The British remake of the outstanding Belgian drama Professor T arrived on Britbox – and, I’m relieved to say, it’s very, very good. It will, like the original, especially appeal to Sherlock fans, and to those of you who like the more off-the-wall episodes of Doctor Who.
I’m very relieved, because I was dreading a turkey. The original Belgian version is in Flemish and it is stunning: one of the best and most imaginative television drama series of the last 10 years, if not the best. (You can read my write-up of the original here.)
Professor T was born out of the need to draw in a wide audience from a small demographic: there are only five and a half million Flemish speakers in Belgium, so it had to be innovative and unusual (quirky, if you like) if it were to succeed. And unusual is what it is. The basic premise is that an academic – a professional criminologist – is brought in by the police to help with difficult cases. So far, so Cracker.
But then Cracker doesn’t have Professor T.
Professor T himself is very, very peculiar. A genius, he finds people almost impossible to relate to. To say he is an oddball is like saying that the Master is not a very nice man. He also suffers from OCD (and this is handled sensitively in both the Belgian and British versions: it is not held up as something to laugh at). Like Hartnell in his early stories, Professor T looks on humanity with an amused contempt. The character, as I said in my earlier article, would make a superb template for a future incarnation of the Doctor.
And he daydreams, and we see what he sees. The fantasy sequences – they’re usually no more than a few seconds long – are superbly done and they’re generally very, very funny. The original Belgian series has a titanic central performance from Koen De Bouw, an outstanding supporting cast, superb writing, cinematography and direction.
How can you follow that?
The British version could easily have been a pale imitation; it could have ditched the odder stuff and have reinvented itself as yet another gritty copy show. But it doesn’t do that: it is, thank God, essentially faithful to the original. The setting is moved from Antwerp and its University to Cambridge and its University. Professor Jasper (pronounced “Yasper”) Teerlink becomes Professor Jasper (pronounced “Jasper”) Tempest and he’s played by Ben Miller. Miller’s rarely absent from our screens and he was, of course, the Sherriff of Nottingham in Robert of Sherwood. The other characters from the Belgian original all feature in the remake, though with some names slightly Anglicised.
At the time of writing, I’ve only seen the first instalment. They’ve brought over Dries Vos, the director of many of the Belgian episodes; as a result, the style and cinematography are surprising and striking for a British drama. Many of the crew worked on the original; the composer is the same; and the first episode follows the same story as the first Belgian episode, without being a slavish imitation – though a few scenes are almost shot-for-shot remakes. The executive producer is Walter Iuzzolino, an Italian TV critic who selects the best of world drama for purchase by Channel 4, for the “Walter Presents” strand. Iuzzolino is a huge admirer of the original series and was clearly determined that the English language version should not stray too far from its progenitor.
The problem for someone like me is that I’m too much in love with the original. As a result, it’s very hard not to think of it when watching the new version. Recasting Professor T is like recasting Mr Spock or Sir Humphrey Appleby: the character is so bound up with the actor’s performance that you can’t imagine anyone else in the part. And yet Zachary Quinto managed to achieve the impossible, and so did Henry Goodman when he played Sir Humphrey on stage and in Sky’s version of Yes, Prime Minister. Ben Miller gives a remarkably good performance. As I say, I’ve only seen one episode and it’s a little early to judge. Even so, I was afraid that he’d tempted to be too big and bombastic; instead, he gives a restrained and highly intelligent performance. Jasper Tempest is believable as a human being, odd and rather unsettling though he is. Miller has confessed to his admiration for the original series and of De Bouw’s extraordinary central performance. Miller knows what he’s doing with the character, and he isn’t trying to gild the lily.
So far, then, so good. The first episode is a little subdued; it only gives us a couple of the fantasy sequences, where we see what Professor T sees, and the focus is more on the crime than on the characters. Fair enough: they have to establish the premise before it can be developed. That said, it’s hard to see how a British version of the show could be better. The original has already been remade successfully for French, German, and Czech TV, so my hopes for the rest of the series are high.
(I should probably point out that part one of the Belgian version – the Miller remake has the same storyline – came in for some criticism in the UK for being salacious; it was said by some to revel in the suffering of the victims. It’s true that the crime focused on is brutal and vicious, though I don’t really think the criticism is fair. Most examples of the genre of crime drama – although whether Professor T slots neatly into this category is dubious – deal with violent offences, and yet they do take a moral stance. As with Doctor Who, good triumphs over evil. I could bang on about Aristotle and catharsis and all that, but moi, I hate to be pretentious. Also, ignorance prevents me from saying any more because I know zilch about Aristotle.)
Is it as good as the original? Is Professor Tempest as compelling as Professor Teerlink?
Thus far, I’d say no – though it’s with some hesitation that I say so. It’s very hard to achieve another Androzani or Genesis of the Daleks. There are just some things that are so good, it’s almost impossible to top them. The British remake is excellent; the original is stunning.
So do watch it. It’s on Britbox now and it’ll be on ITV this summer, though the dates have yet to be confirmed.
But try and catch the original – and be blown away.
(Sadly, only the third and least good series of the original is now on All 4, though Amazon Prime has all of it – but only in the USA.