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.

• 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…

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.

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