The Last Panthers: This is so much more than a heist story
If David Bowie gives you the thumbs-up, you know you're on to a good thing. Susan Griffin finds out why The Last Panthers has managed to do just that
There's a lot of hype around The Last Panthers - and with good reason. Not only does the cast include the likes of John Hurt, Samantha Morton and Tahar Rahim, but the reclusive David Bowie has given his seal of approval by writing and performing the title track, Blackstar.
"This is a kind of European, cinematic drama that you just do not often see on British television," says Zai Bennett, director of Sky Atlantic.
"Jack Thorne [the writer behind This Is England '86, '88 and '90] is an utter genius and Johan Renck [who helmed episodes of Breaking Bad] has made The Last Panthers look like the most beautiful, authentic piece of European cinema."
The show begins with a diamond heist, but that's simply the preamble to a journey into a murky network of traffickers and gangsters as seen through the eyes of a policeman, criminal, loss adjuster and insurance boss.
It takes its name from a group of jewel thieves known as the Pink Panthers.
"They were Serbian gangs who perpetrated a range of daring diamond heists in the late Nineties and early 2000s," explains executive producer Peter Carlton.
"Jerome Pierrat [the journalist who inspired the idea] not only knows some of these people and a lot of the police who've spent years trying to hunt them, but he also knows the whole criminal underworld that surrounds them, and the politics of the Balkans, very intimately."
Taking eight months to shoot, there are numerous languages and countries, an all-star international cast and, according to Carlton, "an unashamedly complex story".
"The thing that pulls the viewer through is the fact that we've got these fantastically compelling but faulted main characters. Each of them, in a way, is an idealist who's trying to do something morally right," he says.
Given the amount of macho men in the show, director Renck was keen to have female characters who "aren't just 'token women", he says.
"We needed an actress who had internal strength and a certain darkness to carry that. Sam can do that like no one else."
Morton plays Naomi, a loss adjuster, "like an investigator for an insurance company", she explains.
"The job requires the confidence to go into all sorts of environments a person wouldn't normally go into, then talk to a criminal and offer them money to retrieve stolen goods. But the rewards are worth it. She works on commission, so she'll get a massive bonus if she can recover the diamonds."
She's haunted by her time working as a negotiator for the UN in the Nineties and Morton undertook military training for the flashback scenes.
"I can't tell you how many burpees I had to do or the time spent hiking with a weighted pack around the Derbyshire Dales," reveals the 38-year-old.
Describing the experience of filming in Serbia as "astonishing", she continues: "This story will look at all the threads that run through Europe, from the gangsters in Serbia to the guns in Marseilles. Everything has a periphery, and then another, it's like an onion. All worlds connect if you dig deep enough."
Acting legend John Hurt plays Tom, an insurance boss, who was once a member of MI6.
"So he's well-versed in the way in which that world works, put it that way," says the 75-year-old.
When he first read the script, he thought it was just going to be a heist story - "and then you realise there's a whole darker area to it".
"All these people have a history and that goes back to Serbia and the Balkans. It's a clever mix - it uses all of the devices of a thriller, but it feeds in a whole political under-structure."
Tom and Naomi go back a long way and have what Hurt describes as a "fascinating relationship". The actor knew Morton, but had never worked with her.
"She's enormously analytical, much more so than I am, but you find her instinct is invariably correct."
Although the series looks back some years, it's completely contemporary in its concerns.
"It's about modern Europe and about why, in many ways, if you're not passionate about Europe, you ought to be," notes Hurt.
"I can't think of a film or television series that has really touched on the proper interests of Europe like this one does."
Goran Bogdan, one of the biggest actors in Croatia, stars as Milan, a Pink Panther whose main wish is to look after his brother, who's suffering from a heart condition.
"When you see him for the first time, he's very silent, tough, mysterious and a messed-up guy, but as the series goes on, you see the young Milan from 20 years ago, in the middle of the Bosnian War," says the 35-year-old.
"Milan at this point is a very gentle, introverted kid. Serbians kill his father and he tells his brother they're going to Serbia. 'Father said when you are the weakest, go to be with the enemy.' So they go to Belgrade, take another identity and, slowly, he becomes an animal."
Bogdan was a refugee during the war, "but I was very happy throughout, I knew a lot of people who were very close to me who had much worse experiences".
He remembers the Pink Panthers as being "noble".
"They never used guns, never killed anybody. They were precise, well-planned, gentlemanly. When you're living in these kinds of countries where the criminal becomes part of the everyday, there are good and bad criminals. They were a bit like Robin Hood."
Bogdan describes the experience of working alongside Hurt as "crazy". "Constant panic attacks," he laughs. "And Samantha is the most beautiful professional I have ever met."
Tahar Rahim, the French actor best known for his role in A Prophet, appears as Khalil.
"He was a bad seed and a bad influence on his younger brother," explains the 34-year-old, who won a BAFTA Rising Star Award in 2010. Sent away by his father as a punishment, Khalil returns to Marseille 15 years later as a policeman.
"Ultimately, he hasn't changed," reveals Rahim. "If he'd have stayed in Marseille, he would've been in the mob. Instead he uses his skills for good, but he's crazy in a way. He's traumatised, neurotic, not good, not bad, just trying to find redemption."
He says he was drawn to the role because there is no attempt "to save the character".
"You've got to find empathy, but sometimes we have to move the lines, you know?"
As he says: "If you're giving eight months of your life, you'd better give it to someone you like and you'd better give it to something from which you can learn, culturally, a different point of view."
The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic, Thursday, 9pm