The French word engrenages meaning gears, or gearing, hints at the possibility of sudden changes of speed or direction. But as the title of a cop show, it was never going to work outside of France, which is why someone came up with the more workaday alternative, Spiral.
But what’s in a name? The series, now in its eighth season on Canal + in France and half-way through season 7 on BBC 4, is one of the finest, and grittiest, detective shows on television, fully meriting the acclaim it has won in 70 countries across the globe, including the United States.
Its leading characters, making up a plainclothes detective squad in one of the less salubrious quartiers of Paris, are entirely believable, wholly gallic (with a garlic aftertaste) and 100 per cent universal.
First up we have Laure (Caroline Proust), the capitaine, or chief inspector, in her forties, sexually wayward, and vulnerable, who never leaves the office without her trusty SP 2022 pistol and sky-blue evidence gloves. Laure dresses like the 1960s rockstar Julie Driscoll – leather jerkin over jeans and a revealing t-shirt. She likes nothing more than a good car chase or the opportunity to scramble over a backyard wall. But she is also a thinker, usually one step ahead of her team, whom she defends to the higher-ups in the manner of a she-bear protecting her cubs.
By her side is the trusty Gilou (Thierry Godard), a long-time lieutenant, who provides both the empathetic insight that Laure lacks and the muscle required to beat the crap out of a villain or, back at the station, to encourage a reluctant confession. Gilou has been known to help himself from time to time when recovering stolen goods. Well, he’s got bills to pay, and on the money he makes, who could blame him? But he is otherwise generous and good-hearted – the sort of man you would depend on to beat up a rapist but might not choose to leave alone with your wife. He never seems to change his clothes. Either that or he keeps a number of identical ensembles. Nor does he spend much time with his razor, yet never quite grows a beard. If this was 1972, he would be played, with a cigarette, by Jean-Paul Belmondo.
In season six, Laure and Gilou finally get it together, which we have been expecting since at least season three. They can’t keep their hands off each other. But it is not to be, or at any rate wasn’t as far as episode two of season seven, which is as far as I’ve got. Laure went through a breakdown, you see, after she realised (correctly – she only had to ask me) that she was not cut out to be the mother of the child she bore following a disastrous affair with a married man. Poor Gilou, who was left holding a stuffed panda rather than the baby (which he had rather optimistically undertaken to raise with her), despairs and throws himself back into the job with a vengeance, at which point watch out, low-lifes.
The third wheel in this damaged police vehicle is “Tintin” (Fred Bianconi), another long-serving lieutenant, whose marriage is falling apart, leading to mood-swings that his chers colleagues, while sympathetic, find more than a little irritating. Tintin is the procedures and paperwork man, without whom, as we discover, the work of the team is fatally undermined. But he is also impulsive and brave, intervening more than once to keep his more reckless colleagues from being beaten to a pulp. At the end of season six, he flounces off, affronted by the discovery that Gilou has briefly pocketed some stolen gold and that Laure, as his lover, has helped him cover it up. But he comes back in season seven in order, I suspect, to tie up loose ends.