Monday, 25 February 2013

Watching ‘Van Der Valk’

It is obvious that in the past twenty years television viewing is fragmented: people do not all sit down to watch a programme at the same time, rather they view it when convenient to them, saved on a Freeview box or watched over the internet. Another source is to wait until the programme comes out on DVD. ‘Box sets’ of entire series are now so prevalent that ‘The Guardian’ newspaper even runs a weekly column ‘You Next Box Set’. The advantage is that you do not have to wait for the following week’s episode. If you choose you can watch and entire series at one sitting. The added advantage is that you can access ‘classic’ series that are unlikely ever to appear on television again.

The range of series put into box sets is quite bewildering. I am often surprised to see poor quality situation comedies from the 1970s and 1980s available and I wonder who would want to view them. However, I guess every programme has some fans and even quite obscure ones would elicit millions of viewers. I imagine the overheads for the producers of the box sets must be pretty low so that if they can sell a few thousand they are making money. Conversely the demand for some series remains incredibly high. The first series (of three) of ‘Between the Lines’ first broadcast in 1992 sells for £44 and even second hand it is difficult to get one for less than £30. The series tailed off in the second and third incarnations but even these do pretty well; I hope the remaining actors are getting some of this money.

There are often odd gaps in what you can buy. ‘A Traveller in Time’ an excellent children’s drama from 1978 is still not available on DVD, though other series from that genre have been for a while. I imagine it has something to do with rights. The same explanation appears to be the case for the movie ‘Fatherland’ (1994) for which the only DVD copy is a recording made from the video release. The box set does allow a great deal of nostalgia and sometimes you can rediscover past delights and sometimes you are disappointed. I bought ‘Catweazle’ (1969; 1971), ‘The Clangers’ (1969-72) and ‘Mr. Benn’ (1971-2) over the past few years and have thoroughly enjoyed them. Surprisingly, for their lack of sophistication to modern audiences I have found children have enjoyed them. A colleague of mine argued that that was because the stories are engaging and well told.

As you can tell from the title of this posting, I have recently worked my way through the five series of ‘Van Der Valk’. This is unique in television history for something that is not a soap opera in that the series spanned twenty years, first being broadcast in 1971 and the final episode being shown in 1991. It came in three batches: 1972-3, 1977-8 and 1990-1 with a total of 32 episodes, those in the 1970s being 1 hour long and those in the 1990s being 2 hours long. The series is based on the successful series of novels by Nicolas Freeling (1927-2003) published primarily 1962-72 with an additional one in 1989. They feature Commissaris [Chief Superintendent] Simon ‘Piet’ Van Der Valk an Amsterdam based detective. Much of the series was shot in the Netherlands, though in the 1970s the interior shots were filmed in the UK and cut together with the location footage. The role of Van Der Valk was played by Barry Foster (1927-2002) throughout though all the regular roles around him were acted by different people in each of the three blocks of episodes. His French wife Arlette (who featured in two novels by Freeling with her investigating) was played by Susan Travers (born 1939) in the early 1970s, then in the late 1970s by Jo(h)anna Dunham (born 1936) who had appeared as a businessman’s wife in the second series, and finally in the 1990s by Meg Davies, whose birth year I cannot fine, but in 1990 in the drama her character is supposed to be 45 which would seem to be about right. Hoofdcomissaris [Chief Commissioner] Samson was played by Martin Wyldeck (1914-88), Nigel Stock (1919-86) and Ronald Hines (born 1929). Brigadier [Inspector] Stribos, played by Dave Carter a uniformed officer appears in a number of episodes. Brigadier Mertens played by Alan Haines (1924-2011) appeared in four episodes.

A large number of leading British television actors of these eras appear, some more than once. Clifford Rose (born 1929) appears as a sculptor in one series and an art dealer in another. Geoffrey Bayldon (born 1924) turns up first as a hotel employee and later a man who runs a religious refuge for the homeless. Christopher Timothy (born 1940) puts in a performance as a hotel receptionist and a few years later as a junior detective. Michael Sheard (1938-2005) also appears in two episodes, though I am not clear what roles he plays and the same goes for Jim Norton (born 1938) who appeared in two episodes as different characters.

Others who appear once include Lalla Ward (born 1951), Paul Eddington (1927-95), Freddie Jones (born 1927), Patrick Troughton (1920-87), Amanda Burton (born 1956), Kenneth Cranham (born 1944), Brian Cox (born 1946), Michael Culver (born 1938), Geoffrey Palmer (born 1927), Don Henderson (1932-97), Anthony Valentine (born 1939), Bob Hoskins (born 1942) and Celia Imrie (born 1952). There is even John Rhys-Davies (born 1944) well known these days for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies who has a short role as an assassin before dying in a car crash.

There are a number of characteristics which distinguish this series from the tens of other police series of the 1970s. The first is the Van Der Valk character himself. Unlike many police officers and detectives shown in dramas, he has a happy home life. His wife features regularly and his sons appear occasionally and are referred to even more often. In the 1990s, one, Wim played terribly languidly by Richard Huw, appears regularly as an Inspecteur [Chief Inspector] on the Narcotics Division. Between the 1970s and 1990s the Van Der Valks have adopted a daughter too who has made them grandparents when Arlette is 45. The lifestyle of the Van Der Valks is prosperous.

