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Zen, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Zen, BBC One

Zen, BBC One

Michael Dibdin's Italian 'tec surprisingly well served by the small screen

Suited and booted: Rufus Sewell plays Aurelio Zen in BBC One's new adaptation

There must be good reasons why the fine crime novels of Michael Dibdin have been absent from screens large and small. They're probably to do with Dibdin's deadpan satirical tone and the anti-heroic nature of his protagonist, the Venetian detective Aurelio Zen. Also, his shrewd observations of the hidden undercurrents of Italian society are almost bound to get lost in screen translation. "Books and movies are completely different media", Dibdin once commented, "and the more the Hollywood crowd learns to knit their own stuff, the better."

So, it's pleasing - perhaps even slightly miraculous - to be able to give at least two-and-a-half cheers to "Vendetta", the first of three new Zen stories from the BBC, though a few of the production choices highlighted the paradoxes of international productions. For instance, while the locations were authentically and pungently Roman, since that's where Zen was currently posted, it was strange to find the police chief speaking in a bluff Yorkshire accent, while an Italian kidnapper Zen met during his investigations was plainly an Irishman. Yet Italian actors filled some of the supporting roles, while the co-headliner and love interest was played by voluptuous Italian bombshell Caterina Murino.

The biggest question for aficionados will be over Rufus Sewell's suitability to play Zen. In the books, Zen can be lazy and devious, but he has developed his own eccentric technique for negotiating the labyrinth of bureaucracy and corruption that shrouds the Italian police and judiciary. There's a seedy and unhealthy quality about him, though somehow his sleuthing skills remain supernaturally sharp. Sewell, on the other hand, looks crisp and dynamic and movie star-ish (an enraptured Ms Murino apparently describes him as "a god"), and there was one scene in this opener when he suddenly burst into frankly un-Zen-like action mode, deftly felling a couple of antagonists before roaring away in an Alfa Romeo, pulling off a handbrake turn that would have made The Stig gape in admiration (Sewell in telegenic contest with Caterina Murino, pictured below).

Zen__girl_smallBut sweep all that aside, and you still had a pacy and intriguing thriller, dripping with gorgeous panoramas of Rome and haunting Italian countryside, with a screenplay by Simon Burke which managed to hit many of the salient Dibdin-esque bullet points. The way the police are mere tools in the hands of politicians was deftly suggested, and indeed the plot hinged on Zen being faced with the dilemma of knowing that he would keep in with his colleagues at police headquarters by finding a murder suspect, Favelloni, guilty, but doing so would also risk the instant demolition of his career by an unscrupulous government minister (Greg Wise played Favelloni, looking as authentically Italian as a tin of Heinz spaghetti hoops). Even within the police force, Zen's unfortunate capacity for getting to the bottom of awkward cases and arresting the right people causes him to be regarded with suspicion.

Sewell had found a nice understated tone in which to play Zen, and was able to suggest an analytical mind ticking constantly behind a bumbling, facetious exterior. There were some smart nuggets of dialogue, like when Murino's Tania Morelli asked him: "Are we going to have an affair?" Zen: "Yeah." Tania: "OK."

Or the moment where Zen was propositioned by the Russian housekeeper at the mansion of a billionaire murder victim. He looked stunned. "What's the matter? You don't like sex?" she demanded. "No, I remember it very fondly," muttered Zen.

And, against the odds, this TV Zen retained some of the sense of primitive and brutal mystery that Dibdin brought to his depictions of Italy. As the title "Vendetta" suggested, the two sets of murders in the story were both rooted in the past, one dating back years and the other stretching back over generations of inbred criminality. In the next two episodes, perhaps we'll get to see some of Zen's fabled culinary skills in action too.

Greg Wise looked as authentically Italian as a tin of Heinz spaghetti hoops

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Comments

Zen has the most facile, implausible, simplistic, almost childish plot of any drama I've ever seen. Who would watch this nonsense if it were not for the 'Bond' girl?

I disagree, Jonathan. It's not the plot, it's the Zen. Rufus Sewell is unconvincing every time he opens his mouth and squeaks his lines. His dismal delivery made even the most minor character appear charismatic.

I've not read the books but I enjoyed the first TV episode. The bad guy's ability to shoot at Zen was laughable however!

