Zen and the art of law-and-order maintenance (BBC/Left Bank Pictures) 

Rating ★★★

BBC1, starts Sunday, 2 January 9pm

We love abroad and we love foreign crime-busters, from Bernie Gunther to Lisbeth Salander. And TV honchos love a successful detective series set abroad.

The Beeb had a hit with Maigret starring Rupert Davies in the early 60s, ITV with Barry Foster’s Van Der Valk in the 70s. While in 2008 Kenneth Branagh produced a very fine Wallander for the BBC.

Now we have a BBC adaptation of Michael Dibdin‘s Rome detective Aurelio Zen, and this latest viewing vacation gives us the full Italian brochure like a plate of spaghetti over the head.

There’s the beautiful suits, the stunning Roman vistas, the machismo, cigarettes and lots of coffee. Watching this you could be forgiven for thinking that every single Italian in existence has stepped straight out of Vogue magazine.

Zen‘s very cool opening credits
The Beeb obviously felt that a series set in Italy had to be stylish, and this production is 100 percent alta moda. Gleaming – usually speeding – Alfa Romeos, raven-haired lovelies and detectives fresh from the catwalk are everywhere.

From its 60s-retro opening credits (music by Adrian Johnston) to beautifully-shot scenes in washed-out, sombre tones, this is a series with a near-cinema quality look and attitude.

Oh, and then there are the actors. Rufus Sewell’s Zen is a bemused player in the dirty business of law enforcement Italian style. Sewell, recently seen in The Pillars of the Earth, scrubs up well here and has more of a twinkle in his eye than Zen has in the books, perhaps. The actor may be an acquired taste for some, but he’s good playing against the archetypal suave hero – he even lives at home with Mama, for goodness’ sake.

The opening book in the Zen series is Ratking, which is the third of the BBC’s adaptations, and Zen’s troubled love interest in that novel is the American Ellen. The BBC’s opener, Vendetta, focuses on a more flirtatious romance with police support worker Tania Moretti, played by Daniel Craig’s grappling partner in Casino Royale, Caterina Murino.

Like all Italians here, she is eye-poppingly gorgeous, but Zen, with his standard-issue broken marriage, may be too gentlemanly to win her with so many sharks circling her desk at the Questura.

Or is he? An essential ingredient of Dibdin’s hero is the way he appears to be a pawn played by unscrupulous politicians, investigating judges and police superiors, but then turns out to be fairly conniving and manipulative when the stakes are most perilous.

Dishonest and underhand
Sewell sums him up like this, ‘He’s plenty dishonest when he wants to be. He’s sneaky, he can be underhand, he can pull strings, he can break rules but not in some cool way. He’s just a bloke trying to get by.’

Several characters say to him, ‘You’re too honest for your own good.’ But his USP is that he is too shrewd to be as easy-going and passive as he appears. Politicians, criminals and Tania should beware.

With so much emphasis on the gloss, needless to say these are not dramas in the Jimmy McGovern league of grittiness. But the first two stories are absorbing mysteries, capturing well the country in which intrigues, backhanders, favours and a handily-placed relative make the world go round.

And while the tone is lighter than in the novels, and Zen’s suave ducking and diving sometimes sit awkwardly with stories of murder and corruption, the dramas are entertaining and distinct from the CID and serial killer stuff we get so often.

VENDETTA, BBC1, Sunday, 2 January, 9-10.30pm
Zen is ordered to re-investigate the multiple killing of construction magnate Oscar Faso and his hooker guests. The case is re-opened because the self-confessed killer, Renato Favelloni (Greg Wise), has apparently found god and retracted his confession.

Powerful government figures want Zen to get the potentially embarrassing Favelloni off, despite all the evidence against him, while Zen’s boss wants him to shut the prisoner back inside – pronto.

Meanwhile, a recently released convicted killer with a grudge is murdering his way towards his ultimate victim, Zen, who doesn’t realise he is a target.

This opener sparkles and moves at a snappy pace, with some great action in the mountains and a clever denouement.

CABAL, BBC1, Sunday, 9 January
Opening with a man apparently throwing himself off a Rome bridge, this story sees the stakes raised considerably for Zen.

This time he is under political pressure to confirm it was a suicide, but Zen learns that a powerful cabal of politicians and criminals may be behind the man’s death and that he was killed because he wanted to expose them.

Viewers will need to watch closely as this story of prostitutes, disappearing witnesses, stolen evidence and double bluffs would leave your average conspiracy-obsessed Italian gasping for breath.

Third Degree: Bill Crider

Award-winning Texan mystery novelist Bill Crider is hauled into crimetimepreview HQ to answer questions about his criminal viewing proclivities…

Your favourite British crime series or thriller on TV?
Is Z Cars still on? I even have a novelization of that one. But currently, it would be Sherlock.

Favourite US crime series or thriller on TV?
At the moment, Terriers, but only because Justified is on hiatus.

Top TV cop?
An easy one. Joe Friday [Dragnet], hands down.

Which unfilmed book/character should be made into a TV drama?
You mean aside from my books, right? Then I’d have to say Lee Child’s Jack Reacher should become a movie franchise for someone.

If one of your novels were filmed, who would you cast to be the hero?
I used to think James Garner would be great as Sheriff Dan Rhodes. Now, maybe Tommy Lee Jones.

What do you watch with a guilty conscience?
I hardly ever feel guilty about watching TV, but I do feel a bit that way about Castle.  I’m not fond of the mystery elements or the procedure, but I like Nathan Fillion and his mother and daughter. 

Least favourite cop show/thriller?
I’ve never been fond of any of the CSI franchise. I watched a couple of shows but couldn’t get interested.

Do you prefer The Wire or The Sopranos?
The Wire.

Marple/Poirot or Sherlock Holmes?
Holmes, but then I started reading him a few years before I discovered Christie.

US or British television crime dramas?
Mostly I watch the US shows if I watch at all.

Your favourite crime/thriller writers?
Far too many to name, but I love the old stuff by Hammett, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. And then there are John D MacDonald, Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, Day Keene, Donald Hamilton and don’t get me started. I could keep going for far too long.  Brits: Alistair MacLean, Eric Ambler, Dick Francis, Jack Higgins (especially the earlier books), and many more.

Favourite non-crime/thriller author
Again, too many to name.  I was an English major in college, and I love reading just about anything.  US writers: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Joseph Heller, and on and on and on. Brits: Dickens would be at the top of the list, but I like Maugham, Forster, and a host of others.  More contemporary, George MacDonald Fraser.

Favourite crime movie or thriller?
Tough call.  If I had to name just one, it would probably be the Bogart’s The Big Sleep, but Chinatown is a close second.

You’ve been framed for murder. Which fictional detective/sleuth would you want to call up?
Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. He’s the kind of guy who’d keep on digging until he found out the truth of the matter.

• Bill Crider’s 17th novel in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery series, Murder in the Air, is out now.

• Crime Zapper – DCI Banks, Garrow’s Law, Silent Witness •

• OK, I admit it. I wasn’t a fan of DCI Banks: Aftermath on ITV1. It didn’t do Peter Robinson’s book justice, and its lead player, Mr Everyman Stephen Tompkinson, was too manic and just plain wrong in the part. Banks is pretty hot with the ladies in the novel, whereas on screen Tompkinson was forever ranting and looking psychotic. He seems to be in the Robson Green-Martin Clunes knee-jerk favourite zone at ITV – every part that comes along, no matter how unsuitable, being put his way. The newspaper reviews were also lukewarm, many saying it was a bit too routine a procedural. The great British viewership, however, switched on to it. Banks got higher ratings (5.6m) on its opening night than Spooks, which is impressive bearing in mind the latter’s huge fanbase and eight-year headstart. And now Left Bank Pictures has announced that there will be three new further Banks adaptations in 2011 – Playing with Fire, Friend of the Devil and Cold as the Grave (six hour-long episodes, two per story). 

• The ludicrously brief series of Garrow’s Law – just four episodes – was short but compelling, and ended with a terrific finale on Sunday. Andrew Buchan wrung tears and snot in a highly charged story as Garrow faced ruin and disgrace along with the woman he loves, Lady Sarah (Lyndsey Marshal). Apart from the central drama and Garrow’s brilliant performances in the old Old Bailey, the series has reflected on the grotesque legal system of the late 18th century – with a 12-year-old boy being hung for theft in this episode. Alun Armstrong as Garrow’s solicitor and mentor, Southouse, gave a grandstanding speech at Garrow’s trial for Criminal Conversation (adultery to us), and Sir Arthur (made very loathsome by Rupert Graves) got his humiliating comeuppance. Anyone intrigued by these stories, based on the records of the Old Bailey, may be interested in knowing more about the real cases behind the series’ dramas from its legal consultant on historical matter, Mark Pallis, who has a blog. And the Beeb has a round-up of all the buzz created by Garrow’s Law here.

