Logistics on the small screen: TV series about truck drivers
A semi-truck driver is a popular type of a cinematic hero, especially for American filmmakers. Everyone probably knows such productions as “Smokey and the Bandit”, “Convoy”, “Black Dog” or “Over the Top”. TV stations around the world have also noticed the story potential behind this profession. Here are some series about truck drivers that are worth your attention.
Unlike the film portraits, the series’ drivers are more down-to-earth characters, and the plots of episodes – at least in theory, because in practice things were slightly different – were supposed to show the work of logistics companies as close to reality as possible.
“Auf Achse” has a true cult following among viewers in Germany, even though almost 30 years have passed since the last episode aired. The series, broadcasted on ARD from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, had a total of 86 episodes, divided into six series. The title can be translated literally to “On the axis” or more figuratively to “On the road”.
The creator of the series was producer Georg Feil. The plot focuses on the adventures of two truck drivers brought together by work and friendship. The main character of the production is Franz Meersdonk, played by well-known German actor Manfred Krug. Krug first performed in the GDR, but emigrated to West Germany for political reasons, and a year later he received the role of Meersdonk, which turned out to be the most famous of his prolific career. Franz Meersdonk is a real truck driver: dedicated to his work, jovial and resourceful. On a daily basis, he drives a Mercedes-Benz NG 1632 tractor unit with a semi-trailer in the colors of the Munich-based Mittermann company on the Germany-Iran route. One day, when his boss Sylvia (Monica Bleibtreu; privately the mother of the famous actor Moritz Bleibtreu) lacks a driver to do a very important course, Meersdonk brings Günther Willers (Rüdiger Kirschstein), a former racing driver, to the company.
This marks the beginning of working together behind the wheel and a friendship that will last for decades. Meersdonk and Willers will transport full truck loads not only from Germany to Iran, but also to other European countries, as well as to Turkey (season five of the series was entirely filmed in this country), and even to South Africa, Namibia and Mexico. Interestingly, the actors playing the roles of local residents spoke in their native languages in the series. The producers decided not to translate their dialogues with German subtitles. This was intended to make viewers feel more like the main characters, who had to deal with communication barriers in their work as truck drivers on international routes. However, this idea was later dropped. Another characteristic feature of the series was combining a realistic image of the work of a truck driver with crime oriented plots (theft, smuggling, car chases).
In 1982 A board game by Wolfgang Kramer was published in Germany under the title “Auf Achse”, in which players manage logistics companies. Despite the similar subject, the game is not related to the series. Just like the song “Auf Achse” by the rock band Franz Ferdinand from Great Britain, which is not about the adventures of German truck drivers. The title was used here as a metaphor for getting out of a difficult love situation.
As mentioned before, the American film industry created a specific image of an eighteen-wheeled truck driver in the eyes of European viewers. Most often, he is a hothead in a cowboy hat who sometimes operates on the verge of the law (“Smokey and the Bandit”), or a free spirit, the epitome of American freedom, rebelling against the oppressive system (“The Convoy”), or a sensitive tough guy fighting for his family (“Over the Top”). However, US broadcasters did not always follow this lead and sometimes they showed the truck driver from a more down-to-earth and realistic side, as a reliable and trustworthy working man.
Just like Sonny Pruitt (Claude Akins) and Will Chandler (Frank Converse), the main characters of the NBC series “Movin’ On” (1974-1976). Seasoned old timer Pruitt and college-educated Chandler haul freight across the United States as a double crew in a Kenworth W-925 eighteen-wheeler.
Conceived by producers Philip D’Antoni and Barry J. Weitz, “Movin’ On” began as a TV movie titled “In Tandem.” The title referred to tandem axles of a semi-tractor and the fact that the main characters are a well-coordinated two-man team of drivers. After the audience liked the film, NBC decided to order the series, which lasted two seasons (44 episodes).
Claude Akins and Frank Converse learned to drive tractor-trailers and obtained the appropriate licenses before filming began, so in many scenes they actually drive the mighty, eighteen-wheeled Kenworth.
Outside the United States, the series is not widely known (although it was broadcast in West Germany under the title “Abenteuer der Landstraße” and was a loose inspiration for “Auf Achse”). In its domestic market it is today remembered mainly for the opening theme song, sung by country star Merle Haggard; the song even reached number 1 on the Billboard country charts in 1975. Three years after the end of production of “Movin’ On”, Claude Akins appeared in another series about truck drivers – “B.J. and the Bear.” There, however, he played the role of the local sheriff.
“The Road” is a six-episode series from 1975, produced at a time when Poland was still part of the Eastern Bloc. The creator of the series is Sylwester Chęciński, director of comedies about the adventures of the feuding Kargul and Pawlak families beloved by the Polish audience .
The main character of the series is Marian Szyguła, played with eloquence by Wiesław Gołas. Szyguła is a rather unlucky driver of the Warsaw PKS (Car Communication Company) base, who travels around Poland driving a Jelcz 300 truck or an Autosan bus. In each episode, he encounters various people facing various problems and decides to help them, because although he himself cannot count on great happiness in life, his righteous character always prompts him to support others.
Each episode of the series tells a closed story, which allowed the three screenwriters to weave in comedic, dramatic, and criminal threads. Fans of Polish cinema especially appreciate the episode titled “Description of a Seducer”, the plot of which Sylwester Chęciński will later expand and use again in the film “Kochaj albo rzuć” (“Love or Leave”), the second part of the adventures of Kargul and Pawlak. Moreover, these characters appear in this episode and are played by the same actors as in the film: Władysław Hańcza and Wacław Kowalski. The series’ Marian Szyguła tends to overuse the word “absolutely” and this is also the title of the series’ theme song, performed by Wojciech Młynarski (also the author of the lyrics).
(UK, 1987 and 2013)
Two productions that are rather different, but share the same title and general idea behind the plot. The first series titled “Truckers” debuted on BBC1 in 1987. It told the story of employees of a transport company in northern England facing various problems caused by the recession that hit the British economy in the mid-1980s. The main role was played by James Hazeldine, best known for his appearances in the series “London’s Burning”, broadcasted a year later by rival ITV. Despite the involvement of well-known British TV actors and the catchy theme song performed by the band Ryder (they represented the United Kingdom at the Eurovision Song Contest the previous year), “Truckers” lasted only for one eight-episode season (even though a continuation was initially announced). The ratings were satisfactory, with 5 to 7 million viewers every week, but the production was met with great criticism from organizations associating British logistics companies, which pointed out that the series lacked realism and distorted the image of the transport industry.
“Truckers” returned to BBC1 26 years later. The new series was not related to its predecessor. The writer and producer of these new “Truckers” was William Ivory, a three-time BAFTA-nominated filmmaker who has produced many popular British film and television productions. Each of the five episodes told the story of one of the drivers employed by a carrier from Nottingham (Ivory’s hometown). The main role was given to Stephen Tompkinson. The ratings of the first episode were almost 3 million viewers, but later the audience began to decline. Critical response was rather mediocre. The successful mix of humor with more serious themes and charming shots presenting the English countryside were praised, but fake-sounding dialogues and a feeling that the series is some kind of a derivative of “The Full Monty” and “Brassed Off” were criticized. After the first season ended, “Truckers” did not return with a second one.
The title graphic uses a screenshot from a fragment of the series “Auf Achse”, published on YouTube. All rights belong to their owners.