Scandinavians teach the British how to write


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? When The Killing was shown in Britain, I wrote that it seemed truly modern. In Britain, female leads are invariably beautiful. They are either “feisty” heroines, who prove that they are just as tough as the men, or victims of male resentment. Sofie Gråbøl, who played Sarah Lund, was different. She was not a glamorous star, or a superwoman or a victim. Instead, she worked in a society where the sight of a woman in a position of authority was unexceptional. As a result, she could be something extraordinary to British viewers, a middle-aged woman who has no time to put on make-up or change her outfit because she is trying to solve a crime.

You can condemn this as “political correctness” if you please. But in drama, allowing women to escape old conventions liberates writers from cliché, and allows them to create characters that feel as if they live in the 21st rather than the 20th century.

British television, by contrast, is stuck in the past. It is not just that its most successful series are country house dramas on the lines of Downton Abbey. The snobbery you see on screen is reflected in the hierarchy of media corporations. Typical British television executives went to public school and on to Oxford or Cambridge University. They have made their careers and a great deal of money from selling rubbishy entertainment to the masses. They are rather cynical men and women, who produce formulaic storylines that take few risks. They don’t trust writers. Instead, committees of media managers create dramas, rather than artists, and insert the necessary elements of sex, violence and celebrity into the scripts.

Because they are members of the educated upper-middle class, however, they still want to believe that they are producing cutting-edge modern work. Not the smallest of the achievements of Scandinavian television is to destroy that illusion. If British broadcasters are not already asking why first the Americans and now the Danes and Swedes have raced so far ahead of them, they soon will be.