Taggart PREVIEW

Robbie (John Michie) and Jackie (Blythe Duff) on the trail of a suspect (all pics: (C) ITV)

Rating ★★★½

ITV1, Tuesday, 11 January, 9pm

It’s the longest-running crime series on UK television, having cracked mud-derrr cases since Mrs Thatcher was running the country. So you’d expect more of a fanfare for the return of Taggart, but typical of its no-nonsense Glaswegian characters, the show is back with a minimum of fuss.

DCI Matt Burke (Alex Norton)

ITV and its commercial sister across the border, STV, have a hard time letting some crime shows expire. So Morse without Morse has become Lewis, and Midsomer Murders is about to stagger on interminably once actor John Nettles departs – Tom Barnaby handing over to his cousin, John (played by Neil Dudgeon). The Beeb has played the same game with Silent Witness.

And Taggart, of course, went through a similar regeneration, to borrow Doctor Who‘s terminology. Former boxer turned actor Mark McManus was the original Taggart when the series launched in 1983, the writer and creator Glenn Chandler having famously got the inspiration for the characters’ names from the headstones in Glasgow’s Maryhill cemetery.

From McManus to MacPherson and beyond
McManus died in 1994 at the age of 59, but the series – the brand – was kept going, with Mike Jardine (actor James MacPherson) initially becoming the central character.

Investigating a young doctor’s murder – DI Ross and DS Reid

When MacPherson left in 2002, the show became an ensemble piece with its current trio – the newcomer DCI Matt Burke (Alex Norton) joining regulars DS Jackie Reid (Blythe Duff) and DI Robbie Ross (John Richie).

If this all sounds as appetising as reheating an old dinner, then it’s worth remembering that curry takeaway can taste pretty good the next day. Which is another way of saying Taggart‘s stories are well-crafted and the cast is terrific and believable.

Glasgow torture
The new series is aiming to ‘get back back to basics’ by being gritty and recapturing the show’s original dry humour. Without doing anything earth-shattering, it certainly succeeds in revitalising itself.

Bad Medicine starts off with a grisly torture scene, a man being cut with a Stanley knife, burned with a cigarette and finished off with a nail gun (I wonder if Glasgow Tourist Board are big fans of the series). The victim turns out to be a newly-qualified doctor who made and sold Ecstasy to pay his way through medical college.

Old pals fall out – DI Casey (Reece Dinsdale) and DCI Burke

The story gets a spicy twist with the arrival from London of two swaggering detectives, DI Casey (Reece Dinsdale), an old mate of Burke’s, and loudmouth DS Morretti (Steve John Shepherd).

Siobhan Redmond
There’s plenty of needle between the Scots and their southern ‘colleagues’, which is great to watch, and the tension is ratcheted up when more bodies turn up. Gritty this certainly is, with torture, three mud-derrrs and two suicides. As the title song says, ‘This town is mean’.

Alex Norton is fun to watch as the old-school bulldog of a cop, happy to knock suspects about, and who here is reminded by his boss, Chief Supt Karen Campbell (Siobhan Redmond), that a ‘DCI’s pension is pretty good these days’.

Joining the cast is Davood Ghadmi as pathologist Duncan Clark, who gets a welcome in the form of a rollicking from Burke.

Robbie leans on a witness

But no less important than Burke, are Jackie Reid and Robbie Ross. She is the detective who has little more to look forward to than a night in with a bottle of Pinot Grigio, and he’s the type, according to her, who goes for a ‘one-night stand you then throw over the next day for the footie’.

All of which neatly captures the bleakness and humour of these characters. Welcome back.

Kidnap & Ransom PREVIEW

Trevor Eve as Dominic King (all pics: (C) ITV Plc)

Rating ★★★½

ITV1,  Thursday, 13 January, 9pm

If the thought of sitting through a three-hour hostage drama in the company of Waking the Dead‘s Mr Angry, Trevor Eve, makes you long for something less tetchy and serious – say, a war documentary – think again.

