There are two directors and six writers so far – only the music remains in the hands of one person. Someone must be overseeing the ‘look’ of the series. Anyway, it works. I should also mention that the town is often shown late at night or early in the morning. Most of the time there is nobody about. Where most police shows go for a form of realism, Central Wales in this show seems very much an imagined world of isolation – beautiful and tragic isolation.

Here’s the trailer for the Welsh language version:

Art films and Videogames

A screenshot from the videogame 'Her Story'.

A screenshot from the videogame ‘Her Story’.

Art films, or more precisely foreign language art films, are struggling to find an audience in the UK. (Sight & Sound, February 2016 has an editorial bemoaning this situation and it was discussed in Keith’s post.) At the same time, the value of the videogames market keeps on increasing. It seems at least possible that some of those audiences who have stopped watching art films are now playing certain kinds of videogames. I hadn’t thought too much about making this connection until one of the guest critics on Radio 4’s Saturday Review (download here) remarked that certain kinds of videogames were for people who liked to work hard at ‘reading’ a story. It was probably Naomi Alderman (the novelist who writes about gaming for the Guardian), but all four reviewers of two videogames that have been successful in 2015 said that the experience was more like ‘work’ in that they had to take notes in attempting to construct a narrative. They compared playing videogames with both films and television – suggesting that TV, by comparison, was so ‘easy’ that if it were invented now there would be outrage about how it was rotting the brains of its audiences.

So, is this a useful observation? We need to be careful because there are so many variables in play here. First, it isn’t the so-called ‘specialised’ cinemas that are losing audiences. What they are doing is increasingly moving towards showing Hollywood blockbusters and Anglophone ‘quality films’. Audiences have stopped watching foreign language art films partly because they are difficult to find in cinemas. But they haven’t turned away from subtitles. On Sunday night Channel 4 started broadcasting a German language drama and has announced free streaming of several more series via its ‘Walter Presents’ offer (which looks very exciting). BBC4’s Danish/Swedish subtitled serial Broen ⎮⎮ Bron, which finished over Christmas, attracted on average 1.4 million UK viewers. The biggest audience for a foreign language film in UK cinemas in 2015 was not much more than 100,000 viewers.

We are constantly told that the videogames industry is bigger now than the film industry in value terms – and probably in terms of the number of players. Such comparisons are difficult to make. Games often cost much more to buy/rent than films (but probably provide better value in terms of hours of engagement). Videogaming also covers a wide range of different kinds of interactive experiences. I’m not able to compare them, but I suspect a game played on a phone while sitting on a train is a different proposition than the two games discussed on Saturday Review. One of these, Fallout, is a big budget blockbuster and the other, Her Story, is an ‘indie’ game. The reviewers found that both required ‘work’ to construct a narrative, but Her Story sounds nearest to the experience of art film, even though its potential narrative is closest to crime fiction, i.e. a supposedly ‘generic’ rather than ‘literary’ narrative.

I did once play computer games, back in the early 1990s. I eventually concluded that a) I wasn’t very good at it – I lacked certain skills and that b) I could also become addicted to certain kinds of relatively simple games. So I stopped. I realise that videogames are now much more sophisticated but I’m not really attracted – though I have read several compelling arguments about how they have helped advance ideas about narrative. The crucial question is not about the small group of dedicated cinephiles but about younger audiences who might enjoy videogames, subtitled TV dramas and foreign language art cinema. How should cinemas attract them back? How should we educate distributors and exhibitors so that they consider this audience and cater for it? Anyone got ideas?

