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That Reminds Me: The Spiral phenomenon


BACK in 2006, BBC Four started airing a cop show set in the seedy underbelly of Paris. There were eight episodes in that first series, shown two at a time on Saturday nights. It was the first French-language drama series to be shown in this country (with subtitles) and attracted a niche audience of 200,000.

By 2021 Spiral, or Engrenages in frog language, had completed eight enthralling series and become an institution in households across the world. Its fascination came from beautiful women, hunky blokes and complex characters who all had serious flaws.

The lovely Caroline Proust plays police capitaine Laure Berthaud, who often appears looking unkempt and unwashed in murder investigations which include, in the first three series, a Romanian woman disfigured and dumped in a skip, a man found burnt to death in a car boot and a mutilated woman whose body is left on a disused railway line.

Yes, the action is unremittingly grim but utterly compelling viewing. My wife was reluctant to watch at first because she thought it would be too violent and depressing but she was eventually persuaded and succumbed to Spiral addiction.

As well as a police story, this is also a legal drama which shows the different way the French system operates, with lawyers and judges investigating crime alongside les flics. Among the other glamourpusses in the cast are Gregory Fitoussi, as the prosecutor Pierre Clément, and Audrey Fleurot, as the ferociously ambitious red-haired lawyer Jacqueline Karlsson.

Rather more rugged is coke-sniffing detective Gilou, played by Thierry Godard, who constantly blurs the line between lawkeeper and lawbreaker. The pitiless yet vulnerable Juge Roban (Philippe Duclos) has been described as ‘scarecrow-like’ and ‘a cross between Arsene Wenger and Columbo’. 

Every one of the actors in Spiral is believable and one of the things I love most about it is the sheer repulsiveness of some of the bad guys, none more so than Dominique Daguier,  who plays the corrupt, porcine Prosecutor Machard with great glee.

So what was so good about Spiral? In 2009 Polly Vernon wrote: ‘I guess it’s essentially because all the usual factors of genius are at play. It is intelligent. It is subtle. The murders are hideous, gruesome.

‘Babies get stabbed. Extraordinarily lovely young things end up dangling from meat hooks in smugglers’ fridges. The characters are excellent and surprising and at least a little bit vile. No one is precisely who or what they seem; everyone operates according to their own opaque and twisted agendas.

‘Even ostensibly good characters (among them, the show’s lead, Pierre Clément, the acting chief prosecutor) have weaknesses and flaws and the propensity to be lured into shadier dealings by old mates. It is unpredictable as a consequence, good and full of cliffhangers.’

The Guardian seemed to have a monopoly on pieces praising Spiral to the heavens. In a 2011 interview with Caroline Proust, Angelique Chrisafis wrote that her character Laure was ‘the downtrodden detective who is France’s least groomed sex symbol. With her unwashed hair, no makeup, T-shirt worn three days in a row and seemingly perpetual PMT, Berthoud has become one of the most prized TV pin-ups in a nation that likes its beauty barefaced.’

She went on: ‘Proust loves the fact that Spiral has a cult following in the UK. In France, the show’s hit status is a question of national pride. Quite simply, Spiral saved French TV. It sent a rocket up the backside of the embarrassing tradition of appallingly clunky cop series. With Spiral, Canal Plus, the subscriber channel, decided to turn itself into a kind of French HBO. It wanted addictive drama with faultless realism. The rules were simple: plotlines came from real-life cases, there was little sex, few scenes on the telephone, shots would not be just limited to the point of view of the hero (a staple in bad French drama) and nothing sentimental. Most important, no character would be all good or all bad.

‘Berthaud’s anti-hero, heading a team of male cops who she loves and who exasperate her, is tempered by Proust’s interpretation. “They wanted a female character who, if she wants to sleep with a guy, says: ‘I want you,’ and if it’s finished just tells him it’s over. It’s quite a masculine attitude and it makes the character very original. She’s not a slut, she’s just a woman who obeys her desires in a very simple way. I find that very interesting.”

‘If Spiral‘s officers rough up a suspect, or sexually harass a teenager during questioning, it’s because the world is like that. “In the French system, it’s all about getting a confession. You effectively have to make them talk,” says Proust. French police don’t object to the portrayal. “It’s their favourite series because it tells it how it is. I’ve seen posters of Spiral in police stations. Some say they can’t unwind in front of it because it’s just like work”.’

When the programme came to a close after 86 episodes, to great gloom in the Ashworth household, the Guardian’s Graeme Virtue (yes, really) signalled: ‘Spiral has spanned a time of unimaginable change in how we consume TV. Its earliest seasons predated the launch of BBC iPlayer, so early adopters would trade DVD box sets.

‘If season three was when the series hit its cultural stride it was also about to be overshadowed by the rise of Nordic noir. But with its relatively unhurried production schedule, Spiral has comfortably outlasted The Killing, The Bridge and any other comparable Euro-crime rival, even considering the smörgåsbord on offer from Channel 4’s excellent Walter Presents strand. It has now become such a longstanding TV fixture that, despite its routinely unsettling subject matter, tuning in and hearing the familiar phrase “Précédemment d’Engrenages” feels like comfort viewing.’

The programme is available to view on various platforms including Amazon Prime and ITVX, but to whet the appetite of Spiral virgins, here is the first episode.

A box set of all eight series can be bought on DVD for a little over £40 and you’ll never make a better investment.

Stan Bowles, RIP

I was saddened to learn at the weekend about the death of former England footballer Stan Bowles at the age of 75. He was one of the game’s great characters, alongside Frank WorthingtonRodney Marsh, Alan Hudson, Tony Currie and one or two more. Stan was also an inveterate gambler. I read somewhere that he attended Gamblers Anonymous and bet one of the other blokes £50 that he would fall by the wayside first.

Old jokes’ home

I’ve just been sacked from my job at the bank. An old lady asked me to check her balance so I pushed her and she fell over.

A PS from PG

‘Wellbeloved,’ she said, ‘I have been making inquiries about you in Market Blandings, and everyone to whom I have mentioned your name tells me that you are thoroughly untrustworthy, a man without scruples of any sort, who sticks at nothing and will do anything for money. At the Emsworth Arms, for instance, I was informed that you would sell your grandmother for twopence.’ George Cyril Wellbeloved said that he did not have a grandmother, and seemed a good deal outraged by the suggestion that, if that relative had not long since gone to reside with the morning stars, he would have parted with her at such bargain-basement rates. A good grandmother should fetch at least a couple of bob.

PG Wodehouse: Service with a Smile

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to

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