Britain’s love for an imaginary Nordic paradise

The cosy jumpers, the vast brooding sky: what’s not to like about Scandinavian television?

It was the size of the sky that first captivated me. In the British television adaptation of Henning Mankell’s Wallander detective novels, the horizon always seemed somehow lower than it should be. Most of the time, at least two-thirds of the screen was slate grey, or steely blue, or else a deep black stippled with stars. Kenneth Branagh played Mankell’s tortured Swedish detective, his face working hard in the gaps of the sparse script, brooding with his back to all that sky.

This was just the start. Once Branagh’s Wallander had been devoured, there was still the Swedish adaptation of Mankell’s novels to enjoy, and then suddenly I was watching more television with English subtitles than without. The Killing, Borgen, Arne Dahl, The Protectors, The Bridge – Scandinavian television became the reason we stayed at home on Saturday nights.

The “Nordic noir” phenomenon, as it has become known, is no longer confined to the small screen. On 1 and 2 February, a former brewery in east London played host to Nordicana, “the UK’s only festival of Nordic fiction and film”. Thousands packed into a chilly, windowless warehouse space to see actors and writers from the various shows try to account for their wild popularity beyond their intended audience in Scandinavia.

Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays Birgitte Nyborg, the lead in the Danish political drama Borgen, clearly has ambiguous feelings about the way the role has changed her life. “I know it’s really what rock stars say, but I do ‘love my fans’,” she jokes – but then seems a little less sure of this once the “fans” at Nordicana start asking her such questions as: “Which are better in bed, English or Danish men?”, or spending minutes enthusing about her in broken, hesitant Danish. Not all Nordic noir fans are just enthralled by the skyscapes.

Do these dramas deserve their critical success, though? Or do we enjoy them merely because the subtitles lend a smug feeling of superiority? Some of the performances – by Knudsen in Borgen, say, or Sofia Helin as the abrupt, inspired detective Saga Noren in The Bridge – are undoubtedly excellent, but awkward dialogue and improbable plots are perhaps less noticeable here than they would be otherwise. Everything about them – the landscapes, the interiors, the languages – has kindled a love affair with a version of these countries that may not exist.

We think of Scandinavia as a progressive utopia where gender equality rules politics and there are minimalist lamps in every house. But according to Michael Booth, the author of a new book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: the Truth About the Nordic Miracle, our vision bears little relation to reality. “Once you go beyond the western media’s current Scandinavian tropes … a more complex, often darker, occasionally quite troubling picture begins to emerge.”

Yet even though Booth’s research into levels of taxation and reliance on antidepressants has a much stronger grasp of reality, it will make little difference to our adoration. It is exactly the same kind of comfortable cognitive dissonance that makes Downton Abbey such a success in the US – of course American viewers can tell it’s camp and ridiculous and poorly scripted, but investing in the belief that the British aristocracy was just like this is far too enjoyable for us to stop watching.

We love our imaginary Nordic paradise too much to abandon it now – the jumpers are cosy, the sky is vast, and its television is very, very good.

Kenneth Branagh in Wallander.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism