At a recent preview screening of The Tunnel, the Anglo-French remake of the Scandinavian thriller The Bridge, in which a body is discovered halfway across the bridge between Denmark and Sweden (except in this version, the corpse is found inside the Channel Tunnel), we were asked whether or not we had seen the original. An overwhelming majority had followed The Bridge – and seeing The Bridge is to love it, which meant we were a for this Sky Atlantic-Canal+ co-production. To judge by the universal enthusiasm of the remarks afterwards, The Tunnel has succeeded in its high-risk strategy of re-working a near-flawless Scandi-drama in our Anglo-French image. But why do it in the first place?
"The Bridge is an incredible nuanced serial killer thriller," says executive producer Jane Featherstone of Spooks-maker Kudos, the British side of the co-production. "But what writer Ben Richards has done is something particular to the whole French-British experience. We're neighbours, we have so much in common and yet we're thousands of miles apart on so many things."
Indeed, The Bridge's basic premise – that a murder victim is found straddling the frontier between neighbouring states, requiring a joint but culturally-clashing police investigation – is geographically highly adaptable. An acclaimed American version, in which a male Mexican cop (played by Demián Bichir) works alongside an American detective (Diane Kruger), which begins on a bridge across the Rio Grande separating Texas from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, has recently been re-commissioned for a second 13-part series.
And you could imagine many more local variations, such as on the border of India and Pakistan (would the police co-operate in this situation?) or Turkey and Greece. Perhaps we could have our very own devolutionary spin-off, set near Gretna Green. "The fact that there are three different versions is a testimony to how rich it is for adaptation", says Richards, who worked closely with the creator of the original, Swedish writer Hans Rosenfeld.
The Tunnel was filmed on location in Kent and northern France, and is the first TV drama to actually shoot inside the channel tunnel. "The only thing Eurotunnel didn't want was to see train passengers in danger or any fires," says Dominik Moll, the German-born French director of the opening episode. Moll was one of two French directors who shared the workload with three English directors, with half the dialogue in French and half in English, in a production that was, according to Featherstone, "a true entente cordiale".
It could be argued, of course, that the national differences between Sweden and Denmark in the original version were largely lost on British viewers when it was screened on BBC4 in 2012, and what we really enjoyed – the clever plot apart – was the character of the female Swedish detective Saga Noren (played by Sofia Helin). Saga, who was either socially illiterate or borderline Asperger's (it was never spelt out), was a new kind of female character in a police drama, with more supposedly "masculine" traits, such as favouring logic over empathy and having a functional attitude to sex, than her Danish male counterpart.
Clémence Poésy (Birdsong, In Bruges, and very much the go-to French actress in British dramas) is great casting in the Saga role – here called Elise. Like Saga, Elise seems to possess no social or emotional antenna. "She's not an incredibly kind or nice character, and yet I fell in love with her after the first few pages of episode one," says the actress. "I love how she never makes compromises." She adds that she was keen not to medicalise Elise's lack of empathy. "I have a precise theory about why she is as she is, but it would spoil it to say what."
Poésy chose not to watch the Scandinavian original ("I thought it would allow a bit more freedom with my character, but I'm slightly nervous to watch it now because it might reveal everything I should have done") a decision replicated by her co-star, Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones), who plays Karl, the British detective on the case, and the equivalent of The Bridge's laid-back Danish policeman Martin Rohde (played by Kim Bodnia). "Karl is a much bigger change from Martin in the original, even though he seems to share some of his characteristics", says Richards. "Karl is more educated and a more troubled man."
The main difference between the characters of Karl and Elise, and, hence by extension between the British and the French, is in their sense of humour; he has one, she appears not to. Poésy, a Parisian who spends much of her time in London and has therefore had plenty of time to observe the difference, finds the French person's innate seriousness "quite annoying", but also recognises that the fabled English sense of humour can be a way of filtering the truth. "I love Elise's honesty", she says. "If your relationship with truth is so pure that you just look at facts, life as it is, it's very hard to see how life could be funny."
As an avid fan of The Bridge, I am happy to report that The Tunnel works well in its own right – it's intelligently made, well cast and ambitiously cinematic. And while some of the elements in the opening episodes (Saga stripping unselfconsciously to her underwear in the office; Karl's unhappy relationship with his teenage son; and the scene where the sleazy journalist is held captive in his own car with a ticking bomb) are straight steals rom the original, the series as a whole doesn't feel slavish. Richards says the storylines will diverge as the drama unfolds.
"The bomb sequence in the car... that's a great sequence so why bother to change it?" he says. "The story and the plot have changed significantly, although the first episode is likely to be the closest to the original because that's very much a set-up of the premise and the characters. Changes do take some time to generate other changes."
'The Tunnel' begins on 16 October at 9pm on Sky Atlantic