Adieu Engrenages! After 86 episodes spread over 16 years, my favourite TV series has come to an end. I’m not going to spoil the ending since all 86 episodes are on iPlayer in the UK and I’m sure there are still fans working their way through Series 8. I wrote about Engrenages when Series 5 ended in the UK in 2015. I’ve only followed the show since Series 5 so I can’t claim fandom as such. With all the episodes available, however, I have gone back to look at the opening episode. The change in the appearance of the actors over 15 years is quite remarkable. It looks to me as if the show must have been gruelling to work on – they look so fresh-faced and young in 2005. Nick Lacey has suggested to me that the shooting style changed after Series 1, possibly because it was a surprise hit and the makers then felt that they had a chance to re-envision the approach. In fact it was an enormous hit that perhaps put pressure on the production team.
I’m not going to repeat my 2015 post here and I will try to go back and watch the other series I’ve missed. Here I simply want to offer an observation about the final series. The long-running cop show has been a feature of US TV for as long as I can remember. In the 1950s Jack Webb starred in 276 episodes of Dragnet, in the 1980s Hill Street Blues lasted 144 episodes and Cagney & Lacey lasted 126 episodes. These were all forms of the police procedural deploying generic conventions not so different from those of Engrenages. Similar shows were produced in the UK and IMDb suggests that there were nearly 800 episodes of Z Cars between 1962 and 1978 – but nearly two thirds were wiped by the BBC. I’m most interested in the concept of ‘seriality’, the idea that that all the episodes in one series are constructed around a single primary crime fiction narrative. All the previous cop shows had recurring elements each week which were subordinate to the single narrative ‘episode story’. American TV developed the idea of a ‘narrative arc’ covering an entire season, sometimes with a ‘season finale’, but I don’t think it was until the early 2000s that the genuine serial form emerged especially in European crime dramas. I haven’t watched US TV for several years and I’ve never seen any of the US cable shows which developed the ‘long form narrative’ so I’m not making any comparisons here, except to note that US shows have generally had much longer ‘seasons’, with more than twenty episodes on occasions. For me the changes came with Nordic crime fiction drama serials such as The Killing and The Bridge. The Killing serial 1 was the key change for me with its twenty episodes of 57 minutes when it ran in 2007 in Denmark, but subsequent serials 2 and 3 both ran for ten episodes. Ten episodes seems about right to sustain interest. Engrenages has shifted from eight to twelve and then back to ten episodes for Serial 8. I’m interested here in how the narratives have been constructed across eight serials and in particular I want to investigate the principal recurring characters or rather ‘character functions’ across the serials.
The two central characters are Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and ‘Gilou’ Escoffier (Thierry Godard) with Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot) as the only other ever present across every episode (though Gilou is missing from one). Laure is the leader of a local crime team – the equivalent of a CID team from a local police station in the UK and Gilou is one of her two deputies in a total team of around five. Joséphine is an ambitious and rule-breaking avocat who appears in court but because the French judicial system is different, she doesn’t really correspond to an English barrister. Joséphine always has a sparring partner, initially Pierre Clément (Fregory Fitoussi) and latterly Éric Edelman (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). For the first seven serials the ‘Investigating Judge’ (not that dissimilar to the District Attorney in the US or the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland) is Juge Roban (Philippe Duclos) but in the final serial he has retired and Juge Lucie Bourdieu (Clara Bonnet) replaces him. As a young woman, Juge Bourdieu is a possibly disruptive figure as we will see. Finally we have the characters who fill other senior police roles. The most consistent of these is Commissaire Brémont (Bruno Debrandt) who heads a Serious Crimes Unit – he is also the father of Laure’s baby daughter in the later episodes. Also in the later episodes, Laure has a new local boss, Arnaud Beckriche (Valentin Merlet) and a new deputy, Ali Amrani (Tewfilk Jallab).
