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? Continue reading


Review:The Killing

Imagine the future. Not your preferred utopia or feared dystopia but what you expect Britain to look like in 30 years. It is not idiotic to think that if current trends continue, Britain, much of the rest of Europe, Australia and North and South America will be more Scandinavian. We will accept the equality of women and women in positions of power. We will be more socially egalitarian, or if inequalities in wealth are still as great as they are now, then the class distinctions left by the old aristocracy will be less important. Society will enforce liberalism with more rules and codes. I know people bemoan our existing PC culture, but I doubt their sincerity because no man is a free-marketeer when his boss unfairly dismisses him, and no woman complains about “political correctness gone mad” when she is the victim of sexual harassment. Modern people want transparent and accountable systems that protect their rights. Even if they do not realise it, even if they think they do not want it, they are groping towards the Scandinavian model.

“If current trends continue” are the four most treacherous words in sociology. Current trends have a habit of stopping in their tracks and heading off in new directions. But the belief that Scandinavia represents a possible future helps to explain the phenomenal success of its crime fiction. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has sold almost 30 million copies. British television has shown three versions of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. Now BBC4 is offering us Danish television’s thriller The Killing, the first drama from Europe that can compete with the best of American TV.

Showing the dark side of supposedly ordered societies is a trick used by 1940s film noir writers and the authors of English country-house murders, although I think it is fair to say that this is the first and last similarity between them.
Carry on reading