TV - Watching the Detective: Zen


In a series of articles, Susan Omand and Steve Taylor-Bryant are going to remember the policemen, spies and criminal specialists that entertained them over the years. Today, Susan Omand remembers Zen...

It was a discussion on Twitter recently about fantasy casting Rufus Sewell in a completely against-genre role that got me thinking about the first series I ever watched him in and I realised that very few people would probably remember it - the TV detective series Zen. And there is a very good reason for it not being uppermost in the collective memory; there were only ever three, albeit feature length, episodes. Yes. Three. Then the new “power that was” at BBC1 at the time, Controller Danny Cohen, canned the series with vague excuses about there being “too many male crime-fighters on TV at the time” and that they were “looking at developing new dramas instead of commissioning a new series of Zen.”

So who or what was Zen?

Based (loosely) on the early Aurelio Zen novels of Michael Dibdin, Zen starred Rufus Sewell as the eponymous hero, the stylish, intelligent, Venetian police detective, recently transferred to the Rome police, who investigates alleged murder, apparent suicide and kidnapping against a backdrop of mafia wars and political corruption. Zen’s personal relationships also had a part to play in the story with the impending divorce from his wife meaning he was back living with his Mama, like all good Italian boys, with all the family angst that entailed and available for the obligatory sizzling office romance that gave the series a very Bond-like undercurrent.

Add in the fact that it came from the same Left Bank production house as Kenneth Branagh’s marvellous Wallander, thereby proving the success of the “foreign detective” format with viewers, and Zen should have been a sure-fire success for several series, if it wasn’t for a new broom wishing to sweep his authority over the scheduling. In fact, Left Bank did say that they would look at the time for another broadcaster to pick up the series but nothing has been heard about it since.

I’m not saying the series was perfect. There were a few complaints in the newspaper review columns at the time, although the public in general seemed to love it. Apparently the media was surprised that it didn’t adhere too closely plot-wise to the source material and the characters, although to my mind wonderfully rounded out for the TV series, had a few critics noting that maybe had too many of their rough edges smoothed over. There were also mutterings that, although it was filmed in gorgeous locations in and around Rome, very few of the cast were actually Italian and there were snide comments about accent and the whole thing being style over substance at the time but, look, who the hell cares?

It was a beautiful looking series, with suave and sophisticated acting, witty and intelligent dialogue and action filled plotlines set against the gorgeous Italian scenery. When I first watched it I hadn’t read the books, I wasn’t looking for gritty realism in the stories or characters and I definitely didn’t care that it wasn’t all Italian-art-housey and subtitled. I was looking for what I got - Sunday night escapist viewing at its best.


Image - IMDb