The Tunnel on PBS: What American Audiences Should Know

Christina Knight | June 21, 2016
Clemence Posey as Elise Wasserman (right) and Stephen Dillane as Karl Roebuck (left) in The Tunnel.

Clemence Posey as Elise Wasserman (right) and Stephen Dillane as Karl Roebuck (left) in The Tunnel.

Get ready to strap yourself in for The Tunnel, a ten-part PBS thriller in which the action cuts between South East England and northwestern France. In Episode 1, a French politician’s corpse is found on the border between the UK and France in the Channel Tunnel, the 31.4-mile railway tunnel connecting the countries. When the body is revealed to be in two mutilated parts  — the upper half belonging to the politician and the lower part to a Welsh woman — the laid-back British detective Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane) and awkwardly serious French detective Elise Wassermann (Clémence Poésy) must work together. The gruesome murders becomes the first in a chain of killings by “The Truth Terrorist,” who claims to be highlighting Europe’s social problems.

Your first hunch might by that The Tunnel is a BBC import, but that’s a false lead. The international crime series is a co-production of Sky Atlantic, serving the UK and Ireland, and Canal+ of France. The ten episodes are the work of two French and two British directors, and three French and three British writers. It premiered in those European countries in Fall 2013, introducing the first bilingual series ever for British and French television audiences. In the U.S., the series airs with some subtitles (and omitted curses and pixelated nudity) Sunday nights on PBS between June 19 and August 21.

From Bridges to Tunnel

The Oresund Bridge between Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden was the first setting for the Swedish-Danish series "The Bridge" (2011).

The Oresund Bridge between Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmo, Sweden was the first setting for the Swedish-Danish series “The Bridge” (2011).

Does it come as much of a surprise that — like Wallander and The KillingThe Tunnel is based on a hit Scandinavian series? Broen/Bron (The Bridge; 2011), set in Sweden and Denmark, kicked off its action on the Øresund Bridge that connects Copenhagen, Denmark, with Malmö, Sweden. The first episode of The Tunnel has closely followed the original plot of The Bridge, though critics report that compared to her Swedish detective counterpart, the French character Elise Wassermann is less severely afflicted with symptoms on the Autism spectrum.

The Tunnel is in fact the second re-incarnation of The Bridge. In the award-winning The Bridge (2013) on the FX network, a Mexican-American investigation begins with a corpse found on the bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Mexico.

Stars of The Tunnel

The French detective Elise Wassermann (Clémence Poésy) and British detective Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane) join forces to stop a serial killer claiming to be a Truth Terrorist in "The Tunnel" on PBS.

The French detective Elise Wassermann (Clémence Poésy) and British detective Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane) join forces to stop a serial killer claiming to be a Truth Terrorist in “The Tunnel” on PBS.

Fans of fantasy film and television may recognize the two protagonists of The Tunnel. English actor Stephen Dillane (Karl Roebuck) has played Stannis Baratheon on Game of Thrones among many other roles. French actor and model Clémence Poésy (Elise Wassermann) played the character Fleur Delacour in several Harry Potter films.

Location, location, location

Map showing course of Channel Tunnel and locations of Dover and Calais, which have a ferry line between them.

Map showing course of Channel Tunnel and locations of Dover and Calais, which have a ferry line between them.

Get a roundup of premieres, giveaways and special offers with our weekly newsletter.

The Channel Tunnel

The Channel Tunnel entrance at Coquelles, France, near Calais.

The Channel Tunnel entrance at Coquelles, France, near Calais.

The first crime scene of The Tunnel is the Channel Tunnel which runs beneath the Strait of Dover between England and France. The tunnel opened in May 1994 and serves the EuroStar passenger train, the EuroTunnel Shuttle for vehicles, and freight lines which travel the 31.4-mile tunnel daily between Folkstone in the county Kent in the UK, and Coquelles, near Calais in northern France. According to the The Telegraph, up to 400 trains pass through the tunnel each day, carrying an average of 50,000 passengers, 6,000 cars, and 180 buses. Working in cooperation with EuroTunnel, which operates the tunnel, The Tunnel is the first television drama to ever film on location there.

Calais

World War II-era bunkers line the shore of Calais in northern France. Photo by Piotr_Kuczynski/

World War II-era bunkers line the shore of Calais in northern France. Photo by Piotr_Kuczynski/

Part of the series, including the first episode, is set in Calais, a port city in northern France where tension over non-European migrants have simmered for years. The city is the terminal for a ferry line to Dover in England and lies close to the Channel Tunnel. Migrants fleeing violence in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan have gathered in unofficial camps, including a main one known as “the Jungle,” with the goal of eventually reaching the UK. Eurotunnel, the company that operates the Channel Tunnel, said that it has intercepted more than 37,000 migrants since January 2015. At the end of February 2016, the BBC reported that Calais officials claimed there were 3,700 people in the unofficial camps, while a nonprofit refugee aid group said the number was closer to 5,500. In March, the Guardian reported on what happened when officials tried to dismantle the main camp.

This past weekend, when The Tunnel debuted in the U.S., French officials banned a privately organized, 250-vehicle British convoy from delivering food, bedding and tents via ferry to the main refugee camp in Calais. The reason cited was security concerns. The English side of the refugee issue is addressed in the first episode of The Tunnel , which introduces the mysterious character Stephen Beaumont who runs a hostel for asylum seekers.

Stay tuned on THIRTEEN for more episodes of The Tunnel and future Tunnel posts on The British Telly Dish Blog.