Bron⎮⎮Broen (The Bridge, Sweden-Denmark 2015)

The Bridge - series 3 - ep 3

Saga (Sofia Helin) and Henrik (Thure Lindhardt)  about to make a gruesome discovery at an amusement park. Photo © Carolina Romare

The third season of The Bridge has just finished on BBC4, which claimed 1 million viewers for the opening of its most popular show. As usual BBC4 showed double episodes (2 x 60 mins) over 5 weeks. This latest serial was broadcast more or less simultaneously in Sweden/Denmark but in 1 hour slots. I have tried to avoid SPOILERS in what follows, but if you want to know nothing at all about the serial before you start watching, please wait until you have seen several episodes before reading on.

The first observation is that Serial 3 is up to the high standard of the first two and stands alongside Borgen and 1864 as the best Danish dramas and Wallander as the best of Swedish drama. For readers who have no knowledge of The Bridge I should point out that Serial 1 began with a body – or rather two halves of two different bodies, one Swedish and one Danish – deposited at the halfway-point of the Oresund road bridge between Sweden and Denmark. This prompted a joint investigation by Swedish and Danish police led by unique characters who also featured in Serial 2. One of the two, Martin (Kim Bodnia), has since been imprisoned – arrested by his Swedish counterpart, Saga (Sofia Helin). I won’t spoil Serial 2 by explaining why.

In Serial 3 Saga must work with a new Danish partner on another cross-border case. One new partner only lasted one episode but since then, the introduction of Henrik (Thure Lindhardt) has created a new central relationship recalling the best of Saga and Martin. Saga is very much to one end of the autism spectrum. A brilliant investigator, she has virtually no sense of empathy or any of the usual social or ‘people skills’. Henrik is suffering from the disappearance of his wife and small children some six years earlier and although his social skills are fine, his night-time behaviour is dominated by memories of his family.

The USPs of The Bridge are its two central characters and its extremely convoluted plots which introduce an array of characters seemingly unconnected who will ultimately be ‘tied in’ or, in some cases, later dropped. I can’t see any viewer guessing who did it from the beginning, since after six episodes it still isn’t clear what has ‘been done’ – or whether it has all been done yet. What we begin to realise is that like the original crime fiction ideas of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the central crime in The Bridge 3 is in some ways connected to ideas about the social democratic state and the ways it becomes involved in social care, childcare, social legislation about single-sex couples etc. And that this is linked in some way to a wealthy businessman and art collector. It isn’t exactly a new idea, but here the intertwining of the investigators’ home lives/family affairs and the crimes they are investigating is intriguing.

We’ve grown used to Saga’s ‘rational’ ways of pursuing the bad guys and her cold, detached manner with witnesses and the bereaved (not to mention her approach to her own sexual appetite), but this time Saga is made to look if not quite ‘vulnerable’, at least ‘disturbed’ by new factors. One of these is the incapacity of her tolerant boss and his temporary replacement by a hard-faced and ‘by the book’ female officer in full uniform. This is Linn who then attempts to get Saga to reconcile herself with the parents that she has shunned because of what she believes was abuse towards her and her sister. Linn’s intervention doesn’t go well. Meanwhile Henrik has his own problems – not least his own nocturnal habits as he tries to compensate for his lost family. The ‘families’ involved in each of the murders emphasise the difficulties faced by Saga and Henrik. Perhaps ‘Happy Families’ would have been a neat ironic title for the whole series.

The reasons why these drama serials and series from Scandinavia are so popular in the UK are several. One is because of the high standard of writing (the team led by Hans Rosenfeldt), production and performances. Stars of film and stage appear frequently. In this serial the first few episodes feature Sonja Richter, a stalwart of Danish cinema, as a ‘vlogger’ who operates like the columnists of the Daily Mail in the UK, stirring up hatred. She’s married to Lars, played by Olaf Johannessen who has appeared in Those Who Kill, The Killing 3, Borgen and 1864. Nicholas Bro one of my favourite Danish actors (The Killing, 1864 and numerous films) appears as the art-owning business man in The Bridge. Anyone in the UK interested in Sofia Helin should also look up one of the Swedish film Dalecarlians (Masjävlar, 2004) available in the UK on a DVD from Drake’s Avenue – a very different kind of film which shows off her versatility. Actually it’s not that different I suppose since it concerns a young woman at odds with her family and her roots in rural Central Sweden.

