If you’re looking for a new drama series to watch and while away the cold evenings in the absence of Doctor Who, may I recommend the excellent Professor T?
It’s available on All 4, on the Walter Presents strand. (The said Walter is Walter Iuzzolino, an Italian TV critic who selects the best of world drama for purchase by Channel 4.)
Go to All 4 and click on World Drama. It takes you there directly.
Professor T is a Belgian series and it’s in Flemish (a Dutch dialect) with English subtitles. Your initial reaction to this may well be the same as mine: “Oh, it’s going to be arty and worthy and good for me and it’s going to take a lot of effort.” In fact, 5 minutes in, you’ll forget you’re watching something in a language other than English and you’ll be hooked. It’s beautifully written, it’s witty, it’s gripping – and it’s very, very funny.
What makes it is the towering central performance of the outstanding Koen de Bouw as Professor T himself.
Professor Jasper Teerlink (hence the “T”) is a criminologist at the University of Antwerp. To say he is also an oddball would be like saying that the Master isn’t always very nice. He has an on/off working relationship with the local police: some of them think he’s marvellous, others think he’s a dangerous maniac. The series isn’t a police procedural, though. There are elements of this but it actually doesn’t fit into any category. It’s pretty well unique. (And Professor T would be a marvellous template for a future incarnation of the Doctor.)
Jasper Teerlink – you pronounce it with a Y rather than a J, so you say his first name as “Yasper” – has OCD and Aspergers. Neither syndrome is sneered at or handled insensitively by the programme makers; they’re just part of who he is. He’s in his 40s, good looking in a rather odd way, and he always dresses in a suit (generally blue, and always of the same cut), without a tie. His face is usually set in an expression of quizzical and slightly sardonic interest. He stands ramrod straight, finds human beings difficult to get on with, and he never shakes hands. In fact, when he has to meet people, he always wears disposable latex gloves; at other times, he uses hand sanitiser (two applications) which he wipes off with tissues (always two of those, as well). He is massively and gloriously insensitive to others’ feelings, not out of callousness but simply because he doesn’t understand what’s going on. He is so rude that he makes Hartnell’s Doctor look cuddly. He looks upon the world with an amused contempt.
And much of the story is seen from Professor T’s point of view. There are two sets of characters: the police, and the world of his fellow academics. Professor T’s boredom with his fellow human beings often lead him to daydream and fantasise about them, and we see what he sees: the Dean of the University, a dignified and kindly figure, is suddenly a Roman senator, berating his audience; his middle aged and cantankerous secretary Ingrid variously bursts into songs from musicals or turns into an Al Capone-style hood, toting a tommy gun. And cut back to Professor T, observing his wandering thoughts with an expression of puzzled bemusement, as though he’s surprised by what his mind has conjured up and can’t quite believe that his subconscious could come up with anything so peculiar.
Excellent characterisation throughout, then. The principal police officers are Christine, the boss (a former girlfriend of Teerlink’s – your mind will boggle), Paul (the DI who hates Teerlink and thinks he’s a menace), and the series’ leads after Teerlink himself: two junior detectives in their late 20s, Annelise and Daan. Annelise was a former student of Professor T and it’s she who persuades her superiors to involve him in their cases. She’s single and lives with her father, who has Alzheimer’s and grows progressively more ill as the series continues. The performances from the actors who bring them to life are pitch-perfect. The series deals with some of the issues confronting us in the 21st Century: incurable disease, the suffering of the elderly, mental and physical disability and illness, the sex trade, racism, loneliness, and euthanasia (which is legal in Belgium). But it’s never heavy-handed or preachy, unlike… goodness me, I can’t think of a comparison. Issues are part of the drama and are not shoehorned in so that we may be beaten over the head with them.
Some of the minor characters only appear for a few minutes in occasional episodes, but there are beautiful and subtle performances from the actors playing the Dean and Teerlink’s world-weary mother. The whole series is, indeed, beautifully done.
It’s not a police procedural, then. It’s partly comedic, it’s partly a crime drama, it’s partly… well, it’s partly unique. The outstanding central performance by Koen de Bouw is totally compelling. And while it’s mainly in Flemish, the actors switch effortlessly into French when talking to people from the non-Flemish speaking areas of Belgium, and then, when necessary, they speak English. (There’s something to ponder there about the internationalism of mainland Europe and the insularity of the UK.)
There’s a small but devoted following of Professor T in the UK. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in years. Three series are available on All 4; the third has just been added. The mix of genres in the series is partly driven by demographics, according to the showrunners: Belgium’s population is only 11 million, and only 6½ million of those are Flemish speakers. In order to attract an audience, they have to be innovative. The series is thought of so highly that it’s been remade in German by German television and in French by the French. (Can’t help but think that these remakes just won’t be as good because Professor T is no longer played by de Bouw.) An American version is said to be in development.
There are superficial similarities to Sherlock and certainly, if you like Sherlock, you’ll like this. (Actually, I think this is much better.) You’ll also like it if you enjoy the more off-the-wall episodes of Doctor Who.
Professor T is a hero for our times. I love him dearly.
Outstanding. Massively recommended!