Before Nordic noir, we went Dutch: Van der Valk, the coolest sleuth of the 1970s

Barry Foster as Van Der Valk in the original TV series - Alamy
Barry Foster as Van Der Valk in the original TV series - Alamy
  • Join Michael Hogan in the comments section of this article at noon (BST) today to chat about whether the streetwise Dutch detective will still prove a hit in the post-Brexit age. 

What with Nordic noir, subtitled Euro-thrillers and global gangland epics like Narcos, crime drama has become very cosmopolitan in recent years. But actually, there has been an international flavour to TV police procedurals for decades.

Think of Georges Simenon’s pipe-puffing Parisian commissaire Maigret, played first by Rupert Davies in the Sixties and later by Michael Gambon in the Nineties. Or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who took on several small-screen incarnations before David Suchet stepped into his patent leather shoes in 1989. And who can forget the border-hopping law enforcers of Interpol Calling, the jetset playboys of The Persuaders and The Chinese Detective, aka David Yip as the Met’s DS John Ho?

The coolest of the lot, however, was streetwise Amsterdam cop Commissaris Simon “Piet” Van der Valk. Played by the late Barry Foster, who somehow made blond curls look manly, he swaggered moodily around the Dutch capital solving murders, foiling kidnappings and rooting out political corruption. Nicknamed “Fozza”, Foster was a friend and collaborator of playwright Harold Pinter, and brought gimlet-eyed grit to his portrayal.

Now Van der Valk is back in a glossy reboot which launches this Sunday evening, with Hustle star Marc Warren taking over the title role. Will the Dutch detective still prove a hit in the post-Brexit age?

The original series was British-made by Thames Television with mainly home-grown actors (no dodgy accents attempted) but its unfamiliar setting meant it felt truly international. It soon captivated an audience accustomed to classic English literary sleuths or home-grown bobbies on the beat.

Van der Valk was based, albeit loosely, on the series of 12 novels by Nicholas Freeling – a Simenon-influenced Brit who travelled extensively and eventually settled in France. Airing just as the UK was entering the EEC, the adaptation felt timely and fittingly urbane. Van der Valk was easily as glamorous as his American contemporaries, Kojak and Starsky & Hutch.

Marc Warren is taking over the role in ITV's new series - ITV
Marc Warren is taking over the role in ITV's new series - ITV

He wore flares, rollnecks, suede jackets and dapper trench coats, stopping occasionally for a glass of pilsner and a slim cigar at a canalside bar. He had an eye for art and could play piano. His sporty but unflashy taste in cars evolved from the original white DAF 66, through an Opel Admiral and a Ford Taunus, to an Audi 80.

Our hard-bitten hero was cynical yet intuitive, an astute observer of human nature who cracked cases with brains, not brawn – although naturally, he could handle himself in a foot-chase or fist-fight if required. His sometimes seedy investigations, which didn’t shy away from the city’s liberal sex and drug scenes, contrasted with the picturesque Amsterdam locations of Van der Valk’s jurisdiction.

Best of all, he had one of the catchiest, most evocative theme tunes in TV history. Called Eye Level and performed by the Simon Park Orchestra, it earned the distinction, in September 1973, of becoming the first TV theme to top the UK charts, staying in the top 40 for almost six months. It was so popular that easy listening crooner Matt Monro charted with a vocal version at the same time. One of my Telegraph colleagues learned to play it on the violin while he was at school, and claims he still can.

Van der Valk’s ITV pomp was between 1972 and 1977. He briefly returned in the early Nineties, but for the last 28 years, he’s been absent from our screens. So why has ITV brought him back now? Executive producer Michele Buck has talked about the series’ timeless appeal. There is something about the detective’s stylish, maverick swagger that never goes out of fashion.

Culture newsletter REFERRAL (article)
Culture newsletter REFERRAL (article)

But, of course, the sleuth has been updated for the 21st century. Van der Valk is still blond, brooding and partial to a lager, but he now has a “gutsy and fiercely competent” female sidekick, Inspector Lucienne Hassell (played by Maimie McCoy), and a female boss. He lives on a boat, rides a mountain bike and, instead of having a wife, is now single and internet dating.

“Hassell is more than his match,” says writer Chris Murray (who has previously scripted episodes of Lewis, Agatha Raisin and Midsomer Murders). “They are close friends; she is the only person that he’ll listen to if she tells him he’s out of order. Which she does.”

Initially, ITV is airing three feature-length mysteries, set in the worlds of avant-garde art, addiction, mysticism and designer fashion, but whether Marc Warren will ever be a match for Barry Foster is debatable, particularly among those of us with fond memories of the Seventies original.

The big question is, have they kept that classic theme tune? Well, yes and no. An extra mystery for Van der Valk to unravel, perhaps. Either way, my Telegraph colleague will have his violin at the ready.

Van Der Valk is on ITV on Sunday at 8pm