I’m going to refer to the last episode here, but I think my comments will also refer to earlier episodes. My feeling is that Engrenages, as fits the various meanings of the title – gears, gearing, cogs, connections etc. – is constructed like a kind of whirling dance, a bit like one of those Scottish country dances where couples take part in what are effectively ensemble dances where first you are all together but at various points you pair off with someone else and at other times dance in a group. This may sound crazy but bear with me. The characters outlined above all work in the policing and judicial systems and by necessity they have to have relationships with each other to do their jobs. But there is also another set of characters, usually changing for each serial, the criminals. In Serial 8 there are three criminal groups – a gang based around a father and son, a drug smuggling operation and a group of of young Moroccan migrants aged under 14 who are used for ‘minor’ crimes by various parties.
My conception of the Serial 8 narrative would be interweaving pairs of characters. Laure holds the whole narrative together because she has working relationships with most of the other characters. Her problem throughout the serial is her long-standing relationship with Gilou. He is now in prison as a result of his ‘unconventional’ policing methods and his refusal to ‘name names’ – he takes the rap for colleagues. In the serial he gets out of prison as part of a deal to become a ‘plant’ in the gang of a major criminal. Nobody must know he is undercover so Laure is not supposed to know or to attempt to see him. But she still cares for him, can she keep away? What is worse is that Gilou is working for Brémont. Laure still has her job to do and in the past she would be working closely with the investigating judge. But the new judge doesn’t trust Laure and therefore Laure finds herself having to work through her boss – who then complicates things by getting involved in a sexual relationship with Lucie. Since she doesn’t have Gilou at hand, Laure finds herself working more closely with Ali (who unbeknownst to her is seeking to join another team in a promotion). Finally, Laure will once again become involved with Joséphine since she becomes the lawyer for the young Moroccan boy who Laure’s team have found is a suspect/witness in the death of another young Moroccan. It is this case that will allow Laure to become involved in the much bigger investigation which involves drug smuggling and the gang that Gilou is now part of. But in doing so she will find herself potentially at odds with Brémont’s Major Crime Unit and the Drugs Squad, not to mention the Armed Response Unit if the big showdown comes. Laure can’t pick and choose which aspects of the investigation to focus on, the investigating judge makes those decisions. On the other hand, Laure is very smart. It’s not until the last couple of episodes that we fully understand what will have to happen when all three cases come together and the major problem will be how will the police operation catch the bad guys without arresting Gilou as a gang member. The last episode is brilliantly staged I think.
While Laure is ‘dancing’ her way through encounters with all the other characters, they too are pairing/squaring up to their counterparts. Two worth picking up are those between Laure and Ali and Joséphine and Eric. The writers found a way to bring Laure and Ali together as teammates just as they found a balance between the impulsive actions of Joséphine and the more calculated actions of Eric. What I really enjoy about Engrenages is how the script is built around the genre conventions of the procedural but is also deeply-rooted in the emotions of the characters. I’ve also found it refreshing that the serials have gradually developed what feels like a genuine engagement with the diversity of Parisian culture. Ali as a character could be seen as simply there to represent the Maghrebi population in the city but his character has several functions. In one sense he represents a more conventional career-orientated younger police officer compared to Laure’s more emotional/committed approach. But he also finds himself caught between cultures and experiences with both the young Moroccans and the dodgy owner of a phone shop. Particularly intriguing are the interrogation scenes when he seems to rely on an interpreter at some points as if his own Arabic is not sufficient to understand the young suspects. On the other hand he is marked by senior officers as a rising star ready for promotion. When he cracks under the strain he’ll learn that on Laure’s team the motto is like the Three Musketeers, one for all and all for one.
