Our project on ‘Watching the Transnational Detectives’ is all about examining in particular the ways in which viewers respond to languages and multiculturalism as showcased in a range of six well-loved crime dramas from France, Italy and Germany. We are interested in the impact these series have on audience’s perceptions of nationhood, foreign languages and cultures, and language learning. Our ultimate aim, is to establish the extent to which such programmes can encourage and promote multilingualism in twenty-first century Britain.
To that end, we have held a series of public screenings of these crime dramas at the University of Hull. These screenings have involved us coming together to watch just one episode from a series with our audience, and then conducting a Q&A session – with a difference! This time, we have been asking the audience the questions about what struck them about these programmes. The six programmes we have featured have been:
- Spiral, the French television police procedural and legal drama series set in Paris.
- Inspector Montalbano, the Italian series that tells the story of the inspector’s detective work in and around the fictional Sicilian town of Vigata.
- Falke, the gritty German crime drama that follows Inspector Thorsten Falke, a stubborn Hamburg detective, and takes us into the heart of contemporary German society.
- Mafiosa, the French series set on Corsica, which charts the trials of a female mafia boss.
- Maltese: The Mafia Detective, the Italian miniseries set in 1970s’ Sicily, which tells the story of Maltese’s return to the island to conduct a murder investigation that reveals a complex web of widespread corruption and the omnipresence of the Mafia in the area.
- Dark, the German family saga with a supernatural twist, which sees children disappearing from a town in a way that follows a historical pattern.
The questions we have then asked our participants are as follows:
1) Have you seen an episode of this show before?
2) What were your first or second impressions? What struck you most?
3) What do you think the programme revealed about France/Italy/Germany and French/Italian/German culture? Did that match your expectations?
4) Could this episode have been set anywhere? What is culturally specific to what you have just watched?
5) Can you pick out three French/Italian/German words that are new to you (perhaps repeated throughout the programme)? Did you understand their meaning? How? Did you have any previous knowledge of the language to help you?
6) How important do you think it is to have the sound on to appreciate what is being said? Would you prefer to watch a dubbed version of the show? Why or why not?
7) Does watching the programme make you want to visit the country/location? And learn the language? Why/why not?
8) Would you watch the next episode?
In this post, we want to share some of our initial findings with you, drawn from the post-screening conversations we had from our six sessions.
In terms of what whether these series could be set anywhere, and what then was culturally specific about the programmes we were watching, the responses varied according to the shows. For Spiral and Falke, for example, our audiences suggested that apart from a few establishing shots in the former, these programmes could have been set anywhere (for Spiral, the location could have been any big city, perhaps New York or London; for Falke, our East Yorkshire audience was struck by how similar the landscape in the countryside outside of Hamburg is to areas of East Yorkshire and particularly to places around the city of Hull). What was culturally specific, then, were things to do with content. For Spiral, the audience focused on the presence of corruption in French society (and said this confirmed a perception they had of France) and also the specificity of the French judicial and police systems. But the plot was then international in nature, and the concepts that the plot then dealt were described as neutral (ie, not culturally specific to France). The only culturally specific element in Falke, our audience said, was tied to the language. The plot again was deemed to be international, containing tropes that are common to the genre of international crime dramas.
In contrast, Inspector Montalbano, Mafiosa, and Maltese were all seen to be intrinsically linked to their locations but where that location was, was perhaps more debatable. There was an obvious aspect of Mediterranean-ness to all these series, with our audiences suggesting that the programmes didn’t feel particularly French or Italian but rather part of a Mediterranean culture that meant that the shows could have been situated in Greece or Turkey, for example. The focus on the family, the depiction of the Mafia, and the presence of corruption were again identified as culturally-specific to these areas, and particularly an aspect of Italian culture (stereotypically, according to some of our viewers).
In terms of language, we have had some really interesting discussions with our audiences regarding subtitling and the importance of the sound of the language. For nearly all members of our audience, it would have been impossible to watch any of these shows with the sound off. Not only is the background music important to understanding what is happening and building up the tension and suspense, the sound of the language itself is crucial to understanding some of the cultural specificity of these shows and grasping the elements that are specific to locations and nations. One participant explained that you don’t need to understand the words to get the meaning of a conversation: tone of voice can be enough to understand the emotion of the characters, all of which then contribute to the atmosphere of the programme. Many of our viewers also said they would not watch a dubbed version of these programmes, because dubbing, they said, added distance and another cultural interpretation that wouldn’t be there in the original. Where members of the audience would have been happy to watch a dubbed version of these shows, we discovered that they were already used to watching dubbed programming due to their background (these viewers tended to come from countries other than the UK, where dubbing, they explained, was much more the norm). One viewer who grew up outside the UK insisted that use of dubbing broadened the audience since ‘[the viewers] don’t care where it is set, they just want to know whodunnit!’ It was then the UK viewers, often new to foreign-language drama / who did not grow up with foreign-language drama, who would prefer to not watch a dubbed version and to also keep the sound on to hear the language, if only for its aesthetic quality to help set the scene and tone of the show.
From our perspective, what was then interesting was the nature of the conversations we had regarding whether the programmes made you want to learn the language. For Spiral, for example, one audience member explained that he regretted that his French was so poor that he had needed the subtitles to understand what was being said. Whilst he could grasp the gist of a conversation from the tone of voice and context, he needed the subtitles to understand the precise meaning of the words, which he felt was important for his enjoyment of the show. He was interested in watching more episodes of Spiral, but also in developing his knowledge of French (which was GCSE level), to be able to understand what was going on without needing the subtitles all the time. For the Italian series, our viewers did not feel encouraged to learn the language due to the speed of the conversations! However, they were very interested in visiting places where the series were set (Sicily) – suggesting that the promotional, touristic aspect of Montalbano in particular also works in the UK context.