The Underwater Gendarme

A documentary about the Parisian river police seduces Antonia Quirke.

The Underwater Gendarme
Radio 4

The first in a four-part series of 15-minute programmes about the police along the River Seine was dramatic (16 October, 2.45pm), comic whenever the squad's chief opened his mouth to talk, Frenchly, about women and mortality and redemption, and the rest marked by an unusually earnest and serious cast of mind.

“The bridges fly by like skipping ropes," noted the narrator, Horatio Clare, on board a Brigade Fluviale boat, observing people eating and kissing on the Île de la Cité. At first, he and the police just cruised around chatting about the organisation's 100-year history ("the shivering bodies of those who can be saved, the drowned, crashed cars, guns and gold are all their business") and the river itself. "She's like a woman you have to care about," said the boss, turning the wheel windward. "You have to feed her, you have to touch her, you have to know if she's in the mood." He pauses, then refines this point. "How she's in the mood . . ."

Clare wisely let this pass and asked about the success stories. Someone said that a man was murdered for his watch, which was missing and had to be located, against the odds, in the water - which they did. "Did you?" gasped Clare. "In zero visibility, in the freezing dark?" There were grunts of assent. Clare clarified the details of the feat: that they had felt with their fingertips on the riverbed, minutely. Another time, they found a gun with a tiny piece of the murderer's skin still caught beneath the trigger.

Clare is an excellent host, drawing the stories out with rising and falling waves of suspense in his voice and a jazzy willingness to appear slightly obsessive. He set the mood as other-worldly and seductively frightening, giving the impression that the water into which he was staring had the lustre of a binful of garnets. It worked beautifully when anyone spoke of people for whom something had gone "miserably wrong", who felt themselves collapsing, chucking themselves in only to regret it moments later. The woman in a red dress with a mean boyfriend, who had clung to a rope just in time. The same piece of rope, discovered with a widower hanging on to it a week later. It was never quite articulated, but all the while implied: this series is about hearts as heavy as cannonballs.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying