Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My Log 454 Jan 6 2015: The presence of police and crime on TV has become ubiquitous, no matter in which country, with some brilliantly produced and acted series holding centre stage

English: This image is of actress Honeysuckle ...
English: This image is of actress Honeysuckle Weeks outside the stage door of the Royal Centre in Nottingham after her performance in Alan Ayckbourn's play "Absurd Person Singular" on 27th November 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Harry Pearce
Harry Pearce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
George Dixon
George Dixon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Foyle's War
Foyle's War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In recent weeks, as the winter has closed in upon us I have been subjecting myself to a diet of films from Netflix. The exercise has been interesting, sometimes disgusting, occasionally inspiring, always useful in one way or another.
One thing that has struck me immediately is how difficult it is to get way from policemen and crime in the modern movie. Films and TV series limited to the activities of police proliferate in, it seems, every country, but even films which purport to be straight versions of life as it is lived, seem often to deal in some way with a crime, or a series of crimes. Even the best-off families seem to have been beset with criminal activities, either directed at them, or by them.
Of the police film in itself, by far the best series is a BBC show called Foyle’s War, which was distributed from 2002, not long after which I saw many of its episodes on TVO, the channel kept for educational purposes by the Ontario government.
Recently I have watched all eight seasons of Foyle in action: it is redolent with that British sense of understatement built around its remarkable hero, a police inspector in a small town on the British south coast during the Second World War. This is a remarkable portrayal by the actor Michael Kitchen, a man who would rather have been serving his country as a member of one or other of the armed forces, but whose well-known capacities have kept him chained to his post in Hastings, where, fortunately for the viewers, he comes in contact frequently with people trying to profit personally from the war in one way or another, by various dirty schemes that are invariably foiled by Foyle.  Among his opponents, on an almost regular basis, are various high mucky-mucks, guys elevated to important  positions of authority beyond their abilities. They therefore have a tendency to look down on this mere small-town policeman, but Foyle knows his stuff. He knows when a matter that these idiots claim is in the national interest, is actually, because a crime has been committed, within Foyle’s jurisdiction.
One notable episode built around the well-known gift to Britain by the United States of a number of worn-out destroyers, in return for which they got lifetime access to various bases, or places where they could build bases, around the world. A high American official in Britain to negotiate this deal somehow came within Foyle’s jurisdiction. Foyle suspected him of having carried out a nefarious crime for which someone else was being blamed. As his suspicions grew, so did the cover of national security, of vital national interests, because it looked like Foyle’s interference could jeopardize the big deal for the destroyers: in the end, Foyle had to go to the plane taking this high American official home with the deal concluded. Uncharacteristically, Foyle told the man that he would have to live with the knowledge that his crime, while unpunished, was known  and that Foyle would never rest until he was brought to justice.
On the second last of all the episodes, Foyle goes into retirement, tells his friends he has unfinished business in the United States, and takes off.  In the last episode, he arrives back, and the viewer is told he has accomplished his mission, and U.S. authorities are extremely displeased.  Such were the excitements of watching Foyle’s War, a pleasure made all the more intense by the performance of an actress called Honeysuckle Weeks, a delightful girl hired as Foyle’s driver, whose sunny disposition overcomes all natural barriers to her engagement in the nitty-gritty of police inquiry.
That the British should excel in this type of police series is nothing new: the very genre was completely transformed in the 1960s by the wonderful BBC series Z Cars, which both humanized the policemen --- before this Britons had been force-fed such homely stuff as Dixon of Dock Green  with its bumbling local cop as hero  --- and showed a realistic view of their role in society and their battles to contain crime.
A more contemporary-style  policier of an extremely high standard is another BBC series called MI-5, about the homebound British secret service. This series, called Spooks   in some of the 25 countries to which it has been sold, was so effectively produced, written and acted as to keep any audience glued to their seats, panting for more, no matter how unlikely and bizarre the plots presented to them. (I noted in passing, of course, that both of these British series were powerful propaganda vehicles for British values, including some that are not so very admirable.) One distinguishing factor was the death toll among the characters, one after the other of the audience favorites biting the dust in one way or another over the 10  seasons, until at the end, virtually only the head man in MI-5, Harry Pearce, (played with astonishing fidelity by Peter Firth) was still alive, still running things, and overlooking a field of national security in which he had overcome all opposition, domestic or foreign.
Harry was not a man who shrank from terrible demands, such as killing opponents, but he always had in mind the welfare and power of what was called The Grid.  I had never watched anything in which so many actors died or disappeared, who had established themselves as essential to the action --- Zoe, exiled to Chile, under some kind of witness protection programme; Adam, the main man under Harry, killed in series seven;  Ros, a major player with Adam, killed in series 9; Lucas, Adam’s replacement, who jumped to his death in series nine; Fiona, shot by a Syrian opponent in series four; Danny, a local boy pulled into the service by his intense interest, killed in series six Jo, another local journalist, heroically shot by one of her colleagues while holding a terrorist before her; and Ruth, a major apparatchik, and a sort of strangled-love interest of Harry, stabbed in series ten --- and so it goes on.
A distinguishing fact of this programme was that no credits were ever broadcast, no actors  or producers  ever credited, as a symbol of the intense secrecy of the service. I wonder how they got away with it with the Actor’s Union?
Before leaving the English contribution I should say a word about Luther in which the charismatic black actor Idris Elba pays an instinctual, possessed cop whose methods are so questionable that throughout the series a group of more orthodox cops is working to undermine him and have him thrown off the force. The most remarkable aspect of Luther's reign are his relationship with a somewhat oddball woman crook played with a mixture of creepy ferocity and clogging sweetness, by Ruth Wilson, who eventually appoints herself a guardian to this cop who has so taken her fancy.
A really riveting police series is called Spiral, in English, Engrenage in French. It is based in Paris, and centres on a section headed by a tough, extremely handsome, slightly obsessed woman detective, who is not as good as she should be --- you know these French women! --- played superbly by Caroline Proust. She not only pursues her prey relentlessly, but believes also in fulfilling her sexual needs with whoever strikes her as attractive enough. A peripheral pleasure of this series is its description of the French criminal justice system. Overseeing even the central crime squad is a magistrate, invested by actor Phillipe Duclos with  an air of unquenchable integrity that is at the same time rather mysterious. He is constantly  and fearlessly at war with his superiors in the magistral system, and to keep things ultra-spicy there is a good-looking but unscrupulous woman lawyer who is always playing both sides off against the middle. This series has gone into a fifth year just in the last couple of months, although those have not yet shown up on Netflix.
To add further spice to this aspect of TV there is an excellent Danish series, called The Bridge, that begins with the discovery of a body on exactly the halfway point of the bridge linking Copenhagen (Denmark) and Malmo (Sweden), and provides some amusing insights into the differences between these two very similar countries.
Well, I have written more than I intended about these vehicles for police, crime and security enforcers, so I will leave some of the other aspects of my recent viewing to a second article, coming soon.

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