I caught up yesterday on the first episode of BBC 1’s Zen, adapted from the Aurelio Zen crime novels of Michael Dibdin. I haven’t read the novels, and wasn’t particularly taken with the trailer for the programme, so had dragged my feet a bit, but when I finally tuned in, I was pleasantly surprised.
The first episode, ‘Vendetta’, immediately grabbed my attention with its sassy styling. The production seems to be channelling sleek 60s films like The Thomas Crown Affair through its camerawork, music and sharp-suited look. Dark shades were much in evidence. The feel was very Italian, with lovely vistas of Rome and olive groves in the countryside, and a bleached Mediterranean light (or was that just my telly?). But it was all done with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour and was tremendously fun.
Rufus Sewell was excellent as Zen. From the comments I’m seeing elsewhere, his Aurelio is a little sleeker and more of a heartthrob than the one in the books, but the characterisation certainly played well with this 40ish female viewer. He’s a genuinely accomplished actor, and his chisled profile was shown off to good effect during his encounters with the alluring Tania (a hint of Michaelangelo’s David there?). There was a strong supporting cast too.
One interesting point: British and Italian actors mingle throughout, and it seems that everyone has been instructed to deliver their lines in their own accents (so we had Queen’s English, northern English, Italian and possibly Irish accents bundled in together). It was a bit odd at first, but somehow seemed to work OK. Better than everyone trying to fake an Italian delivery and getting it tragically wrong.
I watched Zen with my 15-year-old son, who said he would walk after 10 minutes if it was no good. He stayed for the duration, which is a compliment indeed. We both liked the multi-layered plot (until the end, when we got a trifle confused due to the long, drawn-out meaningful looks and cryptic exchanges between the characters, which were undoubtedly significant, but not always intelligible to us).
We’ll be watching the second episode, ‘Cabal’, tonight – so the makers of Zen are doing something very right. In particular, I look forward to seeing how Zen’s character navigates the increasingly tricky role of ‘honest cop’ in an Italian police force portrayed as inherently corrupt.
Both episodes of Zen are still available on iplayer.
If watching Zen has made you want to read Dibdin’s series, or other crime novels set in Italy, there’s a good list and overview here, on the Italian Mysteries blog.
Update: Just watched the third episode, ‘Ratking’, which I think was the best yet, especially in terms of snappy one liners:
Man: ‘I hear you’ve found a body?’
Zen: ‘Yes, they think it’s my career.’
All nicely set up for a series now: please BBC, we’d love to see more.