Given how popular ‘Scandi-noir’ is with the chattering classes – for whom it’s the perfect storm of middle class ideal, being both subtitled and mostly confined to BBC4 – The Tunnel might seem doomed to condemnation from the get-go. After all, this is a remake of the 2011 Danish/Swedish drama The Bridge, which has been the latest show to have Radio Times writers going weak at the knees, and so this remake is bound to be seen as another example of dumbing down – if there’s one thing people hate more than remakes, it’s English language remakes of recent foreign films, clearly aimed at the proles who won’t watch anything with subtitles, the lower class thickies that they are. The way some people go on and on about it, you’d think that the original versions were all destroyed when a remake is made, with ownership of a DVD being some sort of criminal offence. Of course, there’s the alternative possibility – that watching a remake like this might inspire people to seek out the original. I haven’t seen The Bridge. I now intend to. Everyone wins.
Inconveniently, The Tunnel doesn’t quite fit with that class-ridden stereotype though. This is a British-French co-production that is effectively bi-lingual – while English is dominant, large chunks of the show remain subtitled; enough to put the audience who hate to read words off, certainly.
This ten part series opens with a body found in the middle of the Channel Tunnel. Literally the middle, as it straddles the border point between Britain and France. When it comes to be moved, the body split in two, and is soon found to be a pair of corpses – the top half belonging to a French politician, the bottom half to an English prostitute. This split ensures that both the French and English police are involved in the investigation, mainly represented by the mismatched pair of borderline autistic and socially inept Elise Wasserman (Clémence Poésy) and the seemingly cheery and carefree Karl Roebuck ((Stephen Dillane).
As the two cops try to overcome their cultural and personality differences, it soon becomes clear that the murder is just the start of a campaign by a mysterious figure who soon becomes known as the Truth Terrorist (or TT – both pretty dreadful names, it must be said) – a psychopath who communicates through calls to a cynical tabloid hack and via a public website, where his killings and kidnappings are couched in terms of social justice – his seemingly moral crusade to expose society’s problems and hypocrisies on issues ranging from child labour to the abuse of the elderly. By doing so, he is able to manipulate public opinion (goading the masses into acts of violence, for instance) and almost becomes a folk hero for some. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that he has a personal grudge against Karl, and the cop’s casual attitude is slowly chipped away as his family is targeted.
The build up of this story is handled well over the ten shows, allowing more and more tension to build and our familiarity with the lead characters to grow, ensuring that as things come to a head in the final two episodes, we are fully invested in their plight. Along the way – certainly in the first few shows – there are red herrings aplenty, some of whom turn out to be connected to TT, others who are part of little side stories, such as the strange relationship between would-be saviour Stephen Beaumont (Joseph Mawle) and his drug addict sister Suze (Keely Hawes), who in turn is involved with a sleazy pimp. These side stories initially seem like a distraction (because you know that the identity of the killer would not be so easily given out), much like the assorted soap opera elements that sometimes bogged down 24. But eventually, they all come together. Equally, the initially tedious looks at Karl’s family life, complete with stroppy teenage son, finally play into the drama of the story.
Dillane and Poésy make a good team – his initial cheeriness and seemingly light-hearted attitude being slowly demolished as his life falls apart during the series is effectively handled, while her character – socially dysfunctional, abrupt and humourless, but of course hot – is made a lot more likeable and sympathetic that it might have been. Her accent is interesting, too, mainly because it’s almost non-existent when she speaks English. She could almost pass as a native. The culture clash between them – not just in terms of nationality, but also personality – is also handled well, never feeling forced or contrived.
While the tunnel of the title only plays a part in the opening and closing episodes, its presence is overwhelming, and the show makes great use of Folkestone and Calais as locations to drive the action. There are some amazing visual moments and a degree of gruesomeness – though it’s less the graphic nature of the odd gory scene as it is the emotional power of some of the violent moments that has the most impact.
The Tunnel is ideal box set viewing – I suspect I might have failed to stick with it on TV, which would be my loss. Gobbled up in a couple of marathon sessions (and whether you plan them or not, that’s what you’ll end up having) this is compulsive, gripping and emotionally exhausting. It’s one of the best UK TV productions I’ve seen in a very long time, and I hope we get a second helping soon.