Emilia Fox in Silent Witness (BBC)

• In addition to Zen with Rufus Sewell coming along on BBC1 in the first week of January, a new series of Hustle and the 14th of Silent Witness are also lined up (though no dates and times have been announced yet). Silent Witness opens with a two part story called A Guilty Mind, in which three patients die unexpectedly in the same ward of a London hospital. Emilia Fox, who plays Dr Nikki Alexander, says, ‘The case affects Nikki deeply and personally and looks at the less tangible part of pathology, which is the mind. We are used to the team finding things out through the organs and the body, but of course when it comes to the mind it’s a lot harder to deal with.’ Previews will follow on crimetimepreview.

• The Beeb has also announced another new thriller series for 2011, Stolen starring Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers, The Forsyte Saga, Life). He plays Detective Inspector Anthony Carter, who’s trying to rescue some children from child slavery. It’s to be directed by Justin Chadwick, whose credits include The Other Boleyn Girl and Bleak House.

Foyle’s War is thrashing all-comers in crimetimepreview‘s poll of 2010’s top crime series. Only Sherlock is putting up a fight, with the likes of Spooks and Poirot taking a pasting. Just 13 days of voting to go…

And a very Merry Christie to you all

David Suchet as Poirot (all pics ITV)

Murder on the Orient Express, ITV1, Christmas night, 9pm

ITV is spoiling Agatha Christie devotees by gift-wrapping three new dramas featuring Marple or Poirot this Christmas season – including a fresh adaptation of the author’s much-loved Murder on the Orient Express.

This is a different take on the story compared to the famous movie of 1974, more of what David Suchet, who plays the sleuth, calls a psychological drama.

David Morrissey as Colonel Arbuthnott
He says, ‘To be making the most famous and iconic Poirot story Agatha Christie ever wrote is possibly the most daunting task I’ve had in over 20 years of filming Poirot.
‘Albert Finney got an Oscar nomination for his portrayal as Poirot so to be making it again is a real challenge. And an exciting one because we’re not doing it as a remake of the film. Stewart [Harcourt, the screenwriter] has approached it from a very interesting and tantalising point of view.
‘Tragic occurrences happen before Poirot even steps on the train which affect him very much. First, a man commits suicide as a result of his evidence, and then he witnesses a stoning in Istanbul. 
Barbara Hershey as Mrs Hubbard
‘We see him, in both instances, full of his own self justification and almost self righteousness in saying “well, that’s the world – it’s nothing to do with me”. Then he boards the Orient Express and is  approached by this horrible man, Samuel Ratchett, who asks him for protection. 
‘Poirot turns him down because he takes an instant dislike to him. The man is later found dead. And so we’re dealing with a very different Poirot. You can’t make Poirot the same as he’s always been with those three things happening in his life. 
Hugh Bonneville as Masterman
‘It’s really a psychological journey for him, one that absolutely breaks him. The decision he is forced to make at the end forces him to drop his whole raison d’être, which is ridding the world of crime. He is made to dig deep and finally do the right thing against his better judgment.’
ITV has lavished a fine production and international cast on this Christmas Day two-hour special. 
Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) plays Edward Masterman, David Morrissey (Thorne, State of Play) is Colonel John Arbuthnott, and Barbara Hershey (Portrait of a Lady) is Mrs Hubbard. Serge Hazanavicius (I’ve Loved You So Long) is Xavier Bouc, Denis Ménochet (Inglourious Basterds) is Pierre Michel, and Dame Eileen Atkins (Cranford) is Princess Dragomiroff.

Julia McKenzie and Dervla Kirwan
 Agatha Christie’s Marple, The Secret of Chimneys, ITV1, Monday, 27 December, 9pm
As well as being the 120th anniversary of Christie’s birth and the 90th anniversary of Poirot’s first appearance, 2010 is also the 80th year since Marple’s debut. 

ITV has continued to mount lavish productions of author’s two amateur detectives throughout this special year, rounding off with The Blue Geranium and The Secret of Chimneys. Among the cast of the latter are Gavin and Stacey‘s Mathew Horne and Ruth Jones, along with Edward Fox, Michelle Collins and Dervla Kirwan.

Classic Christie ingredients are all present here – the country house, aristos, a murdered Austrian count, and a secret love affair.

The Blue Geranium, Wednesday, ITV1, 29 December, 8pm
Yet another star cast is in the dock for this final Marple of 2010, including Donald Sinden, Patrick Baladi and Toby Stephens. Here, Jane Marple is appealing to an old friend, Sir Henry Clithering (Sinden), to get a court hearing into the death of unpopular Mary Pritchard (Sharon Small) stopped because she has some new evidence.

While Julia McKenzie still feels like the new girl in this role, The Blue Geranium is actually her eighth outing as Marple (and her fourth this year). After a lukewarm reception to her portrayal in some places, she now seems to have put her own brand on the character.