The finale, the end of Serial 8, was just about right for me. I didn’t know what I wanted but I’m pleased with what I got. I know there will be different opinions and that’s fine. Nothing will replace Engrenages in my affections and I’ll miss Joséphine as much as Laure and Gilou. But I’d love to see some of the shows that the two women most responsible for the success of Engrenages are producing now. I know that the creative team is very large so I’m just picking out Alexandra Clert and Anne Landois as ‘creator’ and ‘showrunner’ for the majority of episodes. I remember a report of a discussion in New York in which Alexandra Clert was asked questions alongside the showrunner of Mad Men. The event was titled ‘Women, Work and Television’. Clert shocked her American audience by stating: “I’m not a feminist at all, I don’t share the ideology of parity.” Because I don’t watch US TV these days and I gave up on Mad Men after the first episode, I’m not well-placed to make any comparisons. The Mad Men writer Matthew Weiner responded to Clert’s statement by suggesting “Your show is full of feminist philosophy that you take for granted, which is that these women have jobs” and that this was possibly a case of a different generation i.e. Alexandra Clert was taking for granted what other women had fought for. I don’t think this is an explanation. French and American culture are simply different. There is a great deal to think about in Engrenages. I’d better try and watch those early serials before I come to any conclusions. I’ve also just discovered a very interesting take on the show’s representation issues, especially its depiction of ‘peoples of colour’ which points out how over 15 years France has changed considerably. How has Engrenages responded? There is work to do.
DNA is in its third week out of four on BBC4 in the UK. The 8 x 40 minute episodes of this long-form crime fiction narrative are broadcast in pairs on Saturdays at 21.00 and Tues/Weds (at 00.00). Six episodes are currently on iPlayer in the UK. The serial appears to be a co-production between Nordisk/Danish TV2 and arte France/Warner Bros. International TV in Denmark. The story is set initially in Denmark and moves to both Poland and France. Promoted as ‘from the co-creator of The Killing‘ it boasts an international cast that includes Anders W. Berthelsen and Nicolas Bro, both familiar from Danish films and TV, alongside Charlotte Rampling as a French police investigator and Zofia Wichlacz (a lead in the recent BBC serial World on Fire) as a young Polish woman.
Outline of Episode 1 (no major Spoilers)
The narrative begins in Copenhagen 2014 when Rolf Larsen (Berthelsen), a Danish police officer, finds himself in a difficult position while investigating the kidnap of a child called Minna. His wife has left him in charge of their baby daughter and when a lead comes up he decides to take the baby with him on a ferry to Poland as part of the investigation. Sea-sick on the ferry he is forced to leave the baby on deck for a moment (his partner, the DNA specialist Skaubo (Bro) is finishing his meal in the lounge) and when he returns she has disappeared, never to be found. It is assumed that the baby, securely in its pram, was washed overboard. Rolf’s marriage breaks up and he is transferred to North Jutland when the kidnap case is closed without a result. Then in 2019 another case brings him back to Copenhagen along with a young police officer from Jutland, Neel (Olivia Joof Lewerissa). Rolf discovers that there is a fault in the DNA database and some records have not been uploaded. When some DNA data is re-entered into the system, the European police data-sharing system links the Danish kidnap case 5 years ago to a recent murder in France and Ms Rampling appears in Copenhagen. Meanwhile in Poland, a young woman discovers she is pregnant. Poland has strict anti-abortion laws and things start to go wrong. Poland, Denmark and France are somehow linked in what might be a form of international infant trafficking.
I confess that I found the first couple of episodes of this serial difficult to engage with. That is probably my fault but it doesn’t matter because Episodes 3, 4 and 5 ‘ramped up’ the excitement (new pandemic vocabulary!) and I’m now hooked. The first point to note is that this is standard Nordic crime fiction with conventions that have now became the norm in many other territories. The plot involves important social issues. Minna, the child at the centre of the original kidnap case is the daughter of an Iranian asylum seeker father and a Danish mother. The suggestion is that the Danish police are too quick to assume that the Iranian father has abducted his own child. The young woman in Poland is up against a system which criminalises abortion in a way that isn’t acceptable in most (all?) other EU member states. France too seemingly has some restrictions in family law that I don’t think exist in Scandinavia. Second, we often discover in Nordic crime fiction that an investigating officer finds himself or herself engaged in an investigation which in some way has an impact on a personal family melodrama. That’s true for Rolf. He still loves his wife. She is currently seeing someone else but is still friendly towards her ex. I like Anders Berthelsen and his pairing here with the dynamic Neel works well I think. The presence of senior female police officers and female detectives is now a norm in Scandinavian crime fiction, as it should be. Things are different in Poland. I note that there isn’t a Polish co-production input. On the other hand Rolf is told that the whole case is an embarrassment to the Danish police (because of the DNA database mess) and I think there is a discourse questioning national typing rumbling below the surface of the whole narrative. The credits reveal that the unit which presumably supervised the Polish narrative actually comprises Czech personnel and the footage was not shot in Poland.
