Category: Global television

Trom (Denmark-Faroe Islands-Iceland-Germany 2022)

A view of the Faroese capital Tórshavn, taken from a promotional video for the Faroes based on the photography used in the TV series

Trom is a six part crime serial currently scheduled on BBC4 in the UK but with all six episodes available on BBC iPlayer. Unusually, I opted to watch the whole serial over consecutive nights. I enjoyed the show very much and I’m prompted to write about it in response to the Guardian‘s listing which described it as OK but ‘formulaic’. That term reminds me that when I started my engagement with film studies in the 1970s most Hollywood films were generally dismissed by British critics as ‘formulaic’. I think it came from traditional Eng Lit graduates who had never been taught about genre. Fortunately we now have a more educated audience but we do still get the occasional usage.

A formula is a means of guaranteeing that a process will be capable of being re-produced to enable exactly the same output each time. The whole point of a genre repertoire is to enable filmmakers to select elements to ensure both repetition and difference. Genres are constantly evolving in cycles. All the elements in a narrative may be familiar but the precise mix will be different. Yes, Trom uses familiar elements but certain factors make this particular narrative unique. I’ve never seen a film or TV drama set in the Faroes before. It’s a unique and fascinating setting. Perhaps the most unusual element here is the tiny population size of this ‘autonomous community’ – only 53,000 people, less than most small towns in the UK. I thought that Iceland was relatively small but there are seven times as many people in Iceland. In narrative terms it means that it is quite feasible to create a story in which one character, seemingly an outsider, can investigate a crime, partly by having a connection to many of the people involved the story and also that a single person can have business holdings that seem to have an element of control over every form of activity in the community. It also means that this particular ‘Nordic Noir’ has no difficulty developing ideas about family melodrama narratives since it is quite likely that the children of the principal characters will all attend the same school or college and may become involved in the central narrative.

Ulrich Thomsen as Hannis, the international journalist who returns to his homeland

Early in the serial we see two men board a plane and sit on the same row of seats but on opposite sides of the aisle. Eventually we will realise that Hannis Martinsson (Ulrich Thomsen) is originally Faroese but has been working internationally as an investigative journalist. Ragnar í Rong (Olaf Johannessen) is the man who owns several companies in the Faroes. I’m not going to spoil the thriller plot but I will point out that the investigation will involve the suspicious death of an activist concerned about the ecological and ethical issue surrounding the main Faroese economic activity of fishing in the North-East Atlantic, including whaling. This is another unique element. Very few countries still consider whaling as legitimate and few are as dependent on whaling and fishing as an economic necessity.

Inspector Karla Mohr (Maria Rich) is in charge of the case

Trom is part ‘police procedural’ and again the unique status of the Faroes becomes important. It is an autonomous territory still officially part of the Kingdom of Denmark. In terms of resources, certain actions such as sending for a forensic pathologist or requesting specialist laboratory work require extra time for material to be sent to Denmark or for specialists to travel to the Faroes. This in turn offers the writers small extra windows of time in the narrative when evidence is vulnerable or police investigation is stalled. This is well exploited in the serial. This element has appeared in other contexts. For instance, the South Korean film Memories of Murder (SK 2003), set in the 1980s requires samples to be sent to the US for testing because local experise and technology have not been developed. The situation in the two autonomous territories of Denmark is interesting from a UK perspective. There were three such territories but Iceland became independent after 1944 (both Iceland and the Faroes were occupied by the British during the Second World War). Greenland is the other territory which still has some ties to Denmark. The Faroes are not actually part of the EU even if Denmark is. This means that relations with the UK are different than they might be for Denmark itself. The Faroes are actually closer to Scotland and to Norway than to Denmark. Logically, the extra facilities the Faroese police might need could be obtained in Aberdeen or Bergen, half the distance away.

The serial is based on books by the Faroese writer, Jógvan Isaksen and it is the first TV drama serial/series made on the Faroes. It is certainly a ‘Nordic Noir’, closest perhaps to the Danish TV serials of the The Killing (Denmark 2007-12) – the famous knitted jumpers in that serial were Faroese and they are also a featured in the promotion of Trom. The Killing was a co-production venture which saw Norwegian, Swedish and German support. This is the case with many Nordic film and TV productions. Trom has Icelandic input in funding and crew and there is also Danish and Norwegian involvement. One of the two main writers is Donna Sharpe, a Brit based in Germany. The British interest, in the form of BBC4, is emphasised in the promotional material. The two leading cast members, Ulrich Thomsen and Maria Rich are well-known Danish actors whereas Olaf Johannessen was born on the Faroes. I think others in the cast are Faroese and the dialogue is both Danish and Faroese with a few lines of English. All the performances seem strong to me.

The ending of the serial leaves the prospect of a second part, but at the moment there seems to be a problem in the partnership of the various agencies involved in the production. I hope it is resolved. I enjoyed the show and would appreciate the chance to watch a second serial.

Here is a brief promo clip from an Australian streamer:

The Promise (La promesse, France 2020)

The pine forest of Les Landes

The Promise is a six part TV crime fiction serial that was successful in its home territory (the best TV drama launch since 2015) and has recently completed its run on BBC4 in the UK. It will stay on BBC iPlayer for an indeterminate period. This serial is in many ways quite familiar and at least two of my colleagues abandoned watching it because they thought the concepts were becoming hackneyed. I can see this but there are enough original elements to make it an interesting watch for me.

The serial also comes with a pedigree, boasting as ‘creator’ and co-writer of all six episodes, Anne Landois (one of the principal writers of the last four Engrenages (Spiral) serials). One of its attractions is the setting in South Western France in Nouvelle-Aquitaine. ‘Les Landes’ is the coastal region south of Bordeaux, most of which is dominated by an extensive pine forest that extends to the coast. Although one of the largest French départements, Landes is relatively under-populated and isolated with a few small towns. Forestry is the major primary resource and source of employment. Visually distinctive, the forest also provides the perfect environment in which to disappear.

The storm at Christmas 1999

During Christmas 1999, a fierce storm causes damage and some confusion in which an 11 year-old girl goes missing. Local detective Pierre Castaing (Olivier Marchal, a well-known actor in French film and TV – and a former police officer) takes charge of the search. His two young daughters are close to him as the search extends. Castaing begins to suspect a man, but his colleagues arrest a younger man. The girl is not found and after a year Castaing loses control of the case and is ostracised by his colleagues. The case has had a devastating on Castaing and his marriage is breaking up. Twenty years later, Castaing’s older daughter Sarah (Sofia Essaïdi) is working as a team leader in the ‘Juvenile Unit’ of the local police in Bordeaux. She is alerted to a kidnapping of a young girl in an outer suburb of Bordeaux. Eventually she will find the girl in the woods some way south of the city, but the kidnapper is not around. His trail will take her down to a village near Bayonne, 185 km away. This is her home territory, reviving memories of her father’s case all those years ago. (Bayonne is actually just outside the Landes départment and IMDb lists the shoot as being around Dax.)

Pierre Castaing

Sarah Castaing

The first episode is bewildering in the way that the transitions between 1999 and 2019 are not marked in any way. I think of myself as a ‘visually literate’ person but I missed many of the markers of different time periods. Pierre Castaing drives a Range Rover but in a rural area these are more common and could be twenty years old. White vans for the kidnapper are not particularly distinctive. Rural areas are often ‘behind’ the big city in fashions. At the end of the episode I was baffled but intrigued. I assumed I would make sense of the narrative in the next few episodes but the time shifting continues throughout the serial, weaving Sarah’s story around the flashbacks to Pierre’s. The viewer is likely to forget the ordering of the different time segments. At one point a wipe is used in such a way that father’s head is replaced by his daughter’s twenty years later within the same shot. It’s rare to find a serial in which the viewer has to work so hard to re-construct a linear narrative.

Sarah with Jérôme, her father’s junior some twenty years earlier

It is likely that many viewers in the UK gave up after this first episode as, alongside the time-shifts, it does feel like we have been here often before. An 11 year-old girl seemingly kidnapped by an older man, a police detective with a collapsing marriage, a younger police captain with her own personal issues etc. All of these have become conventions but I think there are sufficient different elements to make this a narrative that repays the extra work for the viewer. However, there are a couple of serious flaws. The most glaring is that Sarah manages to stay in Bayonne to pursue her investigations without, as far as I can see, any official request that she return to Bordeaux where she has an important role. Her behaviour, mirroring her father’s, affects her relationships with the local police. A second flaw is the handling of Sarah’s romance/relationship with a lawyer in Bordeaux. He seems like more of an afterthought or perhaps he simply represents the big city which seems irrelevant in the Landes?