The pedigree of this new thriller is a cut above many currently on TV, with Patrick Harbinson, the acclaimed scriptwriter on US hits such as 24, Law and Order and ER, providing a taut, pacy story with strong characters.

Hostage Naomi (Emma Fielding)

But while Eve, seen most recently in the highly-strung Bouquet of Barbed Wire but better known as short-fused detective superintendent Peter Boyd in Waking the Dead, can be heavy-going, in Kidnap & Ransom his performance is subtle, playing a troubled figure in an emotionally-charged story.

Death of a hostage
He is Dominic King, a private hostage negotiator whose new assignment is to bring home businesswoman and mother Naomi Shaffer, the victim of a kidnap in South Africa. The trouble for him is that he seems to be losing his touch in the dangerous world of hostage negotiations, and even as a husband too.

Dominic is haunted by a recent exchange in which the hostage was handed over as a corpse. His wife, Sophie, wants him to stop working at the sharp end of this hazardous business and support her political ambitions, and he is distant from his teenage daughter, Tess.

That is the strength of this three-parter. It takes time to build the characters, who are nuanced and believable. And it’s not just Dominic’s life we see into, it’s also Naomi’s, with her shocked husband and daughter following negotiations fearing that it could all go wrong.

Trevor Eve and Helen Baxendale

Helen Baxendale as King’s boss

And so, with domestic pressures mounting, Dominic has to leave for South Africa to see the transaction through and bring Naomi home.

Watch carefully and it slowly becomes apparent that Dominic is dealing with something bigger than the bunch of desperate amateurs he initially suspects are the movers behind this kidnap. But what makes this drama compelling it that it is a slow burn, with none of the wild plot convolutions these shows often depend on to keep audiences gripped.

Trevor Eve has a good cast round him, with Helen Baxendale as his boss, Angela Beddoes, Emma Fielding as Naomi, Natasha Little as his wife, Sophie, and John Hannah turning up in episode two as Willard, a more sinister figure for Dominic to tackle.

SAS guys
Kidnap & Ransom was developed by Eve’s own production company, Projector, and he is the series’s executive producer. He shrewdly wanted to have a premise that hadn’t been done to death in cop and medical shows, and that’s how they came up with the hostage negotiator idea before Patrick Harbinson was brought in.

Tumisho Masha as Insp Lanning
John Hannah as Willard

‘We wanted to do a story based around the life of an ex-military man who became a hostage negotiator,’ says the actor. ‘It happens a lot – ex SAS guys, when they hit their 50s, go in to private security, the “grey hairs” as they call them. So we knew we wanted to do that and then it was a question of coming up with the story and creating the life around this man.

‘The life of a hostage negotiator is strange places, little hotel rooms, dealing with rather unpleasant people all the time. That’s their thing and they have to have a great sense of calm. That was what attracted me to it. Because having played Boyd in Waking the Dead, who’s an irascible, volatile person, we were looking for something different. Boyd would be a terrible hostage negotiator.’

It’s a successful gear change for Eve. Kidnap & Ransom, filmed in South Africa and London, has a near cinematic quality, a fresh story for UK television and is packed with tension.

Third Degree: Ann Cleeves

Award-winning British novelist Ann Cleeves is a serial crime writer, with her collections including amateur sleuths George & Molly, Inspector Ramsay, the soon-to-be-televised Vera Stanhope, and the recent Shetland Island Quartet. crimetimepreview pulls her in for questioning about her TV habits…

Your favourite British crime series or thriller on TV?

This is very tricky.  I loved Morse, but having watched those again, they do seem very slow.  I thought the recent working of Sherlock Holmes was magnificent – witty, fun and capturing the essence of the original.

Favourite US crime series or thriller on TV?

I enjoyed the old series like NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Street.  I’ve never watched The Wire, but everyone tells me I should.

Top TV cop?

Taggart – can’t remember the actor’s name [Mark McManus] but he was fantastic.