UK audiences are also attracted by the insights offered into two different Scandinavian cultures (although in this third serial, there seems to be much more about Swedish rather than Danish culture). The Guardian‘s weekly blog recapping on each episode includes many comments about language use, Scandinavian interior design etc. and this is matched by other broadsheet newspapers. The Bridge also has its own distinctive ‘look’ – fundamentally noir. My impression is that there is a greater use of long shots and this was very noticeable in the final episode. Unlike purely Danish serials like Borgen or 1864, The Bridge appears to be shot in straight 16:9 rather than wider and potentially more cinematic ratios. I noted some beautiful framings followed by some which seemed compromised by the lack of width. Having said that, I realised also that my reference point was 1940s noir shot in the squarer 1.33:1 ratio. Interiors are also ‘disturbed’ by the use of tricks like the use of glass-walled rooms inside the Swedish police headquarters. The third serial features many more scenes in which Saga retreats to her own glass box or is ‘invited in’ to Linn’s.

Overall, however, the biggest attraction offered by The Bridge is its array of characters headed by Saga and Henrik. Saga is so well-established after two seasons that much of the pleasure in following the character is seeing her being extended and challenged. Henrik by contrast is a revelation. His presence is very different to that of Martin as played by Kim Bodnia. I didn’t recognise Thure Lindhardt, even though I had seen him recently in a minor part in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium (2012) and earlier as the co-lead in the hugely successful Danish wartime resistance film Flammen & Citronen (2008) with Mads Mikkelsen. One aspect of the new pairing is that the two actors are given costumes with similar features. Both look ‘on edge’, tense and tightly-wound, yet also world-weary. Henrik is as disturbed as Saga and it is quite moving when they support each other, despite Saga’s usual demeanour. The apparitions that Henrik sees reminded me of J-horror from around 2000 – and I was pleased to see them back.

The investigation of the crimes is completed half-way through the final episode and the last 30 minutes or so ponder upon what has happened to the two central characters and what the future holds. There are enough unresolved aspects of the mini-narratives involving different characters that it seems inevitable that another serial will follow. I hope so. The Bridge is a beacon of intelligent television in the midst of grey conformity.

Beck (Sweden 2015: Series 5)

Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt in the first of the Series 5 films of BECK

Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt in Rum 302, the first of the Series 5 films of BECK

I was surprised and delighted when five Beck films were picked up by the BBC and broadcast recently on BBC4. The first film I watched was enjoyable and entertaining but it seemed to miss the most important element of the famous series of books – the critique of Swedish society. However, I’ve watched four more and these new films have now definitely won me over.

Martin Beck is important as arguably the first protagonist of what has for the last seven or eight years become known as ‘Nordic Noir’ in the UK and elsewhere. (I’m sure it has been called something slightly different in Scandinavia for several years.) The ten novels by the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (living together as a couple) were written between 1965 and 1975. All ten novels were adapted for the cinema, some outside Sweden. (I discuss Bo Widerberg’s 1976 Beck film The Man On the Roof here.) The earliest film adaptations featured different actors playing Martin Beck but a series of six Swedish-German films in 1993-4 all featured Gösta Ekman as Beck. The current sets of films began in 1997 and (like the later Wallander films) are new stories using the central characters. Per Wahlöö died in 1975 and Maj Sjövall has not to my knowledge written any more Beck stories, so the 30 films since 1997 all use new stories.

The importance of the original 10 novels was that the writers, Marxists both, attempted to offer a critique of Swedish society. This meant a level of realism in the police procedural and a level of political awareness and moral commitment by Beck himself. This in turn inspired later writers such as Henning Mankell (who wrote an introduction for the most recent UK translation of the first Beck novel Roseanna first published in 1965). And it was this element that I thought was missing in the first of the films broadcast by BBC4. I realise now that this was the last film of ‘Series 4’ from 2009. In Sweden the 90 minute films have tended to go straight to DVD with only occasional theatrical releases, though I believe the more recent films have appeared first on TV in Sweden.

