Until relatively recently, it was commonly accepted that British TV audiences just didn’t ‘do’ subtitles. Films and programmes in languages other than English were generally relegated to specialist channels with specialist audiences; your BBC4s, Sky Arts and such like. Prior to that, they’d appear at somewhat late hours on BBC2 and Channel 4 (themselves once regarded rather ‘specialist’). There they would be enjoyed by the sort of viewer who would seek them out anyway; never quite becoming the sort of show that thousands of people stumble across and turn into conversation fodder at office watercoolers the next day.
The success of The Killing changed all that. Ten hours of bleak Scandinavian noir, presented entirely in Danish and lapped up by British audiences who eagerly followed the jagged progress of the case and turned its lead actress, Sofie Gråbøl, into a Radio Times cover star. It was all still on BBC4 of course, but it broke the mould a little bit and TV executives began wandering the continent in search of the next big thing for audiences to read along at home. The past few years have seen British audiences, admittedly still in relatively small number, enjoying a range of European dramas including Spiral, The Bridge, Borgen (on the BBC), Those Who Kill, Jordskott (ITV) The Returned (Channel 4), Romanzo Criminale, Gomorrah (Sky).
On the face of it, there isn’t an awful lot to connect these shows – just compare the procedural politics of Borgen with the spooky mystery of The Returned to see what I mean, but it has revealed an appetite among British viewers to find out more about television culture across the Channel and to become almost as familiar with the tropes and patterns of drama in France, Denmark and Italy as we are with those from the other side of the Atlantic.
That may be the calculation behind Sky’s decision to support The Last Panthers, a drama that capitalises on this newfound cosmopolitanism by being pan-European, following characters as they move across at least six countries from Britain to the Balkans. Co-commissioned by Sky and French TV company Canal+, it is performed in no fewer than three languages, English, French and Serbian. There’s no lack of ambition here.
The drama is, at first glance, rather straightforward. An organised gang of armed thieves storm an upmarket Marseille jewellers and threaten the staff and customers until they get precisely what they came for, a cache of expensive diamonds. Their getaway doesn’t exactly go to plan and they find themselves wanted by the police and in possession of loot that is now so tainted that their planned buyer wants nothing to do with it or them. They plan their next moves while their messy trail is followed by the local police and an investigator for the well-furnished insurance company that covered the jewellers. Standard thriller stuff. However, like the best thrillers, this simple set-up is soon revealed to be little more than a MacGuffin and the show’s real interests begin to develop.
High-end loss adjuster Naomi Franckom (Samantha Morton) is a British Army veteran who spent part of the 1990s in the Balkans as a member of the United Nations Protection Force and who, as a consequence ‘doesn’t do the Balkans’ in her new career. Tough luck, Naomi, boss Tom Kendle (a leonine John Hurt) is insistent. Is he keen for a reason? Something persuaded him to travel to Marseille, ‘the arsehole of Europe’, as he puts it. An alternative nom de ville is ‘the City of the Kalashnikov’, an aspect that is of particular interest to Khalil, the French-Algerian detective who is assigned to the case, and who believes that the way to solve it is to ‘follow the guns’. That particular trail keeps us on the path of Milan, the lead diamond raider and his circuitous evasion of his pursuers.
The first episode is a little slow and it takes a while for the thriller tropes (Khalil doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his boss, he resents Naomi’s presence, the thieves fall out) to recede enough for the show’s deeper concerns to emerge. Naomi’s experiences in the former Yugoslavia return in flashback and in her own memory and the separate but similar backstories of Khalil and Milan start to coalesce around their present day lives and problems.
These direct connections are important and much of the drama is concerned with the personal. Decisions made at an early point in the characters’ lives come back years later and demand to be addressed and they find that their professional lives are indistinguishable from their private ones. The approach lends an element of recognisability and emotional connection to show’s wider concerns, which include the links, both covert and overt, between war, crime and finance. These constructs underpin the transnational networks and provide motive and means for the human choices that power the drama.
It is for these reasons that The Last Panthers’ polyglotism is so important. It’s no mere affectation or flattery of the audience, but a core part of the argument. National borders are fluid and the Anglophone viewer glides through the territories on subtitles. Nevertheless, some internal barriers remain and the characters often find themselves at odd in their understanding of one another. The borders may be porous but they are still borders and their crossings matter.
There is a lot going on in The Last Panthers, almost too much for six hours to handle. The mysteries of the characters’ pasts and the complexities of their emotional responses are occasionally deliberately obscure, which is a fine creative choice and one that, again, commends the viewer’s intelligence. However, some more light could be shed on the implications of the criminal (and semi-criminal) activities that are sketched so superbly at the higher levels. There is some illustration of the economic and criminal damage to les banlieues and their corresponding districts in other areas of Europe, but most of the cost is borne, dramatically speaking, by the central players. Nevertheless, the fact that such a criticism can be made is testament to the high ambition of The Last Panthers, which makes effective use of an often unseen, and strangely united, Europe.