If they can use Italian actors in the female roles why do we have to have multi British accents in the male roles. Nice scenery though.

Loved the authentic accents - made it all the more Italian for me.

Calcata, where much of the out of Rome scenes were filmed, is a fabulous little hill top town. I hope to see more of this area thoughout the series. Towns like Nazzano and Sant'oreste are undiscovered gems.

I had hoped the whole three episodes would be devoted to Vendetta, but it is unrealistic to expect a TV offering to reflect the subtleties and indeed the full plot of the original. I wonder if I could have followed it so well if I had not read the book. Zen's mother is far too young and good looking.. full marks! I enjoyed the first episode immensely, especially the way it seemed to be shot in olive oil. Well done.

Surely the big flaw is that in the novel the 'hill town' is in Sardinia! The idea, in the TV version, of kidnapping hillbillies living within a short drive of Rome made no sense at all. And if 'Silent Witness' and 'Waking the Dead' are allowed two-three hours to work out their plots, why not adaptations of densely plotted novels?

I liked the storyline - For those of you that didn't watch; It was about some Expat Police detectives that live and work in Italy...However, It would be nice to have heard more regional Italian accents like Geordie or even Scouse...

Simply could not get over the stupid descision to have english actors with a variety of english accents populate an 'Italian production'. I like Sewell as an actor, but this lacks credibility. Switched off half way and wo'nt be watching again.

As a designer that has spent time in Rome I enjoyed Zen a great deal. I thought it was elegant and well balanced. Sewell pulled of Italian chic and Murano just oozed Italian sexy as only Italian women can. But can you imagine Zen with an accent like Frankie Dittori ?, I dont think it would work. If the BBC used Italian actors with regional accents the UK audience probably would not be able to distinguish between them. If you want Italian accents get an Italian film. The target market is the UK so there has to be a balance in the casting and eye candy as such I think that the BBC pulled this off well. For those that have visited Rome, they will know that the police is all about the cool. They wear shades,drive in their Alfas with windows down and are always smoking. After their shift they parade in group,s looking cool and this applies to the female police too. But then again all Romans do this. Zens mother was well chosen, but missing the shades and the fur coat which most older Roman women seem to wear well into summer. This little detail would have had the Fur lobby hopping mad???, but her age was not unreal. Well done BBC elegant,cool and sophisticated for those critics jump on a plane and experience Rome. You may look at it from a different perspective.

But surely the whole point is that there's not supposed to be anything chic about Dibdin's Zen? I didn't see this but I realised Sewell was completely the wrong casting for such an interesting, slightly shabby character, however charismatic he may have been. You might as well create a different detective series altogether if you're going to do that.

Seriously this programme is just dumb. You have the vistas of Rome with English actors doing VERY English acting and accents. Italy has a flavour-its people have their own essence; what this does is take all that away typified by a comment from Rufus Sewell in a radio promo saying ' I'll let the suits do the Italian'. Really I know TV is turning into slush but couldn't we have tasty slush

I don't understand this harrumphing neurosis about authenticity. Italy and Italianness are a culture and a style we Anglo-Saxons fetishise above all others, so it does superficially seem counterintuitive to have English actors pretending to be Roman – or in Sewell’s case, Venetian. But the grumpier Italophiles might wish to be aware of pragmatic decisions made by broadcasters spending the licence fee. Dibdin certainly would have been. When plans were afoot for a Zen adaptation as early as the 1990s, he knew that that his characters would have to be played by British actors. The BBC is simply not going to get involved in funding an Italian production with Italian actors speaking Italian. That's RAI's job, and they're hardly likely to splash out on a British portrait of endemic Italian corruption. An Italian-language version would be a niche production on BBC Four requiring subtitles, to which the majority of viewers are regrettably allergic, and starring actors British viewers have never heard of, in whom they have no emotional investment and whom they would therefore be unlikely to want to watch. That is the reality of star casting on TV. He’s not as tall or lugubrious as Zen, but Sewell is a clever compromise. People have more than heard of him, and he just about passes as vaguely indigenous-looking. Plus (in my view) he's very good. As for the two Italian actresses playing Zen’s love interest and mother, their English is competent and their accents fairly flattened. And I don’t think anyone would deny that they look perfect. The casting has misfired here and there, but that happens elsewhere too. I agree with Adam Sweeting’s hilarious comment in his review of Vendetta that Greg Wise is about as Italian as a can of Heinz spaghetti. Nor did the actress playing the vampish prosecutress in last night’s version of Cabal remotely radiate Italian femininity. Some of the male actors are a lot more RADA than Roma. The only thing that grates with me is the sprinkling of genuinely Italian dialogue in the margins of the drama. It seems a pointless step too far in the pursuit of authenticity. There may be versions of Wallander in English and Swedish, but Henning Mankell’s books started out life in Swedish. Those dissatisfied viewers seeking some kind of Platonic ideal of a genuinely Italian Zen should remember that Dibdin’s series is a skilful English-language take on the Italian way of doing things. And so is this BBC series.

