Wanted in Britain: Europe's must-see TV thrillers

A Danish crime drama is at the vanguard of a continental invasion

Murdoch-phobes will savour the irony that at a juncture in TV history when the chattering classes are supposed to chattering, Tweeting and Facebooking about Sky Atlantic's much-hyped new HBO shows – David Simon's post-Katrina New Orleans saga, Treme, or the lavish Prohibition-era epic Boardwalk Empire – all the noise is actually about an unheralded and subtitled Danish crime series showing free-to-air on BBC Four.

The Killing is keeping a growing group of viewers – 359,000 of them according to last weekend's figures (247,000 watched Boardwalk Empire in the same timeslot) – from doing anything more useful with their Saturday nights, as it follows the slow-burn investigation into the rape and murder of a 19-year-old girl in a Copenhagen flat. In 12 episodes (of 20), there has been only one murder; the female detective in charge, Sarah Lund (played by Sofie Grabol), has failed to jump into bed with her police partner, or indeed share the remotest sexual chemistry with him; and the backdrop is municipal Copenhagen politics. It's utterly compelling.

"Honestly, did you ever think that you'd actually become quite knowledgeable about Danish politics?" asks Sue Deeks, BBC's head of programme acquisitions, the person responsible for buying The Killing for BBC4. "It's like The West Wing ... you just picked up so much. And when you see the amazing skylines of Copenhagen, it's just so atmospheric, and the music... Excuse me, I'm waxing lyrical."

Indeed she might, with BBC4 being at the lonely vanguard of a recent influx of subtitled European TV drama. Back in the Eighties and Nineties there was Heimat, Edgar Reitz's utterly original and absorbing chronicle of one Rhineland village experiencing the Nazi era, the submarine drama Das Boot, and Lars von Trier's suitably bizarre Danish mini-series The Kingdom, set in a Copenhagen hospital.

However BBC4's recent trawl of Euro-drama has come on the back of a crime-wave. Spiral, the 2005 French policier, was the first, followed by the Swedish version of Wallander and now The Killing. "Spiral was the first specifically crime drama that we showed," says Deeks. "It just had a very good response that led to us looking at what other European crime dramas there were out there."

But what other quality TV drama of any type is out there in Europe? British viewers, used to our traditionally world-beating home-grown drama and comedy, and where necessary (increasingly in recent years) filling the gaps with the best of American television, have grown used to looking down our noses at continental programming, our attitude towards which could best be summarised by the title of the saucy late-night Channel 4 show once presented by Antoine de Caunes and Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Eurotrash began at Calais, we assumed, French television drama in particular a byword for paucity of ambition – this from a country with one of the world's most vibrant and innovative post-war cinema cultures. Heavily state-controlled at first, and then heavily privatised, its output is described by Sullivan Le Postec of the French webzine Le Village as "slipper television", characterised by a total lack of risk taking. "The national industries in Europe are very closed off from each other," he adds.

That's hardly surprising given the language barriers, with relatively tiny home-grown markets walled in by their own mother tongues. Compare this with America, its economies of scale and single language, whose expensive and ambitious TV shows have colonised the world. Most countries dub their US imports, and while that has never been necessary in the UK, European imports do require subtitles which is a traditional barrier to entry for large swathes of the British viewing public. "Maybe what the Wallanders and The Killing have done is make people who might not have naturally gone to a subtitled piece think they'd give it a try and once they had done and found out they'd enjoyed it," says Deeks.

Although BBC4 has its eyes on some European comedy, a genre notoriously incapable of traversing national boundaries, it's no coincidence that BBC4's recent acquisitions have all been crime series – a genre that travels well. It also echoes what has been happening in the literary world, with the Scandinavian and Italian thriller booms. The BBC's more popular channels have tried to surf the European crime wave by making their own lavish but ultimately ersatz Euro-thrillers, with English actors and dialogue but foreign settings. It's an unhappy formula that misses what is so fascinating about purely indigenous productions – namely their effortless sense of authenticity.

"When we first saw Spiral the thing that really struck us was the French justice system and how different that is," says Deeks. "And you have such a fantastic sense of place ... the settings are so strong."

BBC1's Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh as the grouchy Swedish detective, was almost universally praised, but I much preferred the Swedish version that was shown on BBC4. Whereas the British Wallander seemed intensely concerned in getting the design right, to the point where it almost seemed at times like an Ikea advert, the Swedish television adaptation could take its background authenticity for granted and concentrate on what really mattered – the characterisation.

Yesterday morning the BBC announced that it had bought the second series of The Killing, to be shown later this year (a third series has just gone into production in Denmark), less than a fortnight after it announced it was axing Zen, BBC1's fictional Italian detective drama set and filmed in Rome, starring a British actor, Rufus Sewell, and with English dialogue. It's probably not wise to read too much into that, but perhaps, incrementally, a space is being created for real European TV drama.

Sue Deeks is on the constant lookout, but admits: "There are only a few that we think are absolutely right for BBC4 – we're as selective with European drama as we are with US drama." In other words, if there was anything else out there we would already have seen it, and the day when we're watching a German Mad Men, a French Sopranos or a Swedish True Blood is still a long way off.

Euro hits

Heimat (1984)

Long before The Wire, Edgar Reitz created this ground-breaking look at Germany's Nazi past as seen through the microcosm of one Rhineland village.

The Kingdom (1994)

Lars Von Trier's supernatural mini-series set in the neurosurgical ward of a Copenhagen hospital baffled as much as it delighted.

Berlin, Berlin (2002)

One of the very few Euro-dramas to win an International Emmy, this saga is about a school-leaver, Lolle, who follows her boyfriend to Berlin – only to discover he has a new girl.

Spiral (2005)

"Engrenages" more literally translates as "cogs" or "gears". This crime drama was BBC4's first ever Gallic TV series. Set in the murky backstreets of Paris and shot using hand-held cameras, comparisons have been made to The Wire and State of Play.

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