Eye Level

This Sunday sees ITV launch a reboot of one of their most famous detectives – Van Der Valk. Based on a series of novels by Nicolas Freeling, which were mostly published in the 1960s, the TV series began life in 1972 with Barry Foster starring as Commisaris Van Der Walk of the Amsterdam police.

Produced originally by Thames Television, the third series was made by their subsidiary, Euston Films (who also made The Sweeney and Minder), before the series was brought back for two short runs in 1991 and 1992, this time, in a two-hour format, but still starring Barry Foster.

Now we have a new version from Company Pictures and starring Marc Warren.

But what’s not coming back is the classic theme tune, Eye Level, by Jan Stoeckart (as Jack Trombey) and orchestrated by Simon Park. So famous did this palindromic (h/t Drew White) theme become, that it went to number one in 1973.

The music was originally produced for the famed De Wolfe Music Library (If you can get hold of it, I really like this 2010 compilation of music from the library that was used for TV and radio. Eye Level is the first track on the album.) and as such, it was used in a number of other places – see Wikipedia for more. It was even used as the end title music in the first series of Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge. That was a somehow perfect choice.

When Van Der Valk came back in 1991, the theme was re-worked a little. It was now more uptempo, but still the same theme.

Unfortunately, it seems that the 2020 reboot is not using that theme music. A piece over the weekend in The Sunday Times explained why:

Which only leaves the theme tune. “We were more than tempted to use it,” [Writer, Chris] Murray says. “We drove the composer mad, because we did try to work with it, but it was just too dated. The current theme tune has sort of… echoes. But be assured, we absolutely did go down that rabbit hole.”

Benji Wilson, The Sunday Times, 19 April 2020

That’s really disappointing, and slightly bewildering. For a series that last saw light of day nearly 30 years ago, and overall is closer to 50 years old (with the novels even older), the relevance of it to today’s audiences must be limited to older viewer. A reboot is likely to be targeting both younger viewers, but bringing back older viewers who remember it from the past. And for them, there are surely two key ingredients for Van Der Valk:

  • It’s set in Amsterdam
  • It has Eye Level as its theme tune

Now, even I am not really old enough to remember Van Der Valk from the seventies. He was a tough detective, and not something suitable for young impressionable viewers like me – even in repeats later in the seventies and early eighties.

But we did have a killer album in our house.

The TV Times Record of Your Top TV Themes, as re-recorded by Jack Parnell and his Orchestra. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to have made it into the digital age (let me know if it has), but I do still have my family’s original heavily scratched copy. You will note from the cover that Barry Foster as Van Der Valk features very prominently.

It also included themes from Upstairs Downstairs, Black Beauty, The Onedin Line (A BBC series on a TV Times album! I only recently realised that it’s from a ballet, Spartacus, by Khachaturian) and Hawaii Five-O.

That last one is interesting. Another classic television theme, the original series ran from the late sixties right throughout the seventies. Then in 2010, CBS brought it back in an re-imagined and updated version. A version that’s utter nonsense by the way, but has still managed a further ten season run, the final episode having just aired in the US.

When they brought it back, composer Brian Tyler re-worked the Morton Stevens composed original. It’s a really good updating. Undeniably the original theme, but with contemporary sensibilities that work nicely for a big action TV show.

There was a great little promo video released at the time showing the musicians re-recording the new version, including at least one who’d been on the original series’ recording.

In the video, producer Peter Lenkov says:

You can’t do Hawaii Five-O without the Hawaii Five-O theme song… When you talk to people and you say you’re rebooting Hawaii Five-O, the first thing they say to you is, ‘Don’t mess up the theme song.’ … That’s what we’re doing here today. Not messing up the theme song.

A really strange move to have a new TV series like Van Der Valk, and not include one of the main things that made it famous.

Update 26 April 2020

Having now actually seen the reboot, it’s worth saying that the new score by Matthijs Kieboom does indeed reference Eye Level. You couldn’t easily hear it, because it has a very much contemporary theme, but there’s a piano playing a recognisable series of notes hidden away in there. Enough that Jack Trombey gets a credit for Eye Level itself.

As for the series? It’s perfectly good for what it is. It’s mainstream Sunday night fare meaning that it’s nothing profound, and everything gets neatly wrapped up. The writing could be better – a date goes wrong early on when the woman he’s meeting is into quantum physics. In the next scene he makes a joke about Planck’s Constant. It’s clunky. More unlikely is the putative relationship Van Der Valk has with someone he meets during the case. She’s in floods of tears at first because a man she knows through the bar she works in has been killed. Minutes later, that’s all gone, and she’s making eyes with Van Der Valk.

I don’t mind Marc Warren as the Van Der Valk himself, even if the roughness is a bit stereotypical. The tough boss who loves him really. Of course he doesn’t want the new recruit that comes onto his team. I’m sure it’s perfectly fine for a police briefing to be held in a local coffee shop. And a pair of blue nitrile gloves is all you need to protect the evidence at a crime scene – but that’s something you could level at most TV detectives.

What’s oddest really, is the idea that in 2020, we’d make a Dutch based detective series, film it in Amsterdam, and people it with British actors all speaking English and not really having any kind of Dutch accent. I suppose, in that respect, it’s like the Kenneth Brannagh Wallander series.