I have never read the books, but have thoroughly enjoyed both episodes. Maybe if I had read the books I would have found plently of faults with it but isn't that true with any adaptation?

All very succinct points, but I feel very foolish because I don't know who did it! Beautifully shot though.

Having now watched the 'Cabal' episode, I still think there are points to counter Jasper's. I'm not one of those with a 'harrumphing neurosis' about accents, though I did find it bizarre that minor/background figures spoke Italian when the leads didn't (but I agreed, it would have been too horrible to have English actors assuming Italian accents, so no problems with that). I think you put your finger on it, Jasper, when you spoke about our 'fetishising' all things Italian. This programme does just that - the suits, the style, the endless shots of cars driving through Rome locations. Which would be fine if Dibdin had done that in his books. But he didn't: he made the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of Italian life seem real. And this, music included, makes it all as unreal as possible. Sewell et al were certainly watchable. But if this episode was supposed to be based on the cabal novel, what a shame that the really cinematic aspects of the book - falling bodies in St Peter's and the big Galleria in Milan - couldn't be emulated. Too expensive, or out of bounds?I loved that of all Zen novels, but didn't recognise any of it in this.

Sorry - but I love this! Zen is just gorgeous, Rome looks fantastic - what is there not to like? Ok the plot and dialogue at times is silly, but I find the whole production very slick and sexy......more please!

The producers should be shot - the woman playing Zen's mistress is unintelligible half the time. If the sound recordist had boosted her levels a bit it might have helped but her constant mumbling combined with a very heavy Italian accent probably defeated even the best sound recordist.

I don't care what people think about it authenticity - Rufus Sewell is absolutely gorgeous, the plot and storyline is fascinating, Rome looks wonderful and the romance is sweet. Please let the BBC make another series.

I'm with you Liz! Lots more episodes please BBC. Sadly I expect it might have been quite expensive and their budget is shaky at the best of times. However, they could always cancel a few new moving house programmes and repeat even more of the old ones. Nobody would notice.

very good new series, almost a new Lovejoy but as a policeman, hopefully more series yet to come

ZEN is great!. You can be as mealy-mouthed as you like about authenticity, the series is entertainment and good entertainment too. I certainly hope that Rufus Sewell inhabits Aurelio Zen in another series.

Well, I'm bemused. Don't care about Yorkshire or Irish accents. These are a way of signalling regional differences within Italy. But Rufus Sewell as the dry, ironic Aurelio? No, it won't do. Beautiful? Yes. A1 actor? Yes. Just happens that he is the wrong type with the wrong voice. Oh dear. And yesterday we saw him drinking a beer with some kind of chaser. I nearly choked on my chianti.

I'm fine with the Irish and Yorkshire accents depicting regional differences - what annoys me is the inconsistency of the girlfriend having an Italian accent and sounding foreign/exotic which she wouldn't be in Rome! Haven't read the books but it's much more watchable than anything else on television at the moment. Even if I can't always catch what they're saying.

Zen is believeable and the accent thing is not an issue, as it would turn into a farce if they put on accents. Rufus Sewell comes across in interviews as a nice bloke and not at all up himself like some people on TV!

Celtic Chief, I think you've missed the point. Accents would not have been an issue - no-one wants to hear English actors putting on a foreign accent when another country is the subject - but have become so for the disparities mentioned below. And no-one is denying that Rufus Sewell is an interesting actor as well as a good bloke, it's just that he's so far from being Dibdin's Zen as to suggest that they might as well have started from scratch, and then there wouldn't have been that problem

I loved the series although I only discovered it when watched last episode randomly flicking through channels. I enjoyed the Italian flavour through it very much!!... Hope there might be hope for more episodes - that was way too little!

