Londoners (Londyńczycy) Review
In autumn 2008 the British press took note of a Polish television series for the first time since Krzysztof Kieślowski's Dekalog aired on BBC2 in 1990, with even tabloids like the Daily Mail running a short piece on what they called 'EasternEnders' in the run-up to its debut on Poland's main television channel TVP1 (the equivalent of BBC1) on 23 October 2008. The paper's website allowed comments, duly attracting legions of little Englanders who hadn't actually seen the programme to harrumph about "social engineering claptrap and immigrant propaganda".In fact, this pernicious filth failed to corrupt the Brits, partly because to the best of my knowledge Londoners (a literal translation of the original Londyńczycy) was never picked up for broadcast by a British television channel, but mostly because the programme being condemned in advance by Mail readers didn't actually exist. For all the glossy tourist-postcard shots of a gleaming chrome-and-metal London that dominate the opening title montage, Londoners couldn't be more upfront about the downsides of emigrating there, as its naive Polish characters arrive to find themselves ripped off (often by their compatriots), unemployed, barely employable (despite excellent qualifications at home), sleeping on floors or park benches, and falling into unsavoury criminal company out of desperation. The series' tagline, 'Wielka Brytania, wielkie nadzieje' translates as 'Great Britain, Great Expectations', but much of the time those expectations are cruelly dashed by harsh reality.
The various characters were created after a series of interviews with expat Poles in London, and collectively designed to give a wide-ranging overview of the immigrant experience. While we join Asia (Natalia Rybicka) as she lands in Britain for the first time, other characters have been there much longer - in the case of landlady Nina (Grażyna Barszczewska), she never went back after World War II and has devoted her life to helping out fellow Poles. Ewa (Gabriela Muskała) has been working in London for some months, enough to encourage husband Marcin (Robert Więckiewicz) and son Staś (Michał Włodarczyk) to join her, but Marcin quickly finds out the hard way that her skills (nursing) are much more transferable than his (history teaching, and presumably Polish history at that) - though at least Ewa's only having an affair with a colleague, not drug-running for the Russian mafia like Asia's boyfriend Wojtek (Marcin Bosak). Not everyone is on the breadline - Darek (Przemysław Sadowski) is running a thriving construction business, albeit one struggling under the pressure of trying to live up to the Poles' reputation for hard work and low costs, while Pawel (Rafał Maćkowiak) has more or less abandoned his compatriots in favour of a high-flying City financial career. Meanwhile Mariola (Roma Gąsiorowska) is hoping exposure as a model will lead her to a rich boyfriend or sugar daddy, while Andrzej (Lesław Żurek) is jilted by his intended right at the start, shattering his dreams of a new life in a new country.The drama comes from the interaction between these often ill-matched people, with few opportunities missed to highlight Big Social Issues. While some of these are as blaringly unsubtle as an average episode of EastEnders or Casualty (not helped by some horribly clunky dialogue and delivery whenever rather too many of the English and all the Russian characters appear), I was unexpectedly impressed that the programme went out of its way to grasp quite a few tricky nettles, such as casual Polish racism and homophobia, or the fact that immigrants of various nationalities are just as likely to stab each other in the back as provide mutual support. Many subplots are suffused with a powerful sense of loneliness (emphasised by the use of Robbie Williams' 'Supreme' as a title song bookending each episode), as people are stranded in a strange country with imperfect (or barely extant) English, either literally alone or finding that a previously good relationship has come under unexpected strain. This comes to a head in the parallel narrative in episode five where Marcin and Ewa and their landlady Nina double-book the front room because they're each expecting guests, though in one case they're very late and in the other they don't turn up at all. And when Staś, the youngest major character, bunks off school to spend a day at Wembley Stadium (the one London landmark he truly recognises), the emotional impact of the scene helps paper over some glaring narrative implausibilities - surely someone in his early teens can't just enter the grounds and run around the pitch and seating without getting caught?
