The lockdown is a time of seething potential. What if you stepped up your knowledge of modern European literature? But where to start? Unesco estimates there are 2.2m new books published worldwide every year. What’s needed is, say, Walter Iuzzolino, the charmingly eccentric Italian producer behind the Walter Presents streaming service, to help you. Which, as of this month, with the publication of David Foenkinos’s French bestseller The Mystery of Henri Pick, is exactly what he’s doing.

The Mystery of Henri Pick is so ridiculously French that if it started smoking Gitanes while you read it, you wouldn’t be entirely surprised. It’s a lightly comedic teaser about an astonishingly successful novel that’s accidentally discovered in a library of rejected manuscripts. That leads to a frantic hunt for the author. Iuzzolino stumbled across it after a rainstorm interrupted a walk in Paris. “Everybody disappeared off the streets in a second, and 10 minutes later I was so drenched I thought, ‘I’m actually going to die.’ So I walked into one of those little shops that sell books and cigarettes and found David Foenkinos,” he recalls.

Lost and Found

It’s this kind of whimsical explanation that has helped to establish Walter Presents as an intriguing storehouse of the unexpectedly accessible. Iuzzolino delivers little speeches to camera, explaining how he discovered this drama and why it’s so enticing. It’s a format that seems to work. Launched in the UK in 2016, the subtitled streamer’s focus on mainstream, popular programming — from German espionage to Norwegian comedies — proved so successful that it has been rolled out in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and Belgium. And now Waterstones.

Iuzzolino has made Walter Presents “an intriguing storehouse of the unexpectedly accessible.”

“The original idea was to share my passion for great storytelling,” Iuzzolino says. “It was a bit of a military operation, but that’s my character — to bring order to the enormous amount of telly. At the time we launched, there were lots of think pieces about box sets as the new novel, with quotes like, ‘Belgian crime is the new Henry James,’ but we just thought we were telly. Until Cheltenham … ”

After his first year on air, Iuzzolino was invited to the Cheltenham Literary Festival. At this temple of the printed page, he felt like an impostor: “No one is going to turn up, it’ll just be me and the interviewer — but actually it was full.” The same thing happened at the Birmingham Literary Festival — he was mobbed by elderly ladies demanding more drama from the Czech Republic, and he realised his audience was more open-minded, enthusiastic and keen on curation than he had imagined.

“That’s my character — to bring order to the enormous amount of telly.”

One of Iuzzolino’s colleagues, Jo McGrath, had launched the Richard and Judy Book Club. Together they approached Pushkin Press, which selects international titles for translation, and persuaded its MD, Adam Freudenheim, to launch a sub-imprint under the Walter Presents brand.

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Freudenheim admits. “Effectively he’s an editor at large for us. You sense he has strong taste and watches/reads a lot before he recommends. Obviously, TV is always adapting books. This isn’t quite the other way around, but at a general level there’s a challenge to get everyone’s time. Consumers have more choice than ever. We hope readers respond to his curation.”

Freudenheim expects a handful of titles a year. Next up is The Second Life of Inspector Canessa by Roberto Perrone. “We think about Italian thrillers as mafia, Sicily and old fat men who torture people,” Iuzzolino says. “This is the opposite, like an Italian Tom Wolfe set in Milan and Liguria. I love the idea that this will become your Walter Presents library, kept in your house, very international, very European and very cute. Let’s see how it goes.”