I am intrigued by the casting of Charlotte Rampling. She is a fine actor and the play between her character and Rolf is gripping. I don’t think it is ageist to suggest that she is several years older than seems plausible, so why was she cast? The serial extends the familiar pattern of Nordic investigators speaking English when they have to confer with colleagues in Estonia or Poland etc. and in this case it becomes a three-way English discourse. Rampling is fluent in French and English but I’m sure there are plenty of other French actors who could have been selected. (I’m fantasising how my hero Caroline Proust, aka Captain Laure Berthaud of Spiral/Engrenages would handle things in Copenhagen.) This leaves me with the feeling that perhaps Warner Bros TV or arte wanted a star name that would work in North America and the UK?
Co-productions make a lot of sense in both the TV and film industries in terms of distribution and funding deals. They also cause quite a few problems. Three things are worth considering in this case. First, there has been severe criticism by some Danish viewers about the dialogue and its delivery by the actors. Since I can only read the subtitles I can’t comment on this. Perhaps the subtitler has rescued the dialogue for anglophone viewers? The director of the first four episodes, removed his name from the credits citing the classic ‘creative differences’ – make of that what you will. Finally, some Polish viewers are angry, both about the Czech locations standing in for real Polish towns and about the depiction of a Polish convent hospital and the Catholic church in Poland generally. All these comments are on IMDb. I should add that I am also slightly confused by the time switches in the narrative. The opening episode signals a flashback ‘Three Days Earlier’, but in later episodes, the Polish scenes which are often presented conventionally as a parallel narrative, seem to me to be possibly happening earlier than the Danish scenes. I think I may need to rewatch these episodes. Below is a brief teaser trailer (in Danish) if you haven’t watched the serial yet and are intrigued. I’m looking forward to the final episodes and I hope to return to DNA in a few weeks for some more considered thoughts.
Just One Look is a French TV serial from TF1 featuring Virginie Ledoyen, an actor with a long history of parts in film and TV since appearing as a child back in 1986. I saw her earlier this year in a revival of Ma 6-T va crack-er (France 1997). Just One Look is available to stream as a ‘Walter Presents’ offering on All 4. I decided to start watching unaware of the original property that was adapted for this production. It wasn’t long before I started thinking about the big-budget and very successful French thriller, Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne, France 2006). The narratives seemed similar.
In the earlier film a man who whose wife was murdered several years earlier suddenly finds himself a suspect because two more bodies have been found close to the murder site. The accused man goes on the run and then receives a message that suggests his wife is still alive. In this more recent narrative, Eva’s husband Bastien goes missing from a hotel where he has taken their two small children after a pop concert. Eva then discovers a photograph of a group of younger people in a bar several years earlier. One of them is Bastien and one is a woman with her face scratched out. As a younger woman, before she met Bastien, Eva had a frightening experience at a rock concert – which is why she didn’t accompany her husband and children this time. She has tried to forget the concert which ended with her in hospital but the photograph and her husband’s disappearance makes Eva worried about the safety of her children.
As well as some similarities between the two narratives, there is also something about the new narrative, with its fast action and overall pacing, which reminds me of the close links between French and American crime fiction. I’m sure you are ahead of me here – I finally confirmed that the two narratives were both adapted from stories by the American crime thriller and mystery writer Harlan Coben. Coben was also involved earlier with a similar French TV serial Une chance de trop (No Second Chance, 2015) as writer and executive producer. No Second Chance is also on All 4. He has also written three other British and French-based long-form narratives. He seems to be operating on Just One Look as a ‘showrunner’ with a team of French writers.
