BBC1’s Zen

I caught up yesterday on the first episode of BBC 1’s Zen, adapted from the Aurelio Zen crime novels of Michael Dibdin. I haven’t read the novels, and wasn’t particularly taken with the trailer for the programme, so had dragged my feet a bit, but when I finally tuned in, I was pleasantly surprised.

The first episode, ‘Vendetta’, immediately grabbed my attention with its sassy styling. The production seems to be channelling sleek 60s films like The Thomas Crown Affair through its camerawork, music and sharp-suited look.  Dark shades were much in evidence. The feel was very Italian, with lovely vistas of Rome and olive groves in the countryside, and a bleached Mediterranean light (or was that just my telly?). But it was all done with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour and was tremendously fun.

ZEN (high res)

Rufus Sewell was excellent as Zen. From the comments I’m seeing elsewhere, his Aurelio is a little sleeker and more of a heartthrob than the one in the books, but the characterisation certainly played well with this 40ish female viewer. He’s a genuinely accomplished actor, and his chisled profile was shown off to good effect during his encounters with the alluring Tania (a hint of Michaelangelo’s David there?). There was a strong supporting cast too.

One interesting point: British and Italian actors mingle throughout, and it seems that everyone has been instructed to deliver their lines in their own accents (so we had Queen’s English, northern English, Italian and possibly Irish accents bundled in together). It was a bit odd at first, but somehow seemed to work OK. Better than everyone trying to fake an Italian delivery and getting it tragically wrong.

I watched Zen with my 15-year-old son, who said he would walk after 10 minutes if it was no good. He stayed for the duration, which is a compliment indeed. We both liked the multi-layered plot (until the end, when we got a trifle confused due to the long, drawn-out meaningful looks and cryptic exchanges between the characters, which were undoubtedly significant, but not always intelligible to us). 

We’ll be watching the second episode, ‘Cabal’, tonight  – so the makers of Zen are doing something very right. In particular, I look forward to seeing how Zen’s character navigates the increasingly tricky role of ‘honest cop’ in an Italian police force portrayed as inherently corrupt.

Both episodes of Zen are still available on iplayer.

If watching Zen has made you want to read Dibdin’s series, or other crime novels set in Italy, there’s a good list and overview here, on the Italian Mysteries blog.

Update: Just watched the third episode, ‘Ratking’, which I think was the best yet, especially in terms of snappy one liners:

Man: ‘I hear you’ve found a body?’

Zen: ‘Yes, they think it’s my career.’

All nicely set up for a series now: please BBC, we’d love to see more.

75 thoughts on “BBC1’s Zen

  1. I watched the first episode ‘Vendetta’ and wasn’t too impressed really, but in the interests of fairness wanted to see next episode ‘Cabal’. I’m always keen to see new drama on British television, particularly British made drama as I’m so very bored with all the crashing about, car-chasing and “o-my-god” dialogue of most modern American films. I had never heard of the Zen books, knew nothing of their author so feel I really did come with an unbiased mind to the series. Well, although disappointing and a little slow, ‘Vendetta’ tickled enough of my interest to persuade me to look at the next episode, and of course what a delight to see all those Italian landscapes and light. ‘Cabal’? What a disappointment. I thought I had somehow fallen through a time-warp populated with badly drawn character stereotypes and written by someone with a copy of a dictionary of cliches open next to them! Please, someone, tell me that all those idiotic female characters were simply included as a joke! My goodness, there was even a ‘tart-with-a-heart’! How tired! What a shame for all those able actors having to waste their talents in these turgid tales!

    • I loved it. I think, nay believe, all critics of a negative nature should go have a good old bowl of pasta and a roll on some horse food. It is intelligent, funny, beautiful (rarely the case) and so well acted I was astonished. The nay sayers are tunnel visioned overtly PC bores.

      It’s brilliant and sadly too short. Terry Wogan is a hero of mine, but I’ve never been so disappointed to see him as last night with my wine glass in hand. Why only 3 episodes? It’s fab. Perfectly cast, acted and beautifully filmed.

      Please bring it back soon, 3 episodes simply weren’t enough!!

  2. Thanks, Anna. Yes, I’d agree with you about the gender stereotyping. I was wondering why this hadn’t bugged me as much as it did you when watching the programme, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that I ‘excused’ it because the story is set in Italy, and we expect ‘men to be men’ and ‘women to be women’ in Italy. Which is obviously to fall into the trap of national stereotyping as well… Ouch!