I think one of the things that made the series attractive in the early 1970s was that it showed the Netherlands, a place not that far away from the UK and yet at the time appeared to be in an economic boom. The lifestyle of Van Der Valk would be aspirational for many British viewers with good food, wine, restaurant meals, staying in cottages and listening to classical music. Van Der Valk certainly appeared as different to the detectives based in Britain. However, the series is grittier than many British counterparts. Even watching in the 21st century, the death from drugs overdoses and the impassioned or cold-blooded murders shown on screen have an impact. The adultery, prostitution and sexual promiscuity seem pretty common these days but would have had more frisson at the time.

Van Der Valk’s character develops across the 1970s episodes. At the start he is a jolly character who is shown drinking beer and spirits and smoking cigars at almost every opportunity. The title sequence of the first series feature Van Der Valk and his Inspecteur Johnny Kroon played by Michael Latimer (1941-2011) who went on to be a successful international theatre director, standing at the top of the Westerkerk, the tallest spire in Amsterdam, unwrapping a cigar and simply chucking the wrapping off the tower. By 1978 the closing image of Van Der Valk had had the cigar removed form his mouth. He works largely by intuition aided by his ability to mix with people at all levels of Dutch society from the seedy side of Amsterdam to the wealthy. Steadily, however, the character becomes more cynical and aggressive so that by 1978 he is hitting a teenaged female suspect who has been cocky. In the 1990s, given that he has been at the same rank for twenty years, though his managerial roles are emphasised, he seems very tired.

This means the 1990s episodes lack the spark of the 1970s ones, not aided by some of the actors around Foster. Only Meg Davies really stands out but her Arlette has lost the bulk of the wits, sophistication and above all, playfulness of the previous two incarnations. It was that sparkiness that I think made ‘Van Der Valk’ ultimately successful in the 1970s. In fact watching the first episode of the 1990 series I was worried Foster had become an alcoholic or was seriously ill. There is nothing about these in his biographies and he looks healthier in later episodes. I guess it was just poor direction. The abrupt switch in mood in that episode is unsettling and Amanda Burton’s dialogue sounds like it was recorded in a public toilet. I know that they hoped the series would be a rival for the ‘Inspector Morse’ series (1987-2000) which was why they went to 2 hours. However, the stories and the characterisations were lacking. In addition, in the years since the previous series, the Netherlands had become far better known to the British and the prosperous lifestyle aspects commonplace.

Whilst the actors speak English, everything written is in Dutch. Naturally they could not alter the street furniture, but even letters and messages are shown in Dutch adding to that flavour. Amsterdam is an additional character and often Van Der Valk drives down streets and goes to picturesque houses in the city or outside or to barges to chase down criminals. Trams and bicycles; glass-roofed river boats and lift bridges are often in view. Some complain this leads to us seeing too much ‘fill’ of the character driving. However, it was important to establish this difference to a series set in London, which one episode is. Unfortunately the sun rarely shines in any of the series making Amsterdam and even some of the Dutch countryside appear permanently dull. I realised that at the time the 1990s episodes were being made that I was visiting the Netherlands quite regularly and that the series bar a few episodes tends to make Amsterdam feel much smaller than it is reality. I guess this came from often filming particular locations.

The highlight of the 1990s episodes are the series of Inspecteurs and their teams that Van Der Valk, apparently in a more managerial role, works with. Notable are Kenneth Cranham as Inspecteur Dirk Boutsen and his team including Gary Olsen (1957-2000) as Sergeant Brouwer. Brian Cox as the philandering and bereaved Inspecteur Stefan Szabo was another notable character. Hoofdinspecteur [Superintendant] Toni Vishnu played by Angela Bruce (born 1951) could have developed but was under-directed in her episode so seemed rather to be going through the motions. I recognise that these actors in demand for series and movies might not have wanted to commit to being on the series weekly. However, having a strong actor to bounce off as had worked well with Inspecteur Kroon could have added to the dimensions of the rather anaemic 1990s episodes.

The one thing that many people remember about the series even if they have not seen it is the theme tune. This was composed by the Dutch composer Jan Stoeckart (born 1927) writing under the name Jack Trombey. The tune is called ‘Eye Level’ and was notable as an instrumental tune played by an orchestra which reached No. 1 in the UK charts in 1973. The tune is very orchestral with a really upbeat tempo which seemed to characterise the spirit of the programme. By the second series the programme opened with Van Der Valk driving through Amsterdam seeming to emphasise the vibrancy of the city. It remains a stirring tune.

I certainly recommend watching the 1970s series of ‘Van Der Valk’; you can buy a complete box set with all episodes in or series-by-series. The stories are engaging and feature more than simply murders with blackmailing, drugs dealing, extortion, intimidation, art and currency fraud, youth delinquency and kidnapping are also there. Naturally they will seem dated but in that accurately conjure up a historical period and a certain kind of attitude that has since died. They tell us something about how Britain viewed the Netherlands and what it appeared to represent, something more common in the UK these days. Foster in the 1970s is an interesting performer in the role which develops well over the period 1972-8. Poor direction, some weaker actors and lacklustre stories mean the revival in the 1990s should have been avoided.

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