Here’s the trailer for Her Story:

Humans (UK/US 2015)

Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson, left) and in the back seat her 'synth' Anita (Gemma Chan)

Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson, left) and, in the back seat, her ‘synth’ Anita (Gemma Chan)

The eight part serial Humans is a good example of what ‘global television’ can produce. Real Humans has been a successful long form narrative in Sweden starting in 2012 and subsequently selling to many territories around the world but not, as far as I know, to the UK. Instead we’ve been offered a remake by Kudos (best known recently in the UK for Broadchurch and The Tunnel, the Anglo-French remake of The Bridge), funded by Channel 4 and the US cable channel AMC. The serial ran roughly in parallel in the UK and North America throughout June and July and has just started in Australia. In the UK Humans launched as Channel 4’s biggest drama attraction for some time with a Sunday night audience of 5.4 million. This dropped significantly but remained above 3.6 million throughout eight episodes and therefore became the highest rated programme on the channel. (I suspect that I’m one of many who have watched the serial via time-shifting.) The UK DVD is released on August 17th. In the US audiences seem to have been much lower but I’m not sure what AMC looks for as an acceptable audience. A second serial has been commissioned for 2016 so presumably it has been deemed a success.

William Hurt as the retired cybernetics engineer, George. Photo Credit: Colin Hutton/Kudos/AMC/C4

William Hurt as the retired robotics engineer, George. Photo Credit: Colin Hutton/Kudos/AMC/C4

The UK production was informed by co-operation with Matador Films which made the Swedish original but this isn’t a direct remake since the Swedish serial had much more time – 10 x 60 mins as against 8 x 42 mins in the UK version. The interesting question for me is what difference the American investment made. The casting of William Hurt in a significant role means at least one actor known to an international audience. But I wonder also whether Kudos deliberately tried to expand the ethnic diversity of the cast. This is a question worth posing since the number of significant roles for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) actors in UK film and TV production is a live issue. The perception in the UK is that our BAME actors have to go to the US because of limited opportunities here. To be fair to Kudos and Channel 4 they do seem to be better than some other UK producers. I also raise the question about what AMC wanted out of the deal since this seems a very British show. Reading some of the comments on IMDB, US audiences seemed to have had problems with accents. I don’t understand this but I do think that the serial plays closer to the UK popular mainstream than some of the recent successful exports. I see the serial as interesting in combining science fiction with elements of family melodrama and even soap opera. There is a UK tradition of female focused prime-time TV dramas and though this is London-based (whereas many similar shows are Northern-based) it may still feel less familiar to American audiences. I think that this feeling is enhanced by the presence of two well-known UK actors with status as comedy stars – Katherine Parkinson as the mother of the family and Rebecca Front as a stern ‘synth’ care assistant.

Plot outline (no spoilers)

The setting is a ‘near future’/’parallel world’ suburban London. The Hawkins family is a typical middle-class suburban family with three children. Because his wife seems stressed and overworked (as a legal executive of some kind), Joe Hawkins rents a ‘synth’, a household android robot. The children are all interested in the synth, ‘Anita’, but Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is disturbed by Anita’s presence. In a separate narrative thread a group of synths are seemingly ‘on the run’ and not under the control of the Persona Corporation or the usual software protocols. A third strand involves a retired robotics engineer (William Hurt) who is unwilling to give up his obsolete synth with whom he has a form of paternal relationship. A fourth strand involves a pair of police detectives who routinely deal with minor crimes involving synths. In the conventional manner, all four strands of the narrative will finally come together when a government agency becomes aware of the activities of the ‘aberrant behaviour’ of the small group of synths.

Genre

There are many science fiction narratives that deal with androids or human-like robots. Perhaps the best known in contemporary film and television draw on Philip K. Dick’s stories and especially Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the film Blade Runner). This serial specifically references an earlier collection of robot stories written by Isaac Asimov mainly in the 1950s which feature the ‘three laws of robotics‘ designed to ensure that robots cannot harm humans. The synths in Humans are easily identifiable because they move and speak in slightly ‘wooden’ and ‘robotic’ ways. (The acting style developed for the synths is very effective and certainly one of the pluses of the serial.) The potential narratives using these particular generic elements involve the possibility of ‘synth modification’ and therefore ‘rebellion’ with the synths potentially stronger and more efficient than humans – and also narratives focused more on the ‘what is it to be human?’ question. The first option suggests action narratives, the second more discursive and reflective modes. Humans has been criticised for both being ‘predictable’ or not coming up with new ideas and missing the chance to explore the philosophical and ethical questions in any depth. I think that this is unfair because it seems to me that the mix with the family melodrama/soap opera means that the audience is being invited to consider the ‘human question’ via the conventions and banalities of family life. All of the four narrative strands outlined above involve some form of both inter-human relationship and human-synth relationship. So, in the Hawkins household, each family member has a relationship with Anita that has an impact on their relationships with other family members. Laura is disturbed by Anita partly because Anita seems to be ‘better’ at parenting, particularly in relation to the youngest child Sophie.

Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson) having an intense moment with her eldest daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless)

Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson) having an intense moment with her eldest daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless)

I find it useful to think about the Hawkins family alongside the similar family in the sitcom Outnumbered (UK 2007-14). The age differences of the children are similar and provide the possibilities for different kinds of mini-narratives. I remember an episode in that sitcom when a young Australian woman came to stay and wrought havoc by her interactions with the children. It feels as if the scriptwriters of Humans are drawing on the same type of family model – i.e. the family is almost ‘ideal’ and care is taken with gender roles so that the father is not a dominant figure (Joe’s weakness may be a weakness in the script) and the children are intelligent, sensitive and talented even when they are ‘misbehaving’. (The typical family in the Northern-set primetime drama is more likely to be working-class or lower middle-class with more internal conflicts and possibly a less conventional family structure.) The synths too seem idealised as a group – three women, three men, an Asian woman (surprisingly East Asian rather than South Asian) and two African-Caribbean men.

The last two episodes are less about the ‘chase’ and more about this questioning of family relationships. I won’t spoil the narrative but I found that as all the characters came together there were almost comical scenes where they stood about like characters at the end of an Agatha Christie detective fiction when the ‘whodunnit’ is about to be explained. Yet in the next moment there might be a highly emotional exchange between two characters that could potentially be very moving. On reflection, there are several well-known scenes at the end of Blade Runner in which similar exchanges take place. Humans has an ‘open’ ending so that expectations for the second serial will no doubt already be growing in its fanbase. I will certainly try to follow what happens next year and if a subtitled UK Region 2 DVD of the Swedish serial becomes available I will look out for that also. The one obvious strand that is underplayed in the UK/US serial is the discourse about the social impact of synth workers in society as a whole. It is there but not developed as much as might be expected because of the attention on personal relationships. Perhaps it figures more prominently in the Swedish original?

1864 (Denmark-Norway-Sweden-Germany 2014)

Marie Tourell Søderberg as Inge in 1864 (photo by Per Arnesen)

Marie Tourell Søderberg as Inge in 1864 (photo by Per Arnesen)

The latest Danish serial to be broadcast in the UK is a historical drama focusing on the ‘Schleswig-Holstein Question’ and its aftermath. I remember studying this as part of British and European political history at school but it is only more recently that I’ve begun to appreciate what a major event the loss of these two provinces was for the Danish state and the Danish people. The serial is being broadcast over four Saturdays with two 57 minute episodes each week. I’m reacting to the first two episodes here but I hope to return once the serial is completed.

To get the history out of the way first, the geopolitics of Northern Europe in the mid-19th century focused on Schleswig, the area of southern Jutland that now straddles the Danish-German border. Along with Holstein to the South, the Duchy of Schleswig had traditionally been ruled by Danish kings even though the two duchies were not officially part of Denmark. In 1849 a new ‘Democratic Constitution’ in Denmark raised the question of sovereignty in the two duchies and the Danes sought to uphold their rights. In 1851 the First Schleswig War ended with the Danes defeating the Prussians, but in 1864 they faced the new Prussian First Minister Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck used the dispute over the two duchies that followed the death of the Danish King in 1863 to force a Second Schleswig War in which the Danes were defeated by the combined forces of the German Confederation and Austria. The Danish-speaking region of Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark in 1920 but otherwise Denmark was reduced to its current size after the defeat of 1864.

