The European Union may make an interesting subject for politicos but it’s unlikely to be high on anyone’s list for riveting drama. Brussels is practically a byword for numbing bureaucracy. For better or for worse, much of the national conversation about Europe concerns whether or not to leave it. All of which means that most of the stories about Europe, Europeans and what the project has meant to peoples’ lives are yet to be written.
Enter The Last Panthers, a new six-part series. It begins with a diamond heist in Marseilles. The heist bears all the hallmarks of the Pink Panthers, the Serbian network of jewel thieves who achieved notoriety in the 90s and noughts both for their audacious heists and for their do-no-harm, Robin Hood-style methodology. The series follows the diamonds from Marseilles via a Hungarian refugee camp and on to Belgrade. Serbia is currently an official candidate for membership of the EU, one foot in, one foot out, and it is there we find the dark heart of the European project beating strong – questionable infrastructure projects financed both by governments and so-called banksters abound. We watch it all unfold while following two investigators, a London-based loss adjuster (Samantha Morton) and a French policeman (Tahar Ramin) who find themselves in competition as the diamonds lead to the guns and eventually the money.
The Last Panthers was written by Jack Thorne, who co-wrote the This is England series. Thorne studied the European Union at university and you could call The Last Panthers his This Is Europe.
“I’ve always regarded it as a hallowed institution but it has gone very wrong,” he says. “Jean Monnet’s [the master architect of the European project, who died 35 years ago] guiding principles of Europe said it was going to be a united states of people – that has been lost because it’s become increasingly about money, with the likes of Draghi running the European Central Bank. I’m still pro European because I believe in the European mission and dream. But the longer I’ve spent on this, the more I’ve started to question key things about what Europe is now.”
The storyline of The Last Panthers is about modern Europe in all of its compromised, grubby reality. It is filmed in low light, against a backdrop of damp plaster and dark alleyways, as if the whole edifice is rotten. Yet in its inception the series offer ups an example of Europe working as it was meant to. The drama, which will screen across Europe on Sky and Canal Plus, is a multi-national, multi-lingual co-production between Haut et Court, the makers of The Returned, and Warp Films, makers of This is England.
It may be that this type of cross-European collaboration offers up a blueprint for how to create television on this scale in the future. When American shows like Game of Thrones are able to muster budgets of more than £100m a series; when the Internet arrivistes like Amazon and Netflix are likewise throwing money at numerous major projects in a bid to outspend the opposition in to submission, it leaves European producers scrabbling to keep up. We know that Denmark, France, Germany and Britain can make great television on their own terms. But only by collaborating can we compete on the global stage.
“It’s that kind of American ambition to tell something of scale,” says Peter Carlton, producer of The Last Panthers. “It’s stuff that is big, ambitious, massively entertaining but somehow sort of state of the nation: it tells you about the world. We want to do that in Europe. If we want to make bigger programmes, you’ve got to reach a bigger audience and that means stepping outside of your national boundaries.”
The question is how to do it. The shadow of the cursed Europudding looms large. John Hurt, who plays Morton’s English boss, well remembers the 80s and the 90s when the term Europudding was coined to describe dreary films and television series financed piecemeal by parcels of money from multiple countries. He shudders at the mention of the word.
‘Europudding. That’s what they used to be called in the days when it first started. But that was just because they weren’t really dealing with Europe. It was just getting money from various different places. It wasn’t really a European venture. This is a European venture, no question.”
The Last Panthers was shot in seven different countries, uses five different languages, and does not hesitate to blow things up where necessary. It has an internationally acclaimed director at the helm (Johan Renck, Breaking Bad) and a cast of a similarly august profile, from Hurt to Samantha Morton to A Prophet’s Tahar Ramin. All of that requires a big budget of nearly £20m.
In order to recoup that money, The Last Panthers is looking for more than just a strong British audience. It is telling an international story and it needs to resonate across borders.
“With the Internet,” says Carlton, “Everybody has got access to the same stories. Culture has become internationalised and that’s lead to a growing awareness and therefore, a growing appetite.”
The barrier used to be language, but starting with Denmark’s The Killing it has been shown that if the storytelling is good enough, the characters compelling enough, then people aren’t scared of subtitles. The success of The Returned and latterly Witnesses introduced a European audience to what French television had to offer. Then The Bridge showed that Danes and Swedes could work together to produce a bi-lingual hit that still worked with subtitles. Americans are watching German shows such as the forthcoming Deutschland 83 on new channels such as Sundance TV. The Last Panthers takes this process one step further – it may be the first trans-European production, both in subject matter and execution.
Carlton says the subject matter will start to reflect this broadening of boundaries. “Rather than that slightly phobic national approach to things of ‘We’ve got to appeal to our home audience,’ we want to tell great stories, take people to places they haven’t seen, invite them in, excite them. Tell your stories anywhere.”
Telling stories right across Europe does, however, come with its complications. Filming in Marseille’s notorious ‘cité’ estates saw Carlton’s message of Europe-wide bonhomie greeted with a bottle thrown at his head one day as his crew were leaving.
“There were two groups operating out of the same cité and one group took against us,” says Jack Thorne. “I don’t think there are estates in the UK where it’s literally lawless, but if a police car goes in to those cités they will get a washing machine thrown on them. That’s just the way it is there at the moment.”
You could look as that as symptomatic of modern Europe. John Hurt, at least, thinks it’s about time the causes of those symptoms should be addressed.
“I can’t think of anything that’s really touched on the proper interests of Europe before this. The trouble is that we’re so concerned with our own position in Europe and whether it’s working or whether it isn’t working that we lose sight of what the concept of a united Europe is. Essentially it’s trying to say ‘You have your identity’ but we do actually have one cause. We’re all interlinked.”