Sarah’s two team members from Bordeaux, Séverine  and Romain

Sarah visits her sister in gaol

This isn’t, in the end, a ‘procedural’ like most of the crime fiction dramas featuring female detectives. It does present a detailed family melodrama set in a small community with the local landscape playing a crucial role. The setting actually begins to move the tone or ‘feel’ of the narrative towards both rural horror and the ‘uncanny’ – only marginally and not as much as some other French serials such as Witnesses (2014 – ). The cinematography by Benjamin Louet, presented in a 2:1 ratio with many drone shots and overheads adds to the genre feel of horror/mystery. The six episodes are each 52-53 minutes and less time than usual is spent on re-capping at the start of each episode, so this is a ‘300 minute plus’ narrative.

Anne Landois’ co-creator and co-writer on the serial is Gaëlle Bellan, who wrote episodes for Engrenages 6. All six episodes of La promesse were directed by Laure de Butler. It does seem that, just as in the UK, more TV drama is now appearing from creative teams led by women. There are a host of female characters in this serial but some of the key characters such as Sarah’s sister and her mother seem to be under-developed. As the image above suggests, the sister Lilas, spends time in prison. The younger women in the cast are played by two actors to cover the twenty year development. The two sisters are well cast as teenagers and adults. Sarah’s mother is played by the same actor who changes the most in physical appearance and demeanour, but without playing a significant role in the narrative development. I’m left wondering, how long must a long narrative be to cover all its possible stories and characters? I’ve deliberately not mentioned aspects of the plot of this serial but I would be interested to watch it again – and to visit the Landes.

Here’s a brief ‘Bande annonce’ for episodes 3 and 4

Being the Ricardos (US 2021)

Being the Ricardos is an ‘Amazon Original Movie’. It did get into some UK cinemas on December 21st, I think, but mainly it has been available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Since I was more or less ‘forced’ into a free month of Prime membership, that’s how I got to watch it. I’m glad I got the opportunity because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. However, that has not been a universal reaction and it’s worth exploring why. First, I think the title is not very informative or inviting for audiences who don’t already know what the story is about. As someone who started watching TV in the 1950s, even I had forgotten that ‘The Ricardos’ were the family in the I Love Lucy TV series. Second, I suspect that some audiences, including some high-profile reviewers, have been taken in by assumptions that this is a ‘biopic’ and a ‘comedy’ and have found the film disappointing. I’d argue that it is only a ‘partial biopic’ (so many important aspects of the two central characters’ lives are not presented) and that the film is ‘about comedy on TV’ and not necessarily meant to induce laughs – though it made me smile on many occasions.

Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi (Javier Bardem) in the meeting room for their weekly production planning

I think I’d argue that the film is primarily a hybrid of a ‘TV production procedural’, a romance melodrama and a show business drama. In other words, it’s a complex and ambitious production. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, I assumed that it would be something like The West Wing and in a way it is. It is also a long film at 133 minutes and when I first heard about the production I assumed that it would be a TV mini-series. (It is, however, presented in a CinemaScope ratio that is more suitable for a big screen.)

Outline plot

In the late 1940s Lucille Ball, a Hollywood contract player whose career had never really established her A List status at RKO or MGM, was finding some success with a radio show My Favourite Husband for CBS. This prompted CBS to suggest a TV sitcom roughly based on the show. Lucy agreed but insisted that her real-life husband Desi Arnaz be cast as her TV husband and the family name became Ricardo. The couple formed Desilu productions and the show first aired in 1951. Lucy and Desi had been married since 1940 when they met on a Hollywood musical. Lucy was the lead in Too Many Girls with Desi as a supporting player. He also had a career as a musician and bandleader and the marriage was difficult as the two partners were often working in separate locations. Desi was often on tour and part of Lucy’s plan for the TV series was to keep Desi closer in a bid to stop his philandering.

Lucille Ball (the tallest woman in the group on the set of Dorothy Arzner’s Dance Girl Dance in 1940. Photo from ‘Bizarre Los Angeles‘.

The 1940s back story does appear in a series of flashbacks in Being the Ricardos, but the film’s narrative is set around the production schedule for one week in the second season during 1952. On the Monday the team are faced with possible disaster as a story about Lucy’s links to the US Communist Party in the 1930s threatens to break. (This is during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings). A second issue also arises as Lucy is pregnant with the couple’s second child – something which for several reasons could be a problem for the show. These two issues sit alongside the long-running issues on any TV show such as squabbles between the stars and the writers and amongst the principal cast members as well as issues with the show’s sponsor Philip Morris cigarettes. Everything must be resolved by the time the show is recorded before a live audience on Friday for broadcast the following Monday.