Visually, Londoners alternates between familiar soap drabness for much of the dialogue scenes, interspersed with more ambitiously 'cinematic' mise-en-scène every so often, most spectacularly in the scene where Wojtek decides to take advantage of the packet of cocaine he's found in the stolen Ferrari that he's driving. Red is such a dominant colour in many exterior shots - buses, cars, Wembley seats - that it reminded me vividly of Roman Polański's reported observation that London was "a very red city" when he first moved there in the mid-1960s. I'd be very surprised if series creators Maciej Migas and Greg Zgliński weren't thoroughly familiar with Danny Boyle's work - the regular visual motif of speeded-up vehicles, people and clouds on or over familiar London sights is a direct lift from the opening of Shallow Grave, and there are more than a few nods to Trainspotting's heightened realism too. It was reportedly made for the equivalent of £3 million, a far bigger budget than usual for a Polish TV drama (by comparison, the one for Dekalog was in the very low six figures), though a fair chunk of that must have gone on shooting permits, as there are location-spotting opportunities galore for native Londoners. Not to mention nit-picking ones: those with a good knowledge of the capital's layout will enjoy tracing the implausibly tangled route of the open-top bus in episode three, after raising eyebrows at someone being given directions to Tooting (including a recommendation that they catch the southbound Northern Line), only to end up at what is obviously the Central Middlesex Hospital in Acton. But it's probably safe to assume that the target audience would neither notice nor care.
To put it mildly, Londoners isn't another Dekalog, but no-one would seriously expect that kind of psychological and moral depth from such a glossy, heavily hyped primetime drama series. Although co-director Zgliński actually studied under Kieślowski at the Łódź Film School in the 1990s, it's probably safe to assume that the late Polish cinema master's teachings weren't the source of the scene in which Mariola and Asia land a job in a black-market lingerie shop and are ordered to don the merchandise in an attempt to attract customers. (This proves less than convenient for poor Asia when she's spotted and threatened by Russian gangsters looking for Wojtek, though it doubtless supplied lots of titillating footage for the Polish television trailers). But on the evidence of these first six episodes (the DVDs under review contain the first half of the first series, with parts 7-13 in volume 2) it's a very slick and watchable package that occasionally sheds genuinely intriguing light on the lives of people often barely registered by native Londoners. I'm not surprised a second series has just been commissioned.
The DVDsThe two discs comprising volume 1 of Londoners are presented in a twin Amaray case with a central printed insert. All text on the package and menus is in Polish, though it's easy enough to work out how to play it in an English-friendly version - for the record, you select 'Ustawienia', click on 'włącz' under 'Napisy angielskie', return to the main menu, select 'Wybór odcinka' and select the individual episode you want. There's no chapter menu, but each episode (c. 43-45 mins) has half a dozen skip points.VideoYou'd expect a TV series that debuted less than a year ago to offer a top-notch picture, and that's exactly what you get: it's anamorphic 16:9, and entirely blemish-free. The level of fine detail and overall sharpness suggests that this is may well be an HD downconversion, though it's good enough to suggest that a hypothetical Blu-ray edition probably wouldn't offer a significant improvement on what you get here. In a word, superb.AudioThe soundtrack is nominally Dolby 5.1, though it's a pretty typical front-heavy television mix, with the surrounds given little to do. But I wouldn't have realistically expected anything else, and it sounded absolutely fine. There's an alternative audio description track, though this will only be of interest to visually-impaired Polish speakers.
SubtitlesThere are three sets of subtitles, two optional and one compulsory. The compulsory ones are burned-in Polish subtitles that accompany all the English dialogue, of which there's generally a fair amount per episode. The optional sets consist of Polish HOH subtitles to complement the burned-in ones, and, thankfully, English subtitles to translate all the Polish. If you select the latter, you effectively get a fully bilingual version of the programme. This generally works well, though I have a niggly quibble relating to the fact that the English version has been prepared by two different translators, with quite distinct writing styles. More to the point, Agata Deka seems to have learned English either in the US or from American textbooks (or films), so odd-numbered episodes feature people going downtown to catch the subway after calling their asshole neighbour a faggot, while Michał Kwiatkowski's subtitles are much more idiomatically British and consequently less jarring. That aside, the translations seem very thorough - there's just one instance I can recall when a line in Russian is subtitled in Polish and not translated into English, but it's pretty easy to guess what's being said from the context.ExtrasThe only extra is a pull-out four-page printed insert, offering brief character biographies, all in Polish.ConclusionI bought this as a cheap impulse purchase (at the time of writing, the RRP of 29.99 złotys equates to less than six quid), and have no regrets whatsoever, aside from the fact I wish I'd bought both volumes together as this one leaves far too many narrative threads dangling. But I suspect that was part of the game plan.(Londoners is currently only available from Polish retailers like Merlin and Empik - I can confirm from personal experience that both will ship to the UK, and that Merlin's dual-layered cardboard packaging is about the most secure I've come across from any online retailer. You can also sample three short clips here)