Just One Look is a complex narrative with an array of characters but one of the interesting lead roles is a contract killer played by Jimmy Jean-Louis who is supposed to have grown up in Haiti and who carries the name Eric Toussaint. He’s the only Black character of note in the serial – which distinguishes it from the police procedurals and banlieue dramas set in Paris. (The co-writer/producer Sydney Gallonde is Black and the character is changed from the novel – a conscious attempt to diversify casting?) I think we are meant to be in the next ‘outer ring’ of more affluent areas outside Paris, though the story takes us into Montmartre a couple of times. The carousel in a square close to Sacré-Couer is a favourite place for Eva’s small son Max who is on the autistic spectrum. This is useful in plot terms because Max is both quite difficult to keep safe but also a dab hand at remembering car number plates. His slightly older sister, Salome, is very bright as well.
So, what to make of this? Coben appears to have taken his familiar narrative model and switched gender roles – the man goes missing, the woman has to become investigator. The police in charge of the investigation are women. It seems to tick all the right boxes – except that the police in this case seem to be completely inept. As several viewers have pointed out, Salome seems capable of finding useful leads on Google well ahead of the police and the team from Engrenages (Spiral) headed by Laure and Gilou could have solved this case by Episode 3 (Just One Look has 6 x 50 minute episodes). My guess is that Coben is the problem here. I found that the plot became repetitive and although it had some interesting twists, it lacked sufficient credibility to make the final resolution as satisfying as the writers presumably hoped it would be. Those French films that have taken American influences and re-worked them to create the polar in French cinema have often created a relationship between a police investigator and a lead criminal that holds the whole narrative together. Coben’s narratives work in a different way. I haven’t read the the original, but from extracts available online, I can guess some of the problems they faced. I think that the narrative would work better if the hit man Eric and the wife/mother Eva were more directly in a prolonged confrontation. The story needs stripping back and re-working more in the French tradition. Virginie Ledoyen and Jimmy Jean-Louis are strong performers in roles with potential that is not realised from my perspective.
I realise that I have fallen into the trap of focusing only on the writers/producers of a TV long-form narrative. The serial was directed by Ludovic Colbeau-Justin as just his third directorial project. (He was previously a cinematographer but directed the previous Coben adaptation No Second Chance.)
The first two episodes of this serial were broadcast on BBC4 on Saturday evening without much fanfare and little on IMDb. I was struck straightaway by two thoughts. This seems like an American-influenced narrative and as the image above suggests, we have several ingredients of a narrative reminiscent of American films and TV. Panic on the beach of a small seaside resort with the Mayor centre frame, aware of the possible consequences of some form of tragic event on the prosperity of the community. It took me a little while to confirm that one of the leads in the serial is played by Marie Dompnier who I enjoyed so much in the two seasons of Witnesses (Les témoins) in 2014 and 2017. Though La dernière vague has different writers, this opening episode has a scene that is similar in some ways to Witnesses Season 2. In the earlier narrative Ms Dompnier is a police detective who investigates an incident in which a bus full of passengers seemingly frozen to death is found on a rural road. In this new serial she is more directly involved as one of a group of surfers taking part in a local event when a mysterious cloud forms over the sea. The surfers literally disappear for several hours and then return seemingly having suffered no injury. Indeed, some of them seem to have had any medical issues ‘improved’ or ‘resolved’. But they have no memory of what actually happened to them.
At the end of episode 2 we are left with the strong suggestion that the cloud is merely the signifier for some non-human force, possibly a natural phenomenon or an alien consciousness? Is this horror or science fiction? So far this ‘force’ seems to be more beneficial than dangerous but this might be dependent on how humans respond. There are several family melodrama elements developing as well so perhaps there will be some kind of moral questioning of these relationships. And finally there is the ecology vs capitalism issue. In one sense it all looks familiar in genre terms. The seaside community comprises attractive people and the beach in the Landes south of Bordeaux in Nouvelle Aquitaine is inviting. it’s also good to see a lead character, Ben, who is a chemistry teacher. I’m looking forward to the next two 50 minute episodes – there are six in total.
The Observer‘s reviewer has already trashed the serial and the Telegraph has published a jokey review. This kind of genre mashup often seems to rile those critics who happily accept crime fiction. I wonder why?
