Salamander: BBC4 heads out of the dark with Belgian thriller

Drama's writer says it is the opposite of Scandinavian series such as The Bridge, stressing that it is made for 'a big audience'

The change in language may not be immediately apparent to every viewer but BBC4's latest Saturday night subtitled drama marks a departure from The Killing and The Bridge, the Scandinavian hits on which the channel has built its reputation.

Salamander, a 12-part thriller which begins on Saturday, is the channel's first Belgian acquisition.

The language is not the only distinction, the drama doing without those Saturday night staples on BBC4 – grey layers of northern European gloom and a prominent leading role for a woman.

Salamander opens with a daring night-time raid on a private Brussels bank, and the subsequent murder, suicide or disappearance of the 66 people whose safety deposit boxes were broken into.

The BBC4 channel editor, Cassian Harrison, said: "What struck me was the Belgians have an even more paranoid sense of the world around them [than the Scandinavians].

"It is a first for us, to have a series from Belgium. It's great to give the viewers stuff they know and we know they like but it's never going to work if we just keep on offering the same thing.

"We're broadening the palette, finding fresh drama and new film-making voices. It's a first-rate conspiracy thriller."

But the change of tone and a more conventional narrative in the drama, made in French and Dutch, may still come as something of a shock to some viewers. Possibly they are just not used to seeing this much daylight on BBC4 on a Saturday night.

"It is really the opposite of those Scandinavian dramas. Practically everything I write is in sunlight," said Salamander's writer, Ward Hulselmans.

Hulselmans, who is now writing a second series, described his drama as an exploration of "vanity and greed, how power and money corrupts, and what people do when their secrets are about to be made public".

"You can't compare Salamander with [The Killing and The Bridge]," he added. "In Belgium they reached a very small public, they were scheduled late in the evening. They were very serious, very dark. I write for a big audience."

BBC4 had another success with the second series of acclaimed Swedish-Danish thriller The Bridge, which came to an end last Saturday and later this year it will broadcast its first subtitled period drama, 1864, from Danish public service broadcaster DR.

Salamander will follow the same pattern as BBC4's other overseas dramas, airing in two-episode blocks every Saturday. But it remains to be seen whether the series, which is being remade for the Canadian and US TV markets in a project being overseen by Oscar-winning film-maker Paul Haggis, can repeat their success.

"It's the story of one man, one cop, against the establishment," says its director, Frank Van Mechelen. "It's a very big story, a political story, but we tell it through human drama," added Hulselmans. "Everyone has their secrets, and our biggest fear is that they will come out. That is my motivation to tell this story."

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John Plunkett

The GuardianTramp

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