‘Witnesses’ – Series 2

As you may have noticed I’m still waiting on the next big Euro drama to cross my path. All the Scandi stuff recently has me feeling a bit flat, with fairly promising starts leading to confused middles and ‘meh’ endings. It’s fine to have a beautiful backdrop of lakes and mountains, but you need to populate it with original characters leading interesting lives. The story needs to be multi-layered, but not too complicated; zoning out and playing with your phone is the absolute death knell for a subtitled drama. Both the good guys and the bad guys need to have clear motivations that we can relate to.

So with a Gallic shrug it might well be time to bid au revoir to the northernmost corners of Europe and see what France might have to offer; after all, the daddy of the noir resurgence in the past decade has been the Emmy award-winning and much loved Spiral. The most memorable dramas I’ve watched recently have been French, or part French; the balls-out action heros in Braquo, stylish super spies in The Bureau and the best character in Midnight Sun was the deeply troubled French detective.

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‘I Know Who You Are’ – Episodes 1&2

I Know Who You Are is a Spanish language thriller, unusual for BBC4  who seem to cover Scandinavia and France with their Saturday night detective drama slot. This was a hugely popular series with fans and critics. So just what is all the fuss about?

The first shot is almost zombie film imagery – a lone survivor of some nameless horror stumbling along the highway. This is Juan Elias (Francesc Garrido),a notorious and brutal lawyer, academic and general legal eagle. He’s the husband to a high court judge with all the right connections, and dad to two kids. Elias (confusingly everyone calls him by his middle name) finds all this out at the same speed as the viewer. He has what seems to be almost total amnesia after a car accident. Only he wasn’t alone in the car. His niece Ana has gone missing and there’s forensic evidence linking her to the crash. She’s missing and he hasn’t a clue what’s happened, or so he says.

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‘Eyewitness’

The Norwegian crime drama Eyewitness is a tricksy little fiend before we even start. I’ve been looking forward to this for literally months. Walter Iuzzolino (of Channel 4 Walter Presents fame) mentioned it as one to watch back at the end of last year at the live event in Birmingham Literary Festival in October. I might have been writing this blog for 18 months now, but I still have much to learn about what ‘coming soon’ means in the world of television.  Soon wasn’t soon enough, and while constantly refreshing the Walter Presents schedule I was getting antsy. Surely lovely Walter wouldn’t fail me. The days and weeks ticked by and winter became spring. It wasn’t in any listings for shows coming soon  until suddenly I saw an advert for it two weeks before the air date. Unfortunately for me, three weeks before the air date I’d bought it. In a dark moment of desperation I gave up on Walter and got the DVD. Lesson being, trust Walter and don’t worry. He’ll see you right.

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‘Apple Tree Yard’

Spoiler warning: this is a full review of Apple Tree Yard so if you’re spoiler conscious, please look away now!

Apple Tree Yard is an eye-catching thriller, adapted from the novel of the same name by Louise Doughty about Dr Yvonne Carmichael (award-winning Emily Watson) and dashing Mark Costley (Ben Chaplin). The pair meet by chance at the Houses of Parliament. She’s there to give a talk on her work in genetics. Why he’s there is never really explained. He bats his eyelashes at her and invites her to tour the secret chapel. That’s the magic words as within about 5 minutes of meeting they’re having sex! This is the very definition of a whirlwind romance.

This secret romance is a big deal to Yvonne. It’s all a bit grimy and sordid, but very exciting. She falls head over heels for a man she knows nothing about. It’s sort of a way to get her own back on her dodgy husband Gary (played by Mark Bonnar, an actor who seems to be in literally everything), but mainly to feel like an interesting and attractive middle-aged woman. I’d argue it’s the affair, not her Mr X as a person, that makes her feel good. It’s what it represents – the fight against aging and slowing down the inevitable invisibility as a desirable sexual woman. All this comes hot on the heels of her about to become a grandmother, and that’s surely no accident.

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‘The Bureau’

We had a bureau at my parents house. It was an old, wooden, very formal piece of furniture in the dining room (next to the deer head mounted on the wall. I’m not even kidding). They used to keep bills and receipts in the drawer and the posh wine glasses in the top. I’m not sure I knew it was a French word, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never pronounced it correctly in my whole life. The Bureau in this instance is just as smart and formal,but thankfully not so wooden. This is the secret office responsible for deep undercover agents within the French secret service. We meet the agents in a time of transition and confusion.

Rashid (codename Cyclone) is a French Muslim spy operating in Algeria. He refused to drink alcohol in training even though it’s clearly important to know if your operatives can take interrogation while drunk (“I love you, you’re my besssht friend! Guess what I do for a living!”). So it’s shocking that he’s arrested for drunk driving while on an operation.

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‘All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride’

Looking for a stocking filler for a telly fan. How about an Arctic Circle sleigh ride from the comfort and warmth of your own home? Yes please! Straight away you know this is going to be a proper seasonal treat.

All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride is the happy union of Slow TV and hygge. You may have seen the word hygge in bookshops (there’s at least a dozen books out about it this year alone) and on department stores shelves selling blankets, slippers and candles. It’s a new UK obsession with the old Danish term, meaning to live comfortably in a warm cosy atmosphere.

This calm cosiness incorporates the Slow TV craze from Norway. These are long programmes where, really, nothing much happens. Examples include the four hour National Knitting Evening, the six hour National Firewood Night and the Train Ride: Bergen to Oslo. British tv got in on the act with All Aboard! The Canal Trip and All Aboard! The Country Bus. The Daily Beast calls Slow TV “the mesmerising antidote to the madness of 2016”.

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The Border – On the Box

From HBO Europe (which is a thing, it turns out, and no bad thing either) may I present the first Polish drama ever to be shown in the UK, on Channel 4. Somewhat bravely it was shown late in June, a couple of days before he UK’s fairly disastrous referendum on leaving Europe.

It’s a timely story torn from the headlines surrounding the current European immigration crisis. The Border is a six part drama set in the lush rural Bieszczady Mountains, on the Ukrainian-Polish border. In Polish the title is ‘Wataha’, meaning the pack. You can see why the name change for the international version, given the animalistic rhetoric around this ongoing heated debate. We are introduced to the Polish Border Guard, protecting the “wildest EU border”.

So far, so stereotyped – the guys are drinking, singing and shagging in an isolated hunters cabin. These macho guards are celebrating a retirement in time-honoured fashion. And boom – a bomb goes off, killing everyone inside. Well, that sure got my attention.

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