For Sweden’s Axess magazine.
Scandinavian culture is all the rage in Britain. The crime novels of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson have been popular for years, and their success has not disconcerted the London cultural establishment. But the success of Scandinavian television is another matter. It raises hard questions for British programme makers. Beginning with Swedish television’s adaptation of Mankel’s novels, the realisation grew that the best Scandinavian television drama was as good as the best British television drama. After The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, we began to realise that it was better.
For the self-congratulatory world of British broadcasting, that knowledge was a shock. British television likes to say that it is “the best in the world”. And in the 1970s and 1980s, the boasting seemed justified . Britain once exported quality drama and classic serials, and imported downmarket game shows, mainly from America. There has been a huge decline since then. Britain is now the world’s largest exporter and “format television” on the lines of Pop Idol and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? As for quality drama, I made the argument a few years ago that Britain and America have swapped roles. Now we import the Wire, Homeland and other high-class dramas from America, while sending light and lowbrow game shows abroad.
When the competition only came from the United States, British television’s pride could remain intact. American channels, after all, had resources that the British could not match. Now Denmark and Sweden are producing serials that excite British viewers that old argument no longer holds.
What has gone wrong?