The Weekend’s Viewing: Subtitles should stop no one warming to this compelling Italian

The Young Montalbano, Sat, BBC4 // Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival, Sun, BBC1

The remake of late-Nineties series Inspector Montalbano sees the Sicilian hero as a young man, just as he is promoted to being a fully fledged detective. In the first episode of the  new series of The Young Montalbano, he is  a bit different from the Montalbano of old.  For a start, he is a hipster, or so it seems. In  the opening scenes, for example, he was seen sporting  a silly moustache, a heavy sheepskin coat and constantly sneering at his surroundings, despite being in a stunning mountain village in Sicily. But a transfer was imminent,  to the beautiful fictional seaside town of Vigata, where,  we were told, he spent the first 10 years of his life.  Happily, it was also where the original series was set.

It was good that he was moving, as young Salvo Montalbano (played by handsome Michele Riondino) is  ill-adapted to mountain living, as demonstrated when he dined out with his frumpy and slightly dour girlfriend Mery (Katia Greco). It might have been the boxy Nineties fashion that made me think this about her, or her refusal to swim in the sea with Salvo, or maybe because her mission in life seems to be to nag him.

For the record, I would have leapt in the sea with that moody hipster hunk. Anyway, in a restaurant in a lovely  little mountain cave, Salvo was offered a delicious menu, including goat ragu and braised lamb. “Don’t you have any fish?” he petulantly demanded, like a Brit going abroad and stubbornly ordering beans and chips. There are a few nods  to TV detectives past. Questioning a policeman in Vigata,  he turned to go, then in a perfect pastiche of Columbo, asked, “and one more thing...” This being Italy, the question isn’t about a clue, but about food, and soon his yearning for linguine alla vongole has been sated.

One of Montalbano’s first tasks as detective was to assign roles. He immediately put the best driver on the telephone switchboard, just to annoy him. Montalbano just likes to mess with people. He does have redeeming qualities, though. A great belief in justice and  a disdain for corruption, for example, always handy in a  fledgling TV detective, and his jokes mostly translate well, despite the subtitles (the series is in Italian). It’s all very Italian, from the frequent sex scenes to the detailed descriptions of food, to the relaxed attitude to work. In a breakthrough moment, Salvo ran to his superior’s home to update him on the case, and was flatly told to wait until morning. 

The niche appeal and subtitles might be a bit of a barrier, but by the end of the two-hour episode, I’d really warmed  to this compelling Italian. Riondino’s Montalbano could give Cumberbatch’s Sherlock a run for his money.

More pretty scenery could be found in Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival. This episode was a low point in the otherwise good series, focusing on UK rivers. Many were once disgustingly polluted, but now conservationists are making them a habitat for wildlife again. One heart-warming success story is otters; once nearly extinct, they can now be found in every county in England, although they are shy, meaning that presenter Ellie Harrison had to go on a wild otter chase, only to catch a tiny glimpse of one.

Another visual low point occured when Gabby Logan plodded about in the river Trent with “naturalist” Andy Holt. Naturalists are not to be confused with naturists: the former like nature a lot, the latter like to be naked a lot. Logan and Holt weren’t naked, although that might have been more entertaining than what they were doing – testing for oxygen. “It might just look like jogging about in mud... but this is the base of the food chain,” explained Holt. Important? Yes. It’s still not great fun to watch, though.

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