Commentary

Lucy is played by Nicole Kidman and Desi by Javier Bardem. Both actors are older (more than 10 years older) than the ‘real’ Lucy and Desi and there are physical differences too. But both are very fine actors and they both worked for me. Kidman in particular seems able to suggest Lucy’s energy as a dancer and comedian. On reflection, though I always like Bardem, it might have given the part more ‘umph’ if a younger actor had been cast. Desi Arnaz was only 35 in 1952. He seems to have had a great deal of authority and a quick brain and in that respect, Bardem does represent him well.

Alia Shawkat (left) as the writer Madelyn Pugh, Nicole Kidman and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance

Though the film clearly hinges on the relationship between Lucy and Desi, the other five important characters do give the film the feel of an ensemble piece. J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda play the actors William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who are the landlords and friends of Lucy and Desi on the show. Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy play the two writers and Tony Hale plays the producer. These three roles are also played by three older actors in ‘flashforwards’ when they appear as ‘talking heads’ witnesses in a documentary biopic about the show. In effect, we have many interactions across three different time periods which could get a little confusing for audiences. Almost the entire narrative takes place in the TV studio apart from the 1940s flashbacks and the later interviews.

The studio set of the Ricardos bedroom for the original series. Photo from ‘Bizarre Los Angeles

For UK audiences two aspects of US TV history are also important. First is the production process: there were three different ways of shooting, editing and distributing TV shows. Shows could be shot live for instantaneous transmission, shows could be recorded on film, edited and distributed on film or they could be shot on video which was then recorded from the TV monitor using a Kinescope device (introduced by Kodak in 1947). This last option was necessary in the US because of the significant time differences across the country. A live broadcast in New York would often be too early for broadcast in Los Angeles. The downside was that Kinescope recordings were much lower quality even than the relatively poor broadcast TV image. Shooting on film gave the best quality but was the most expensive. Desilu opted to shoot on film using 35mm (rather than 16mm which was the UK standard) but to use three cameras in the same way live TV worked rather than single camera set-ups. Finally they brought a live studio audience into the shoot and by building two or more sets could record ‘live’ but then edit. This was the most expensive option but it preserved the live ‘feel’ that had worked so well on Lucy’s radio shows and in theatres on tour with Desi. The added bonus was that the high quality recordings could be re-broadcast. Some years later this led to ‘syndication’ – re-runs on smaller TV channels and export overseas. But the most immediate benefit was that the programmes were recorded in the studio Desilu acquired in LA and Desi and Lucy didn’t have to travel to New York. Seeing this process in operation was one of the high points of Being the Ricardos for me. The missing historical figure in the film is Karl Freund, the legendary director/cinematographer, one of the Central European emigrés who revolutionised Hollywood production from the early 1930s. Freund supervised the use of three film cameras, lighting them carefully to match scenes for consistent tones.

Karl Freund with Desi Arnaz in 1952

The second major issue for UK audiences is the role of the sponsor of the show. This was a feature of early US TV that carried over from radio. ‘Sponsorship’ allowed a major advertiser to control the show, inserting brands and product placement into the show and crucially proscribing some forms of representation. The word ‘pregnancy’ was a potential problem. In the UK sponsorship arrived much later in the 1990s and only allowed the sponsor to advertise in the breaks in commercial broadcasts, even when it had paid for the sponsorship association. In the US advertisers in the 1950s got their brands into the show’s title, e.g. ‘Kraft Theatre’ or ‘The Philco Television Playhouse’. Desilu became a powerful TV production company before finally selling up to Paramount in 1968 by which time Lucy had divorced Desi and bought out his stake in the company.

