The French have been raised on a rich diet of TV cop dramas, which have tradi- tionally been the country’s most popular shows. They’ve had decades of Maigret, starring Bruno Cremer; Navarro followed the investigations of a Paris police commissioner and ran from 1989 to 2006; and they’ve watched dubbed British and American detective series from Taggart to Columbo.
So the success of the detective drama Spiral (Engrenages, as it’s known in France), which is broadcast by the pay TV channel Canal+, isn’t a huge surprise. What is more surprising is its subject matter: for the first time in France, the lid has been lifted on the sordid reality of the country’s judicial system. Also unusual is the fact that it has been a cult hit in Britain since series one was shown on BBC4 in the summer of 2006 – long before The Killing made its debut here in January 2011. So what makes Spiral special?
“Spiral is subversive,” says head writer Anne Landois. “The other shows always had a hero who played it straight, with a healthy respect for republican values. Ours is different because we don’t only show the police perspective, but that of the bad guys and the magistrates.”
The series is as much character-driven as plot- driven, with very human blunders handicapping the police murder investigations. Each of the main characters – including the implausibly good-looking lawyer Pierre Clément and his voluptuous redhead sidekick, Joséphine Karlsson – is flawed, even overtly corrupt.
The detective team is led by prickly workaholic Chief Inspector Laure Berthaud, who struggles to keep her roguish colleague Gilou out of trouble. But even Berthaud, notable for her trademark vests and dishevelled hairstyle, has gone rogue in the heat of the moment, and doesn’t flinch from tampering with evidence in the interests of secur- ing a conviction. She reports to the investigating magistrate Judge Roban, who is in charge of the overall case but who has to co-operate with creepy prosecutor Machard, the incarnation of evil.
Being a French drama, there is plenty of sex. There is turf warfare between police departments, political manoeuvring and police brutal- ity. It’s like The Sweeney – the 1970s British series apparently unknown in France – minus the jokes. For Spiral is a relentlessly dark drama.
Is the French system as cynical and corrupt as the series would claim? “The show is rooted in reality,” says Landois. Seasons three and four were co-written with a real police commissioner, working under a pseudonym. He is now returning to the field. “Everything we put in Engrenages is from his anecdotes,” she says. In season three, where the police investigation focused on an Albanian prostitution ring of eastern Europeans, scenes were filmed in La Villette in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, “Exactly where the real thing took place,” says Landois.
Yet the Spiral writers also want to explore the complexity of the characters. “You can see the conflict within the team, and with their hierar- chy. You can see how the investigation impacts on their lives. In season three, for example, Laure Berthaud became a hunter,” says Landois.
If Landois admits to being inspired by other police dramas, it’s The Wire, the acclaimed US series filmed in Baltimore, that caught her atten- tion. She notes that The Killing, the bleak Danish series also boasting a female detective chief inspector, was first broadcast two years after Spiral burst on to French TV screens in 2005.
Although Spiral remains a cult show in France, since it’s broadcast on an encrypted channel, the Canal+ audience has steadily grown with each season, with 900,000 viewers tuning in for season four. When season five airs, it will become the longest-running series on a channel that sees itself as a kind of French HBO, nurturing original drama. It’s also very successful – it’s shown in 70 countries and is the first French drama series bought by the BBC since The Flashing Blade in the 1960s.
Landois is now working intensively on season five to avoid the long wait that kept viewers in suspense for a couple of years between earlier seasons. She has three police officers, two exam- ining magistrates and two lawyers as consultants to ensure maximum authenticity. “I’m not inter- ested so much in plot twists and red herrings, like other police dramas,” she says. “It’s interest- ing to see how sometimes the cops have a hunch about a murderer, but they have to prove it. It’s like a big puzzle unfolding in a complex way.”
Hence Engrenages. Landois says the writing team is always conscious of the series title, whose primary meaning is “gears” or “cogs”. “It’s about how one thing meshes with something else, for example decisions that can lead to catastrophic consequences.”
Spiral starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4