Irish Bacon

Irish Bacon

This fascinating article from the Irish Times discusses the production model employed in Danish television, assess the differences with the Irish system and evaluates the extent to which it might be possible for Ireland to achieve similar levels of international success with its televisual output. 

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Irish Bacon

This fascinating article from the Irish Times discusses the production model employed in Danish television, assess the differences with the Irish system and evaluates the extent to which it might be possible for Ireland to achieve similar levels of international success with its televisual output.

Film Review: Nobel’s Last Will (Nobels testamante)

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Since 2003 Swedish production company Yellow Bird has consistently constructed high-end crime dramas for both the cinema screen and televisual transmission. To viewers from the UK the company is best known for the Millennium trilogy, Headhunters, Wallander (English language and Swedish versions). It’s most recent foray into filmic texts, Nobels testamente, represents an interesting transformation with regards the distribution of content which I will discuss in greater detail at various points throughout this blog entry.

Nobels testamante is an adaptation of a literary text by Liza Marklund. An English language version of the text, entitled Last Will, is to be published by Transworld Publishers on 27 September. The literary text is the sixth in a series of Nordic Noir novels featuring the journalist Annika Bengtzon. The rights to translate the Bengzton literary texts into feature films was previously held by Svensk Filmindustri and under the terms of the agreement they produced two movies directed by Colin Nutley and starring Anna Fredriksson; Sprängaren (2001), and Paradiset (2003).

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As the current right holders, Yellow Bird, and its co-producers have embarked upon the ambitious project of simultaneously adapting six of the eight Annika Bengtzon novels and releasing them throughout 2012. Nobels testamente is the first in this filmic franchise and it was released theatrically in Sweden on 2 March 2012. Additionally, the film has been released in several other territories including New Zealand and Australia but to date no UK screenings have been announced. Subsequent films in the franchise have been released direct to DVD and the viability of using a theatrical release to trail further installments which are sold directly to the consumer is relatively untested, at least in the UK marketplace, consequently this development warrants further investigation.

Whilst Nobels testamante has been selected to launch the filmic franchise, the literary source material is the sixth in a series of eight texts and the extent to which this has necessitated substantial modifications to the protagonist’s character arc is something which requires consumption of all six filmic texts to determine and therefore, for now, I will focus solely on Nobels testamente analysing it’s effectiveness at persuading consumers to consider investing time and money in seeking out successive instalments.

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The heroine, Annika Bengtzon (Malin Crépin), is a journalist who works for the Swedish newspaper Kvällspressen. Her primary assignment of covering the annual Nobel prize giving ceremony is modified somewhat after she witnesses the assassination of the recipient. The mutually exclusive roles of witness in a police investigation and lead journalist for a best selling tabloid create narrative tension as Annika is prohibited by a point of law from doing her job. The male imposed, and enforced, restriction of Annika’s professional practices initiates her attempts to subvert and ignore any obstacles establishes the character’s worldview, personal arc, and frames similarities/differences with the primary antagonist.

Thematically, this is a film about the protagonist’s unwillingness to accept or be dominated by what she perceives as the inefficiency of male-dominated society. In professional and private spheres she repeatedly demonstrates that the strictures which require her to conform to a particular mode of behaviour are inherently misguided. How she asserts her right to perform on her own terms propels the investigative aspect of the narrative and also leads to some simultaneously amusing and horrifying moments, particularly when she confronts a child who has been bullying her son and rather than adopt the more passive approach favoured by her partner she proceeds to inform the bully that she will kill him should he ever again terrorise her child.

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That the literary texts which sired this filmic franchise are currently being issued to a UK audience might be part of a strategy to introduce the brand via print before issuing the films on DVD. On the basis of this first film I would not go out of my way to actively seek any of the sequels but were I familiar with the print version then perhaps my motivation would be to see all six films in order to ascertain how successfully they have been translated to the screen.

 

Pressa (The Press) – Season 2

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Impressed with the viewing figures for the first series of Sagafilms’ Pressa, Icelandic commercial broadcaster Stöð 2 swiftly commissioned a second season which premièred in 2010 to the highest audience recorded in the country for an original drama production. More recently, the show won in the category of Best Scripted TV Series at the Icelandic Film and TV Awards.

Once again the showrunners are Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavík-Rotterdam)and Sigurjon Kjartansson. (Svartir Englar). Additional scripts are provided by J. Ævar Grímsson whose other writing credits include; Astrópía, Næturvaktin, Skaup, Dagvaktin, Fangavaktin, Bjarnfreðarson, and Heimsendir.

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The second season of Pressa takes place amidst the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis which led to the collapse of several Icelandic banks, a loss of market confidence amongst international investors, and an internal existential angst as the country attempted to deal with the political, economic, and social ramifications of living under the burden of such a monumental amount of debt.

Structurally, the series conforms to the template established by its predecessor; a primary narrative arc (or investigation) with several sub-plots which though initially appearing to be self contained, and unrelated, impact upon the eradication of disequilibrium and establishment of a new equilibrium in the final episode. In this second season, as I shall attempt to demonstrate throughout this post, the establishment, maintenance and resolution of all narrative and character arcs is executed with greater precision consequently leading to a more emotionally fulfilling viewing experience. Central to this more effective and sophisticated season is a subtext woven throughout which continuously questions the extent to which commercial imperatives impede/influence editorial decisions and journalistic practices.

Within the opening minutes of the first episode we soon realize that some time has passed since the closing moments of season one. The protagonist, Lara (Sara Dogg Asgerisdottir), is married and absent from work on paid maternity leave. With two children to feed and an unemployed husband Lara is now the sole bread winner. Feminine versus masculine power as a narrative motif is introduced in a sequence where Lara debates with her husband the possibility of moving to Canada thus enabling him to become sole earner or remaining in Iceland with the existing status quo, a female as the head of the family.

In each episode the consequences of accepting or rejecting a male authority figure are depicted in dramatically successful terms. Husband, employer and antagonist are examples of male figures within the Pressa narrative which to varying degrees seek to suppress, banish or mutilate the feminine as a construct. For instance, Lara’s editor, and employer, refuses to offer the newspaper’s financial support in the wake of a libel case due to the inconvenience, both financial and logistical, he thinks that the newspaper has had to suffer due to her already being on maternity leave.

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As financial pressures impact upon the personal sphere Lara obtains employment, in a freelance capacity, from one of the architects of Iceland’s downfall. The deft positioning of oppositional forces is one of this seasons many strengths. The initial premise is that Lara is hired to work for an oil baron accused of sexual assault and murder. The sanctity of the feminine is continually stressed , and under threat, in scenes featuring Lara and her new employer.

Through encounters with those who know or claim to have directly or indirectly members suffered at the hand of the antagonist Lara is torn between her professional duty of establishing his innocence and a personal quest to ascertain any possible guilt. The feminine must consider if the need to alleviate financial burdens is greater than than association with a force who may have mutilated and a murdered other females.

A secondary narrative strand is introduced via a journalistic exposure of a biker gang known for selling narcotics. This initially self contained sub-plot introduces an additional form of jeopardy, explores the extent to which journalists are responsible for the protection of their sources, and establishes the possibility that those in the business of news gathering may have to put their lives at risk in the process of writing a story.

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Of the two seasons the second is undoubtedly the superior and its acknowledgement by the Icelandic Film and TV Awards is testament to some superb acting, writing and direction. Over six incredibly well written episodes the show manages to debate the financial crisis, media ownership, and gender politics. Also, Bjarne Henriksen (Forbrydelsen and Borgen) gives a terrifying performance as a foreign criminal in three episodes.

The series ends with a cliffhanger that will literally send shivvers down your spine.

A DVD with English subtitles is available to order from Nammi.is

 

Pressa (The Press) – Season 1

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Several days ago UCL’s Department of Scandinavian Studies was contacted by a journalist from the Danish newspaper Politiken who was writing an article about a possible fascination with Nordic culture amongst a sector of the British population. As Dr Clare Thomson’s blog post demonstrates the journalistic discourse was predicated upon the notion that we as consumers may be unwitting cultural dupes responding to a top down Zeitgeist imposed upon us by media organizations and corporate interests. As I posted on the site, any attempt to classify our consumption in relation to the Zeitgeist is deeply problematic due to it presupposing that a singular mode of pleasure when what may be the case is that a variety of audiences may be consuming these texts for differing reasons. In trying to ascertain why sectors of the English speaking audience have become receptive to Nordic literary, televisual and filmic texts within a historically specific context Dr Thomson’s blog entry highlights a very important point which warrants future research using a variety of Cultural Studies methodological approaches. Modes of appreciation and activity concerning Nordic Noir texts is a relatively under explored field and the agenda and research methods applied within an academic context differ significantly to those utilised by the popular press. Referring to the research methods employed in journalistic practice enables me to make a rather clumsy segue to a discussion of the Icelandic televisual text Pressa.

In comparison with the UK, Iceland was relatively late in embarking upon a national televisual service. 1966 marked the year that the country gained its first dedicated state owned broadcaster and in 1986 the a privately owned competitor Stöð 2 began broadcasting to the nation. A cursory glance at the schedules for Stöð 2 reveal a mixture of imported English language programming alongside domestically produced content. The ratio of domestic sourced content in relation to imported texts is not something I have been able to identify and an analysis over a sustained period of time would be preferable to ascertain the extent to which a drama series such as Pressa is representative of the Stöð 2’s commitment to drama.

Premièring on 30 December 2007, Pressa is a series produced by Sagafilm which is set in the newsdesk of national tabloid. To date three seasons have been produced with the last airing in 2011. The primary story arc of each season focuses on journalistic research and reporting of a specific incident of criminal activity. Additionally several sub plots run through each season, some of which are self contained whilst others ultimately feed into the resolution of the primary arc. For this blog entry I shall only refer to the first season but will discuss the other two at a future date.

The series is directed by Óskar Jónasson who may be better known to readers for the 2008 filmic text Reykjavík-Rotterdam. Interestingly, the series employs the show runner system of script development and in addition to his role as director Jonnasson serves as co-lead writer alongside Sigurjon Kjartansson.

The Leveson Inquiry has brought journalistic ethics into mainstream social discourse and consequently I was intrigued at the possibility of viewing a televisual text which debated within a dramatic framework the validity and viability of press activity at personal and governmental levels. Although Pressa is an ensemble series the majority of the narrative action concerns that of newly appointed journalist Lara (played by SaraDogg Asgerisdottir) who gains employment with the paper on the basis of a recommendation from a friend and is armed with a spec story which leads to a cabinet minister’s resignation. During her initial interview the paper’s editor spells out the professional code of conduct and the series’ modus operandi: “To become a terrific journalist on The Post you have to become awful in everything else. We aren’t here to make friends.”

Familial relations have been a generic trope in the Nodic Noir texts I have previously encountered. The emotional sacrifices made by the protagonist as a consequence of professional decisions has been a sub-plot in Forbrydelsen and season two of Borgen. In Pressa the protagonist is a single mother who is endeavouring to forge a new career whilst raising a daughter with minimal assistance from her former partner who is a university lecturer that seems to prioritize attending faculty functions and seducing students over that of his child’s welfare.

The primary narrative strand concerns a possible murder and subsequent concealment of the body. The series’ opening sequence invites the viewer to conclude that a homicide has taken place. After some brief time-lapsed shots of Iceland’s windswept volcanic landscape we see a car parked on a deserted road. After cutting to a shot of the windscreen we hear the sound of gunshot and see a splashes of blood coat the glass.

The exposition laden opening instalment is the weakest of the six and it requires the viewer to suspend her/his disbelief on several occasions to the point of shattering any semblance of credulity. In the interests of fairness I will add that the series improves greatly as it progresses and whilst I found much to enjoy it took me two attempts to overcome initial displeasure with the opening episode to continue viewing the series. Subsequent instalments are better structured in terms of dramatic pacing, emotional involvement with the characters and are richer with regards analysing the extent to which the press may be justified in pursuing a story.

I was initial perplexed and frankly infuriated that the text’s authors expected the viewer to accept that a thirty-something without a degree, no journalistic training or relevant career experience would be able to be employed in a front line position by Iceland’s top selling red top newspaper. Having previously worked for a regional newspaper I managed a wry smile upon noticing the incredibly small amount of staff employed by this paper. One episode has a sub-plot of the journalistic staff having to take photographs due to the paper’s sole photographer being unable to work that day.

The paper does not seem to engage in any form of fact checking. Once the identity of the deceased is revealed to the media it is Lara who identifies him from an article she had previously read in a lifestyle magazine. The murder victim is a mechanic named Mani who just happens to be married to Iceland’s most popular television presenter and prominent local politician, Esther.

Another example of clunky storytelling all too evident in the pilot episode is a sequence in which the grieving widow willingly poses for a series of photographs which would be better placed being published in an issue of Heat or OK Magazine than the lead story of a newspaper seeking to bring a killer to justice.

The remainder of the series is tonally very different. Many of the faults which spoiled my viewing pleasure of the pilot are either eradicated or marginalized to the point where they no longer matter. Particularly interesting is a sub-plot which debates the extent to which the media may be justified (or not) in the identifying of paedophiles living in the community.

Although I may have been pretty damning about the series’ opener I was gripped by the subsequent five episodes and am looking forward to viewing the other two seasons.

A DVD with English subtitles is available to buy from http://shopicelandic.com/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&category_id=48&flypage=flypage.tpl&lang=en&manufacturer_id=47&page=shop.product_details&product_id=1501&Itemid=104&vmcchk=1&Itemid=104

Dr Clare Thomson’s blog post concerning Nordic Noir and the Zeitgeist can be read at:

http://scancrime.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/help-please-nordic-culture-and-the-british-zeitgeist/

Äkta människor (Real Humans)

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“Graceful. Elegant, efficient. Did your life just get longer? Good morning. The Hubmax phd takes care of the day to day chores while you can focus on what really matters. Are you ready to change your life?”

Back in 1986 Channel 4 aired a TV movie which introduced Max Headroom to the British viewing public. The Subtitle of that pilot 20 Minutes in the Future could easily be applied to Äkta människor, for this is a science fiction series which is set in a world recognisably similar to our own. The cinematic and televisual history of the robot subgenre is mined and exploited within a series designed for the iPod generation and whilst acknowledging and celebrating the cyberpunk movement the series is structured so as not to alienate those whom may not be familiar with the works of Gibson, et al. Äkta människor is a ten part series produced by Swedish public service broadcaster SVT. First airing in January 2012 the series has already generated an active international fanbase that is engaged in varying degrees of productivity. Significant academic literature exists concerning the phenomena of media fandom but the communities which celebrate and appropriate Scandinavian televisual and filmic texts is relatively under explored within the discipline of Cultural Studies. How this particular fandom responds to Äkta människor is a development which must surely warrant further investigative analysis. Although I have seen all ten episodes of this series I will only discuss the pilot so as not to spoil viewer pleasure. Those wishing the show in its entirty should lobby BBC Four to acquire this superb show and also contact Arrow Films to secure a DVD/Blu Ray release.

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The series opens with the image of a deserted stretch of county road in the dead of night. The only source of illumination is the headlights from a pick up truck. The sound of a mobile phone ringtone signifies that whilst this is a science fiction series the fictional world is not too far removed from that which we, the viewers, currently inhabit. A senior citizen is on the phone to his partner telling her that he will shortly be home. He refers to her as “pumpkin” which is an oblique reference to the Cinderella narrative,  one of the many sources which the producers’ have employed in the construction of this text.

