Murder in Provence review: Roger Allam makes this great drama sublime

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Roger Allam (BritBox)
Roger Allam (BritBox)

One useful guide as to whether any given contemporary British television drama is worth watching is to see if Roger Allam is in it. If the show is mediocre he will make it more palatable, as with Endeavour and Game of Thrones, and if the rest of it is great he will help render it sublime, as with latter series ofThe Thick of It, and the radio show he does with Joanna Lumley, Conversations from a Long Marriage. He’s in demand at the moment, which is a good thing, but you rather wonder whether producers are just “reaching for the Allam” in the way that inadequate cooks reach for the Schwartz jar of mixed herbs and throw a handful into whatever doomed concoction is disintegrating before their very senses on the hob. Well, I speak for myself.

With his grumpy but civilised and ineffably upper-middle-class manner, Allam infuses any role fortunate to have found him like a blend of Chris Patten and those much missed late actors Geoffrey Palmer and Robert Stephens. The role of Judge Antoine Verlaque in these adaptions of the ML Longworth could almost have been created for Allam. He’s a sophisticated soul from a rich family of grain merchants with an eye for fine art and spotting the flaw in a wrong ’un’s alibi. The series is set in gorgeous Aix-en-Provence, and the judge is not unlike a French Inspector Morse. They’ve even given him a nice classic Citroen DS to cruise around in, like Morse’s Jaguar.

Instead of a dimwit bloke for a sidekick, they’ve gifted this judge-detective (same thing in the French system), a girlfriend and partner – psychiatrist Marine Bonnet (Nancy Carroll), playing the archetypal slim, smart French woman about town. Their dialogue is liberally peppered with references surely designed to tickle the familiarity of the target demographic, and who better to deliver sardonic lines about death, suicide and urinary-prostate issues than the world-weary but fundamentally well-balanced character of Verlaque/Allam? The pair are well-supported, if only in the dramatic sense, by Patricia Hodge as Marine’s mum, Florence, who considers Verlaque not quite good enough. Florence, also thin and elegant, smokes, something I thought had been banned on telly. Maybe it’s a Brexit bonus.

The scenes are so bursting with sunshine and colour it’s like a travel show, and I half expected Judith Chalmers or our own Simon Calder to pop up in the local bistro. Instagrammable lunches and fine wines are parked on the whitest of fine linens. Everything is immaculate – puns included – and plays hard into the British notion of idealised Frenchness. Yet the producers have done well to leave the lead actors’ mellifluous voices alone and not impose Inspector Clouseau/‘Allo ‘Allo accents on them. Or ‘Allam, ‘Allam, I suppose. That would have been hideous, though hilarious.

Actually, the murderer in this episode (of three) is also a smoker, a troubled student who half-accidentally knocks off his tutor with a priceless 14th century wooden carving of Saint Francis. Well, it’s possible, as Verlaque might say. His roll-up habit is the undoing of poor Claude Ossarte (Scott Chambers), you see, because he left a pile of dog-ends outside the don’s office. That’s all it takes.

It takes us about 90 minutes to get to the slightly absurd denouement of Verlaque clambering around the roof of the university to talk young Ossarte out of jumping to his death. By then though, maybe with a cognac in one hand and a Gauloise in the other, we’re just enjoying the scenery and have stopped caring too much about who murdered Professor Georges Moutte. C’est la vie.

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