The four later BBC4 screenings are of the 2015 films from Series 5. Beck is played (as in all 30 films) by Peter Haber, a veteran Swedish actor in TV and film, best known outside the country perhaps for the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in which he played Martin Vanger. Haber is perfectly cast as Beck, embodying the character introduced in Roseanna all those years ago. The others in the team have been ‘updated’ and Beck now leads a team of five. His right-hand man is Gunvald Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt), almost the polar opposite of Beck but also complementary – someone decisive, cool under pressure but perhaps too quick to act, even if he is often shown to be correct. The two officers who do most of the leg-work are Oscar and Jenny and at the start of the fifth series, a new member is introduced in the form of Ayda, a young ‘civilian’ brought in as a research and IT expert. Ayda might be seen as the indicator of the influence of the recent explosion of female investigators in Scandinavian crime fiction. Her character’s name (Ayda Çetin) suggests that she is from a Turkish migrant background. She speaks several languages and is clearly adept in both IT skills and police/intelligence procedures. When they first meet there is a potential clash with Gunvald (because Ayda is not a police officer) which Beck quickly attempts to avert. The script seems to be pointing towards a future narrative involving Gunvald and Ayda.

In the third film of Series 5, Oscar is developed as a character partly through the coincidence that his wife is in the final stages of pregnancy at the same time as one of the characters in the case the team is investigating. Oscar is being teased, especially by Gunvald. He is a ‘new man’ in many ways and perhaps he is a little naive but he is a reliable and competent police officer. All this comes into focus when Jenny is asked about what it is like to work on the team. She then gives her own analysis of what might happen when Beck retires and each of the others ‘moves up’ a place. She seems quite happy that she will then be third out of four and a new member will be the junior. I realised at this point that I had become much more aware of the individual characters in the team and I was getting much more out of the show. The stories too seemed to be developing much more in line with how the novels had originally worked out. I should also mention that another new character in Series 5 is the new head of the whole police operation. This is Klas Fredén and he seems a familiar character from procedurals anywhere. He’s much younger than Beck and very managerial with arrogance and a ‘touchy-feely’ manner. Significantly he is immediately shown to be completely wrong in over-ruling Gunvald – again perhaps foreshadowing future developments.

Martin Beck is a wonderful character who is gentle and understanding but still an efficient cop who doggedly sticks to his task and solves crimes through hard work rather than flashes of genius. The critique is not direct but the crimes are contextualised in terms of recognisable human behaviour and not something fantastical. I’d very much like to see more of the thirty films please BBC4. In the meantime the arrival of The Bridge 3 is eagerly awaited.

Nordic Noir TV films are discussed in Chapter 9 of The Global Film Book.

The Code (Australia 2014)

Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) attempts to break into an encrypted document

Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) attempts to break into an encrypted document

The Code is an Australian serial narrative in 6 x 60 mins episodes. It combines a mystery with a conspiracy/political thriller/investigative journalism story. The setting is in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) of Canberra and a small town in the bush where a young Aboriginal couple are involved in a car crash. Who caused the crash and how did the couple’s car end up dumped in a quarry with the girl dead and the boy subsequently hospitalised?

The different aspects of what is a familiar genre narrative involve a pair of computer hackers, one of whom is on the autistic spectrum and the other who is the daughter of Iranian refugees. Hacking and decrypting are central to the narrative and several of the data exchanges are represented on screen as text and numerical data ‘floating’ over the image. Jesse (Ashley Zukerman) and Hani (Adele Perovic) have both been previously warned about their activities  by government agencies and Jesse struggles to keep a job and keep away from hacking. He is effectively ‘looked after’ by his elder brother Ned (Dan Spielman), a journalist now working for an internet news site. The main interest for me was the interrelationships between Jesse, Ned and Hani when Ned stumbles across a connection between the car crash in the bush and various machinations in the Australian Prime Minister’s Office – focused on the Deputy Prime Minister who is also Foreign Affairs Minister (and played by David Wenham, the major Hollywood actor in the cast). Ned’s ‘inside source’ is his ex, Sophie, the Head of Communications in the PM’s office.

Aaron Pedersen and Lucy Lawless – underused in the narrative?

