Journals, Modern Languages

Introducing ‘Watching the Transnational Detectives’: A Modern Languages Open Special Collection

This month sees the launch of a special collection on Modern Languages Open, which focuses on the transnational circulation and reception of international television crime drama series. The collection is comprised of five research articles and a conversation with the UK video-on-demand provider, Walter Presents. It emerges from the AHRC OWRI ‘Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies’ initiative, which provided funding for the ‘Watching the Transnational Detectives’ project at the University of Hull and for a conference held at the IMLR in November 2018, ‘Watching the Transnational Detectives: Showcasing Identity and Internationalism on British Television’. Here, guest editor Rachel Haworth explains the research context and thinking that informs this collection of essays.

Read ‘Watching the Transnation Detectives‘ >

Inspector Montalbano. The Bridge. Babylon Berlin. Spiral. Borgen. These are just some of the series that have gripped UK television viewers and kept them returning to platforms like BBC4, Netflix, and Walter Presents to view the latest instalment of the next big international crime drama series. In 2022, UK viewers have more and more access to increasing numbers of these types of series, so much so that newspaper and magazine articles recommending what to watch will often feature international series. For example, out of the 35 best new TV crime dramas of 2022 as recommended by The Week, five are international series, broadcast in their original foreign language with subtitles. These recommendations include the second series of Lupin, which looks set to build on the success that series one brought to Netflix, Mexican series Somos, and Danish series The Investigation.

The increasing popularity and availability of these television series in the UK provide some of the research context for the ‘Watching the Transnational Detectives’ project, and for the resultant collection of essays that has just been published. My colleagues and I initially set out to explore the reasons for this burgeoning popularity, which, in 2017-18, was also being picked up and commented on by the UK press. One particular article got us thinking: in 2017, the Evening Standard posed the question ‘Is it a coincidence that just as governments are seeking to close their borders, television is opening them?’ (March 15 2017). March 2017 was of course only nine months after the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, and the calls for isolationism and cultural protectionism that were part of the campaigning have become increasingly commonplace in public and media discourse since then. So why was it that, as borders closed, more and more television viewers were seeking out shows that could cross such borders and re-open them? What was it about these multilingual, multicultural viewing experiences that kept TV viewers coming back for more?

Our thinking quickly coalesced around specific questions to do with the appeal of ‘the foreign’ in these series, and to what extent UK viewers were finding something out about concepts of national identity and culture, were engaging with and even questioning stereotypes, and were learning something new about the language and society that they were watching on screen. To that end, we were interrogating similar questions to those being posed by the ‘Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies’ research team and we were extremely grateful to receive funding from that project to support our own research. That funding enabled two streams of work, the results of which are presented in part in this MLO collection of essays.

The project logo, which encourages viewers to cross borders and think about the transnational appeal of international crime dramas.

The first stream of work was the local research into audience reception that took place within the Languages Department at the University of Hull in 2018-19. We organised a series of screenings of exemplar international crime dramas, and invited members of the public to watch the episodes with us. We would then discuss together what the programmes revealed about the host culture, what was culturally specific to what viewers had seen, how important the language was to the show, and whether watching the programme made them want to visit the country they had seen and/or learn the language they had heard. The full results of this audience reception work are presented in one of the essays in this collection.

This work on audience reception also presented another exciting opportunity: the chance to talk to Walter Iuzzolino and Jo McGrath from Walter Presents about their vision for the (then) newly launched video-on-demand service, and their take on international (not foreign) television drama and its appeal for UK audiences. The conversations with Walter Presents brought interesting insights in terms of the sense of elitism that is often associated with international television series in the UK.  The ethos of Walter Presents was focused on overcoming the problem in the UK whereby international TV is considered high-brow, elitist, art house. According to Iuzzolino in particular, there is a sense that some feel entitled to watch international drama and others do not. The platform therefore sought and seeks to open up international drama to new audiences and it remains an aim to broaden the Walter Presents audience. And note: it’s international drama, not foreign drama. As Iuzzolino himself says, ‘foreign’ has negative connotations and indeed begs the question, ‘foreign to what?’.

Walter Iuzzolino in conversation with project partner Dr Helena Chadderton
The audience at one of the project’s public screenings

These were the questions and approaches that informed the second stream of ‘Watching the Transnational Detectives’ work: a conference that brought together researchers working on a range of popular international dramas that were available to UK viewers. This event was held in November 2018 at the IMLR and facilitated discussions on: German, Nordic, French, Italian, and Spanish series, as well as audience reception; the emergence of Euronoir; and the appeal of authenticity and cultural specificity in the UK context. Those discussions inform the essays in this collection which explore individual series and questions of translation, adaptation, and transnational success.

As a project team, we are pleased to be able to share these thoughts on international television crime drama series and their reception in the UK, and to contribute to the debate around popularity, appeal, multilingualism, and multiculturalism that such programmes can trigger.

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