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Devilish touch enlivens Balkan noir while ‘honeytrap’ deceit takes a terrible toll

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Detectives investigate a grisly Balkans murder in ‘The Devil’s Throat’

Detectives investigate a grisly Balkans murder in ‘The Devil’s Throat’

Detectives investigate a grisly Balkans murder in ‘The Devil’s Throat’

THE DEVIL’S THROAT

Channel Four, Tuesday, 11.05pm

DECEIT

Channel Four, Friday, 9pm

THE WATCH

BBC Two, Thursday, 9pm

HEARTLANDS

TG4, Wednesday, 8.30pm

 

After Nordic Noir, there now comes Balkan Noir. The Devil’s Throat is from Bulgaria, and begins with the nocturnal discovery of a swollen body floating in a lake.

Police soon discover the victim is a former policeman. He died of stab wounds, was circumcised after death, and his eyes have been removed and replaced with sheep’s eyes. It turns out the dead man was involved in smuggling migrants into Bulgaria from the Middle East.

Some impatience would have been forgivable at this point, since subplots about illegal immigration now seem to be ubiquitous in European crime dramas. Baptiste, slightly disappointingly, has also gone down that route.

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The Devil’s Throat avoided the pitfalls by not allowing any heavy-handed politics to get in the way of the story telling.

There were some stock characters from the troubled central cop, to the ballsy female investigator who lets nothing get in the way of uncovering the truth, and a mayor who’s worried about upcoming elections and just wants the case hastily concluded — but clichés don’t matter if they’re done well. It was beautifully shot too, with some striking symbolic visual imagery, and enough mist-riddled landscapes to keep the Bulgarian tourist board in postcards for years to come.

By the end of the first episode, a blind Muslim seer had turned up at the police station to warn Filip, the aforementioned troubled cop, that a headless, blood-drinking beast had arisen and was set to curse the land.

Everyone watching knows that the eventual solution will have nothing to do with headless, blood-drinking beasts, but it added a frisson of the occult to liven things up, and the gloomy Bulgarian forests make a change from those gloomy Scandinavian forests which have dominated European crime drama for so long.

 

Dramas based on real-life events inevitably raise some moral dilemmas. The risk of exploiting personal tragedy for passing entertainment is ever present.

Deceit is a fictionalised version of the police operation that sought to extract a confession from Colin Stagg for the murder of a young mother, Rachel Nickell, in a London park in 1992.

Police were convinced Stagg was guilty because he matched the offender profiles, and set up a so-called ‘honeytrap’ in an effort to get him to incriminate himself. Irish actress Niamh Algar plays the undercover police officer who masqueraded as “Julie” to befriend him.

Algar delivers a viscerally authentic, sympathetic portrayal of a woman who was herself being exploited and pressured into doing things with which she was increasingly uncomfortable, and any doubts that Deceit would cheapen its harrowing subject matter were swept away by Emilia di Girolamo’s terse, lean script.

The story is gripping, tense, relentless, and it’s directed with considerable confidence and dash.

 

There was more new drama in the shape of The Watch, which is based on the Discworld fantasy novels of Terry Pratchett.

I say “new”, but it’s actually been on BBC iPlayer since last month. That’s the way it is these days, there’s probably no point complaining, but it can make you feel as a terrestrial TV viewer that you’ve arrived late at a party just when everyone else has already drunk all the booze and eaten the nibbles, and gone home to bed.

That feeling of being out of the loop is heightened in The Watch because the story is so baffling.

As the show begins, Officer Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch is dead, or at least he’s chatting to Death, who then proceeds to give him a flashback to how he got there. The plot involves a stolen book, dragons, dwarfs, and drug dealing.

It’s a lot to take in, and that’s not easy when everything is shot in a fashionable semi-darkness and peopled with characters whose voices are so rumbling and deep that they could set off a seismograph. The production values are incredible, but what is it all about? I’m still not sure.

It’s billed as a comedy drama, and, as someone who’s only vaguely familiar with Terry Pratchett’s work, I expected something along the lines of The Hobbit as re-imagined by Monty Python. Sadly, funny lines were few and far between, which seems to have upset fans of the books; and if fans don’t like it, and newcomers can’t follow what’s going on, who is it even for?

It was also very, very loud.

 

A quieter, and altogether jollier, time was to be had on Heartlands, which sees Sharon Shannon and her niece, Caoilinn Ni Dhonnabháin, travel the length of the Shannon, playing with other musicians on the way.

The programme has been made with the cooperation of Bord Fáilte, and it shows. There are visits to local businesses and beauty spots along the way, nicely boosting the staycation industry, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s a genre that’s been copied thousands of times before, but not everything needs to reinvent the wheel. It’s amiable, undemanding viewing, showing life at a slower pace, doing for Ireland’s longest river what the late, great Dick Warner did for canals.

Best of all, it’s a show which is fireproofed against criticism. If you like that sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing that you’ll like. If you don’t, then watch something else. I liked it a lot.

The one quibble is that TG4 turned down the obvious opportunity to call the four-part series Shannon on the Shannon. That really is inexcusable.


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