Nicole Kidman as Lucy performs for a live studio audience in the CBS radio studio during one of the flashback scenes

The whole film worked for me and I was interested in the internal disputes about this particular episode and the insight into the history of Lucille Ball’s work in Hollywood (and in particular her developing expertise in comedy playing for TV). I’m still not quite sure about the ways in which Desi Arnaz ‘solved’ the problems for the show’s production caused by the anti-communist investigations and the announcement of Lucy’s pregnancy, but they do suggest he was a brilliant producer. A full biopic of Lucille Ball would be an interesting prospect for me and Being the Ricardos has whetted my appetite. I’d also like to know more about Desi Arnaz. The one bizarre moment in the script is when Desi, explaining why he left Cuba, makes a reference to the ‘Bolsheviks’ who attacked his father and the family business. This was in 1933 when Desi was 16. It was the beginning of the military dictatorship following the ‘Sergeants Revolt’ led by Fulgencio Batista, certainly not a communist, who became the leader later ousted by the socialist revolution of 1959. This must be confusing/misleading for audiences who don’t know the history. But rest assured, most of what we see on the screen is based on the actual events in the development of I Love Lucy and the careers of Lucy and Desi. Here’s the Amazon trailer.

Privatisation and the threat to Film 4

A Film 4 logo seen in the credits of many British films

The Tory government in the UK is seriously considering the possibility of selling the publicly owned Channel 4 TV corporation. Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 is not funded by the licence fee but by the sale of advertising. However, as well as its commitments as a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) in the UK, Channel 4 has other commitments that derive from its establishment in 1982 as a ‘publisher broadcaster’. These have been watered down over time and particularly since the early 1990s when the bold, radical style of Channel 4’s operations was severely curtailed and the channel became more focused on mainstream programming skewed towards younger audiences, while retaining a cutting edge on particular forms of programming such as news. I confess that I became far less interested in the station at that point. However, the other parts of its original remit remained in the sense that Channel 4 was required to commission all its programming from other TV companies and particularly from independents. In addition, this commissioning should include production outside London and the South East. This became particularly important when ITV ceased to be organised through regional franchises and became a single national network operation.

Film 4 is the film production and distribution arm of Channel 4, commissioning films since the channel’s outset. In the last 30 years, Film 4, alongside the BBC and BFI has been a major funder of independently produced British films. I would go so far as to suggest that if Channel 4 had not funded filmmakers in the 1980s through to the 2000s, the British film industry would probably have folded and become nothing more than an offshore facility for Hollywood productions. It might be argued that in reality that’s all the UK film industry has ever been except for its genuine studio period from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Nevertheless, Channel 4 and Film 4 have been important in ensuring that smaller independent British films have been made, including films in Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as English regions. In doing so they have been crucial in helping to develop the careers of filmmakers such as Shane Meadows.

Derry Girls, made in Northern Ireland by Hat Trick for Channel 4

It’s also true that the commissioning of programmes by the BBC and ITV from independents eventually followed the Channel 4 lead. Even so, to take away that possibility that Channel 4 might fund an independent to make Derry Girls in the North of Ireland or It’s a Sin about a group of gay men learning to live with HIV/AIDS in the 1990s would be very damaging to the media ecology in the UK. Both have been big hits with audiences, but would another broadcaster have commissioned them? The companies that made them are now quite large independents, some having been acquired by foreign multinationals, but many others are still small UK companies. On Tuesday this week 44 independent production companies paid for a full-page advertisement in the Telegraph newspaper, a major Tory-supporting media outlet, arguing that privatisation “would cost jobs, reduce investment, and place companies at risk in the nations and regions”. The ad was timed to attract attention at the Tory Conference in Manchester.

One of the This Is England TV serials based on the original film and made by Warp Films in Sheffield for Channel 4

The government response has predictably argued that any buyer of Channel 4 would be required to abide by its PSB and other founding commitments. So, it would follow the ‘successful’ model of privatisation of the rail industry, postal service, energy and water etc, all of which are now a national disgrace? If the privatisation goes ahead the only likely buyers are going to be multinationals and these will be mostly US-owned corporations. Can we see Disney, Viacom or Warner Bros, supporting offices in Leeds and Bristol and funding shows like Derry Girls? Perhaps they would, but in the long term they are international capitalist enterprises with only profit as a long-term goal (Channel 4 is currently a not-for-profit corporation). Would Film 4 still exist as a funder? Wouldn’t the already high US content of the channel just increase? Do we really think that the UK government could force one of these corporations to stick to PSB regulation?

