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What did you do in the Lockdown, Granddad? Pilnuj swoich spraw, dziecko.

November 20, 2020

Since we have declined to gorge on bulimia-inducing episodes of The Crown, you might wonder what we are doing in our locked-down evenings. Well, you probably won’t be wondering, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

Not, as you might think, knitting, playing chess, reading some high-minded history of the Emperor Franz-Joseph or having intelligent conversations about the delicious prospect of Donald Trump going to jail.

Actually, we’re sprucing up on our languages. French, Danish, Flemish, German, Dutch and Polish to be specific. Not via interminable sessions on WhatsApp with people in Lodz, Ghent, Amsterdam, Berlin and the Massif Central, but by the next best thing: watching Euro-dramas on TV, and slowly absorbing the cadences while trying to make sense of the subtitles.

I had expected that the well of foreign-language drama would have run dry by now. But it seems that the folks on BBC4 and geeky Walter, who selects stuff for More4, have been busy dredging the archives. Some of the stuff we’ve been watching is fairly recent, but a few of the series are several years old. Not quite as ancient as those Inspector Montalbano episodes where sexy Salvo doesn’t even have a mobile phone, let alone a smart one. But old enough. Though who cares? Shakespeare died four hundred years ago, after all.

So in case you haven’t had occasion to catch them, either because they’re not available where you are or because you just don’t like foreigners, here are a few gems that you’re missing.

Let’s go to France first. God clearly doesn’t like Annecy (above), which is a pleasant town near the Swiss border blessed with a beautiful lake, mountains, woodland and weather that’s always benign – apparently. Fear on the Lake is the third series based in the town. In the previous two, all manner of misfortunes, from murder, kidnapping and accidental death, have been visited on the unfortunate residents and the long-suffering police officers who try and keep them safe.

This time they’re cursed with a plague, which of course is very timely. Not coronavirus but (spoiler alert) Ebola. The whole thing races along at a fine pace, taking in not only the bloody snot that informs us of each new victim, but a kidnapped child and a bunch of murderous robbers. The heroes are Clovis Bouvier (a wonderful first name I last encountered when reading about the ancestors of Charlemagne) and Lise Stocker. They’re both cops, and they have a young son who also manages to get dragged into the action.

Normally one would say oh merde, c’est affreux. And it does get pretty grim. But since we’re currently going though an actual plague, there’s the additional pleasure of being able to spot obvious breaches of infection control protocol, including pretty casual use of PPE, especially when the principal characters rush to be with their loved ones. Understandable, I suppose, since it must be difficult to record coherent dialogue when it takes place between astronauts without radio.

Still, it’s well worth a watch, especially if you’re missing the beauty of France.

Next up is a compelling series in which the weather is rarely as pleasant as France in the summer. DNA is a baby trafficking saga set in Denmark, France and Poland. It involves nuns, crooked adoption agencies and a Danish cop who has a personal reason for investigating the disappearance of a child five years ago.

Better still, one of the main characters is the wonderful Charlotte Rampling, who plays a French police chief. Given that she’s 74, clearly the French aren’t as ageist as I thought they were. And a very calm, no-nonsense police chief she is too. She seems to have developed a tendency to look down her nose at the mortals with whom she has to work, an expression of regret rather than contempt. It’s fair to say that she dominates the proceedings.

Then we have a Belgian courtroom drama called The Twelve, in which Frie, a teacher, is accused of murdering her best mate fifteen years ago and, more recently her daughter, who was in the custody of her estranged partner.

The twelve, of course, is the jury, many of whom have back stories almost as interesting as the subject of the trial. There’s a guy whose only friend is the alpha male monkey at the zoo where he works. A woman with a coercive husband you want to slap every time he opens his malicious mouth. A builder with a mendacious, coke-snorting brother with whom he runs the family business. And so on.

The question that lingers through the trial is whether Frie is a manipulative narcissist with a murderous streak, or the victim of the philandering ex-partner who’s trying to set her up.

My favourite character is Frie’s lawyer, who looks like an old-testament prophet and has a booming delivery to match. His name is Spaak, which is appropriate, because he’s pretty combustible in court. Does he end up getting his client off? That would be too much to say. One thing’s for sure: they certainly have interesting juries in Belgium.

Staying in the Low Countries, we have The Blood Pact, set in Holland. The pact in question is between a convicted murderer with a bad temper, and a mild-mannered tax official. Together, they did away with a gangster called Wally, whom they first hid under the taxman’s trampoline and ultimately trussed up and chucked in a river.

Marius, the murderer, who has been released after serving his sentence, is pursued by Ron, another gangster, who is owed money by Wally and suspects that Marius has something to do with his buddy’s disappearance. Marius’s wife Kitty is in deep financial shit, and employs a dubious accountant to conserve some assets before she goes bankrupt. Dubious accountant duly disappears with the money.

Meanwhile, Hugo, the mild-mannered tax man, resorts to unorthodox methods to deter the thirtysomething flash harry who seduces his teenage daughter.

It’s all a bit of tangle, but entertaining as a result. I also love all the Anglicised names, which result in my wife and I wandering around the house growling “where’s Wally?” to each other. We’ve got to Episode Ten so far. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to stand another twenty episodes of Marius losing his rag, Hugo playing the mouse that roared and Kitty having her nineteenth nervous breakdown, but we’ll see.

And finally, there’s The Same Sky, set in pre-unification Berlin, in which a personable young Stasi officer is sent to West Berlin with instructions to seduce a middle-aged woman who works at a NATO listening station. The woman in question is played by Sofia Helin, who is slightly lower on the autism scale than Saga Noren in The Bridge, but still seriously buttoned up. The last time we saw her was when she played a Swedish archaeologist in an Aussie murder hunt, in which she appeared relatively normal, though slightly tortured.

Now she’s half-English, half-Swedish, and as someone who split from her husband a decade ago she’s considered a suitable target for seduction and recruitment by the brutal East German equivalent of the KGB.

Among other things, we’re treated to a highly amusing class for budding spies on the art of seduction. I wish I’d been on that course when I was younger. Oh and there are some interesting sub-plots involving a tunnel, a young swimmer being trained, both athletically and chemically, for the Olympics, and a frustrated physics teacher being censured by his school for demonstrating how a paper plane rises in the heat. Subversive stuff.

All in all, a cornucopia of European entertainment to delight and amuse in these dark evenings, though I would quite like Walter to unearth something light and Italian for dessert. A Mafia comedy perhaps? A couple more Montalbano episodes would do nicely, though I think we’ve run out of these.

Plenty to amuse, nonetheless, while we wait for Line of Duty and The Valhalla Murders, BBC4’s latest murder epic from Iceland, in which, as always, the landscape promises to play a starring role.

Also nice to indulge in some real fiction while we wean ourselves off CNN’s endless coverage of Donald Trump’s fake fiction, or whatever you like to call it.

Until next time, or Iki kito karto, as the Lithuanians would say.

By the way, I’m reliant on Google Translate for my Euro-phrases (apart from the French). So if the results are ghastly misinterpretations culled from some Satanic tract, sue them, not me.

From → Film, France, Media, Social, Travel, UK

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