French Style: Spiral & Design For Life

What with one thing and another, far fewer of us managed to get away anywhere on holiday over the summer this year. But by way of consolation, the BBC is offering a virtual city break, in the form of two new series starting this week, both set in Paris, which between them allow us to experience the extremes of the place.

One is set among the City of Lights: a chic place of art and culture, aesthetics and ideas, late-night debates over glasses of red, and artsy French folk so incredibly artsy and French they’ve gone through self-parody and come back up the other side.

The other is set in a city of shadows, grime and crime, where you’re lucky to escape with a beating, and most characters barely escape at all. Indeed, the first person we hear from doesn’t last long – primarily because he’s been locked in the boot of a car, doused in petrol and set alight by a group of people who then stand around to watch him burn.

This is the world of Spiral, a dark French thriller of tired cops, hacked-off lawyers, brutal thugs and perverted politicians, the first series of which went out on BBC Four back in 2006, picking up a small but devoted following who have been waiting for this second series ever since.

When Spiral first appeared, one of its great attractions, even before the plot and style of the thing got their particular hooks into you, was simply seeing a foreign series (at least, one that wasn’t American or an Australian soap) on our national box again.

British TV used to acknowledge that other countries also make television drama a little more often. Those with long memories may recall the days – the 1980s, they were called – when great European events like Berlin Alexanderplatz, Das Boot and Heimat showed up on BBC Two and Channel 4. Across the 1990s, though, any such Johhny Foreigner malarkey got increasingly short shrift. By the millennium, it was as if subtitles had been decreed the most offensive thing you could broadcast. Never mind a TV series, it became unthinkable to even put on a foreign movie before midnight, in case anyone caught it by accident and got scared.

BBC Four has been chipping away at this over the past few years. The biggest development since it showed the first series of Spiral has been its recent screening of the original Swedish TV version of Wallander. The BBC originally showed some of these late last year to help promote its own English-language adaptations of Henning Mankell’s downbeat detective novels, but that might have backfired. The BBC films, with Kenneth Branagh in the lead, were excellent, but having spent the past couple of months in the regular company of Krister Henriksson’s marvellous incarnation of the knackered cop, I’m in no hurry to ever see Branagh playing the role again.

Because Mankell’s books already had a loyal fanbase in place, the Swedish Wallander attracted a bigger audience than Spiral ever did first time round, but hopefully some of them might be persuaded to hang around to give the French series a go. It’s well worth it. Now that everyone loves The Wire, some have dubbed it “The French Wire,” but it’s hardly that. Spiral does have dense, interwoven plots, conflicted and ambiguous characters and a vision that takes in society at all echelons, from the streets to the salons. But it also has a love of cliffhanger and melodrama and, for all its knottiness, a drive that’s closer to pure pulp.

In terms of American cop shows, it more resembles The Shield, but Spiral has a sooty under texture, an elusive Gothic mood of its own: a sense of something unseen, sinister and insidious enveloping characters, reminiscent of the almost surreal old crime serials that were once a staple of French cinema.

There are shadowy shivers of weirdness. In large part, it’s because, while the cop stuff is familiar to us, the French legal system that surrounds these cops is so foreign, with judges leading investigations, while simultaneously battling each other in their palaces of justice. There’s always the sense of things unseen, age-old power struggles, poisonous politics, obscure motives. Plotting in their dark, whispering, wood-lined corridors, the members of the legal system are like some secret society. The show’s French title, Engrenages, translates better as “gears” or “cogs,” which is a better fit for the cops and small-fish lawyers we follow: tiny parts in a machine they’ll never fully understand.

Caught in the middle, getting all mashed up, is our lead detective, Captain Laure Berthaud (the unutterably fabulous Caroline Proust). Laure has some similarities with The Killing’s Sarah Lund, but she’s wearier and messed up in smaller, more authentic ways, and the consequences of her often ill-judged actions carry through in a far more believable fashion.

These characters have already amassed a lot of back-story, guilt, animosity, dependency and love by now, a dense, tangled web of emotions. Most touching is the relationship between Laure and her devoted cop sidekick, Gilou (Thierry Godard), apparently on  a journey from a brutal, corrupt and coke-addled self-loathing nightmare to something like a decent human: Obelix to her Asterix. Then there is the mesmerising lawyer Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot), red of hair, black of heart, whose ambitions see her dancing ever closer to the dark side. Meanwhile, operating above them all, is the wilfully solitary, brilliantly devious old judge, Robard (Philippe Duclos), always on the side of the angles, yet prepared to be as cruel as any villain to see the right thing done.

It helps a fair bit to have seen the first series, but it’s not essential. There are hangovers from the previous misadventure, but a new crime is beginning, starting with the drug dealer burning in that car, the latest murder to land in the lap of Laure. And, I mean, a lead actor called Proust – it doesn’t get more French than that.

OR SO I THOUGHT, ANYWAY. But then I sat down for BBC Two’s Design For Life , the second stop in our Paris tour. In this, a dozen budding young British designers are off to France for the chance of a lifetime: competing for a placement working in the agency of legendary product designer Philippe Starck. To win, they have to impress Starck in design challenges he sets them, and they all live together in a house while they’re at it, and…Well, yes, it’s basically a black-polo-neck version of The Apprentice.

It’s more engrossing than most Apprentice rip offs, though. Getting Starck is a real coup. Some might say that it’s a wasted opportunity having him front another reality competition, but, in practice, in his discussions and critiques with the hopefuls, his design philosophy comes through more spontaneously and graphically than it might have in a straight documentary. For all the Big Brothery spray, the programme is actually very much about design, in a way that The Apprentice has never been about business.

That’s not the reason it’s good TV, though. The reason it’s good TV is that Starck himself resembles what might happen if Ricky Gervais was asked to create a parody of a French designer. He says, “I am a type of door, a kind of bottle opener. I shall open the zip of myself and say, ‘Now, take what you want.’”

He runs around making hand gestures, rolling his eyes and shouting “poo poo” till it begins to feel like watching a sinister naked Teletubby. When it comes to the “firing” bit, instead of pointing a gruff finger at losers a la Alan Sugar, he pretends to burst out crying like an enormous baby, and then hugs and kisses them until they go away. Sometimes, for no reason, he runs into the studio wearing a red clown’s nose. He probably knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s probably enjoying it more than anyone. All the same, after this journey into the heart of Starckness, I’ll never look at one of those lemon squeezers the same way again. Bon vacances!

A version of this review ran in The Sunday Herald, September 13 2009