Which unfilmed book/character should be made into a TV drama?

Martin Edwards wrote a series set in Liverpool with sixties song lyrics as titles and a solicitor hero.  I think Liverpool would provide a brilliantly atmospheric back-drop and Harry Devlin is a great character.

If one of your novels were filmed, who would you cast to be the hero?

One has – the Vera Stanhope books have been adapted for ITV with Brenda Blethyn as the hero – they’ll be broadcast in the spring.  I wouldn’t have considered Brenda as Vera but she’s magnificent.  I hear her voice in my head now when I’m writing dialogue.

If the Shetland books were filmed I’d like David Tennant to be Jimmy Perez.  He’s known for his manic energy but I think he could do intense stillness very well too.

What do you watch with a guilty conscience (or what’s your guilty pleasure)?

US Law and Order.  Absolutely bizarre plot lines.

Least favourite cop show/thriller?

Rosemary and Thyme.

Do you prefer The Wire or The Sopranos?

I haven’t seen either.

Marple/Poirot or Sherlock Holmes?

Holmes.  I really don’t get Christie.

Wallander – BBC or the Swedish version?

Absolutely the Swedish version.  The BBC film looked beautiful, but lost the sense of Kurt’s team, which is so important in the books.

US or British television crime dramas?

British, but only because I don’t know much about US contemporary programming.

Your favourite crime/thriller writers?

I love the Nordic writers – I’m chair of judges for the CWA International Dagger so I get sent loads of wonderful books. My favourite at the moment is Johan Theorin – wonderful!

Favourite non-crime/thriller author?

My favourite book is still probably Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier  (The Lost Domaine in translation).  I read it for French A Level and it’s romantic and a perfect book for an adolescent. I still find it moving and mysterious.

Favourite crime movie or thriller?

Fargo.  I love the snow.

You’ve been framed for murder. Which fictional detective/sleuth would you want to call up?

Helen Mirren from Prime Suspect.

Ann’s Shetland Island Quartet of stories reached its climax with Blue Lightning, which is available in paperback. Hidden Depths, starring Brenda Blethyn as DI Vera Stanhope, should be broadcast by ITV1 in the Spring.

Hustle PREVIEW

Kelly Adams, Robert Vaughn, Adrian Lester, Robert Glenister and Matt Di Angelo (pics: BBC)

Rating ★★★½

BBC1, Friday, 7 January, 9pm

With child murder and serial killers now a staple on many cop shows, it’s hard to begrudge the return of this light-hearted – as well as light-fingered – conman-caper series.

Like the grandaddy of con-man films, The Sting, this series from writer Tony Jordan relies on the wit and charm of its grifters, along with beautifully played-out cons that relieve the corrupt and nasty of their ill-gotten lucre.

Anna Chancellor, right, as crooked Wendy Stanton

While the cast still misses original member Marc Warren as Danny Blue (series one can be seen online at SeeSaw), the current players are a watchable bunch. For series seven there are no changes, so Adrian Lester returns as Mickey Stone, the gang’s leader, with Robert Glenister (‘fixer’ Ash Morgan), the ever-suave Robert Vaughn (‘roper’ Albert Stroller), Kelly Adams (Emma Kennedy) and Matt Di Angelo (Emma’s brother, Sean).

Anna Chancellor is the mark
The opening episode is the usual impossibly convoluted affair in which the scamsters pull off four intricate cons at the same time (Tony Jordan must have fun working out these plots).

But before an arrogant viscount, a shady judge and a bent MP get their comeuppance, Mickey and the gang decide to help the niece of their favourite barman, Eddie (Rob Jarvis), who’s been ripped off by the owner of a modelling agency.

Anna Chancellor plays the Cruella De Vil-like Wendy Stanton, who routinely fleeces young wannabe models. Can the gang get the tight-fisted Wendy, who twitches whenever large sums are mentioned, to invest a huge amount of cash in their bogus fashion line?

