Detective-themed comedy series centres around a ‘fixing’ agency set up to troubleshoot problems for rich Russians in London
This being Shaun Walker he can't not fantasize about 'Kremlin critics in fear of their lives' and similar nonsense but if you can get past the anti-Russian bias it's a detailed write-up of what sounds like a very original show
This article originally appeared in The Guardian
A Russian official’s daughter is on the loose in London, threatening to ruin her father’s “patriotic” image and impending government promotion. Meanwhile, a young violin prodigy has been sent by pushy parents to play at the Royal Albert Hall, but all he really wants to do is visit Harry Potter sites. And a dubious Russian lawyer needs someone to sneak into a London office block and extract compromising files from the computers before police get hold of dirty business secrets.
It’s all in a day’s work for Misha Kulikov, the main character in the new Russian television show Londongrad, part comedy part detective series, which premieres on Russian television next month.
Kulikov runs a fixing agency to troubleshoot problems for rich Russians in London and the 16-part series will bring the lives of London’s huge Russian community into focus for the domestic television audience. Exiled or emigrated from the motherland, they are not quite at home in London either.
Misha’s sidekicks are Alisa, the daughter of an oligarch politician, who has fled to London because “here nobody knows my name”, and Stepan, a middle-aged, sunflower-seed munching Russian from the provinces, who turns out to have Sherlock-like powers of deduction. In an implausible but amusing conceit, he drives around London in a battered Lada Zhiguli.
The final part of the problem-solving quartet is Boris Brickman, a lawyer who emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1980s and has remodelled himself as a British aristocrat, working in a velvet dressing gown from an office filled with mahogany furnishings. Nevertheless, his crystal decanter is full of vodka, not whisky, and his legal deals seem mainly to involve mafia-type dealings from his former homeland.
The adventures the four of them get up to are fictional, but many have a basis in reality.
“These agencies really do exist. Obviously most of the time they are performing tasks that are not as cool or colourful as the ones in our series, but the people who work there do have stories to tell,” said Michael Idov, the show’s creator and lead writer.
London’s propensity to sell its history and heritage to foreign buyers with the right-sized chequebook has been much discussed in recent years and the series explores this tension, whereby London opens its doors to foreigners with cash but also sneers at them.
“I admire London, but its willingness to sell you its own legend piecemeal is actually a kind of ingenious rejection,” said Idov. “You begin suspecting forgery everywhere, as in, ‘Is this being performed for my benefit?’ So our London is a kind of fantasy London of grifters and hustlers, where everyone is trying to pull one over on everyone else.”
Misha, the lead character, is a Russian maths genius who studied at Oxford, but found he could not integrate into either the Russian community nor the indigenous communities, “so he began to view the city as his hunting ground,” said Idov.
There are reported to be more than 150,000 Russian expats living in London, coming from all walks of life. Kremlin critics in fear of their lives mingle with the offspring of government ministers. Moscow’s best known restaurateur, Arkady Novikov, has opened a huge restaurant in Mayfair, while a communications magnate who fell out with the Kremlin now runs London’s most expensive wine shop.
A recent documentary aired on Channel 4 called From Russia with Cash followed actors posing as a corrupt Russian official and his mistress trying to buy expensive London properties. Estate agents were eager to help even when it was made clear that the money for the purchases would be embezzled from the Russian state budget and offered to put the “purchasers” in contact with lawyers who would help conceal their identity.
There have been other television programmes about London’s Russian community, such as Rich, Russian and Living in London, a BBC2 documentary focusing on the somewhat grotesque spending of the super-rich in London.
But Londongrad looks at the community from the other way round: this is not a portrait of Russians through the eyes of London, but a portrait of London through the eyes of its Russian inhabitants.
When an arriving passenger he has to meet at Heathrow breaks out in a coughing fit, Misha quips: “That’s the smell of freedom... and Pakistani food.” The line reflects a duality in the attitude of some Russian immigrants to London, who admire the city’s opportunities but find its cosmopolitan nature somehow distasteful.
With the exception of one episode set in St Petersburg, the action is almost entirely set in London. Though many of the indoor scenes were filmed in Moscow studios, the crew spent months shooting in the British capital. It is the first Russian series to have been largely shot abroad.
In the first episode, non-Russian Londoners are largely a background presence: irate security guards, the stuffy dean of an architecture college and taxi drivers. In later episodes, however, there are a number of British characters played by British actors, though due to Russia’s fanatical distaste for subtitles, all the scenes shot in English have been dubbed back into Russian.
Idov said he and his co-writers were given complete freedom to write the script as they wished and, although it is largely apolitical, he hopes that in the current climate of tension between Russia and the west, “it would be a very nice side effect if it could remind Russians that the west is not populated by dog-headed monsters”.