Aaron Pedersen and Lucy Lawless – underused in the narrative?

Out in the bush the crash attracts the attention of the local schoolteacher Alex (Lucy Lawless aka Xena: Warrior Princess) and her ex, Tim the local police sergeant (Aaron Pedersen – see Mystery Road). This narrative strand proved a disappointment for me since I thought it wasn’t properly exploited by the writer, the experienced Shelley Birse. Two of the best-known actors in the production were under-used, as was the location.

Overall, however, I thought the serial was well-directed and nicely shot. The Australian Parliament building in ACT was used imaginatively and its design was worked into the credit sequence which also drew on the idea of data exchanges which are being monitored and intercepted. There have been plenty of Australian TV shows on UK TV in the past, but this one made by Playmaker and first shown on the Australian public service channel ABC1 in September seems to mark a change. Playmaker is run by former executives from Fox Australia and my reading of some of the coverage of The Code is that whereas previously Australian productions have been pale imitations of Hollywood imports, this one appears to draw directly on the recent surge of Nordic Noir productions that have had such a major impact in global television trading. As well as the UK, the serial has been sold to the US and to DR in Denmark. The Killing is certainly one of the touchstones for The Code and House of Cards might be another one.

Like many other viewers I was confused by the closing scenes of The Code. If I read the final scene correctly, there was an open ending and something very worrying might be about to happen. Probably I misunderstood, but I’d certainly watch a follow-up. The relationship between Jesse and Ned and then between Jesse and Hani worked very well for me. Putting aside the fantastical conventions of the genre (MacBooks that operate three or four times faster than mine!) I thought the portrayal of Jesse and his struggles with conforming to ‘ordinary’ social interactions was believable and moving rather than just another plot point.

This is the ABC Trailer:

In the UK, the serial should still be on iPlayer and a DVD is out soon from Arrow. The show’s Wikipedia page has details of distribution in other territories.

Crimes of Passion (Sweden 2013)

Crimes DVD

I was interested in the second of the six films based on the novels of Maria Lang made for Swedish TV channel TV4. The films are being broadcast by BBC4 in its Saturday night slot reserved mainly for European crime dramas. The first of the six last week was generally panned by the UK press. I confess that I didn’t get to the end. I found the first film very easy on the eye – a summer-house on an island near Stockholm in the 1950s – but the plotting of an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit was a tad tedious. I did however like the three central characters who are the focus for the whole set of films. I therefore approached the second film with my hopes still raised.

According to Wikipedia the first film was released in cinemas but subsequent releases went straight to DVD. I noticed immediately that the second film was presented in 16:9 whereas the first had been in CinemaScope (2.35:1). Fortunately the reduction in aspect ratio wasn’t followed by a reduction in narrative scope, I found this episode more interesting. The idea behind the six films is to present the central trio with crimes that are all ‘close to home’ – i.e. their social settings all involve the trio. The stars of the show are Tuva Novotny (Puck), Ola Rapace (Krister) and Linus Wahlgren (Eje). Puck is a doctoral student of literature. The first film opened with a lecture she gave on Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. Eje and Krister are both from a fictitious small town in Central Sweden called ‘Skoga’ – created by Maria Lang and based on her own small town Nora. Eje, a history academic is Puck’s fiancé and Krister is a Stockholm police Inspector. The basic premise of the stories is that Puck becomes Krister’s amateur assistant rather like Miss Marple.

The second film, ‘King of Lily of the Valley’ is set in Skoga with Krister and Eje invited to a wedding. It is also getting close to the time of Puck and Eje’s own wedding and she is with him. The Skoga bride never makes it to the altar and Krister and Puck set out to find her murderer. The press notes issued by the production company quote Maria Lang as aiming for “escapist entertainment with a problem to be solved. The tone is ‘light’ with some almost absurdist comedy and this is more important than heavy and serious social realism.” This has lead some UK commentators to compare the films to Midsummer Murders (very popular in Denmark, but I don’t know about Sweden?). I can see the connection, but it is important to remember that these stories were written in the 1950s, i.e. the period of Agatha Christie’s later Miss Marple stories. However, Puck is a very ‘modern’ figure, a proto-feminist in many ways. At the end of the second film she and Eje discuss what they want in marriage and she asserts that she isn’t sure that she wants children and that her career is very important to her. Eje, to his credit, seems genuinely to support her.