Robert Vaughn’s still having fun
With its cool jazzy music, slick locations and witty grifters, Hustle makes it seem plausible and fun. Like a pickpocket’s diversionary tactic, it’s all an illusion and can leave us feeling short-changed if we unpick the story.

The formula will need to move on if the new series is to avoid becoming routine and dull, and so we will be meeting Albert’s daughter from the US soon. But perhaps the ante could be upped for the characters if a little more danger and risk were introduced at the expense of all the larkiness.

But Hollywood legend Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven,The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and his co-stars seem to enjoy showing us the tricks of the trade. And for a shallow bit of old-fashioned entertainment, the series usually provides a few good laughs and is a cheerful break from watching corpses being sawn open on Silent Witness.

• Crime Zapper – Death in Paradise, To Catch a Thief, Nordic Noir •

• Filming starts in the spring for the first joint production between the BBC and France Television of an eight-part drama called Death in Paradise. It is described as a fish-out-of-water story about an English cop posted to the Caribbean island of Sainte Marie. What to anyone else might be paradise, for detective inspector Richard Gill is hell. He hates th sun, sea and sand, and can’t adapt to the local style of policing. But he is a brilliant detective, whose first case is to uncover who killed another British cop. Sophie Gigon from France Television says, ‘This is a great example of our international co-production work, based on the universal theme of crime investigation with a comedy touch. We’ve combined English and French creative talent to aim for a production that will be light-hearted but meaningful.’ Death in Paradise is Robert Thorogood’s first TV credit and follows his discovery via the Red Planet Pictures annual writing competition. Casting to be announced…

• Monday’s Nordic Noir doc on BBC Four was terrific, an insightful tour through Scandinavia’s ground-breaking and popular crime writers back to Sjowall and Wahloo. Participants included Karim Fossum, Jo Nesbo, Maj Sjowall, Barry Forshaw and others. Catch it on iPlayer (though I’m not sure this is available to users outside the UK), and look out for the follow-up, Italian Noir, on Boxing Day night.

• Vintage crime hounds may be interested in two radio adaptations coming up soon. BBC Radio 4 is dramatising David Dodge’s 1952 novel To Catch a Thief, which Alfred Hitchcock turned into a glittering suspense movie starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. American John Robie is living quietly in the south of France trying to live down his career as a notorious jewel thief, when a series of copycat burglaries lead the police to suspect that he is back to his old ways. To catch his imitator he tries to lay a trap, which is complicated by the daughter of one rich American tourist taking a fancy to him. Jeff Harding plays John Robie, Jennifer Lee Jellicorse plays Francie Stevens, Laura Brook is Mrs Stevens, Alun Raglan is Paul, Simon Armstrong is Bellini, Aurelie Amblard plays Danielle. Catch it on Saturday, January 8, at 2.30pm.
Meanwhile, to mark the 50th anniversary of Dashiel Hammett‘s death on January 10, BBC Radio 7 has a two-hour dramatisation of another tale that became one of the great crime films, The Maltese Falcon. This goes out of Sunday 9 at 1pm and stars Tom Wilkinson.

• As if walking to work in London’s freak snow blizzards this winter is not bad enough, I stumbled into this 10ft monster this morning. What chillled my spine, apart from the sub-zero temperature, was that I am currently reading Jo Nesbo‘s The Snowman. For those who haven’t got round to this best-seller yet, it’s the story of detective Harry Hole tracking a sinister serial killer whose calling cards are disturbing snowmen. OK, this one’s got a friendly smile, but so did Norman Bates.

• Best seasonal wishes to everyone who has visited crimetimepreview. In its first four months the site’s had 15,000 hits, and there are some terrific new crime series lining up for 2011. They’ll all be covered, we’ll have interviews and a YouTube channel of promos and trailers, and much more. Happy viewing.

 

Above Suspicion – Deadly Intent PREVIEW

Ciarán Hinds, Kelly Reilly, Shaun Dingwall and Celyn Jones (pics: (C) ITV Plc/LA PLANTE)

Rating ★★★

ITV1, Mon 3 Jan, Tues 4 Jan, Wed 5 Jan, 9pm

This is a third outing for Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion featuring detective Anna Travis, the modern-day heir apparent to Prime Suspect‘s Jane Tennison.

But while she may be Tennison’s heir, Travis is not her equal. Above Suspicion has performed very decently for ITV in the ratings – first series notching up 8m viewers – and Kelly Reilly, who plays Travis, may be an attractive lead, but this new La Plante production is not as sure-footed or powerful as Helen Mirren’s predecessor.

Reilly is too girlish (despite being 33) and glam to convince as a high-flying detective in what is still shown here to be a male-chauvinist enclave. And she is flying – having started out as a teetering rookie in series one, she is now a detective inspector.

Jane Tennison would never have cut it if she’d worn short black skirts and low-cut singlets around the office, and though we may have moved on since 1991, we haven’t moved on so far that Travis would be taken seriously looking so exposed today.

Despite such quibbles, this third series is possibly the best yet. Not as gruesome as the others, particularly last time’s The Red Dahlia instalment, but still a compelling story.

Plastic surgery in Mexico
In a prelude, we see a mystery man in Mexico getting plastic surgery, before the action switches to London, where there’s been a shooting on a council estate drug squat. The victim turns out to be Frank Brandon, a bent cop and former chum of Travis’s gruff guvnor, DCS James Langton (Ciarán Hinds).

His team quickly discovers that Brandon recently married Julia Larson (Stine Stengade), a glamorous, wealthy woman who was employing him as her driver. All of which seems a bit unusual.

Known to have been on the estate are fierce drug dealer Silas Roach (Robbie Gee, left) and small-time user Eddie Court (Ashley Court). Meanwhile, Travis questions a resident on the estate who insists he heard three shots, when only two bullets hit Brandon.

Travis’s style to follow her hunches on her own, because her male superiors don’t listen to her. She finds the third bullet – and gets a rollicking – questions Julia Larson, who reluctantly reveals she had a previous husband, and researches Fentanyl, a pure drug with the street name Drop Dead, traces of which were found at the squat.

What’s going on between Travis and Langton?
Brandon’s strange marriage, the man who changed his identity and the drug that seems to have prompted several assassinations make this a heady story. Mixed in are Travis’s clashes with DCI Mike Lewis (Shaun Dingwall), who’s also been promoted and is heading the investigation, and the intensifying emotional spark she has with their boss, Langton.

La Plante gives an insight into this strange attraction. She says, ‘It’s really down to the will-they-won’t-they, question?

‘A lot of women absolutely love Langton, and some find him really awful to Travis. In that respect it’s a bit like Gone with the Wind. He’s so nasty to her at times, but in this one we do have the emotional impact when he tells her the truth about his life. We see that this vulnerability allows Travis to reveal her feelings for him, if only to herself. It continues to build the tension between them. I think this is what makes their interaction compelling.

‘Langton is a dedicated police officer and an exceedingly good one who has very strong gut instincts, but he is not an intellectual man. He’s hardly ever read a book, if it wasn’t connected to a crime.

‘However, Travis is university educated and different… she also stands up to him, which none of the other women or men do. But like Langton, Travis is intuitively intelligent and in many ways has a similar trait to Langton in that, she won’t let something go. This makes her a very good detective, she could very easily dismiss the fact that one of the witnesses said she heard three bullets. Her persistence in uncovering the detail proves to be the key in this case. A fact that Langton admires.’

Travis stirs the case further when she discovers a link between Julia’s ex and a drug distributor on the FBI most wanted listed, who could now be in the UK. The team don’t really know what they are investigating or how the case will escalate, and neither will viewers.