The new TV drama serial A Suitable Boy, based on the novel by Vikram Seth begins on Sunday 26 July on BBC1. The novel was widely praised when it was published in 1993 and the serial is directed by Mira Nair whose track record as a diaspora director of both South Asian and British/American films is equally well-respected. Promotion of the serial as the first major production by the BBC to feature an all non-white cast suggests a real sense of meeting an audience demand for more stories by and about people of colour, preferably also made by people of colour. Why then has the Radio Times published a comment piece by Tufayel Ahmed questioning the production’s credentials? The answer is simply that Andrew Davies was commissioned to adapt the novel. Davies is the veteran adapter who gained a reputation (which he tended to promote himself) as a very successful adapter of literary classics who could ‘sex up’ earlier fictions for a contemporary popular TV audience. Tufayel Ahmed admits that he hasn’t seen the serial and he doesn’t mention the Davies reputation for sexing up stories. He is concerned only that Davies is not a person of colour and specifically not from a South Asian background. Because of this he feels that this revelation “takes a little bit of sheen off this groundbreaking project”.
I’m not going to argue against the force of what Tufayel Ahmed says. He goes on to make several good points about the growing challenge to broadcasters to employ more writers from diverse backgrounds and I urge you to read the piece. I’m also not necessarily a fan of Andrew Davies, though I respect his undoubted skills. What interests me are a number of questions about adaptation and television drama more generally. The first point is that this will be a drama serial, not a ‘series’. The serial format is very familiar, especially on UK TV, used for adapting the classic ‘long-form narrative’, the 19th century novel. It is also now used extensively for US TV long-form narratives (but these tend to be much longer than the six episodes of A Suitable Boy which would be termed a ‘mini-series‘ in the US). But because it is an adaptation of a very long novel (over 1400 pages for the paperback), the question of compression comes to the fore, as well as the selection of suitable dividing points and ‘cliffhangers’. The commission will be a big gamble for the BBC, costing at least £16 million (which means £2.5 million per episode, a figure greater than the current mean budget figure for UK features). Because the funding is coming solely from the BBC, this is a very risky venture and arguably dependent on overseas sales. The reaction of Indian-based YouTubers suggests that it has probably got an Indian sale already. The BBC is in a financial crisis making the situation even more important that the project is successful. The BBC is also promoting the serial as a ‘period drama production’ (it begins in 1951) which industry wisdom often suggests is a turn-off for younger viewers.
I haven’t read the novel and I haven’t yet found information about how long each episode will be, but compressing the narrative into 6 x 1 hour episodes as a minimum will be very difficult and even at 6 x 90 minutes (or 540 minutes) will be tough. The trick will be how to set up the story in Episode 1 with a hook that will retain enough viewers for Episode 2. The most experienced person able to do this may well be Andrew Davies. There may be many others but producers don’t like uncertainty (they are generally ‘risk averse’ as the industry jargon has it) and that’s possibly why they went with Davies. I’ve also seen reports that Vikram Seth requested Davies as adapter. Mira Nair has a long and distinguished list of credits. I’ve seen all bar a couple of her features and I’m a big admirer but a serial of this magnitude is something new for her. It doesn’t help that her previous attempt at filming a long novel, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (US-UK-India 2004), did not do well at the box office, although I enjoyed it. More pressure on Ms Nair means less leeway on the adapter.
There are three creative ‘writers’ involved in this production. Vikram Seth is Executive Producer as well as the author of the novel and Mira Nair is tasked with presenting the story on screen. The role of the adapter is not to write something new but to shape what exists already, to compress and possibly to restructure to fit the format. The director has to solve the problems the script will inevitably raise and the producer Aradhana Seth (the author’s sister, a distinguished artist and filmmaker) has to ensure that what eventually arrives on screen meets the original production aims. Does Davies’ lack of South Asian heritage threaten this creative team? Scanning the crew list for a shoot solely based in India, there are only a small number of Europeans/Americans such as cinematographer Declan Quinn involved. As a diaspora director working out of the US, Mira Nair has often used a mix of Indian and non-Indian personnel on her films made in India.