There is a second concern here that links the possible privatisation of Channel 4 to the rise in film production from the streamers, principally Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Apple. The Tories will argue that the streamers are producing films in the UK, lured by high quality skilled crews and facilities and tax concessions for ‘high-end television’ as well as feature films. There are several problems with this. First, the government has no clear cultural policy. It cries out for films and TV about ‘British values’, whatever they may be, but The Crown is the only Netflix production I can think of that fits the government request and that’s not exactly social realism. Are Netflix going to fund Shane Meadows (and would Shane want to be funded by them?). Second, dependence on dollar investment in UK film and TV is vulnerable to exchange rate changes and other factors. The streamers could decide to leave for a host of reasons and all the shiny new studio spaces currently being hurriedly built to lure the streamers would be empty. I don’t subscribe to Netflix or Amazon, Disney or Apple TV+. Dealing with multinational capitalist enterprises is a given of modern life but this quartet threaten the very future of British broadcasting. With a government seemingly determined to ‘subdue’ the BBC and create more commercial freedom, UK TV will become as US-dominated as UK film production. Channel 4 is one of the few organisations striving to protect independent filmmaking in the UK – and to help export the films produced. The privatisation must be stopped.

Vigil (UK 2021)

Suranne Jones is DCI Amy Silva

Vigil is a 6 x 60 minutes serial broadcast on a weekly basis (i.e. with cliffhangers and no prior access for streaming) after a two parter over the Bank Holiday weekend. It has been promoted as being from the production company behind Line of Duty and is running in BBC1’s primetime Sunday 9.00 pm slot. The production company World Productions, founded by Tony Garnett in 1990, is one of the most successful in UK TV and now owned by ITV, but its shows appear on both ITV and BBC channels. The basic premise for the show is that a submariner dies under suspicious circumstances while serving on ‘Vigil’, one of the UK’s four nuclear submarines carrying missiles with nuclear warheads at all times. Because the ‘boat’ is still in British territorial waters, a police officer from the local force for the submarine base is transported to the submarine to investigate. Meanwhile a local trawler has been dragged beneath the waves by a submarine. Is ‘Vigil’ at fault or is there a second submarine in the same waters?

I find this serial particularly gripping for several reasons. It is an intriguing meld of different genre repertoires. It isn’t purely a police procedural because of the compromised status of the investigator DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones). The narrative possibilities of the police procedural are compromised by the naval military procedures and especially the strict rules about actions and behaviour on a nuclear submarine. There is a long tradition of generic narratives concerning an investigator who finds himself/herself restricted by the codes of conduct in an isolated community. But this turns out to be a complex case for DCI Silva and much of the legwork ashore has to be carried out by her DC, Kirsten Longacre. The police-Navy confrontation is further complicated by the appearance of MI5 whose interest might be prompted by several different aspects of the case. We are familiar to some extent with the idea of different branches of the police forces in the UK coming into conflict from Line of Duty and other police procedurals, but MI5 interest suggests another kind of narrative. Again there is a long tradition in UK film and TV of ‘secret service’ types interfering with all kinds of individuals who might threaten the ‘national interest’ (a highly dubious concept at best). Finally, in all contemporary thrillers we seem to have a personal story involving the lead investigator and ‘Vigil’ is no exception. From the opening credits I felt that ‘Vigil’ explores the playbook of The Bridge with a similar sounding opening song, aerial and long shot photography and trouble for its prime investigator.

DC Kirsten Longacre (Rose Leslie) does the legwork ashore while Amy Silva is confined to the submarine

So far we been offered three of the six episodes and without spoiling the narrative, we appear to have what might be termed a ‘peeling the onion’ narrative – everything that Amy and Kirsten discover seems to lead to a new layer of meaning and another possible narrative. Unlike with many of the recent crime fictions on TV I find myself gripped by the tension but not completely bewildered by the narrative. I’m impressed by the setting in and around a nuclear base meant to resemble the real base at Faslane, West of Glasgow on Gare Loch. Episode 3 ends with a chase on the streets of Central Glasgow with its steep inclines and the narrative feels securely located – unlike the the more generic scenes in Line of Duty, shot in Belfast but seemingly meant to be somewhere else. The sense of a recognisable environment carries through to the casting and I’m enjoying seeing Gary Lewis with his wonderful voice as the Detective Superintendent and Rose Leslie as DC Longacre, both highly convincing as are the navy personnel with Stephen Dillane as the Rear Admiral in charge back at the base. Suranne Jones is one of UK TV’s top actors now, vying with Sarah Lancashire for the best lead roles. Amy’s back story, emerging in flashbacks, some long and others literally ‘flashes’, will perhaps eventually reveal how she comes to be in the West of Scotland.

