How do you spend your Saturday evenings?
Unless other occupied, for us it's usually BBC4 at 9 o'clock for our regular dose of Nordic Noir, a habit shared by a good many of my Twitter friends. It remains a tweet free zone though: concentration on the sub-titles is essential, to follow not only the plot but the subtle nuances of finely crafted television drama.
In the last three years there has been a rapid growth in the interest in Scandinavian drama. It began of course with The Killing ('Forbrydelsen' in Danish- literally 'The Crime') a mammoth twenty hours of television, gripping from the outset with a trail of red herrings, tension between the police and the family as a plethora of opportunities slipped by, political intrigue, sexual tensions, and a strong female lead dealing with family break-up and facing her demons as a 'bad mother'.
Two more series followed, played out over ten episodes each, and we fell for another detective from Sweden this time, Wallander, later recreated in English by Kenneth Branagh, but maintaining the same Scandinavian feel as the original.
The Bridge (Broen in Danish, Bron in Swedish) followed last spring/summer and was equally gripping, gory, with an aspergic nymphomaniac Swedish detective and her Danish counterpart, philandering and nursing the effects of a recent vasectomy, trying to balance the differences between each nation's laws and traditions; the loss of Scania in 1660 still grates with a lot of Danes.
Most recently, Arne Dahl has brought a harder edge to Saturday evenings. A maverick detective nailed to the wall through his hands by the Estonian mafia should provide enough of a taste there. A wonderfully assembled, completely diverse range of characters builds the tension and teamwork in equal measure.
However the programme that has really provided the most impact for me is the political drama Borgen, two series of ten episodes broadcast here so far and a third to come in the New Year.
This weekend has witnessed Nordicana, the UK's first celebration of Scandinavian film and television drama. We were fortunate enough to attend, and the highlight of the day was a screening of episode 13, in which a right wing politician tries to have the age of criminal responsibility lowered to 12, and Kasper Juul, the media adviser to the Prime Minister, reveals the secrets of his childhood abuse. This was followed by a Q&A session with the writers, directors and one of the actors, and other voices including Paula Milne, the writer of 'The Politician's Husband'.
Danish television made a conscious decision to invest in longer drama series, with high production values. The impact abroad of this project is largely a bi-product of a tremendously professional operation. Much effort goes into the writing of the series, and it was acknowledged that there is a debt to pay to the writers of Yes Minister, Prime Suspect and House of Cards. Indeed Adam Price, also a talented chef, is working with Michael Dobbs on a reworking of that series.
Is Borgen a political drama, or a drama about politicians? Well both really. A strong female lead, PM Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babbett Knudsen); a deliberate decision by the producers, as so much of politics is male dominated, and because the audience would have a different perception of the way a female politician would approach issues such as marital infidelity or the health of a child, compared to the same reaction of a male counterpart.
The decision to have Birgitte 'shag the chauffeur' in series 2 and for her husband Philip to leave her for another woman at the end of series 1 was discussed. The Killing did not feature any relationship for the lead character as Sofie Grabbol felt it detrimental to her character development. Sidse Babbett Knudsen did not want her character to be drunk and promiscuous, but the decision was made 'based on research' and on personal response to the situation.
There is real life reference too. The episode we saw was based on a real incident when a right wing politician deliberately went to walk through a troubled neighbourhood of Copenhagen and was 'roughed up' to spin some propaganda. Imagine Nigel Farage doing the same thing here!
(Lars Knudson- Bendt- Birgitte's oldest ally- was there!)
Danish TV is setting a trend for the UK to follow- heaven knows we need it. Commissions are all too short; single dramas and 3-5 episode pieces seem to be the norm these days. Broadchurch however, at eight episodes, was an exception to this, and for those of us who follow Nordic drama, the pace, character and plot development was straight from the Scandinavian example. If you are in any doubt, The Killing shows this at its best; Pernille Birk Larsen, the mother of the victim, spends episode after episode staring mournfully into the middle distance, yet her character is completely convincing and genuine.
Such is the popularity of the genre now, it must be ripe for a parody. Fortunately I have written one already. http://supposeshakespearestartedthiswaytoo.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/the-bridge-estuary-noir-style.html
Nearly a million people watched the last series of Borgen. It isn't a niche market of trendies who watch subtitled films like it is some kind of exclusive club. If you like genuine drama base don real people, even in powerful positions, then our Nordic friends have much to teach us. The French have picked up on it too. In fact The Returned beckons on Channel 4 right now. Enjoy!!