Researching the actors I noted that Tuva Novotny was the titular character in Slim Susie (Smala Sussie, Sweden 2003), an absurdist ‘crime comedy’ set in Central Sweden and a big local hit. I’m also reminded of Masjävlar (Dalecarlians, Sweden/Denmark 2004) also set in small town Central Sweden with some humour in an otherwise dark family melodrama and a young woman at its centre. I mention these links simply because there are several Swedish references in the films that refer to literature, rural cultures etc. that aren’t immediately apparent to UK TV audiences. The title of the second film refers to a poem by Gustaf Frödings, a nationally renowned poet from Värmland in Central Sweden. Skoga/Nora is by the looks of it a ‘heritage town’ with beautifully preserved residential houses and ‘quaint’ streets of shops etc. and the 1950s setting is easily evoked.

The first two films have been beautifully shot in summer settings and there is an obvious fascination in the clothes, hair styles etc. Mad Men meets Miss Marple is an obvious shorthand for what we see. I will watch the other four films mainly because of the three central characters and especially Ms Nuvotny who is not a conventional beauty but is still disarmingly attractive. I think it’s worth noting too that compared to Agatha Christie there is much more overt sexual action in these films as well as a sense of humour. Maria Lang must have been an interesting writer in her day.

This series is a useful example of ‘Global Television’ as discussed in Chapter 9 and of Nordic Cinema as discussed in Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book.

Borgen 3

Katrine meets the new TV1 executive who is making life difficult for Torben Friis (left) in Borgen 3

Katrine meets the new TV1 executive who is making life difficult for Torben Friis (left) in Borgen 3

So, it’s all over. No more Saturday nights with Birgitte and Katrine and attention has turned to the second outing of The Bridge which started last Saturday. I’ve enjoyed Borgen immensely and apart from the performances of Sidse Babett Knudsen and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as the two central characters throughout, what has been most fascinating has been the way in which the writers have manipulated storylines and shifted between different genres/modes. Occasionally this has led to outrageous plotting and truncated stories but overall the narrative flow has been steady and the structure sound.

(There are some spoilers here if you haven’t watched all ten episodes yet.) The biggest surprise in the third part of the serial was the ‘dropping’ of Kasper Juul from the original trio. I’m guessing that this was partly due to the other acting commitments of Pilou Asbaek, including his leading role in Kapringen (Hijacked, Denmark 2012). Asbaek had to fly out to the Indian Ocean whereas Søren Malling, who was in the same film but only in the Danish scenes, was presumably more available. Whatever the logistics, Malling’s character Torben Friis comes to the fore in Borgen 3 in a new storyline. This mirrors the earlier episodes in creating a personal/work-related set of crises. Torben’s affair with studio director Pia and his domestic marital problems are counterpointed by the arrival of a new executive at TV1 who wants to ‘commercialise’ the news and current affairs output at TV1. We had this before of course with the arrival at TV1 of the ousted populist Labour politician Michael Laugesen who then became the editor of a muck-raking tabloid. What is different this time is that we are treated to a whole narrative strand about the  shake-up at TV1 which is given a satirical edge, especially in the finale when the wonderful Hanne is allowed to star, turning on the ‘media studies student’ who is trying to change her presentation style on the flagship Election Night special. This was all very entertaining, although the treatment of poor Pia was very disturbing – being forced to wear those awful 1970s glasses was surely punishment enough without the rest of it.

The other two main stories were Birgitte’s health issues and her rather wet new boyfriend – a liaison that provided a lesson for all of us in the possible pitfalls of global television. I’m not sure how Alastair Mackenzie as ‘Jeremy Welsh’ went down in Denmark but in the UK his main claim to fame was a long stint as the young laird in the popular Sunday night ‘comfort show’ Monarch of the Glen between 2000 and 2003. It is already difficult to cope with Sidse Babett Knudsen’s beautifully enunciated English in their scenes together (it’s perfect, but doesn’t sound ‘right’) without being reminded of the earlier series. They never worked as a couple for me. The other main narrative was, of course, Birgitte’s return to political life with her new party. Setting up the ‘New Democrats’ was fascinating. More problematic was Katrine’s love life and the appearance of Lars Mikkelsen (Troels from The Killing 1) as the economics guru Søren Ravn. Bringing Katrine and Søren together seemed a little desperate – as if the scriptwriters realised how much had been lost by demoting Kasper from his lead role.