Vigil is written by a small team of writers with Tom Edge listed as ‘creator’ as well as lead writer. Edge has broad TV drama experience and also wrote the ‘part biopic’ Judy (UK 2019). There is a different director for the second three episodes and it will be interesting to see if there is any noticeable change in style. There appear to be two cinematographers as well. The serial is presented in a 2.00:1 aspect ratio, the kind of format I first recognised  in ‘Nordic Noir’ productions (though they might have been slightly wider still). Vigil opens with dramatic shots at sea and the wider format gives it a filmic sense of expansiveness. This still seems quite daring for BBC1 (as distinct from BBC2 or BBC4 where different aspect ratios are more common). I should note that as might be expected, viewers with a naval background and especially submariners have criticised all the details of life underwater. I don’t think that authentic detail in what is a difficult environment to represent on screen without very expensive sets is a major consideration here. Instead, the three repertoires of genre elements and how they are used is the central concern. This has been the most watched TV drama of 2021 so far with 10.2 million watching the first episode on broadcast and catch-up.

I’ve been fully engaged for three episodes and I’m hopeful the second half will continue in the same vein. I you haven’t tried it yet, the first three episodes are on iPlayer in the UK.

Narrative structure in Unforgotten and Innocent

Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar lead Unforgotten

Like many other appreciative TV viewers I have just watched the second crime serial/long form narrative of Innocent on ITV in the UK. A few months earlier I completed the fourth serial of Unforgotten, also on ITV in the UK, which saw the final appearance of DCI Cassie Stewart played by Nicola Walker. The major figure behind both ‘franchises’ appears to be the writer Chris Lang, who perhaps deserves the US title of showrunner. As far as I can see he seems to be directly involved as a writer for Unforgotten produced by Mainstreet Pictures and as ‘Executive Producer’ and co-writer of Innocent for TXTV which he co-founded with Matthew Arlidge, also a writer on Innocent, and Jeremy Gwilt. These three and Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes of Mainstreet are highly experienced figures in TV drama, mainly for ITV. However, my interest here is not so much in the companies but in the possible innovations in these two franchises.

Crime shows, along with with medical dramas – ‘cops and docs’ – are at the centre of TV drama. My interest is primarily in crime fiction across literature, film and television. I’m interested in what might be a shift in approaches to crime fiction narratives. In TV, the UK tradition has been to focus on either the ‘police procedural’ or the amateur/private detective investigation. ITV tends to call both forms ‘mystery drama’. Some of the most successful series have been based on lead characters from literary crime fiction, others are original. As someone who has decided for various reasons to avoid US TV crime dramas (and mainstream Hollywood films), my main focus has been on European and other non-US narrative forms. The major influence in the UK seems to have been the success of European crime fiction and especially Nordic crime fiction on TV epitomised by The Killing and The Bridge following the initial success of crime writers such as Henning Mankell with his Inspector Wallander stories in print form and then film/TV. At first this seemed to be a general influence in terms of noir and the tone and visual qualities of the crime fiction programmes as well as the increased emphasis on female leads. More recently perhaps we have seen more interest in the crime melodrama aspects – a focus on the emotional lives of both the police investigators and the various people involved in crimes, either as perpetrators or victims, witnesses etc.

There is nothing new in this interest in melodrama. As far back as 1956 and Ealing’s The Long Arm, we’ve seen little glimpses of the home lives of police investigators. Since then it has gradually been increasing, but the approach of Nordic crime fiction was on another level. The Killing (Forbrydelsen, Denmark 2007), the first serial of 20 x one hour episodes, stands out for me because of the interweaving of three major strands – the hunt for the murderer, the melodrama about the victim’s family and the political intrigue. I don’t think any of the later attempts to follow this model have achieved quite the same blend – or the same high quality of writing, performance and overall presentation. However, I was struck by my first viewing of Unforgotten and then by Innocent, both of which I found engaging and compulsive viewing. A comparison of both their shared and different elements is intriguing.