She says,  ‘I’ve gone for the sturdier version, as it were. Agatha Christie wrote Jane Marple in two different ways. When she first invented the character she was a more fragile, rather Victorian soul. Then she rewrote her about 10 years later and she came up a bit tweedier and more solid. I’ve really gone for the latter one because of the modern audience. I think, for her age, Miss Marple is quite a modern woman. She’s certainly got a tremendous intelligence and intellect that I have had to work hard at! But, I’ve based most of her on the fact that she’s a woman who’s very much of her period, but also modern.

‘I feel I’ve settled into it and would like to play her for the rest of my working life, if there are enough stories to go round.’

Dirk Gently PREVIEW

Digging the Dirk: MacDuff, Gently and Susan (Pics: BBC/ITV Studios)

Rating ★★★½
BBC Four, Thursday, 16 December, 9pm

It’s easy to have low expectations for a new comedy adaptation, particularly from as distinctive and cultish a writer as Douglas Adams, who can be deadened by a flat treatment (2005’s Hitchhiker’s Guide movie, anyone?). Nothing fails like a keenly awaited comedy that leaves your face resembling an Easter Island statue throughout.

Happily, the Beeb’s new Dirk Gently will have most viewers’ laughing gear moving in the right directions. It’s succinct at one-hour long, has a fine cast and is a good production all round, with a jaunty Sixties-tinged, crime-movie score.

Helen Baxendale and Stephen Mangan
Stephen Mangan as Dirk recaptures the oddball verve he showed in the excellent Green Wing. He’s the detective who thinks all evidence is interconnected, that ‘every particle in the universe affects every other particle’. Mangan switches easily between shifty and charmingly eccentric.

Helen Baxendale is attractive and fun as Susan, who feels Dirk’s holistic theories are ‘crap’. And Darren Boyd is suitably gormless and questioning as Susan’s boyfriend and Dirk’s sidekick, MacDuff.

Dirk is actually a mini-universe of chaos all on his own. He has a fridge delivered to his office because he is in a ‘cold-war stand-off’ with his cleaner, who has padlocked the one at home. He pays a schoolboy 200 cheap cigarettes to do a bit of computer hacking for him.

Douglas Adams’s far-out humour
Broke, manipulative and driving a 30-year-old yuk-brown Austin Princess, his first client is an old lady, Mrs Jordan (a wonderfully dithering and malevolent Doreen Mantle), who wants him to find her Henry – ‘He’s all I have.’

Henry, of course, is a cat, and the start of Dirk’s attempt to pull together seemingly incoherent pieces of evidence, including the factory that he and MacDuff escape from before it blows up and Susan’s ‘affair’ with missing ex-boyfriend Gordon.

There are some nice sight gags, but most of all Adams’s absurd, imaginative humour comes through nicely as the conventions of crime fiction are playfully tweaked (much credit should go to writer and Bafta-winner Howard Overman). Where Sherlock Holmes deduces, Dirk Gently reduces the universe’s chaos to a unified theory of guilt.

Great fun.

• Crime Zapper – Justice, A Touch of Frost •

• The Beeb has a new daytime drama called Justice coming along in Spring 2011. It focuses on events at a  local community justice centre and its judge, Patrick Coburn, who is ‘mysterious’, which sounds almost supernatural. He is played by Bob Pugh (of Doctor Who and West Is West renown). Gary Mavers (Casualty, Peak Practice) is his right-hand man, prosecutor Joe Spencer, and Gillian Kearney (Casualty, Shameless) plays local reporter Louise Campbell. Jake Abrahams (Holby City, Lock Stock) will be local criminal Jake Little. Kerb crawling and shoplifting are among the issues dramatised in this five-parter, which started filming in Liverpool this week. Justice will be part of a week-long strand looking at criminal justice.

• While 2010 closed the case files for Heartbeat, Foyle’s War (apparently), The Bill and A Touch of Frost, ITV are giving the latter’s fans another chance to see the detective inspector’s final outing, shown earlier this year. If Dogs Run Free goes out on Tuesday, 14 December, on ITV1 at 8pm, and is about Frost’s attempt to convict Gerry Berland (played by Adrian Dunbar), a dangerous crook pretending to be a businessman. The emotional stakes are high for Frost as well, as he finds himself falling for RSPCA officer Christine Moorhead (Phyllis Logan), who is involved as a witness. The series finale was not just emotional for Frost and his fans but for Sir David Jason too. He said, ‘On the final day of filming there were moments in the script when I had to find tears and let’s just say those tears weren’t hard to find. I think everyone on set had the feeling something really special, which had been a big part of all our lives, was finally coming to an end. But we were starting to think, “How long can we keep going realistically?” In the police force these days you can retire at 50 and it’s compulsory by the age of 60, and yet here was Frost being played by me, an actor who is now 70.’

