Box Seat

Sacré bleu! When did the French get better than us at TV?

There once seemed to be an unspoken agreement that telly was one of Britain’s great cultural exports, writes Ed Cumming. Yet the likes of ‘Call My Agent!’, ‘Lupin’ and ‘Le Bureau’ have put that old chestnut to bed. What happened?

Monday 02 August 2021 06:33 BST
Stars de la télévision! Mathieu Kassovitz in ‘Le Bureau’, Omar Sy in ‘Lupin’, Camille Cottin in ‘Call My Agent!’ and Audrey Fleurot in ‘Spiral’
Stars de la télévision! Mathieu Kassovitz in ‘Le Bureau’, Omar Sy in ‘Lupin’, Camille Cottin in ‘Call My Agent!’ and Audrey Fleurot in ‘Spiral’ (Amazon/Netflix/BBC/Canal+)

The most upsetting development in TV this year has not been the BBC’s Olympic coverage, hard as it has been to be deprived of 24-hour kayaking. Nor was it the ending of Line of Duty, with its ominous implication that the series might run forever without ever finding the last of the bent coppers. Or Emily in Paris being nominated for the “Best Comedy” Emmy.

No, the only truly blood-curdling realisation has been that the French are making better TV than us. Probably the best comedy of the past few years is Call My Agent, which stars Camille Cottin as a talent agent forced to dig her stars, played by real-life actors, out of increasingly ridiculous scrapes while managing their own chaotic personal lives. It is French.

Definitely the best thriller of the past few years is The Bureau – in its home nation Le Bureau des Legendes – a gripping spy drama in which characters roam around the world protecting national interests while managing their own chaotic personal lives. In its depiction of technology, double-crossing and harsh realpolitik of modern espionage, it is closer to the spirit of Le Carré than anything we have managed lately, including adaptations of Le Carré. It is also French.

Then there’s Lupin, Netflix’s slickly enjoyable crime caper starring the magnetic Omar Sy as a gentleman thief, based on Maurice Leblanc’s classic novels, which reached 70 million households worldwide. And Missions, the French drama about a mission to Mars, which over two seasons of surprisingly short half-hour episodes has evolved into something far more complex and subtle than it seemed at the start. Not forgetting Spiral, which concluded on BBC Four earlier this year after 15 years. As the vineyards of Sussex and Hampshire start to produce drinkable sparkling wine, the French are serving up credible police shows and comedies that are actually funny. The land of Godard and Truffaut has no problem with films, but until recently seems to have struggled conceptually with the small screen. As one French pal put it, “You would not believe the crap we had to put up with.”

What’s going on? From Midsomer Murders and Top Gear to Peppa Pig, telly was meant to be one of the great British cultural exports. I thought there was a kind of unspoken agreement. We would leave the Europeans to their opera, theatre, poetry, novels and three-hour films about dementia. In return, we do the TV, pop music and Potter. Instead, here we find ourselves not only pleased to see the tanks on our lawn, but we’re inviting the drivers in for a cup of tea.

Partly this is down to the streaming services, whose ever-vigilant algorithms can sift through the best of the world’s TV and deliver it straight to your bed. In previous years, you could only watch something like Call My Agent if one of the British channels decided to pick it up. Most likely it would be snuck out on BBC Four at midnight on a Tuesday, a treat for the real heads. Now it’s shoved right in our faces. You like Fleabag, you say? Get a load of this. In the case of Lupin, which has a British showrunner (and received lukewarm reviews in France), there’s another example of Netflix’s apparent attempt to have a star production out of every territory in the world, like a kind of gigantic semi-benevolent content monster. Fauda from Israel, Money Heist from Spain, The Kingdom from South Korea. Watching with subtitles is a catching bug, as the customers of those cinemas with sofas and wine have known for years. Once you’ve enjoyed a thriller in one foreign language, you will probably enjoy it in another.

But the French have also been studying the dark arts of British and American series. They’ve looked at the travails of Antoine Soprano and realised that if they can come up with something half as good, there’s the potential to flog it around the world. Mathieu Kassovitz, who stars as the enigmatic Bondalike Malotru in The Bureau, embodies the change in mood. Internationally, he is best known as the writer-director of 1995’s La Haine and then as the love interest in the 2001 film Amelie. A gritty auteur piece set in the banlieue, followed by a cutesy romcom that broke out of France by exploiting cliches about Paris. With Le Bureau, he returned at the head of a large and gifted ensemble brought together by American standards of character development, production, writing and direction.

The obvious risk is that everything starts to look the same. Rising standards can come with a creeping homogeneity. But I think we’re still in the happy discovery phase, where programmes from around the world can pop up and push our buttons. Enthused by the success of the shows above, producers will no doubt be wondering what else they can come up with. We should enjoy it while it lasts and pray they don’t take up cricket.

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