Unforgotten is an example of the ‘cold case investigation’ narrative. A separate police unit in London headed by DCI Cassie Stuart and DI ‘Sunny’ Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) plus a small team of detectives investigate cases on the basis of new evidence. Each of the four serials comprises six 46 minute episodes (2015-2021). It shares the basic premise with the BBC series New Tricks (2003-15) and Waking the Dead (2000-2011), both very successful but in formal terms mainly single episode cases  for the former and two-part episodes for the latter. But New Tricks featured retired detectives working for a serving officer in charge and tended towards a lighter and sometimes comic tone and Waking the Dead emphasised psychological profiling and forensics. Unforgotten focuses more on traditional procedural work and adds the dimension of the personal emotional life of DCI Stuart and to a lesser extent DI Khan. But what really distinguishes these serial narratives is the complexity of the crimes. I’m referring to serials 3 and 4 in which the investigation uncovers an incident several years ago which involved several individuals who have since led separate lives and may have dispersed geographically. Each of these individual histories needs to be investigated and each has the potential to develop into a personal narrative as well as contributing to the overall investigation. The original crime is eventually solved through dogged procedural effort rather than sudden flashes of inspiration (though this may happen at moments along the way). In terms of narrative structure this means each episode could be following two or three personal narratives, some of them emotional in bringing up past indiscretions, injuries, arguments etc. The complexity of the cases and the emotional triggers also impact upon DCI Stuart and the serials were highly praised partly because of Nicola Walker’s performances (and those of the team overall).

Katherine Kelly as Sally Wright in Innocent

The same level of complexity is found in the narratives of Innocent which has so far run as two serials of 4 x 46 minutes in 2018 and 2021. The difference here is that the narrative begins not so much with the discovery of new evidence in an old case, but with the release from prison of a convicted murderer because of a re-trial. This character returns to their community, not surprisingly keen to clear their name but also to find the real killer. The local police have to re-open the case, but this is clearly a different scenario. Interestingly, the two serials have also been set in more rural parts of the UK meaning that the return of the ‘innocent’ has more impact in a small community where the interlocking narratives are more visible and also more emotionally charged.

In the second serial aired Monday to Thursday last week, Sally Wright is released from prison after 5 years following a re-trial with new evidence turned up by a local journalist, a friend who ran a campaign. Sally (Katherine Kelly) had been convicted of killing one of her students, Matthew Taylor, a 16 year-old boy with whom, it was alleged, she was having a sexual relationship. As a result of the conviction she lost her job and her home when her husband divorced her. In a small market town like Keswick (pop. 5-6,000) she is a very visible figure and she provokes some people by demanding her job back at the school. There are several ‘interested parties’ who, for different reasons, are concerned about her release. They include her ex-husband who is now engaged to a woman who was the murdered boy’s social worker and a governor of the school. This woman has a daughter who is still at the school and there is at least one other ex-school student who is involved. Matthew’s parents are also enraged by Sally’s release. There is at least one other possible suspect known to the others so the writers have seven lines of enquiry to pursue, each fuelled by emotional responses. To top off the potential for emotional conflict, the detective assigned to re-open the case is DCI Mike Braithwaite. He has just returned to work after a period mourning the deaths of his wife and daughter in a car crash. Well played by Shaun Dooley, he proves both determined to solve the murder and also capable of treating Sally with empathy.

This then is the distinctive pattern of the narrative structure. Two non-competing investigators and seven potential suspects, all interconnected through emotional relationships, are contained in a small community in a beautiful location. There are scenes shot in Keswick, augmented by Irish locations since the production received Irish public funding during the pandemic. I was worried about this initially but actually the melding of two location shoots works quite well. Is it really a new type of narrative structure? I do think that it could be traced back to the traditional ‘country house murder’ of the 1930s but the inclusion of the previously convicted murderer makes a difference. In both serials so far the central character’s marriage has ben important. In the first serial a man has been released after a seven year internment for murdering his wife. He now has to recover custody of his children  as well as convincing them that he didn’t commit the original murder.

Watching Innocent I also thought of the non-procedural novels of the crime writer Ruth Rendell both under own name and as ‘Barbara Vine’. These often feature a network of close relationships at the centre of which is a serious crime of some kind. Many of them have been adapted for TV films or international film features. But the other touchpoint is perhaps the UK history of soap opera. As is common in many British TV drama series, leading players like Katherine Kelly might be recognised by soap audiences who feel that they ‘know’ characters from earlier years on a soap. But the soap link also refers to ITV’s scheduling which saw Innocent broadcast for four successive nights at 9pm ‘peak time’ and then repeated on the same evening at around midnight while also being available on ITV Hub to stream on the same evening. I watched each episode as they appeared on the hub and I’m sure the knowledge that this was possible attracted me to follow the story over the four evenings. The second serial of Innocent is on ITV Hub now alongside the fourth serial of Unforgotten.