Happy bloody New Year!

Rufus Sewell as Zen (pic: BBC/Left Bank Pictures)

Christmas is not the season for brutal murder and new crime series on TV, apart from the cosy Agatha Christie staples of Marple and Poirot. So I’m looking in the crystal ball to see what’s new on the crystal box in January instead.

The New Year will kick off with one major new detective onscreen – the BBC’s Aurelio Zen, played by Rufus Sewell. Set in and around Rome, the three feature-length dramas should be very exciting for fans of the late Michael Dibdin’s suave Italian detective.

Rufus Sewell
Dibdin’s first Zen novel was Ratking, which won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1988. The author wrote a further 10 Zen novels. Ratking is one of the BBC dramas, along with Vendetta and Cabal. Zen is at times a shadowy, unknowable police hero in the stories, which capture much of the intricacies and corruption of Italian life, and Sewell will certainly bring a brooding masculinity to the character.

He says, ‘I’m thrilled to be part of this project with the opportunity to play such an intriguing, complex and likeable character.’

Zen has been made by Left Bank Pictures for the Beeb, the people who produced Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander and the recent DCI Banks drama for ITV.

Ashley Jensen
Ashley Jensen, fresh from her US roles in Ugly Betty and Accidentally on Purpose, will turn up with Max Beesley in a two-part thriller for ITV called Helter Skelter (though the title may change).

Harassed single mum Sally is faced with a grisly proposition here. She turns up at a swanky lawyer’s office to hear she has been left £5m – but can only have the dosh if she kills a ‘man who deserves to die’. The kind of thing that happens every day…

Meanwhile, crime channel Alibi has two new (to the UK) dramas from the doyenne of forensic crime fiction, Patricia Cornwell, starring Andie MacDowell as an ambitious district attorney.

Andie MacDowell
Patricia Cornwell: At Risk (Alibi, Sunday 2 January, 9pm) sees MacDowell’s character trying to re-open an unsolved 20-year-old murder case when a shocking moment of violence throws her and her colleagues into chaos.

The actress returns as DA Monique Lamont in Patricia Cornwell: The Front (Alibi, Saturday, 8 January, 9pm). This time she takes on Boston’s most famous criminal.

Don’t know how these went down in the US, but Alibi has a knack for uncovering some good new but often overlooked little gems.

• crime zapper •

• Two of Britain’s most watchable actors, John Simm and Jim Broadbent, have just started filming a new psychological thriller called Exile, created by Paul Abbott and written by Danny Brocklehurst (The Street, Sorted and Clocking Off). The drama, which is being filmed in Manchester, will unfold in three hour-long episodes and follows Tom (Simm) as he returns to his hometown to delve into the truth of events that occurred between him and his father, Sam (Broadbent). Tom is a journalist whose life and career are in ruins, and his once formidable father has Alzheimer’s, and is being cared for by Tom’s sister, Nancy (Olivia Coleman). Trying to prod his father’s failing memory, Tom wants to unearth what really happened 18 years before, only to uncover a devastating crime. The cracking cast is boosted by Shaun Dooley, Timothy West and Claire Goose. Paul Abbott has written some of the boldest and spikiest dramas on UK TV in recent years, including Shameless, State of Play and Touching Evil, and Exile promises to be a must-see drama. Abbott says, ‘Creating the series came from looking at the effect events have on families – and how that changes lives forever. Working with John [Simm] again is always a pleasure, he does seem to have turned into a muse of mine, and I’m delighted that we have the calibre of Jim [Broadbent] alongside him.’ Simm, who before appearing in the recent hit Life on Mars was excellent in State of Play, says, ‘Danny’s written a great script, it’s a wonderful cast, and I can’t wait to start work.’ Exile will go out on BBC1 next year.

• If you hate Mondays, Radio 4‘s Charles Paris mystery Murder in the Title should raise a grin. Bill Nighy returns as the waster actor-cum-sleuth. This is a lively and fun four-parter, and Nighy is appealingly reckless as the out-of-work thesp easily distracted by women and booze. When a small role in a terrible play in Rugland comes his way, his ‘semi-ex-wife’ Frances virtually boots him out of the door. Soon nasty accidents befall cast and crew, and ‘unprofessional’ Charles falls foul of the various pompous has-beens in the ensemble, before he is nearly stabbed through a canvas screen… Written by Jeremy Front from the novel by Simon Brett, Murder in the Title is on Monday, 22 Nov, at 11.30am. Or catch it on iPlayer.

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