My final observation is just to suggest that part of the issue discussed here is the difference between film and TV, especially in the UK. This simply means that, in the UK, TV is seen as a writer’s medium and film is generally discussed as a director’s medium. This possibly comes from the UK’s strong literary/theatre tradition, embedded to some extent in the education system and the tendency for film culture to have been associated with ‘low culture’. The low status of foreign language cinema or cinema steeped in other cultures means that in the UK, ‘Mira Nair’ might not mean as much to non-diaspora audiences as ‘Sally Wainwright‘ or Jed Mercurio as TV writers, nor indeed as ‘Andrew Davies’ as adapter. It is true that many of the so-called ‘Quality TV’ long-term narratives made for cable and streaming in the US have attracted major film directors such as Martin Scorsese, but that hasn’t happened to the same extent in the UK.
In conclusion, I want to support Tufayel Ahmed’s call for more writing commissions for people of colour from British broadcasters. However, the best way to do this is to develop a wide range of new writers who can gain experience on a diverse range of productions. These mega projects like A Suitable Boy are usually going to happen through co-productions and their production practices and funding packages are likely to resemble those of the film industry. But that’s another story. One last point, there is a long established writer of South Asian background who has many credits and a high profile – Hanif Kureshi. But would he be a suitable adapter?
I’m looking forward to watching A Suitable Boy. Here’s the BBC trailer:
World on Fire is an example of the UK’s current ‘high-end’ TV production boom. This 7 x 60 mins episodes serial attempts to follow multiple characters, mainly young men and women, through the first year of the Second World War from the German invasion of Poland up to the Battle of Britain. It is a ‘long form narrative’ complementing recent ‘short form narratives’ such as State of the Union. As a formal project this differs from more typical British serials adapted from ‘classic’ (or not so classic) novels and feels more like the original serials developed for US cable TV. Surprisingly perhaps, World on Fire does not seem to have required US funding or to be an official co-production with a European partner. I think that the production has been sold to PBS in the US and I would expect it to sell to Poland and other territories. The production company Mammoth Screen is actually owned by ITV Studios but Mammoth’s projects are often, like this one, screened by the BBC. Presumably the production benefited from the tax schemes for high-end TV programmes. This is the new ecology of TV but does it work to produce interesting narratives?
The writer of the serial is Peter Bowker, a Northern lad with 25 years of writing for TV and many hits. My two favourites would be Blackpool (2004) and Eric and Ernie (2011) (from an idea by and starring Victoria Wood). More recently he has had success with three seasons of The A Word (2016-2019). My first thought was that Bowker might have been inspired by the German serial Generation War (Germany-Poland 2013). That controversial but very successful production took five young Berliners (men and women aged 18-21) in 1941, all friends before they set off on different ‘journeys’, mostly on the Eastern front. Three of the five survive to be re-united during the fall of Berlin in 1945. Bowker’s script for World on Fire focuses on a larger group of 8-10 characters, although interestingly it shares an interest in a young woman who is a singer, a young officer in the Army and a character acting as a guerrilla fighter in Poland. The German narrative had fewer characters and less time but was broadcast as three 90 minute episodes, i.e. each the equivalent of a cinema feature. It covered a longer time period, but not such a wide geographical spread. I mention these differences because at this point, after watching five out of seven episodes of World on Fire, I’m already worrying that there are too many separate stories, even though most of them are strongly linked together.
