How did Torrente come to become the biggest grossing comedy saga in the history of Spanish cinema?

Of course, any description of this anti-hero reads like a list of insults. According to director, screenwriter and lead actor, Santiago Segura, Torrente "is contemptible, mean-spirited, unchristian, disgusting and vulgar,” and that’s not all. He’s also a racist, homophobic, sexually-obsessed misogynist ... Be that as it may, the Spanish cannot help but split their sides laughing at the adventures of this policeman who is so corrupt that he is capable of abusing the drunk and sleeping wife of his best friend, that is, when he is not stealing ice cream from children or blackmailing a newly-wed to obtain sexual favours.

When the first episode in the Torrente saga was released in 1998, the critics, who enthusiastically welcomed a cynical portrait of a noxious society marked by the remains of Francoism, were willing to forgive the film for its trashy humour which they put down to social satire.

In 2002, Torrente 2: Mission in Marbella, which attracted more than 5.3 million spectators, became the biggest box-office success in the history of Spanish cinema. And Torrente has continued to move with the times. In his latest 2011 opus, Torrente 4: Lethal Crisis, Mr Segura paints a bitter portrait of crisis stricken Spain, in which our hero jumps the queue at a soup kitchen, begs two euros to visit a sex shop video booth, and fights with street children to be first to sort through rubbish bins.

To add to the film’s contemporary appeal, the director included a host of television starlets and footballers in the cast. "It communicates a despairing vision of a Spain obsessed by football, television and prostitution. It is almost political cinema," argues critic Jordi Costa, who highlights the work’s cinematographic qualities. "Torrente is a very well-wrought, grotesque caricature: a monster from the Spanish unconscious, our collective Mr Hyde."

Delight in blue wordplay

The Spanish like to laugh at themselves, and Torrente, a fellow citizen with a passion for popular culture, gives them a chance to do just that. An ardent supporter of Atletico de Madrid, a team with a strong following in working class neighbourhoods, he is also a devoted fan of the 1970s Copla singer El Fary on whose tomb he complains: "Everything has gone to hell,” even “queers” can get married. Sport offers the only ray of light in the his bleak world, and even then it is at best a partial consolation. "We won the World Cup, but that doesn’t count: all the players were from Barca!"

Along with self-mockery, the humour in Torrente is shot through with regional stereotypes in the shape of simple-minded Andalusians and tight-fisted Catalans etc. At the same time, it is also marked by the legacy of the cine del destape (nudity cinema), a comic genre that emerged during the democratic transition (1976-1982) to take advantage of the end of Francoist censorship, and a delight in blue wordplay — as in the scene where Torrente boasts about his musical family, “My sister accompanies the church choir, and my father tunes up her organ."

Not everyone in Spain identifies with the scatological and vulgar humour offered by these films. Many prefer a more refined “post-humour" focusing on surreal situations, as exemplified by the series Muchachada Nui and comedian Miguel Noguera. However, it is hard to overestimate the dominance of Torrente who continues to be hugely influential.

Read the other parts of the series:

The series that sends up the middle class

In Italy, the joke is on them

Tickling Germany's funnybone