Silent Witness – A Guilty Mind PREVIEW

Emilia Fox as Dr Nikki Alexander (BBC)

Rating ★★½

BBC1, starts Monday, 3 January, 9pm


Silent Witness has had viewers on a scalpel’s edge for 14 years now. The franchise is one of the longest-running crime dramas produced by UK television – older than Spooks (2002), but not so long in the tooth as Taggart (1983).

It’s been a gruesome ride with the pathologists, right back to Amanda Burton’s residency (1996-2004). The scientist Richard Dawkins says there are vastly more ways of being dead than alive, and it feels as though Silent Witness has given us a close-up of most of them. Bloated, decaying bodies and dissected human organs along with some disturbing crimes have been its lifeblood.

This unflinching gaze and upsetting subject matter are abundantly present in the opening two-part story of the new series, A Guilty Mind. The forensic pathologists – Dr Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox), Prof Leo Dalton (William Gaminara) and Dr Harry Cunningham (Tom Ward) – investigate the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in tandem with the unexpected deaths of three patients on the same ward of a London hospital.

Professor having a breakdown
The main suspect for the child’s murder is a man called Bodle (a creepy Michael Shaeffer), who was given a life-saving brain operation by Professor Silverlake (Roy Marsden). Meanwhile, Leo and Harry  work out that the ward deaths were no coincidence, and suspicion falls on Silverlake, who apparently attended the patients late at night and was having a breakdown, which results in his brandishing a gun in front of armed officers.

Detectives also suspect a missing nurse, while the dead man’s distressed daughter, Naomi (Sinead Keenan), asks Nikki to see if there are mitigating reasons to explain her father’s behaviour.

We get several close-ups of the child’s caved-in skull, later a scalp being peeled and brain removed, internal organs being squeezed. What is new, however, is the effect the child’s murder is shown to have on Nikki, who does its post-mortem.

So after all the gore, the series is showing that this work can take a seriously unsettling toll on those doing it. Nikki can’t sleep, is distracted and shaky when she has to give evidence in court. She becomes depressed.

Gratuitous
Emilia Fox, now in her seventh series here, says, ‘A lot of the real pathologists who we work with choose not to work with or do post-mortems on children because of the effect it has on them, especially if you have a young family yourself. So I very much found that quite instinctive – the horror of what you would feel. This is taken to quite an extreme level of how it affects Nikki.’

It’s no wonder her character is depressed. Many viewers will also feel down after seeing the final moments of a child abducted by a rapist. These opening moments are voyeuristic and gratuitous.

This story isn’t about the child’s murder directly, but we still get to see it dragged into bushes, the man leaning over her. Then her caved-in skull in close-up.

The producers will no doubt say these moments show us how Nikki’s depression is triggered, but to depict the crime like this is not necessary. The child is not a character here. We only see her in her final moments before she is a corpse on the slab. She is a plot device, and child rape and murder are too harrowing to be dropped into a drama like this.

Fox, Ward and Gaminara make a good cast
While Silent Witness takes huge of trouble over the realistic recreation of the pathologist’s gory job – ‘The bodies just get better and better,’ says Emilia Fox – the show’s designer, moodily-lit lab and Nikki teetering around it in killer heels are reminders that this is entertainment, a simple whodunnit.

But although Fox is an expressive actress and her co-stars, Ward and Gaminara, complete an appealing cast, this mystery is ludicrous and unconvincing.

Without giving too much away, one character engineers their own death for reasons so unbelievable it immediately exposes how artificial the drama is. Because this death is a piece of misdirection to stop viewers guessing the real killer in the first episode.

Red-herrings
And there are a load of other red-herrings, such as some drawn-out business about anti-depressants (plus a mystery man who warns Prof Dalton off investigating this drug, which is never resolved).

Having been through the entrails of both instalments of A Guilty Mind, I still have no clear idea why the killer commits so many fiendishly contrived murders in the first place.

More effort spent on producing believable stories and less on the pathology money shots – when does showing a head being cracked open advance the plot? – would help to bring Silent Witness back from the dead, and its morbid fascination with their insides.

Zen PREVIEW

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.

Ratking
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.

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