No Europuddings as Channel 4 dishes up foreign drama

‘Walter Presents’ is another window on the high quality of non-English language TV

Jonas Nay stars as Martin Rauch or “Moritz Stamm” (his spy name) in Cold War thriller ‘Deutschland 83’

Jonas Nay stars as Martin Rauch or “Moritz Stamm” (his spy name) in Cold War thriller ‘Deutschland 83’

 

A new-year email arrives from Channel 4 with the subject line “Meet Walter”. Inside there’s a pencilled illustration of a dapper figure explaining that foreign-language television drama is his life’s passion.

Walter has a head-start on a few of us there. It’s only five years since BBC Four’s first run of Denmark’s The Killing was the catalyst for a flurry of non-English imports by Irish and UK broadcasters. The term “Europudding”, defined on Wiktionary as “a stolid, uninspiring film, song, etc, produced through European co-operation”, was soon a proven anachronism.

Television executives were both pleased and paranoid: not only was the non-English drama good, it was worryingly better than home-produced stuff. So on the one hand, it could promote the likes of “Nordic Noir” as schedule highlights, not fillers, and on the other, critics had started asking unfair questions: “Where’s your Borgen, then?”

The catalogue of non-English titles with international distributors has now expanded to the point where keeping up with it is a full-time job – or at least it is for Walter, who has apparently watched more than 3,000 hours of world drama and selected the best of them for Channel 4’s free on-demand platform All 4.

Reading the email, I could have sworn that Walter was a quirky fiction invented for marketing purposes, but it turns out he exists. His name is Walter Iuzzolino and he’s the chief creative officer at Global Series Network, with which Channel 4 has partnered on a world drama strand with the unbearable name “Walter Presents”.

On All 4, Iuzzolino presents short videos explaining why what you need in your life right now is an “18-certificate Twilight”, aka Denmark’s bloodless teenage vampire series Heartless, which starts as it means to go on with a spontaneous combustion in the sixth minute.

Unless your tastes are very niche indeed, the best of the best will still find its way on to proper television. French political thriller Spin, billed as “if House of Cards and Borgen were set in Paris”, is now airing on More 4, while entertaining Cold War spy drama Deutschland 83, which doubles as a fish-out-of-water tale, occupies Sunday-evening slots on both Channel 4 and RTÉ 2.

There’s no messing around: Spin kicks off with a presidential assassination attempt, while the hero of Germany’s Deutschland 83 (co-produced by RTÉ’s Rebellion partner SundanceTV) has his fingers brutally snapped.

“World drama” is a strange and imprecise term. A period piece such as Denmark’s 1864 has more in common with the BBC’s English-language War and Peace than it does with The Killing, while Deutschland 83’s closest television cousin is the pulpy, Soviet-themed US series the Americans, not Spin or Heartless.

But not everybody is as passionate about other cultures’ offerings as Walter and not everybody watches BBC Four. It would be crazy to say the English language isn’t still a massive advantage when it comes to international sale potential – hello, North America – and it’s one that Irish production companies and broadcasters should be able to exploit now that the sector is warming up again.

The standout success of Danish public- service broadcaster DR hasn’t gone unnoticed at RTÉ, but the two organisations are not built the same. DR is entirely funded by a licence fee, with the rate set at about twice what it is in Ireland. So while DR has had budgeting crises it won’t ever suffer the kind of dramatic collapse in advertising revenue recorded in recent times at RTÉ, which left it unable to commission anything much for several years.

But two things about DR that can be emulated are its record of co-production with other countries and its respect for writers. TV drama increasingly requires more than one guaranteed market and a cross-border dimension to the story itself can help. This kind of finance-driven, corporate thinking sounds like it could be the death of great drama, but that’s where hiring the best writing talent comes in.

The much-remade The Bridge, produced by DR and Sweden’s SVT with co-funding from Germany’s ZDF Enterprises, and set in both Copenhagen and neighbouring Malmö, makes a mockery of the old Europudding tag by being superior to everything else.

At international media conferences, producers and executives hang on every word uttered by Piv Bernth, the DR “dramachef”. DR gets its share of flak at home, but it knows it has to keep taking risks. That means taking risks on writers and letting them get on with it.

“In a way, we’re a little bit like [The Killing’s] Sarah Lund as she heads down a dark alley into the unknown,” Bernth has said. “We don’t know how it will turn out – but we just have to keep going.”

Walter isn’t the only one who demands it.

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