by Tania Carver
A few days ago, Linda and I came to the end of the second series of The Killing. Not the American version that’s attracted so much opprobrium, but the original Danish one, Forbrydelsen. With subtitles, you understand. Neither of us speak Danish. (Which actually is quite a shameful admission to make because the Danes, like so many Europeans, speak perfect English.) To say we loved it is a bit of an understatement. We watched the box set on DVD, trying to ration the episodes over two weeks. It was half the length of the first series but just about as good. It’s one of the few TV shows (possibly the only one) that we both not just watch but become active participants in. When we’re not watching it we’re thinking about or discussing it. Before each episode we put forward theories about who’s done what. Who the villain is, what this character’s real motives are, the significance of what that character did or this one said. Etcetera. And that just adds to the fun.
If you haven’t seen the original then I thoroughly recommend it. Both seasons. And there’s a third to follow. Sophie Grabol who plays the lead detective Sarah Lund is fantastic. The writing is near-perfect, same with the direction and the actors have become household names in our house. It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever seen on TV. I even want to go to Copenhagen for my holidays. (I don’t think Linda’s with me on that one – too cold.)
Coming to the end of the series coincided with the Hay Festival. I’m sure you’ve heard of that – the biggest literary festival in Britain. ‘Glastonbury for the mind’, as Bill Clinton famously called it. I’ve never been, either as punter or participant, but it’s hugely successful. This year Ian Rankin was one of the guests. I’m sure you’ve heard of him too. And, in a well-reported session, he chatted about many things, including the return of Rebus. He was, from all accounts, on top form. But on the subject of TV adaptations he was more disgruntled. He did complain (and I’m paraphrasing slightly here) about his own work on TV saying that Scandanavian crime shows get twenty weeks and the adaptations of his novels get forty five minutes. They take the title and change everything else, he said.
Now I think there are at least two ways to look at this. The first is to ignore it. He’s a very successful writer carping on about something that most writers would give their right arm to be in the position as. Or so received wisdom goes – I’ve had interest in both my own books and the Tania novels. I’ve still got a TV production company handling the rights to the Joe Donovan series. They did a stunning job of Val McDermid’s Wire in the Blood. And if it ever gets made I’d like it to be them that do it. But that’s slightly beside the point.
I’d only be happy if it was a good production. I remember a few years back (quite a few years back now) Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels were optioned by ITV. They filmed one of them, A Pinch Of Snuff, starring a British comedy double act, Hale and Pace. Now if you haven’t seen these two, all you need to know is that they were unique in the history of comedy double acts by having two straight men. They filmed it, it was shown and it was universally hated. A couple of years after that, the BBC optioned them again. Having had his fingers burnt, Reg was adamant he didn’t want the same thing to happen again. The BBC cast Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan, the series ran for twelve years, was a huge international success, critically acclaimed and award winning. So that’s what happens if it’s done right.
I must admit, the Rebus TV series doesn’t really work for me. And it’s for the reasons Ian said: they have the same title as his books and nothing else. Ken Stott is a fantastic Rebus but everything else around him doesn’t work for me. Because it’s not the book. The earlier version with John Hannah was better in many respects because it was an excellent attempt to translate Rebus’s milieu to TV. Unfortunately, John Hannah wasn’t, and never will be, right for Rebus. So if they could have had the actor from the second version in the production of the first one it would have been perfect. In my opinion. As I said.
But getting back to what Ian said, I do think he has a point. And it leads on to a larger one about Scandanavian crime fiction. Crime fiction is the largest selling genre in the UK. The US too, I believe. And of course there is pressure to turn those successful crime novels into TV and movie fodder. (I’m still not sure why – I think a book works best as a book and a movie as a movie. Why take one medium and try to turn it into another? But that’s a discussion for another time.) So they do. And crime series are some of the most consistently high rated shows on TV. So what’s gone wrong with our TV? I don’t know. In the Seventies and Eighties British TV drama was fantastic. But it’s now, for the most part, suffering death by focus group. Death by committee. The creative have been strangled by the suits. There are exceptions such as Doctor Who, thank God, in which a showrunner is entrusted to bring his vision to the screen, but most drama seems to be going the other way while other countries, including the US, have overtaken us.
So to go back to Ian’s point – why will we sit through a twenty episode series examining the criminal and political system in Denmark – with subtitles – and love it? Why won’t we do this with our own TV? Well, I try. But to be honest, it’s just not as good. It’s timid where it should be brave, formulaic where it should be different. There are, as I said, exceptions. But they’re exactly that. Exceptions. A few years ago when The Wire was at its peak, a lot of British writers were asking why there couldn’t be a UK equivalent. A TV series that unfolded over five seasons, each episode like the chapter of a novel, that made no concessions to the casual viewer and that drafted in some of the best US crime novelists around to write it. Why couldn’t we have that over here? Because we couldn’t, that’s what we were told. That’s not how things are done over here. You want to do that, move to America. In the meantime, here’s some more Midsommer Murders. No wonder Ian Rankin is disgruntled.
So the talent’s there, but the will isn’t. And this leads on to a larger discussion about Scandanavian crime fiction. I’m getting really sick of reading pieces by literary editors in broadsheet newspapers who’ve discovered Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell asking where their British equivalents are? Why can’t British crime fiction have the same sense of contemporary social engagement that the Scandanavians have? Why do we just produce Agatha Christie style whodunnits in this country?
Well, here’s some news. British crime fiction does have that same sense of social engagement. Or at least the best ones do, just like the best Scandanavian ones, the best American ones, the best Italian ones . . . The only difference is it’s not in translation and therefore there’s less snob value to be seen reading it in public. And we don’t produce Agatha Christie style whodunnits. Haven’t done for years. As any crime fiction reader will tell you. After all, crime fiction is the bestselling genre in this country so we must be doing something right.
And there’s an appetite for longer, more complex adaptations of our own crime novels in this country too. That’s why viewers are resorting to watching US or European drama instead.
Linda and I have the first season of The Bridge to watch next, a Swedish/Danish co-production. I’m really looking forward to it. Rationing the episodes, discussing and theorising what’s going on when we’re not watching . . . all of that. And then we’ve got Braquo, a French crime drama with Jean-Hughes Anglade. Really looking forward to that one. So yes, I’ll be watching. But I’ll be wishing we could do something as good here.