Contains some mild spoilers for the aired episode
I was intrigued to see that ITV had decided to revive its hit 70s detective show Van der Valk for a limited three-part run of new 90 minute dramas starring Marc Warren as the titular character. Intrigued, but not particularly optimistic to be honest. That’s because I was never much of a fan of the original, which always seemed rather mediocre to my mind. I was too young to see it when it was first broadcast but I’ve caught up with early episodes on DVD and on the fantastic free-to-air Talking Pictures digital channel, and even by the standards of the day the pacing of the stories is positively glacial.
What the original series did have on its side were three key assets: the Amsterdam setting and location filming (hugely exotic back in those days before the advent of the ubiquitous city break); Barry Foster’s crisp and charismatic central performance as Commissaris Piet Van der Valk; and the iconic “Eye Level” theme tune that became a big chart hit for the Simon Park Orchestra on multiple occasions. The good news is that the new series returns to Amsterdam for the purposes of filming, and director Colin Teague makes the city look absolutely splendid including scenes filmed in the world-famous Rijksmuseum. Sadly Foster has passed away but I found Warren a perfectly fine replacement, bringing his own hard-to-like cynical edge to the character to maintain a reasonable amount of interest.
Unfortunately the “Eye Level” theme is almost entirely absent, although its echo can just about be heard as a light refrain under the main titles. It seems a weird decision to excise it; it’s like reviving Doctor Who without Ron Grainer’s music, or a James Bond film stripped of the instantly recognisable Berman/Barry 007 guitar riff. When American TV rebooted shows like Hawaii Five-O and Magnum PI, great care was taken in updating but fundamentally retaining their respective iconic theme music. However I think I can understand why the makers of the new Van der Valk change things here, at least to a degree: the “Eye Level” music is simply too distinctive and frankly rather dated, and was always anachronistically jaunty for the purposes of the show itself. Unfortunately the 2020 replacement music by Matthijs Kieboom is all low droning chords restlessly seeking but never stumbling across a memorable tune. Dull, boring, generic, unnecessary and entirely forgettable – the very same adjectives that could be used to describe most facets of the first episode of the new Van der Valk, which is solidly made but ultimately disappointing.
Much of the problem lies in the basic set-up of the series, with Van der Valk established as the traditional maverick detective haunted by unspecified events in the past, willing to break the rules and ignore his superiors in the pursuit of truth and to protect the innocent. In other words, the basic cop show cliché, no matter how hard Warren works at elevating the part toward something resembling a spark of genuine life. Van der Valk’s anti-social, rude and unprofessional demeanour toward colleagues and suspects alike is facilitated by the two female regular cast members – Maimie McCoy as his sharp number two Lucienne Hassell, and Emma Fielding as his superior Julia Dahlman who goes from slapping him down for breaching orders to figuratively ruffling his hair like a naughty scamp. Both characters (and actors) deserve better than this sort of lazy enablement.
Elsewhere, Luke Allen-Gale plays plodding sidekick Brad de Vries as an ordinary guy just interested in finishing the day so he can get down to the pub for a pie and a pint, and who has no interest in thinking about the subtleties of the case in hand as long as he’s got someone to chase and a door to kick down to keep him happy. In contrast, new recruit Job Cloovers (played by Elliot Barnes-Worrell) is a very eager beaver, the class swot lacking street smarts but keen to learn and in the meantime inclined to come up with all those vital facts and figures that enable Van der Valk to make that crucial breakthrough in the nick of time. There’s also the permanently soused pathologist Hendrik Davie (played by Darrell D’Silva) who is presumably meant to be a genius at the job, but the running gag of him being horribly hungover and smelling of booze (his first appearance seems him drive into a crime scene bollard and then throw up) gets old very quickly. I timed it out at 30 seconds.
The first story of the rebooted series written by Chris Murray starts with the discovery of two bodies in different parts of the city, their deaths seemingly unconnected. But Van der Valk isn’t fooled for a single minute and quickly explains to the initially dubious Cloovers why he thinks there’s a link – and sure enough the forensics results soon back him up. One of the victims proves to be an activist working for a left-wing politician, and his lover and fellow campaigner has also gone missing – either a third victim or the possible perpetrator – propelling Van der Valk and his team into the middle of a bitter local city election. All roads seem to lead to a local cutting edge art gallery, where the lonely Van der Valk stumbles across a potential love interest even as Lucienne ends up suffering at the pointy end of a sharp knife. The script attempts a surprise twist at the end, and while it’s unfair to call it a contrived coincidence as other reviews have done (actually it’s commendably well structured in advance to make the development entirely credible) it’s still the sort of ‘close to home’ shock that a show should only be thinking of pulling off in a second or third season, and certainly not the first time out of the box.
Moreover all this is done at a very slow pace, to the point where if you currently happen to be suffering from lockdown-induced insomnia then this would be an excellent treatment. But the bigger problem is that the story itself has very little in the way of local colour or sense of location. You could pretty much pick up the entire production and plonk it down in the middle of any major city with just minimal changes. Almost the only advantage that setting the story in Amsterdam allows is that the show can make both the left- and right-wing factions engaged in the vaguely-sketched election battle as coarse and crude a caricature as possible without viewers getting upset that it’s meant to be a portrayal of a particular British political party or celebrity politician. That said the parallels remain pretty obvious, all the more so as a result of being drawn so broadly.
Certainly Van der Valk and his team are cardboard cutout versions of the sort of detectives you’ve seen many times before, and in much better shows. They all sound fundamentally London-based when they speak, which has been the target of criticism the show has received from a lot of reviews and viewer comments, but it’s clearly as a result of a definite decision not to attempt any Dutch inflections. That’s actually a good thing, as cod accents would very quickly have reduced this to ‘Allo ‘Allo levels of farce. Casting local Dutch actors to play the roles would presumably have had too much of an impact on international sales, let alone actually performing it in Dutch with English subtitles which would have slashed the potential audience to a few hundred thousand, making it suitable only for a niche Euro drama slot on BBC4 on Saturday nights. But by sticking with the English actors, the show just becomes yet another formulaic police procedural which just happens to have some nice backgrounds on display.
To be honest, that’s not all that different from how the original 1970s series ended up, or the approach taken more recently by the British adaptation of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels starring Kenneth Branagh. But times have moved on since then and we’re used to series being filmed in all sorts of locations around the world (even Doctor Who headed off to South Africa last year for some verisimilitude). Moreover, these days we have top quality home grown dramas like Spiral, The Killing and The Bridge being made by national TV broadcasters in France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, etc. that do this sort of thing with real flair, dripping in an unmistakeable authentic sense of locale which goes far beyond just including a few tourist picture postcards in the back of shot.
Ultimately it comes down to the question, why does this reboot exist? Especially if it really is so disinterested and unwilling to lean into the show’s own 70s heritage to any significant degree. While there could always be more compelling stories and better paced scripts to come in future episodes to liven things up, it’s going to be harder to address the central question presented by this version of Van der Valk: why bother in the first place?
Rating: ★ ★ 1/2
Van der Valk continues on ITV on Sunday evenings at 8pm, and the full first season will be released on DVD on May 11. The original series is also available as a boxset from Network DVD and is currently being shown on the wonderful Talking Pictures channel at 9pm on Fridays.