Comfort classic: Spiral

Comfort classic: Spiral

Monday, 4th March 2024
Spiral: Thierry Godard as Lieutenant Gilles Escoffier and Caroline Proust as Captain Laure Berthaud (Credit: BBC)
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Matthew Bell embarks on a 15-year odyssey through the mean streets of Paris

The Paris of French crime drama Spiral is not the Paris of Amélie or – mon Dieu – of Emily in Paris. There is barely a beret or bistro in shot as the cops fight crime in parts of the city that no tourist dares to tread. 

Engrenages (“gears” in French) made its TV debut on Canal+ in 2005, crossing the Channel to BBC Four the following year as Spiral

Over eight series in 15 years, Spiral drew a small but devoted Francophile audience to watch Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), Lieutenant Gilles “Gilou” Escoffier (Thierry Godard) and Lieutenant Frédéric “Tintin” Fromentin (Fred Bianconi) catch crims. Laure and Gilou are the loosest of cannons, Tintin more straitlaced. 

All the cop clichés are in place: private lives are messy and police methods are dubious when not outright criminal. The line between flic and felon is not so much blurred as erased. 

Laure and Gilou, in particular, scream “maverick cop”, but none of this matters, probably because this is France. Somehow, a little police brutality is OK if it’s followed by a Gallic shrug. 

In the cops’ defence, the criminals – drug dealers, human traffickers and serial killers, sociopaths to a person – are no angels. Each of the first three series begins with the gruesome discovery of a body: a woman with her face eradicated; a man burnt to death in a car and a woman mutilated on a railway track.  

These are not the crimes of, say, the debonair jewel thief of current French Netflix series Lupin

Laure, Gilou and Tintin hate criminals – as well as police procedure and the bureaucratic French legal system that make their jobs harder – but they have a soft spot for the human debris of crime. Spiral never lets the viewer forget that it is the poor, often immigrant French, that are the real victims; young men with few opportunities in life who are drawn into criminality are sympathetically portrayed. 

Spiral is more than a cop show. It also offers (as does the excellent recent film Anatomy of a Fall) a fascinating insight into the inquisitorial French legal system, in which the police and judiciary work arm in arm to bring a délinquant to justice. 

Arsène Wenger lookalike Judge François Roban (Philippe Duclos) is the investigating magistrate, assisted by youthful prosecutors, principally the idealistic if somewhat self-righteous Pierre Clément (Grégory Fitoussi), and the cynical Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot). 

The French legal system is portrayed as a viper’s nest of ruthless ambition, corruption and skulduggery. Judge Roban, though, is a fervent believer that justice must be fair and be seen to be done; to extend the analogy with Arsenal’s ex-manager­, one could say that he lets his idealism get in the way of achieving results. 

Nordic noir has been held up as the beacon of Euro crime drama, but Spiral outlasted all its shows. 

The New York Times, in a fond farewell to the series, wrote: “Spiral has been [The Wire’s] equal, or better… few crime dramas have combined as rich a texture with stories as detailed and arresting.” 

It helps that, with just a few exceptions, Spiral’s principal cast were present throughout eight remarkably consistent series. But the two lead characters are its heartbeat: Laure, overly dedicated, feisty, yet vulnerable; Gilou, a lovelorn romantic with a battered face and addiction issues. 

The writers, too, should take their plaudits; the scripts were never flabby or sentimental, yet they always had empathy. 

It’s rare that a long-running crime series boasts a denouement as good as its début. Au revoir, mon ami, you were a peerless policier.  

Spiral is on ITVX Premium and Prime Video. 

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