Overall, the serial worked for me as an entertainment and I thought it was a skilful production. If I’m slightly unhappy it’s because I wanted more of Katrine and Kasper together and I wanted to see Birgitte back in charge (and what happened to her children, Laura and Magnus – great performances throughout by Freja Riemann and Emil Poulsen). But it’s a wise decision to call a halt at this stage. Over three seasons Borgen has been unmissable and it will stay in the memory for a long time. There are rumours of a BBC/HBO remake. I hope not. Something original please! Meanwhile my attention shifts to Saga and Martin in The Bridge 2.

See earlier posts on Borgen 1 and Borgen 2 for more thoughts on the serial.

Inspector Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti is Inspector Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti is Inspector Montalbano (image from RAI)

(I wrote the first part of this post in October 2012 but didn’t publish it. Now that BBC4 are showing The Young Montalbano, it seems a good idea to post on both together.)

Inspector Montalbano is one of global television’s delights. In the UK these feature-length TV films have been dropped into the schedule for BBC4 almost as filler between the much more heavily-promoted Scandinavian crime fiction series. There is the impression that schedulers, critics and some audiences view the films as light summer relief before the return of ‘Nordic noir’ for the winter. I can understand this reaction but it shouldn’t prevent a proper appreciation of a rather different kind of crime fiction.

Inspector Salvatore Montalbano (‘Salvo’) is a creation of the Italian crime writer Andrea Camilleri and the character’s name is partly a reference to the Spanish crime writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, whose police investigator had a similar passion for good food. (Salvo has also been seen as partly based on Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.) The focus on gastronomy in the Italian series is part of an overall approach which includes a comedy element and a visual style that shows the Sicilian townscapes and landscapes to their best advantage.

There are now 22 crime novels in the series and around 26 TV films (including several ‘telescripts only’ as sources, so there should be more adaptations to come). Recently broadcast episodes in the UK are around 110 minutes in length and the series has been made in a leisurely fashion so that the Italian producers (the public service broadcaster RAI plus the Swedish PSB Sveriges Television – SVT) have made roughly two per year since 1999. Each film begins with an aerial sequence showing the Sicilian location – an attractive coastal town with a harbour. This is reminiscent of the openings of US TV series like CSI, except it’s much sunnier. The sunny aspect is contrasted to some extent with the dark, orchestral score with its Hitchcockian undertones – as well as what I take to be some elements of Arab music, since the Moorish influence on Sicily was strong. Salvo has a house virtually on the beach and he often swims in the sea or gazes from his veranda. The beach has also served as the location of various crimes – in recent episodes Salvo has found a dead horse, a corpse in the water and watched a seagull die and fall to the sand a few feet away. Salvo has a housekeeper, who cooks him delicious meals (he also has a favourite restaurant where he dines seemingly every working day). His long-term girlfriend, Livia, is based in Northern Italy and she visits him occasionally, flying in from Genoa. Salvo lives well – he’s nothing like Wallander or the harassed Danish investigators. Beautiful women crop up in most episodes. They are charmed by Salvo but they also turn the tables on him. As well as Livia he also has a locally-based female friend who appears in several episodes.