Loved it. Took me about an hour into the first episode to catch on with the accent thing (my husband is Italian so we watch italian police dramas all the time) but after a while i thought it very different and enjoyable. Loved Sewel in it. Please can we have some more BBC!

Can't believe Zen is not on tonight,I must have missed the fact that there were only to be 3 episodes and Sunday nights have become a real good watch on BBC 1. I hope it is coming back soon, Rufus Sewell is absolutely right for the part.

Rufus Sewell was absolutely brilliant and I am hoping for many more Zen series (pretty please, BBC?).

Loved it! More, please:)

Only 3 episodes? You tease us BBC, bring it back!!

Loved Zen - Rufus Sewell is fab More please

Rufus Sewell is HOT, HOT, HOT as Zen. I really hope the BBC is going to make more episodes very soon!!

Have just watched all 3 eisodes again (recorded on our TV) - and salivating all over again at the sheer deliciousness of it all. How good to have such a stylish show with all those wonderful Italian flavours- and the lovely Zen. Please tell us there are going to be many more of these!

Just catching up on some recorded programmes and started watching Zen – absolutely wonderful, Rufus is brilliant in the part, as is Caterina Murino an Italian beauty and perfect as Zen’s love interest. It is the best cop series since Bergerac and shares certain aspects with it. It’s about time Italy was used as a backdrop. Bring it back as a 12 parter next time. Well done to all concerned with the program.

I've heard the dreadful news that the BBC isn't renewing Zen. I blame poor viewership on bad marketing, dear beeb, because the show was splendid. Rethink your plans and also consider some smarter advertising! Unless you already knew about the Zen books (and to my good fortune, my husband did) the pre-air advertising was just the occasional glimpse of Rufus Sewell's stunning face and some enigmatic words about Zen. Simply not enough to hook viewers!

i can hardly believe that the bbc has decided to axe 'zen'. of course i should believe it, it's the bbc after all and one thing that is a given these days is that the bbc no longer gives a high priority to quality programmes and drama and certainly doesn't care to give attention to the demands of it's audiences. 'zen' was a wonderful production. hugely entertaining, stylish, witty, excellent acting particularly from rufus sewell (who we don't see often enough on tv). if the bbc can't be persuaded to change it's mind then i do hope some other company picks it up quickly. the ratings were excellent for these days and it made perfect prime time viewing in the winter months.

What on earth are the BBC thinking by axing "Zen"? It wasa wonderful series. Rufus was amazing once again. It did take a little while to get round the accent thing, but it really would'nt have worked giving the cast fake Italian accents.. belive me I know I am Italian! Having the background actors speaking Italian and the fantastic city of Rome oozing with character and atmosphere gave the programme lots of Italian flavour. We can only hope another channel will take it on...Pleeeeease We need Aurellio and beautilful Italy to bright up our winter nights!

" There were some smart nuggets of dialogue, like when Murino's Tania Morelli asked him: "Are we going to have an affair?" Zen: "Yeah." Tania: "OK."" This is "smart" dialogue? When I heard that inane exchange, I decided to watch no more of this cynical and shallow series. No human depth to the characters at all.

I agree - all the adulation, not to mention the whining for more, seems misplaced. It's the same with all British telly drama I've seen recently - a great cast of actors rescuing poor material and/or concept. And in this case they might as well have started from scratch as pretended the series had anything to do with Michael Dibdin's splendid books.

I just watched the re-broadcast of Zen on BBC in America. I've been to Rome and I thought the series captured the essence of Rome in a beautiful way. Rufus Sewell was brilliant as Zen. The films demonstrate his incredible range as an actor. His subtle expressions, vocal inflections, and body language added much dimension to his performance. He is at once witty, self-assured, and sexy, but also broken from a forgettable marriage (cheated-upon), doted upon as a son, and a wee bit klutzy. What's not to love? I'm hoping Left Bank Productions can option it to someone else and produce more episodes. Recently, Rufus was sighted in L.A. in a fine suit and smart little car... I'm hoping it was a sign there's more to come.

Just finished all three Zen episodes for the first time. Absolutely loved them and am sad there arent any more to watch! This was a fun series and I enjoyed watching the main characters very much.

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