Why was Schlewsig-Holstein so important? It had great strategic importance located at the ‘crossroads’ of trade, East-West and North-South. Russia and the UK were major powers concerned about trade routes and about the growing power of Prussia under Bismarck. Bismarck in turn saw the possibility of a ‘practice war’ for German military development. During the 1850s Denmark moved towards a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and gradually became reconciled to the major loss of territories in Scandinavia and the Baltic over the previous two centuries in a succession of wars with Sweden, losing control over Norway in 1814. With industrialisation arriving in the latter half of the 19th century the Second Schleswig War could be argued to mark the beginning of ‘modern Denmark’. 1864 is thus a ‘national popular’ celebration of a defeat which started the long development towards contemporary prosperity. That’s a huge task for any drama but it’s significant that Danish TV’s biggest budget has been trusted to a filmmaker with strong ideas. Ole Bornedal has written and directed the whole serial (with a co-writer for some episodes).

The serial is being broadcast in something like 2.0:1 (on my TV it looks like ‘Scope) and it has a genuine cinematic feel. Certainly in Episode 2 I felt that I was watching a costume/action film rather than a UK style ‘TV costume drama’. It helps that this isn’t a literary adaptation and that Bornedal has a free hand in constructing the narrative. Lots of money and a free hand isn’t always a good thing, however. I realise that I have seen at least one of Bornedal’s films – Just Another Love Story (Denmark 2007) – and that was both highly derivative but also full of energy and panache. It isn’t surprising then that 1864 adopts some familiar ‘tropes’ of contemporary film and television. The ‘national moment’ is explored through the device of a modern young woman reading the diaries of her equivalent in the 1850s to an elderly survivor of the Danish land-owning classes. Inge in the 1850s was the daughter of an Estate Manager and her two closest friends as a child are a tenant farmer’s sons. They will go off to war in 1864. The narrative will also follow the wild landowner’s son (the terrific Pilou Asbaek) and various leading political figures in Denmark (plus Otto von Bismarck and his family). Most intriguingly we are also offered the soft power of the leading Danish actress of the period Johanne Louise Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen).

This is a serial and the first episode has to work hard to set up characters and situations. For me the story came to life in Episode 2, especially with the arrival of a group of Romany travellers on the estate. There is an obvious reference to contemporary migration just as there is a link via the young men going into the army in 1863 and Danish involvement in Afghanistan more recently. The serial jumps between 1851, 1863-4 and the present and it has been attacked in Denmark for ‘inauthenticity’, ‘political correctness’, ‘propaganda’ etc. I would expect nothing less – it is intended to be a ‘national story’. On the other hand, I don’t know what to expect from UK audiences. What I do know is that at times it reminded me of both European cinema and Hollywood depictions of the same period. It’s worth remembering that the main events occur at a time when the American Civil War was at its height. A barn dance/harvest supper at the end of Episode 2 made me think back to my two recent viewings of Far From the Maddening Crowd and also of John Ford films like The Searchers (1956). And, of course, the recent ‘Danish Western’ The Salvation (2014) featured two Danish brothers who migrated to the US after they fought in the Second Schleswig War. I’m delighted to have two hours of watchable TV for a month but I’ll reserve judgment on the serial until it is completed.

Spiral (Engrenages, France/UK 2014)

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From left: Gilou, Tintin, Laure Berthaud, Pierre, Joséphine, Roban

Phew! I’m a new convert to Engrenages and I’m not sure how those veterans of the previous four seasons have stood the pace. I did watch the first couple of episodes of Season 1 back in 2006 but somehow it didn’t stick then. I’m not sure why – perhaps I’ve slowly acquired the serial habit after The Killing and The Bridge? Or perhaps I first had to get used to European TV crime drama via Wallander on BBC4 in 2009? Since I’ve been reading the literature for a long time this seems unlikely. I think the real answer is that the BBC i-Player and the PVR have allowed me to develop the serial habit. This is important since the BBC4 screenings on a Saturday night have generally been two hours. Engrenages matches The Killing with double episodes (2×52 mins over 6 weeks). I usually watch one hour and save the other until later in the week. I find that there is far too much going on to take the whole two hours at once – and this is arguably the big plus compared to similar UK shows which often seem padded out.