    I think your reference to a ‘time-warp’ is interesting, because the feel of Zen is quite loose, temporally speaking. We see odd signs of modern life like mobile phones, but the whole 60s thing they have going encourages you to see the story as taking place some time in the not-quite-so-recent past, and helps to ‘excuse’ the gender thing again, in the same way as being politically incorrect was often ‘excused’ in the Life on Mars series because it was set in the 70s. So programme makers appear to exploit these loopholes in order to make what shouldn’t be permissable seem OK.

    I did enjoy ‘Cabal’ – Peabody Jnr and I understood the plot this time, for starters, and the whole thing zipped along well. But the story arc was very similar to ‘Vendetta’: multilayered, intertwining plotlines, pressure on Zen from different sides for opposite outcomes to the case, and a similar resolution to the problem at the end. I’ll be watching the third one this Sunday to see whether they stick to the same formula or do something more original.

    I am actually now very keen to read the books, to see how they compare in terms of subtlety and complexity, especially in relation to the question of police corruption. And I’ll keep a sharp eye on the representation of the female characters when I’m reading them too 🙂

  3. I read a number of the Zen books over 10 years ago and sort of enjoyed them. However, as the series so far makes very clear, corruption in power in Italy is not only rife, it is expected. I found the written character of Zen to be far more ambiguous (and at times corrupt) than Rufus (slurp!) has played him.

    Equally, because the of aura of corruption, I continue to have difficulties with understanding the plots on the TV series. However, I’ve decided to just enjoy the eye candy and go wherever the plot takes me, without working out who’s a goodie and who’s a baddie!

  4. Thanks, Morag. Glad I’m not the only one having slight difficulty with the plots. Thanks also for confirming Zen’s more ambiguous moral status in the books – am definitely going to have to start reading them. Enjoy tomorrow’s episode (and the delectable Rufus)…Looking forward to it!

  5. So disappointed this is the last episode coming up. I do hope it returns, and sooner rather than later
    Rufus Sewell was excellent in the role of ‘Zen’ and the rest of the cast were good also. The Italian countryside just adds so much!
    I am so fed up with these fast action packed, gun shooting rubbish that is out there, so this is a very welcome change.
    A detective with morals…..fab!! Plus he is very handsome 🙂

  6. Having read the prevoious comments I wonder if we as a nation have become a little lazy and expect the Sunday evening drama to consist of nice scenery and a storyline that doesn’t require us to use any grey matter whatsoever. Zen is a Sunday evening treat and Rufus Sewell plays him with such laid back sutelty. Give us lots, lots more like this. Please.

  7. I absolutely loved these two programmes, Zen is sooo stylish. Rufus Sewell brilliant. Please please make some more !.

  8. thought Zen very good. it was really sleek, looked good had interesting stories and a really good actor playing the lead. Such a treat seeing Rufus Sewell on telly. will there be another set of stories? Whole production really well done and all the supports great too. What a winner

    • Completely agree with all the positive comments. I really hope the BBC will pick up on them and put together another series. The whole production was very stylish I thought.

  9. We weren’t so sure about this series after watching the first programme but the characters and stories have since appealed to us (despite the stereotyping) and we’re loving it. More please. Not only did we enjoy the aforementioned, but the cinematography, settings, lighting and the music add significantly to the overall experience. I remember Rufus Sewell saying in an interview that they will only make more if the public liked it. Well we did and hope there will be more.

  10. Please, please, please can we have more Zen. Thought tonight’s episode ‘Ratking’ was just brilliant. It’s good to see something completely different on TV – would like to see the other Michael Dibdin books televised and of course see the talented Rufus Sewell again on a Sunday night!

  11. Absolutely loved Zen. I watched the first 2 episodes on BBC iPlayer on Saturday and then the third one tonight. Was disappointed to learn that the third was the last. I was hooked from the first 10 minutes of the first episode. I LOVE Rufus Sewell and his character delivery and humour and gorgeousness of Zen. Please can we have more of Rufus playing Zen – he is absolutely brilliant! Thanks BBC!

  12. Zen, loved it. Hope to see much more. Sewell brilliant. Stories fascinating. Production excellent.

    As an ardent follower of the genre, I will be seriously disappointed if we do not see more of this character and this setting. Plot, direction, acting – excellent.

