Well this is a bit risky. I’m diving in to a series at episode number 31. But Beck is special. It turns out we don’t have very many episodes available with English subtitles. BBC4 only started showing it from last year at around the episode 25 mark. This is a Swedish series that has been running since 1997 so there must be a big back catalogue. And with all the Euro dramas available on BBC4 I wonder, have we reached saturation point already? Or was this my mistake, overlooking a classic.
Beck is based on a number of much-loved books by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö written in the 1960s. The excellent Mrs Peabody Investigates says they are recognised as the forerunners to Henning Mankell’s ‘Wallander’ novels and therefore countless other Scandi police procedurals. Beck is the daddy of the genre. So even if this isn’t Episode 01, Series 01 we ought to sit down and take notice.
This episodes, ‘Gunvald’, is violent and shocking from the off – we’re in familiar Nordic Noir territory then. Martin Beck (played by Peter Haber Stockholm) is a sober, calm scarf-wearing Stockholm detective. He seems dignified and grandfatherly, even before his grandson turns up. Always in a suit and tie, he looks like a mild-mannered but methodical academic. It’s easy to warm to him.
The police have the murder of journalist Jakob Wivel on their hands and we find out he was helping write the memoirs of a dangerous gangster Risto Kangas. One of Beck’s close-knit team gets shot in the line of duty, the eponymous Gunvald Larsson (played by Mikael Persbrandt who decided after all these years it was time to quit the series). Young Oskar was meant to be with him interviewing witnesses as he was gunned down. Gunvald shouldn’t have been working alone and Oskar is consumed by guilt. The team all feel the anger and grief, but they all have a quiet determination to get on with the job. I especially liked IT specialist Ayda with her severe fringe and abrupt and unapologetic a style. Shades of Saga Norén.
Meanwhile poor Risto is trying to have a relationship with his estranged teenage son. Sitting awkwardly in a cafe he assures the young man he is “going clean” and the proceeds of his book will fund his education. Is he dying? The gangster has a nasty cough and is constantly popping pills. He hasn’t given up the fags though – Mamma didn’t raise no quitter!
Turns out Risto is small-fry and the really nasty gangsters led by boss Karpinger are searching for Jakob’s stolen laptop with Risto’s memoirs on it. They don’t want an expose of their criminal dealings. Risto’s son is kidnapped as incentive for Risto to do the legwork for them. It’s all very murky especially when we find out that the real creeps are Anna and Magnus Murlof, Jakob’s fellow journalists. As with most character-driven cop shows, no one comes out of this with clean hands.
In classic style Oskar recklessly endangers the whole investigation, barely minutes after Beck gets internal affairs off his back. This directly leads to supervisor Klaus (slick and slimy, overly concerned with appearances and tailored in a series of unpleasant shirts) yelling at Beck and taking them all off the case – “you’re too emotionally involved!” he yells. Beck himself is not the problem – he keeps his emotions in check. Even when he works outside the law he methodically prepares and assembles his team. And only when he is alone, after the funeral of his colleague, does he permit himself to cry.
A high point for me was the great use of lighting; dark, sickly green interiors, jet black pools of shadow, and shocking spotlights create a claustrophobic atmosphere. A low point was some issues with the subtitles – small parts of the conversations are missing, which I guess is just editing for brevity. I wouldn’t have noticed this had there been no English translation for building names. The sign ‘Södersjukhuset’ is obscured by columns, so the word Södersjukhuset comes up on screen which is not exactly helpful. The text used was kinda fuzzy too. And I wondered at their liberal application of the c-word – would that be the translation used on BBC 4?
Beck is a classic procedural told with confidence and flair. It takes its own time, but it’s not dull. It was a thorough and thoughtful episode with explosions of violence and rage.
I find myself reflecting on what a treat it is to have this big a selection of quality Euro dramas that one like this can be initially overlooked. It’s nice not to have to convince people to watch stuff with subtitles any more (30 years ago it would have been serious cold and aloof French cinema, that you’d pretend you were into to impress a new romantic partner). Whatever the original language, the stories speak for themselves.
The next episode is definitely worth a watch – Kristofer Hivjul (beardy wildling Tormund in Game of Thrones)stars as a charismatic homicide investigator, recruited by Klaus without Beck’s knowledge maybe as a punishment for letting Oskar get so out of control? It’ll be exciting to see Kristofer without furs and cloak, but the beard remains intact of course.
Beck – complete Volume 2 available on DVD from Monday 10th October 2016 from our friends at Nordic Noir and Beyond.
Try before you buy? Some episodes are available on BBC iPlayer