Monday, 18 March 2013


Since the explosion of interest here in Scandinavian thrillers, both written and on television, I suppose it was inevitable that we should start seeing British thrillers based on the same tenets - dark scenes, broody, troubled detective, lots of suspects, every character with a mysterious secret, all the players somehow inter-connected, each episode meandering mysteriously and slowly on, each ending with yet more unanswered questions and maybe a new suspect, women in jumpers, etc.

I watched the 2-part thriller Shetland last week.  It was quite good.  It was set in a bleak landscape (the Shetland Isles unsurprisingly), there were lots of secrets, the community was close-knit, the jumpers were even more closely knit, everyone seemed to have a secret, the detective was broody, but . . . I don't know, it finished somehow rather unsatisfactorily.  I think they missed the point about making it slow.  Two episodes was just not enough.  When we found out whodunnit, it wasn't really such a big surprise and, since there had been little time for many plot twists, it ended with a phut.

There was great scenery though.  And an obscure Viking festival was featured; I had never heard of that and was fascinated that it has survived.  It could have added an even more sinister atmosphere to the context of the crime, but again, it sort of passed by.  The series was as if a producer had demanded a British rival to The Killing and someone had made the leap from Icelandic jumper to Shetland jumpers, but hadn't really followed the thought through.  The disillusioned detective's daughter had the best jumpers and all the best lines - he said to her, 'you can see Iceland over there.'  She responded, 'what the supermarket?  Oh no, I forgot, there are no supermarkets on the islands are there.'  Later she added, 'I can't even go out and climb a tree.  There aren't any!'  Unless you want to see what The Shetlands look like, don't bother to look for this series on catch-up.

I am in the middle of the longer Broadchurch at the moment.  Broadchurch beach is actually Bridport and is based around the high cliffs you may remember I featured in a recent post.  The main actors are David Tennant and Olivia Colman.  If you are a fan of David Tennant, he is brilliant.  If you're not, you might think he acts too hard.  He is the broody detective with a past to hide and, as with others in this genre, he seems to be emotionless.  But it's hard to tell whether he's trying to look like someone who's trying hide something and struggling to suppress his emotions for risk of giving too much away although not being quite broody enough to be charismatic and likeable or whether he's trying to look like someone who's a brilliant impassive detective with a broody nature, but isn't quite succeeding.

But the show is actually all about Colman.  She is just extraordinary.  Knowing all the members of the community well, her character has to help conduct an enquiry that appears to suspect any or all of them.  And of course she still wishes to be one of them and is distraught for all of them and shares all their suffering.  When she looks at the camera, you don't need any words, nor anyone else in the scene, you just feel what's going through her mind and what's going on.  Fabulous!

So far the series has followed all the rules - dark scenes, broody, troubled detective, lots of suspects, characters with secrets, all the players somehow inter-connected, each episode grinding slowly on, each ending with unanswered questions and maybe a new suspect, and a woman, not in a particularity memorable jumper, but in a nice boating waterproof anyway.  I hope it continues to unravel in this way (the series, not the jumper) (although, on the other hand . . .).  Broadchurch will be appearing on US TVs later in the year, so look out for it.

In contrast, I have just finished watching Spiral, the French detective series.  In many respects this series also followed the Scandinavian rules.  In fact it beat Shetland and Broadchurch by also having subtitles.  They both had tricky Scottish accents to contend with, but there's something about subtitles that adds to the mystery.  Or maybe that's just by association with the Scandinavian language thrillers.

Anyway, Spiral also had a woman in a jumper.  Again, not a particularly memorable one, although I might have just been distracted by the fact  that it kept slipping off her shoulder.  All the police here  seemed to interpret 'plain clothes' as down-and-out scruffy blousons.  What a waste of an opportunity for the French fashion knitwear industry.  One of the criminals disguised himself as a policeman at one stage by not shaving and putting on a leather bomber jacket.  Even he saw that it was some sort of uniform.  But I suppose it must have had an element of realism in it, otherwise it wouldn't have been accepted on French TV.  Perhaps all those louche men hanging around on French street corners with cigarettes in their mouths are actually police officers.

Spiral was also a police procedural thriller, like most of the dark, mysterious Scandinavian ones.  I am in the process of reading through the 10-book Martin Beck series, which was the forerunner of all of today's police procedurals.  The main premise there, apart from the gloomy, dedicated detective with a consequent hopeless homelife, was that society was rotten, mostly because of the actions of Government.  So most of the action takes place in run-down public housing, with understaffed police, illegal immigrants living outside the law, citizens with their lives ruined by public servants or wealthy industrialists, etc and most of the criminals evoking more sympathy than the representatives of the law.

Spiral had the dingy, run-down back streets, rather than the grand frontages one is used to in scenes of Paris, it also had the illegal immigrants and down-trodden citizens and uncaring, self-serving authorities.  The police characters too all had the usual personal problems.  But it didn't seem to have the political message of the Martin Beck procedural.  What it did have though was a great premise - instead of the gloomy, bleak, wintry, nocturnal environment of The Killing or Shetland, the atmosphere was built up with intertwined stories of crooks, lawyers and police, and every one of them operating outside of the law with greater or lesser degrees of venality.  Maybe that was the political message ie real life in France is not the one promoted in all the superficial fashion and holiday magazines?  Anyway it was fascinating to watch at every level.

We were not invited to like the thuggish police officers that much.  Nor did I have much sympathy for the criminals, certainly not for the anarchists among them.  But, if the environment revealed in this series was indeed realistic, what a dystopia!  I guess there will be another series in due course.  Watch it!


  1. At least I now have a good chuckle after lunch. Still laughing about the Shetland pullovers with their close knits. We have not yet been bombarded with english ethnic detectives, the scandinavians are just finishing and we have enough with the Germans. These days the Germans incorporate turkish actors, east european scoundrals and other usual suspects. By the way have just discovered Nele Neuhaus books, a german writer, but she is good. The first book is ok, but Mr. Swiss tells me they get better. I read them in german, but I believe they are also available in english. I can only recommend them.

    1. Thanks, Pat. I'll look out for Nele Neuhaus.

  2. I know diddley-squat about these books as I don't read or watch mysteries. My own life is a mystery. But from reading your critiques I am surprised that Spielburg hasn't contacted you with a contract to direct one of these movies.