Zen PREVIEW
BBC1, starts Sunday, 2 January 9 pm

Crime Time Preview, 13 December 2010
By Robin

We love abroad and we love foreign crime-busters, from Bernie Gunther to Lisbeth Salander. And TV honchos love a successful detective series set abroad.

The Beeb had a hit with 'Maigret' starring Rupert Davies in the early 60s, ITV with Barry Foster's 'Van Der Valk' in the 70s. While in 2008 Kenneth Branagh produced a very fine 'Wallander' for the BBC.

Now we have a BBC adaptation of Michael Dibdin's Rome detective Aurelio Zen, and this latest viewing vacation gives us the full Italian brochure like a plate of spaghetti over the head. There's the beautiful suits, the stunning Roman vistas, the machismo, cigarettes and lots of coffee. Watching this you could be forgiven for thinking that every single Italian in existence has stepped straight out of Vogue magazine.

Zen's very cool opening credits
The Beeb obviously felt that a series set in Italy had to be stylish, and this production is 100 percent alta moda. Gleaming usually speeding Alfa Romeos, raven-haired lovelies and detectives fresh from the catwalk are everywhere.

From its 60s-retro opening credits (music by Adrian Johnston) to beautifully-shot scenes in washed-out, sombre tones, this is a series with a near-cinema quality look and attitude.

Oh, and then there are the actors. Rufus Sewell's Zen is a bemused player in the dirty business of law enforcement Italian style. Sewell, recently seen in 'The Pillars of the Earth', scrubs up well here and has more of a twinkle in his eye than Zen has in the books, perhaps. The actor may be an acquired taste for some, but he's good playing against the archetypal suave hero he even lives at home with Mama, for goodness' sake.

Ratking
The opening book in the Zen series is 'Ratking', which is the third of the BBC's adaptations, and Zen's troubled love interest in that novel is the American Ellen. The BBC's opener, 'Vendetta', focuses on a more flirtatious romance with police support worker Tania Moretti, played by Daniel Craig's grappling partner in Casino Royale, Caterina Murino.

Like all Italians here, she is eye-poppingly gorgeous, but Zen, with his standard-issue broken marriage, may be too gentlemanly to win her with so many sharks circling her desk at the Questura.

Or is he? An essential ingredient of Dibdin's hero is the way he appears to be a pawn played by unscrupulous politicians, investigating judges and police superiors, but then turns out to be fairly conniving and manipulative when the stakes are most perilous.

Dishonest and underhand
Sewell sums him up like this, 'He's plenty dishonest when he wants to be. He's sneaky, he can be underhand, he can pull strings, he can break rules but not in some cool way. He's just a bloke trying to get by.'

Several characters say to him, 'You're too honest for your own good.' But his USP is that he is too shrewd to be as easy-going and passive as he appears. Politicians, criminals and Tania should beware.

With so much emphasis on the gloss, needless to say these are not dramas in the Jimmy McGovern league of grittiness. But the first two stories are absorbing mysteries, capturing well the country in which intrigues, backhanders, favours and a handily-placed relative make the world go round.

And while the tone is lighter than in the novels, and Zen's suave ducking and diving sometimes sit awkwardly with stories of murder and corruption, the dramas are entertaining and distinct from the CID and serial killer stuff we get so often.

VENDETTA, BBC1, Sunday, 2 January, 9-10.30 pm
Zen is ordered to re-investigate the multiple killing of construction magnate Oscar Faso and his hooker guests. The case is re-opened because the self-confessed killer, Renato Favelloni (Greg Wise), has apparently found god and retracted his confession. Powerful government figures want Zen to get the potentially embarrassing Favelloni off, despite all the evidence against him, while Zen's boss wants him to shut the prisoner back inside pronto. Meanwhile, a recently released convicted killer with a grudge is murdering his way towards his ultimate victim, Zen, who doesn't realise he is a target. This opener sparkles and moves at a snappy pace, with some great action in the mountains and a clever denouement.

CABAL, BBC1, Sunday, 9 January
Opening with a man apparently throwing himself off a Rome bridge, this story sees the stakes raised considerably for Zen. This time he is under political pressure to confirm it was a suicide, but Zen learns that a powerful cabal of politicians and criminals may be behind the man's death and that he was killed because he wanted to expose them. Viewers will need to watch closely as this story of prostitutes, disappearing witnesses, stolen evidence and double bluffs would leave your average conspiracy-obsessed Italian gasping for breath.


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