The promotional material suggests that the characters are ‘ordinary people’ whose lives are turned upside down by the outbreak of war. I’m not sure that is true for all the characters but it is important that the starting point for the narrative is a young middle-class man, Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) and a working-class young woman, Lois (Julia Brown) singing as a form of disruption of an Oswald Moseley fascist rally in Manchester in March 1939. Afterwards Lois will go back to work in a local factory and to her singing gigs at a local dancehall. Harry is sent to Warsaw as an interpreter for the British diplomatic mission. While there he will meet a young Polish woman Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz, who I saw recently in Spoor) and her family, her brothers and her parents. When the Nazis invade in September the stories of the Polish family (three separate stories) Harry’s mother (Lesley Manville) and Lois’s father (Sean Bean) and brother (Ewan Mitchell) will all develop. Also in Warsaw is an American correspondent Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt) who, as the invasion starts decides to go to Berlin. She is also worried about her nephew in Paris whose story will be picked up later when Paris falls. There is another narrative involving Nancy with a family in her Berlin apartment block. This story exposes a brutal aspect of Nazi ‘family policy’ but it doesn’t, as far as I can see, connect with the other stories
What should be clear, even from this brief outline, is that there are many stories and there isn’t much space to develop any one story without losing track of others. It also means that a major battle, the confrontation between the German pocket-battleship The Graf Spee and the British cruisers Ajax, Achilles and Exeter is over in a few spectacular and shocking minutes. I’ve seen the famous Powell & Pressburger film many times, but audiences without detailed knowledge may find the scenes difficult to comprehend. (Most take place below decks or on deck with only a few shots of CGI ships.) Kasia’s parents in Warsaw are played by the two top Polish actors who appeared in Pawel Pawlikowski’s award-winning films Ida and Cold War – but they appear only fleetingly. Comments like this appear in several negative reviews of the serial but it isn’t my aim to be negative, I’m simply pointing out some of the outcomes of the narrative structure. On the plus side, a piece in the Observer a few weeks ago praised the serial for its attention to the stories set in Poland. As I’ve noted the cast includes some well-known Polish cinema actors and although the main dialogue is in English, there is subtitling for much of the Polish, German (and later French) exchanges. Subtitled drama on BBC1 is rare.
Episode 5 sees the main narratives converging in the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk. I think that this episode demonstrates the strengths and possible weaknesses of Bowker’s script. But my personal view is that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. An unlikely group of characters are on the beaches during a 24 hour period. They include a British sailor, a Polish soldier, an American jazz musician and Harry, now a British infantry officer, with an oddly assorted group of soldiers he as taken under his wing (although Harry himself is not always totally in control). These include shell-shocked British soldiers and a couple of Senegalese soldiers. At one point several of the disparate characters are brought together through song. Harry joins his men in singing (quietly and plaintively, but with a sense of strength through solidarity) ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. The tune is picked up by the African-American jazz musician close to the beach and then by Lois who is singing as an ENSA entertainer in an RAF hangar. The editing has connected this moment to Kasia in Warsaw and to Harry and Lois’s parents in Manchester listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. This narrative device recall’s Bowker’s Blackpool which used similar devices from musicals. The whole Dunkirk sequence also links back to the debates around Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk (2017). Bowker seems to have picked out characters such as the Senegalese soldiers to address contemporary concerns about representation. He does this throughout the serial, so Lois’s female partner from her singing career in Manchester is a Black British woman who joins Lois in ENSA. And while Lois sings we see that there are two other ‘people of colour’ in the RAF audience. I’m in effect naming Peter Bowker as auteur here, simply because he has written the whole serial. There are three different directors of separate episodes but the casting decisions may have been taken by producers or Mammoth executives, I simply don’t know. The point is that there was great diversity in the Allied forces, even in 1940. But in a sense it doesn’t matter if World on Fire is completely authentic. The casting may be colour blind or to seek that historical diversity. Either way it can be seen as an attempt to engage contemporary younger audiences with wartime narratives through human stories. I prefer this to the more technologically-driven ‘immersive’ cinema of Nolan. It’s also worth going back to Generation War and the debate after the screening involving historians discussing the accuracy of the representations and the importance of access to younger viewers. I also want to give credit to the four cinematographers on the serial with their mix of backgrounds and experience – Søren Bay (2 episodes), Suzie Lavelle (2 episodes), Mika Orasmaa (2 episodes), John de Borman (1 episode)
I’m going to watch the last two episodes and the first five are currently available in the UK on iPlayer. I’ve enjoyed all the performances but especially Julia Brown’s and the feuding between Lesley Manville’s ‘lady of the manor’ and Sean Bean’s shell-shocked First World War veteran. Here’s the ‘Benelux trailer’, stressing the attempt to produce a ‘European story’: