The only things left worth watching on the BBC are foreign buy-ins like The Last Wave

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

The Last Wave

BBC Four

The Umbrella Academy


Soon, very soon now — even sooner than I imagined, if A Suitable Boy turns out to be as lacklustre as some critics are saying — the only things left worth watching on the BBC will be old repeats and foreign buy-ins like The Last Wave.

A bit like The Returned (Les Revenants), The Last Waveconcerns the effect of a supernatural event on a small community, not in the Alps this time but in a seaside resort on the Atlantic coast famed for its surf. During a competition, ten surfers are enveloped by a mysterious sausage-shaped cloud and disappear in the sea for five hours. They re-emerge, apparently unharmed yet subtly changed. One little boy’s eyes have turned electric blue; he also no longer requires glasses and can see through solid objects. Another lad has acquired the gift of healing.

It being French, all this takes ages to happen. I totally respect the French for this: they are like the televisual equivalent of the slow-food movement. Unlike, say, those vulgar, trashy Americans, they would much rather you gave up watching out of boredom and frustration than submit themselves to the indignity of grabbing your attention with instant thrills.

Compare and contrast The Umbrella Academy, now starting its second season on Netflix. Within the first five minutes, the world has been obliterated by meteors, you’ve watched half a dozen people fry, Texas has been invaded by the Soviets in 1963, and our superheroes have wiped out sundry Russky soldiers using hallucinations, tentacles and the power to make their heads explode. Nothing is left to chance here: the colours are bright, the special effects spectacular, the violence ultra — you will be entertained and you will keep watching.

But with the French, it’s a case of bof— we cannot begin the action without some amuse-gueules: a typical French teenage girl being bolshie and riding off crossly on her moped; a typical French lefty masseur shagging his clients; a typical French beach bar where a man with old-fashioned, rural French facial hair is drinking something French, etc.

I love all this. It’s almost as good as being on holiday in France. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the lovely few days I spent somewhere similar a couple of years ago with the Goves, eating croissants, taking bracing dips in the choppy sea, remembering to say ‘Bonjour monsieur, madame’ on entering the
boulangerie. French TV, I get the impression, does not yet suffer from the tragic affliction you find with British TV — the BBC especially — whereby to depict anything like the real England as it really still is, is considered somehow unprogressive and potentially racist.

If The Last Wavewere British, there would be a lot more lesbians, people of colour and wheelchairs, plus mental illness, sexual abuse and confounded male chauvinism. The Last Wave, however, is content to depict a fairly typical French seaside resort where, all right, the mayor is a woman, and one of the kids was molested by his stepfather, but where generally the women are like normal women (neurotic, sexy, needy, sulky, nurturing, etc) and the men are like normal men (irresponsible, priapic, irascible, brave).

Three episodes in I can’t yet tell whether it’s going to cohere or disappoint. It’ll be the latter, almost certainly, because the most interesting parts of this genre are invariably the bits where the characters acquire their superpowers and discover to their amazement, ‘Ooh look, I just held a wounded pigeon for a moment and now it has fluttered off gaily, completely healed.’ After that, I find, it generally tends to be a bit anti-climactic, as does the explanation as to where these powers came from.

There have been various hints that — yawn — it has something to do with the environment. Some stock irresponsible developers, motivated by vulgar profit, have been putting something toxic into the ravaged earth which would have been far better left pristine and virginal as Gaia intended. Perhaps the cloud and that blue slime that seems to be seeping everywhere are Gaia’s revenge.

This is a thriller trope that dates at least as far back as Edge of Darkness (1985), which insisted on detracting from its brilliance ever so slightly in order to make its important point that nuclear waste is bad and that we’d all be much happier if we turned into trees.

The Last Wave isn’t as good as Les Revenants (but then hardly anything is), lacking as it does the gorgeous Mogwai soundtrack and the utter bizarreness and eeriness such as the dead animals floating in the dam and that serial killer.

But it’s easy on the eye, it’s got pretty French girls, surfing, superpowers, just enough incident to stop you drifting off and — apart from the eco stuff — hardly any political correctness.

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