posted by Simon Kemp
It wasn’t Scandi-noir that brought foreign-language drama to British TV and helped the Great British Public finally overcome their subtitle-phobia. When the BBC first showed the all-conquering Danish drama The Killing in 2011, they screened it in the Saturday evening BBC 4 slot that was already home to cult French police drama, Spiral, which was arguably the real ground-breaker in bringing foreign TV to UK audiences. Where they started, others followed, and now, along with five seasons of Spiral, there have been at least three other French dramas fitted up with English subtitles and broadcast over here.
What’s more, they’ve all been successful enough to get released as DVD and Blu-ray box-sets, as well as being available on various streaming services. If you can cope with French TV without subtitles, then there’s obviously masses of material out there to choose from. (The long-running sit-com, Fais pas ci, fais pas ça, or the sweeping saga of German Occupation, Un village français, are two that are worth a look). But if English subtitles are what you need, then Spiral, Braquo, The Returned and Witnesses are here for your enjoyment.
The four series all tend to specialize in the gritty and/or terrifying. They’re all most definitely post-watershed, and not for the faint-hearted, as you can tell from the trailers below.
Spiral (the French title is Engrenages, which means cogs or gears, but also has the sense of being caught in a trap or a vicious circle) follows a single case through each season, as Laure Berthaud and her team hunt murderers, terrorists and organized criminals, while unscrupulous lawyers and judges play power games above their heads. The first five seasons are available on DVD, and Season Six is currently in production.
Braquo is another police drama with murky moral boundaries and some shocking violence. Four police officers will stop at nothing to clear the name of their colleague, hounded to suicide by false accusations. Three seasons of it were shown on Sky.
Probably the biggest TV phenomenon, though, was The Returned (Les Revenants), the supremely spooky supernatural drama shown by Channel 4 last year. In an isolated Alpine town, loved ones start returning to their families. They’re in good shape, ravenously hungry, and feeling more or less fine, if suffering from a bit of memory trouble. The only problem is, they’re dead. Even the trailer is terrifying — watch it if you dare!
And most recently, there has been Witnesses (Les Témoins), another detective drama, but with more of the otherworldly creepiness of The Returned than the gritty urban feel of Spiral and Braquo. Someone is grave-robbing in the little Normandy town of Le Tréport, and breaking into new-build show-homes to arrange the bodies in grisly parodies of family life. There’s also an escaped killer on the run from a nearby prison, and it all has something to do with the detective who caught him, whose photo is left at one of the show-homes. It was a hit on British TV last month, is due out on DVD in October.
We’ll talk about each of them in more detail in future posts. In the meantime, with French TV drama in something of a golden age, there’s no better time to get stuck in.
PS. And now there’s another one! Resistance, a TF1 drama about teenagers involved in the French Resistance during the Second World War Occupation by Nazi Germany, is currently showing on More 4, and available online here.