    Well done to the whole team.

  13. More Zen please. More Rufus Sewell please. Absolutely brilliant. Such a refreshing change. Could not wait for Sunday nights. Rufus Sewell has been one of my favourite actors for a long time and he absolutely makes this part his own but all the cast were exceptional. Must have more please.

  14. I loved it, most esp Rufus Sewell and the long lingering looks. Loved the pacing. Zen’s relationship with his Mama. Was at first annoyed by lack of female characters but by last episode it seemed better balanced.
    More more more. I’m hooked.

  15. I have never blogged – if that is what i am doing – but i just need to say that Zen was the best thing on telly for years, i loved the plots, the photography with that lovely warm sepia filter to Zen’s world, the humour, (especially we shagged on his desk! what wonderful light relief after such tension) but most of all RUFUS SEWELL who was superb in every way(i adore his beautifully understated facial expressions) i need a poster of him above my bed. I am devasted it is all over AND THERE MUST BE ANOTHER SERIES that runs for at least 5 years.

    • I am the same, never blogged, is that what we’re doing? However, Zen is, was and hopefully WILL be a long running and permanent fixture on our screens. Please BBC grab it with both hands and any other hands you can find. It would be so sad to see BBC lose another winner.

  16. I have to agree with Mr G. I am fed up with dramas where you know the plot and result after the first few minutes. I love the idea of the 90minute episodes, rather than trying to squeeze the story into a convenient 9 until 10 slot, although I can’t help feel that the last 15mins is sometimes rushed to get to the ending, perhaps 2 hour specials?! (not split over two nights!)
    My wife and I have hugely enjoyed the series, she was not worried about the lack of strong female characters, but shocked to see so much graffiti. As a business traveller, yes that is what Italian cities look like, although the rest of the vistas are wonderful, very much reminescent of 50s/60s movies.
    The series, as others have written, does want me to look up the books, and I sincerely hope that the BBC do the same. One question, the series was made in conjunction with ZDF I believe, is there an Italian dubbed version as well?

  17. Not having read the books by Michael Dibdin I came to this series with an open mind and thoroughly enjoyed every minute. Rufus Sewell is gorgeous and played Zen with glorious understatement. The scenery, camera work, clothes and casting was great and I found the writing crisp and witty. Last night’s episode contained some hilarious moments (eg collapsing desk!) and I hope the BBC gets enough positive feedback to commission another series very very very soon.

    Thank you

  18. Hi,
    Pretty much agree with all the positive comments above. What a refreshing change from the imported American stuff we are offered these days. The only character I had a real problem with was the Chief Justice which I thought whilst very attractive was wrongly cast. Yes you could pick at it if you wish but what a delight to the eye with good camera work and wry smiles which keep the mood from being too serious. BBC please take note that most of us could do with a good serving of this any Sunday evening you choose. Regards

  19. Beautifully shot, marvellously cast, whitty, intelligent, the BBC at its best!
    Please can we have more? (You can bin 10 “reality” shows if you need to find the money! Tania, have my babies, Rufus,,,,, have my babies?

  20. Oh what a joy Zen has been! Fabulous Rome filmed beautifully (the good, the bad and the ugly!), intriguing plots and love the characters. Ratking in particular was a complicated but riveting story as well as very funny (in parts). Rufus Sewell excellent as Zen and nice to see both Italian as well as English actors. Well done BBC – MORE please!

  21. I liked Rufus Sewell’s characterisation of Zen. He was quirky, naturalistic and likeable. I liked that my brain had to strain a bit to work out what was going on. I loved the way Rome was shot – it was always a beautiful part of the programme and not inserted a la Three Coins in the Fountain. I’ll be interested to see where the relationship between Zen and Tania goes. In my opinion it is style with substance and I want more!

  22. Hi BBC
    ZEN is great can we have some more please.
    Zen is kind off like an Italian Steve Mcqueen (Frank Bullitt) very cool

  23. Just a brilliant mini-series – some of the best TV the bbc have produced in a long time. Just hope they do the right thing and give us more!

  24. Zen has the potential to be really good, the actors are well chosen and very capable. I think though it should be an hour long and some of the more unnecessary scenes could very easily be cut. Some of the dialogue is downright dodgy, (the actors do well to cope with it as well as they have). Rufus Sewell is a great actor and his subtlety and facial expressions are refreshing.