According to Wikipedia, the fictitious town of ‘Vigata’ is created from locations in the inland city of Ragusa and the coastal towns of Punta Secca and Licata. In the novels it is the author’s own town of Porto Empedocle with Agrigento acting as the district headquarters of ‘Montelusa’. The stories are set very precisely in this area of Southern Sicily and the locations are not just backgrounds but esssential for the representation of local culture – but also the kinds of criminal activity that might happen here (such as the people smuggling). The locations also act as a form of ‘eye-candy’, competing with Salvo’s food and his very beautiful female companions. One of the possible reasons why the series is dismissed is the way in which comedy works in the series. Catarella, the policeman with a form of ‘name dyslexia’, is very broad as a comic character. The writing is sympathetic towards this character and in more than one episode his ridiculous behaviour is revealed to mask a set of observational skills – and a network of personal contacts. Perhaps more significantly, Salvo is a sophisticated man who tolerates most of his colleagues and the local officials with whom he works. He only has two completely reliable colleagues. One is his ‘go to’ detective Fazio and the other is a local journalist. The others are fair game for his wit, especially the local lothario and Salvo’s second-in-command, Mimì. Salvo’s approach is a little ‘war-weary’ as he deals with his superiors located in Montelusa, the local Mafia families or the church authorities. Within Vigata itself, Salvo is clearly in charge.

The unusual mixture of elements in the series is seen most clearly in the handling of violent/complex action sequences. These seem to me to be handled in a deliberately inept and unrealistic manner, comical in their clumsiness and the way in which Salvo is put into danger. It’s almost as if the writers and directors are bored with the idea of having to show a fight and would much rather get back to the chat, the food and the beautiful women. However, at the same time the stories are serious and intelligent, especially in the characterisation of the criminals and their victims, many of whom in a small community are known to Salvo or to one of his men or to his friends and acquaintances. The themes of the stories delve into the lives of contemporary Sicilians and there is also a specific interest in stories that have a historical basis accessible via elderly characters and/or through the travels of Sicilians returning from abroad. This historical perspective is something I’ve noticed in Italian crime fiction more generally.

Michele Riondino as Salvo Montalbano and Andrea Tidona as the Fazio senior (from http://www.palomaronline.com/en/miniserietv/il-giovane-montalbano)

Michele Riondino as Salvo Montalbano and Andrea Tidona as Fazio senior (from http://www.palomaronline.com/en/miniserietv/il-giovane-montalbano)

The success of the series both in Italy and overseas has prompted a ‘prequel’ series of The Young Montalbano. This is a trait recognisable from other long-running series (as are the walking tours around ‘Montalbano’s Sicily’) with the UK’s ‘Young Morse’ series, Endeavoura good recent example. The Young Montalbano sets itself a significant problem in ‘realist’ terms because it goes back to only 1990 and presents us with a young Inspector moving to Vigata for his first job as ‘Commissario’ in complete charge of a local police station. Michele Riondino has the task of representing the character played by Luca Zingaretti as he might have been twenty years earlier – but because the original series has run for 13 years, Zingaretti’s Salvo first appeared in 1999. Perhaps wisely, the producers have gone for an actor who appears physically different, but who manages to capture the persona very well. The first three of six episodes in the first series of the prequel reveal that Salvo had known Vigata from his childhood. He is shown as very formal with his colleagues, quickly recognising Fazio senior’s qualities (his son appears in episode 2) and welcoming Catarella with all his faults. We are also introduced to Livia and witness the first meeting of Salvo and Mimi.

Sarah Felberbaum as Livia

Sarah Felberbaum as Livia

I’m looking forward to the remaining three episodes. I can’t quite put my finger on why the various elements fit together so well. It must be the case that a prequel attracts and repels viewers familiar with the original series in equal measure. The impact is greater because we think we know the characters and then either we appreciate knowing more or we object if we don’t think that the earlier incarnations are believable. Andrea Camilleri was involved in writing all six episodes and he has clearly thought about his characters. In episode 3, Salvo and Mimi both behave badly at times, as young men do and this is the focus for comedy. The humour in the series works to ‘humanise’ the characters rather than making the series lightweight. I feel that the subtle blend of comedy and drama produces intelligent entertainment. As Autumn beckons, I appreciate the chance to visit this corner of Sicily.