Momentarily distracted whilst placing his mobile phone in the docking station, the driver fails to notice a woman standing in the centre of the road and his car collides with her, sending the body crashing over the bonnet and smashing the windscreen. Whilst surveying the damage to the car we notice a sticker placed in the corner of the screens notifying us that the driver supports an organisation called “Real Humans”. The aims and objectives of this group are withheld for now but within the context of this scene it serves to distinguish between humanity and mechanised lifeforms, something that becomes apparent when the driver exits his vehicle to see if he can offer any assistance to the female he has knocked down only to baulk in terror upon hearing mechanical sounds which signify that his car has not knocked down a human as he had previously thought but has instead damaged an android (referred to as hubots within the narrative).

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The sight of a group of hubots marching in the distance terrifies this man and he returns to the vehicle and drives off to the safety of his home – where we see that he has a “Real Humans” sticker posted by the entrance. Tension is accelerated as domesticity clashes with paranoia and robophobia within the confines of a rural home. We, the viewer, are directed to enquire why this man has so much to fear from hubots.

At this stage in the narrative information has not been disclosed as to the function and purpose of hubots although tension has been signposted through the use of the “Real Humans” sticker (twice) and the possibility that a revenge attack for the mowing down of a female android may be about to occur. Thus, already we are employing intertextual coordinates in the reading process and may be drawing from the robot as sentient threat narrative which has been employed in several filmic texts, most noteably Blade Runner.

The, thus far, unnamed driver expresses his paranoia to his wife;“This is what I’ve been talking about all along, isn’t it? I’ve warned about this and now they’re here.” Ramming home his point the domestic sphere is swiftly placed under siege. Windows are smashed as arms reach in grappling for door handles. Gunshot proves no match for this so for obliquely seen opponent. Whilst the house and its occupants are terrorised a subplot is deftly woven into the narrative which in contrast to the brutality displayed elsewhere suggests that synthetic lifeforms are capable of experiencing love for humans. This moment of tenderness is enhanced when the hubot is captured by scavengers thereby initiating a quest for her recovery.

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The teaser sequence establishes the narrative world and core parameters to be explored in this pilot episode and the series’ remaining segments. The viewer is treated to a discourse of conflicting and competing information. We are unsure for certain, at this stage, if the hubots are the primary threat to narrative equilibrium or if they are acting to preserve the new species from the threats posed by both the “Real Humans” movement and scavengers who might swoop at any moment to appropriate technology which they can recycle, rebrand and sell on through the black market.

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Äkta människor has several narrative strands which explore the interrelationship between humans and technology. Additionally, it explores what it means to be a “real human”. Is it our capacity for emotional intelligence that defines humanity? As we become increasingly reliant on technology is our “humanness” being eroded? Conversely, as we create ever more intelligent hardware at what point does the paradigm change from usability to slavery? If hubots are capable of experiencing love then what right do humans have to erase this information from their electronic brain? These issues are explored throughout the pilot episode and thankfully no firm conclusion is reached at this stage in the series.

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Äkta människor is the most satisfying science fiction series I have viewed since the introductory seasons of Battlestar Galactica and Heroes. Production values are comparable with anything currently being made by American studios and the scripts for all ten episodes are superbly structured. Additionally, the performances by the ensemble cast are grounded and at times evoked very strong emotional responses from me. Definitely a show to savour.

TV Review: Lilyhammer

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Aware that an audience exists for foreign language programming BBC Acquisitions has cast its net far and wide in the hope to build on the ratings success of The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge but with its latest purchase Lilyhammer viewer loyalty may be tested to its limits.

At the time of writing a transmission slot for the programme has yet to be formally announced and to avoid spoiling viewer appreciation this blog shall primarily refer to the pilot episode although events in later episodes will be loosely referenced.

The series is a joint production between Norwegian broadcaster NRK1 and the American online content provider Netflix. Interestingly, subscribers to the American version of Netflix are able to access all eight episodes thus we may perhaps be entering into a new paradigm shift with regards the production and consumption of televisual texts, one in which the week-long interlude between segments is eroded by online broadcasters emulating the experience of consuming a DVD boxset.