  25. Zen is a real treat for sunday evening viewing. Rufus Sewell is so easy on the eye as well as the Roman surroundings. I think the BBC is on to a winner and should produce more episodes. Lets see some more please and very soon

  26. More Aurelio Zen. No the TV series is not like the books, so what?
    Rufus Sewell has re-created Zen and it works.

    Fingers crossed tightly that the BBC makes another series.

  27. I thoroughly enjoyed Zen. What a pleasant change! Please let us have some more. I was so much looking forward to Sunday evening and three episodes are just not enough!

  28. What more can we say about the past 3 weeks? Having both read the entire Zen collection ( at least twice) we were so saddened at the death of Michael Dibdin and thus the end of Aurelio. We were so excited at the prospect of the televised dramas and were not at all disappointed. What a tribute to Michael – I’m sure he would have loved them. It would be a travesty to stop here – loads more to choose from BBC – PLEASE!

  29. Why is it that we are expected to endure weeks of turgid nonsense like Eastenders and various endless US drama series but whenever something really outstanding like Wallander or Zen comes up, we get only 3 episodes? For goodness sake, let’s have a decent 10 part series OF BOTH!!!

  30. Zen is pretty much a faultless production from my point of view and has so much going for it – I hope it will be a huge hit so that we get a new series soon. Its biggest asset (even more than the Italian locations) is undoubtedly a perfectly cast Rufus Sewell, whose understated style is just a joy to watch. Funny, sexy, grown-up entertainment and pure viewing pleasure. Sunday nights just won’t be the same…

  31. What a refreshing change Zen is compared to the copius amounts of American drivel on our screens and even some of our own dull, dismal British Soaps!
    Zen is an absolutely brilliant, quirky drama and Refus Sewell plays the character so well! What glorious Italian backgrounds as well……much more asthetic on the eye than Walford High Street or even Midsomer!


  32. Zen is fantastic, very entertaining and different. A welcome change to the usual rubbish thats on tv. More please!!!

  33. I’ve watched the 3 episodes hopefully, because I think Roof is totally dishy, and I know Italy quite well. Had also read a number of the novels some years ago. In an interview Sewell explains that he had to create his own version of the character of Zen, since he doesn’t really correspond to the description in the novels, and this is completely true. Sewell, and the entire production, emphasise comic elements, which is all well and good.
    But in the end, despite the beauty of the setting and the actor, the series is unsatisfying. The lighting fails to capture the blinding quality of Italian daytime; the actors not only don’t sound Italian, but they also don’t act Italian, esp. the women, who are more like classy Englishwomen than their Italian counterparts, who would dress more flashily with more jewellery and make-up. I wasn’t really convinced by the romance between Zen and Tania (and I wanted to be!). And ultimately, Zen’s character didn’t have enough of an acidic core.
    … So, I’m sorry to say, in the end the series were disappointing to me. What a pity. And what a contrast to the recent Sherlock (which will come out with new episodes soon, hooray), which sat much more comfortably in its British context.

  34. Brilliant series! Please, please, please can we have more?? It’s been a joy to watch and as someone else has said Sunday nights are just not going to be the same without it. Thank you Aunty Beeb

  35. I absolutely agree that Zen was much more interesting than most of the drivel we are offered on TV. It was good to have plots that require attention, dialogue that develops the characters, and humour – all brilliantly acted and produced.
    Please, BBC, let us have more Zen and more grown up TV that doesn’t rely on action packed violence or spurious competition to get its audience!

    • Entirely agree with Karen. Sunday night with intelligent telly sets me up for a week of earning a living. Yes I will add my voice to the clammer for more Zen and other such entertainment. Friday night we need pulp to relax Sunday night we need Zen

  36. As a lover of TV police procedurals, I welcome Zen as an excellent addition. I never watched it live but caught it on Iplayer and I’m glad I did. I love the slight tounge in cheek dry humour of the show, which Rufus pulls off brilliantly and is similar in that respect to A Touch of Frost, although in all other respects is completely different. I don’t believe the accents thing is an issue although people will always find something to find fault with.
    My only gripe (and it’s only a small one) is the unconvincing start to Zen’s relationship with Tania, which initially had me thinking that they were already an item and were covering it up.
    Anyway considering the current never ending diet of banal reality shows, food shows, property shows, etc, the is head, shoulders, waist and ankles above the rest, so lets have more and soon!