The first thing that struck me about the serial was that unlike the Scandinavian shows, Engrenages exists in a film and TV culture with a long history of popular crime films – the polar. I wondered how much familiarity I would have with the TV serial given my earlier viewings of polars. The obvious point is that I would have had much more difficulty understanding both the French judicial system and the organisation of French police forces. The film 36 (France 2004) is particularly useful in explaining this background. The interesting institutional point is that because the French industry is so much bigger (i.e. than the Scandinavian), like the UK it can produce quality TV actors who don’t necessarily appear in films and vice versa. Engrenages doesn’t offer the same pleasures of ‘spot the actor’ as the Swedish/Danish serials do but it does mean that we don’t ‘read’ the characters through a lens of familiarity. The themes and representations of Parisian streetlife are familiar from the films. The only direct reference to the polar, that I spotted, however, was the appearance of a poster for Un flic, the 1972 film with Alain Delon, the last film by the most celebrated director of polars Jean-Pierre Melville. This is in one of the squad offices and I think that the central character Laure has the image on her phone. This reference alone marks out Engrenages as ‘knowing’.

The central structure of Engrenages features the interconnections between a Parisian crime squad led by Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her lieutenants ‘Gilou’ and ‘Tintin’ and a trio of independently-minded lawyers – an ‘investigating judge’ Roban and two high-flying (and glamorous) avocats Joséphine Karlsson and Pierre Clément. Berthaud and Roban trust each other – and sometimes bend the rules for the sake of justice. In Serial 5 Berthaud is investigating the murder of a young mother and her small daughter. This in turn will lead to a second investigation into a gang plotting robberies. As the programme’s title suggests (it means something like ‘Gears’), different stories become enmeshed, affecting each other in complicated ways. So Joséphine finds herself defending a wealthy Libyan diplomat accused of assaulting one of his ‘domestic’ workers and Gilou is arrested for using unauthorised equipment – while at the same time becoming personally involved in the private life of an informer. Both of these stories will tie in back to the central investigations. Throughout everything, Berthaud – still recovering from a personal tragedy in Serial 4 – is pregnant and still undecided about keeping the baby.

Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) in court

Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) in court

Thinking about structure, Engrenages covers almost the same ground as The Killing 1: a central crime story involving a form of family melodrama, a ‘personal story’ about the problems of the lead female investigator and a third ‘political’ story which ties into the central crime story in some way. The political angles of Engrenages are more complex and nuanced, involving machinations in the judiciary as well as the French establishment. I’m not claiming that one has copied the other (and I don’t know how Serials 1-4 of Engrenages worked out – perhaps this structure began in France?). It could be argued that most, all, TV crime series have these three elements in different mixes and different proportions – but I don’t think that they are so clearly spelt out or that they are so carefully written into a tripartite structure in those other shows. It is the richness and complexity of the narrative that I enjoyed in Engrenages – and the characters and performances. Copenhagen and Paris do share a metropolitan location which means that police investigations are closer to political centres and international stories. But having said that, Laure Berthaud’s team are simply ‘local cops’ and one of their problems is that they run up against specialist units with questions of who has the authority for investigations. This is also the case with The Killing but the difference is that Laure Berthaud does not have the status of the Sara Lund character (i.e. as the single focus for the narrative) or the freedom to investigate with just one partner. Instead Laure leads a team (and they cock up together!)

Engrenages offers a range of pleasures of story-telling and characterisation as well as heart-pumping emotions and some very brutal scenes. The chase scenes are excellent and it is noticeable that the female roles are crucially important in every aspect of the narrative. I think also that there is some evidence here as well as in one or two recent French films that the range of characters is becoming more diverse and representative of contemporary Parisian society. My only frustration is that the BBC (which is credited with an ‘association‘ with the production) is not very helpful with details of the show’s background. What we do know is that there were major cliff-hangers/and ‘loose ends’ when Serial 5 closed. The next should appear in France later in 2015. It will be keenly anticipated when it comes to the BBC.