This month sees the launch of Walter Presents, a new online on-demand service by Channel 4 in the UK specialising in international language television drama. Initially disappointed that Walter Presents has UK-only availability I’m pacified by Channel 4’s decision to broadcast a selection of the most popular series on their home channels in due course.
Those of you who overlook international drama, usually on the basis of an aversion to subtitles, are missing out for I believe some of the best television in the last 10 years has come from continental Europe. Here’s a summary of what has caught my eye and the channels I saw them on*.
Nordic Noir was possibly the first international genre to fill our screens. With the general population’s penchant for fictional crime the rise of the genre in books was parallel to its success on television. Step forward Wallander (BBC4), the detective based in the southern Swedish city of Ystad and created by Henning Mankell. Kurt Wallander has been brought to life on screen by three different actors, including Kenneth Branagh in a BBC English language version. Swedish writer Jan Arnald has had his crime books translated onto the screen under his pen name of Arne Dahl (TG4, BBC4) where a team of Stockholm-based elite investigators is headed up by detective Kerstin Holm. Completing the trio of Swedish crime dramas is Inspector Beck (BBC4) created from the pens of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in the 1960s and brought to the screen in recent years by actor Peter Haber.
The Bridge (BBC4) united the police departments of Malmo and Copenhagen when a dead body was found straddling the Swedish-Danish border on the Oresund Bridge. I was slow to warm to main character Detective Saga Norén but her lack of people skills is compensated by her crime-solving abilities. She drives a Porsche 911 so all is forgiven. The Bridge has a superb script and a standard of acting to match.
Heading to the sunnier climes of Sicily one will find Inspector Montalbano (BBC4). The world had its first introduction to the food-obsessed detective in Andrea Camilleri’s books and he’s re-created on screen by actor Luca Zingaretti with great success. Solving the crime comes second to cuisine, scenery and the humorous antics of his colleagues.
French crime drama has proved equally popular as Nordic Noir. Paris-based Spiral (BBC4) features Caroline Proust as the lead investigator under constant pressure for results from superiors, leading to unethical methods on occasion. Spiral gives us an insight into the French legal system along with police procedure. Although Witnesses (Channel 4) is only one series old it received widespread praise and high viewing figures. Set in a perma-grey northern coastal town the police drama features stunning cinematography and great acting by leads Marie Dompnier and Thierry Lhermitte.
One needs a break from crime drama so it was with great pleasure that I welcomed Deutschland 83 (RTE2), the most recent addition to my viewing. The series concerns a young East German soldier who is coerced into spying for the GDR by posing as a West German soldier with access to top security information. It’s well-written and captures the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia to perfection.
I’m unable to pick one favourite international language drama series because two programmes are vying for that accolade. The Returned (Channel 4, More 4) is a highly engaging paranormal drama where the inhabitants of a small Alpine French town return from the dead giving the living a lot to ponder. Their return coincides with strange happenings. Is it a sign of the apocalypse? Heavy on detail and characters The Returned needs to be carefully digested. Miss one minute at your peril.
Finally to Borgen (BBC4, TG4), the other programme which commands the top spot on my list. Borgen concerns the rise of Danish fictional politician Brigitte Nyborg to the position of Denmark’s first female Prime Minister and her struggles to stay in office. Actress Sidse Babett Knudsen is sublime as Brigitte as is Pilou Asbaek who plays her spin doctor Kasper Juul, one of the most complex characters ever to grace a television screen. Life imitated art when Helle Thorning-Schmidt became Denmark’s first female Prime Minister the year after Borgen’s first screening.
In a country like Ireland where inclement weather and a high cost of living can be barriers to socialising, television is heavily relied upon as entertainment. For an extra fee we can avail of UK television which is where I’ve seen most of the above programmes and well worth the price. Why aren’t Denmark’s The Killing and 1864 on my list? Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of The Killing and not enough of 1864 to comment.
International language drama offers me the dual benefit of cultural insight and escapism, in essence, armchair travel. Secondly, with the noted exception of Inspector Montalbano, I applaud the presence of strong female characters in the above shows, contrasting sharply with the denigration of women in other specific media forms. In Arne Dahl, The Bridge, Spiral, Witnesses and Borgen the female characters are the lead protagonists.
So where does my addiction for international drama come from? When I was young I remember ads for international language films on RTE2 but never got to see any as they clashed with the Nine O’Clock News and Today Tonight on RTE1, the television staples of our current affairs-obsessed household. But when one of my sisters arrived home from university one weekend with Cinema Paradiso on video I was immediately enchanted by the classic coming-of-age Italian film. My love affair with “subtitles” began there and I guess the international language television drama of recent years is, in a way, a TV Paradiso experience.
* Irish channels: RTE1, RTE2, TG4
UK Channels: BBC4, Channel 4, More 4