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Lilyhammer is a comedy-drama which knowingly and playfully recycles the tropes of the American gangster genre within a ‘fish out of water’ narrative. The approach taken by the producers is not new and was previously undertaken by the French-Canadian filmic text Crime Spree and whilst that movie is relatively obscure the similarity in tone, obviousness of the humour and predictability of the narrative’s arc suggests that British audience may lose patience with the show long before the eighth episode is screened.

To non-music aficionados, Steven Van Zandt may be most recognizable for his role of Silvio Dante in The Sopranos. As Silvio Dante Van Zandt would frequently invoke other filmic and televisual gangster texts and his casting in Lilyhammer acknowledges and accentuates the intersection of assorted archetypes which the audience may draw upon when engaging with the transmitted artifact. In this series, he portrays a gangster known as Frankie “The Fixer” Tagliano who is forced to enter into the Witness Protection Programme and relocates to Lillehammer, Norway.

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The series opens at the funeral for a leading member of the American Mafia. As is the norm within this subgenre the proceedings are held in a Chapel of Rest, gangsters hold court within proximity of an open casket coffin and through clunky expositional dialogue, we learn of the backstory, current group dynamics, and potential sources of narrative disequilibrium. The viewer will, inevitably, feel that s/he has seen this before many times and that is the key to the scene and the text, as a series. Depending on one’s viewpoint the over-familiarity of (sub) generic codes employed either affords the producer to construct a postmodern text which recycles tropes for the purposes of social and cultural commentary or signifies an alarming sense of derivativeness which is worthy of significant critical scorn and the employment of the tv remote in the quest for better programming than this drivel.

Following a bungled assassination attempt Frankie agrees to enter into the Witness Protection Programme on the basis that he is relocated to Lillehammer having been impressed with televisual footage of the area whilst watching the 1994 Winter Olympics and with this clumsy set up the producers yet again ram home the point that this is a series which plays upon media representations and referentially. Having relocated to Norway under the assumed name of Giovanni Henriksson, Frankie swiftly becomes proficient in the language despite spending much of the pilot listening to an instructional CD.

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Scenes frequently switch from English to Norwegian in a dramatically implausible manner which is no doubt an attempt to cater for the two producers and their respective audiences. Whenever this occurs I find myself experiencing a level of disbelief that I haven’t encountered since the BBC canceled Eldorado.

After the expositional cold open the series firmly begins with a scene set on a train which is designed to introduce several characters that viewers will come to know more fully over the following weeks and show Frankie’s dramatic and comedic strength. Riffing off a similar sequence in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Frankie remonstrates with anti-social behaviour displayed by youths and wins the tacit approval of the woman who will become his love interest and an elder male who will assist in ensuring Frankie is not convicted of an offence by the end of the episode. This early sequence demonstrates that the set-ups are far too obvious but viewers may gain pleasure from the text’s predictability.

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By the end of the pilot, Frankie has managed to become the owner of a local nightclub, infuriate the local police and embark upon a relationship whilst simultaneously corrupting the fabric of Lillehammer’s society. By the end of the series, he manages to make the Chief of Police an accessory, after the fact, in a murder and on one reading this may just be the comic extrapolation of the archetypes dramatic potential. Alternatively, this may be a televisual discourse coded within a popular generic form that transmits the message that immigration is bad for Norwegian society.

My reading of the text increasingly became sensitive to the deeply problematic racial stereotyping employed particularly in scenes where the immigrant population were being forced to assimilate but were represented as being harmful to community cohesion and the impartiality of Norwegian public services.

Netflix and NRK1 have expressed their support for the series through the commissioning of a further season which is due to start filming when Van Zandt’s commitments for Bruce Springsteen’s tour come to an end.

I can only hope that BBC Four decides to invest its money elsewhere and drops this turkey from its schedules.