  37. I was home relaxing on Sunday night when the third episode of Zen (and sadly the last for now) came up and – I must say, I was glued to the tv for the entire time! I have been watching the other two episodes on iplayer savouring every bit… I loved it! Really hope there are more episodes released soon and even repeats…

  38. Zen is utterly sublime. Intelligent wry humour with brilliantly cast actors. The stories were gripping but I couldn’t help laughing out loud (when complimented on his reputation for integrity, Zen responded ‘yes, mud sticks’). Well done, BBC, for once you really have ticked all the boxes…

  39. I really got into Zen and am very disappointed to learn that 3 episodes, even if longish ones, all all we get! I was starting to look forward to Sunday evening telly for a change…

  40. I am so upset looking forward to another episode of Zen tonight, just found out it was only a 3 parter. Please Please BBC can we have some more very soon!

  41. Yes come one BBC – bring Zen back for another season with the same cast – we really loved it – and do stick to yes 90 min episodes at minimum.

  42. We are Zen fans and missed 2nd episode on BBC iplayer so how can we get to watch it. Please make more……we really think they are great!

    • Hi David – I’m not quite sure what the answer to your question is (this isn’t a BBC blog): would you have any friends who’ve recorded it? I’d love to see more of Zen too 🙂

  43. Loved the Zen dramatisation, the atmosphere is wonderful, slightly sinister and yet very amusing, more please. I really hope BBC you do a follow-up series. There’s certainly lots of material and the actors are very well chosen. Just love it.

  44. MORE EPISODES PLZ….., I seen all 3 episodes uptill….., Very good series, Perfectly cast according to me…..i watched them twice on bbc iplayer, love to see more..

  45. It’s rare something so original, with beautiful sets and a great cast hits the screens. I also thought, despite inital scepticism, that the “english” in “italy” tone worked so well. Characterizatoin was also excellent – i can’t understnad a previous post that characters were one dimentinal – coming from todays crop of X factor and co that’s incredulous.. Therefore agree with earlier comment that it ticks all the right boxes.

    I strugle to understnad how this can’t compare favourably to much of the other waffle of its peers on TV that feel so old and stuffy by comparison e.g. Poirot, MSNM etc and so forth.

    Only thing it holds a candle to is Lewis.

  46. Just came to find Sunday’s Zen, we had a power cut so no TV on Sunday, only to find that it was just a 3 episode series….WHAT!!…

    Please BEEB commission a full series of this show, its excellent. Both my wife and I were hoping that we’d have this top quality how keeping us entertained over the next few months. So another series, but more episodes, please!

  47. I have just bought the b.b.c. dvd of Zen so far i have watched it all three episodes every day just can not stop watching it . Rufas and all the cast absolutley brilliant well done all and bbc give us all more Zen with the original cast.

  48. I loved it to.. It was different and so good in so many ways.
    1 It’s not set in the UK, the doom and gloom that is the UK at the moment wouldn’t have had the same apeal. So the simple fact that is was sunny in the back ground helped alot..
    2 It didn’t involve violence and swearing lots to make it feel gritty, it just was simply gritty because of the smooth nature of the way the policatal players postion them selves to push and point the out comes of situations was key to the plot changing in the viewers mind as the role progressed..
    3 The romantic story line running along side the main charector was smooth and beliveable.
    4 The place it was set lifted you abit because summer is coming and I now fancy planning a trip to Italy or some where nice and warm with the history in the buildings.

    So for me it was a HUGE hit and for cash strapped BBC I just hope it was not a money loss for them because I want to see more of it..I want it to be a success for them over some of the larger big budget TV shows.. This was gritty and credable as a show.. real enjoyment on a late night

  49. wonderful program ….lets have more please does anyone know where i can but the musicthat is played at the begining of the program

  50. i discover the show yesterday
    i watched the all three yesterday night and i’m so sad that there is no more episodes to watch great great great program
    great actors all of them
    so happy to see quality programs like that
    a reeeaaaallll pleasure
    please do more like that
    a very happy french man

  51. Great series, very well produced and great scenery. More please! Does anyone know if the theme music is available and what it’s called?

  52. Pingback: Double celebration…and wishing you a Happy 2012! | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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