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Australia 2012)

Alexander England as the English cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Alexander England as the England cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Howzat! is an Australian television mini-series (2×90 mins) first broadcast in Australia in 2012 and now being shown in the UK on BBC4 to coincide with the start of the latest Ashes Cricket Series. I confess to not having had particularly high hopes at the outset, but I found the story to be compelling, even though I knew the outcome. The series deals with the challenge to ‘World Cricket’ in 1977 posed by the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, owner of the commercial Nine Network in Sydney. Before Murdoch, Packer was the businessman prepared to take on the cricket establishment in Australia and ultimately in London where the International Cricket Conference had its HQ. Recognising that the most famous cricket players were very poorly paid, Packer realised that he could lure them into contracts to play cricket for his cameras (he had been refused exclusive TV rights to international cricket played in Australia, despite offering far more money than the state broadcaster). When he secretly signed 35 leading players, the cricket authorities fought back and for two years Packer’s ‘World Series’ existed alongside a weakened official programme of official international cricket. The ICC eventually regained control of the players, but Packer got his exclusive contract and cricket was never the same again. Packer has since been credited with many of the innovations that characterise modern cricket (day/night cricket, the white ball and coloured clothing etc.).

My description of the conflict might not sound too enticing if you aren’t a cricket fan but as a drama this mini-series has several advantages. Firstly it has the eternal battle between Aussie and Pom – the brash Australian and the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Social class is also part of this with the cricketing authorities located in Lords cricket ground  in London and Packer and the players generally around the pool and the barbie. In reality, however, Packer isn’t as uncouth as he acts. He came from a wealthy family and his father had edited the newspapers within the media empire. There is a nice moment in the script when Packer demonstrates that he knows exactly what ‘fancy phrases’ mean and part of the pleasure of the film is watching the stuffed-shirts (the ‘old farts’ as the similar Rugby Unions officials were memorably termed) under-estimate Kerry Packer. The film is partly a biopic and we learn that Packer’s interest in cricket is very much linked to his memories of his father. But it is also a boardroom thriller (Packer spent rather more money on his challenge than the company could really afford) as well as a historical film about sport. Having said that, there wasn’t much actual cricket in the first episode and what intrigues most is the politics of the game.

Howzat! has a conventional narrative structure and visual style. The script by Christopher Lee and the central performances by Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer and Abe Forsythe as John Cornell are very good and lift the film above routine drama. Packer is a larger than life character, rich and boorish but with a keen eye for a business opportunity. He is a universal figure whereas Cornell is defined solely in Australian terms. It seems an indicator of the production’s intentions to appeal only to a local audience that the Cornell character is never properly explained. He is the one who, as fast bowler Dennis Lillee’s agent, takes the original idea for World Series cricket to Packer. Cornell is young and attractive with a beautiful young wife – but the narrative does not also explain (until the final credits) that he is also the comic foil for Paul Hogan the comedy superstar of Australian TV and with Hogan he produced the hit film Crocodile Dundee in 1986.

The series was made by Southern Star Productions (now part of Endemol) with support from Packer’s own Nine Network. It might be seen as a vanity project except that Packer himself died aged only 68 in 2005. The politics of the series are interesting in their attempt to present Packer as the driven man, haunted by his father’s preference for Kerry’s brother Clyde. Packer in this film narrative has no home life or seemingly much interest in women – the script instead offers a typical mix of bullying cruelty laced with sentimentalism in Packer’s working relationship with his secretary Rosie and the suggestion that Packer opened the hallowed Members’ Pavilion of the Sydney Cricket Ground to women in 1978 (a significant move in the antediluvian world of cricketing behaviour). This ‘personal story’ obviously precludes any real discussion of the overall questions about the power of the media moguls in Australia on other media organisations and indeed on other sports organisations. It tends to focus on the central battle in which Packer is clearly a force for change.

PackerDVDThe second episode includes more cricketing footage and more focus on the players. I suspect much of the script is fairly bland in its attempt to represent the players and their camaraderie and personal rivalries. Some of the reviews of the series in the UK have joked about the players’ appearance (those 70s shaggy haircuts and facial hair, huge collars, browns and yellows etc.) I actually thought the actors looked the parts pretty well. A personal observation is that, at the time, Tony Greig was probably my least favourite sporting character – a white South African as England captain during the apartheid era – but in this series and in the glowing tributes from former players that followed his death in 2012, he comes over as a much more attractive figure.

I think there are other Australian mini-series like this, including one about the battles between Packer and Murdoch that I’d like to see coming to UK television. In the meantime, Howzat! is still available on the BBC iPlayer and a DVD is released in the UK on July 22. If you have any interest in cricket this is a ‘must watch’ and there is plenty for the non-sports fan as well.