"Emotions burst out like molehills on an immaculate lawn": family tension in The Legacy
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Greed, lust and great knitwear: The Legacy is a Danish drama that’s smarter than Borgen

Everyone is white, and everyone is rich – or about to be. Where’s the grit in that? But grit there is: it is stupid to assume that for a drama to be a hit, it must be filled with “people like us”.

The Legacy
Sky Arts 1

Why didn’t the BBC snap up the Danish drama The Legacy (Wednesdays, 10pm)? Did Sky outbid it, or did its executives take one look at the series’ irredeemably middle-class characters and run a mile? It’s not difficult to imagine some nervous BBC type watching the antics of Veronika Grønnegaard (Kirsten Olesen), the bohemian matriarch at its heart, and thinking: hasn’t Alan Yentob got this stuff covered in Arts? Yes, Grønnegaard, who is basically Tracey Emin with a pension and vastly more taste, conveniently dies at the end of the first episode. But even in her absence, the show is peopled with the kind of metropolitan pseuds one usually only comes across in tiny art-house cinemas: an avant-garde composer who looks just like Catweazle; a gallerist who speaks to waiters in roughly the same tone as David Mellor addresses cabbies; a spoiled hippie who’s building a dodgy eco resort in Thailand. Everyone is white, and everyone is rich – or about to be. Where’s the grit in that?

But grit there is: it is stupid and not a little patronising to assume that for a drama to be a hit, it must be filled with “people like us”. Emotions are universal, and in The Legacy they keep bursting out all over the place, like molehills on an immaculate lawn. Here are greed, envy, loss, lust and, above all, sibling rivalry. Grønnegaard’s children, however wealthy, privileged and articulate, are the victims both of her spite – her deathbed will is about to cause all kinds of trouble – and of their family being so very modern, by which I mean complicated (four children by three different fathers). Rather predictably, the series has already been compared to Hamlet and to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (Trine Dyrholm, who plays Veronika’s elder daughter, Gro, also starred in that film). But it’s also very much its own thing, singular and odd, as if the Turner Prize ceremony had suddenly morphed into a novel by Edward St Aubyn.

Episode two (3 December), like St Aubyn’s At Last, centred entirely on a funeral: Veronika’s, to which she was late, the undertaker’s satnav having failed en route to Grønnegaard, her vast house. Unbeknown to her three elder children, she has left this palace to her daughter Signe (Marie Bach Hansen), who until about five minutes ago believed her mother was someone else entirely. As a result, her face throughout was a picture of controlled amazement. So many new relatives, and all of them so very peculiar. Signe moves tentatively, as if there were a Ming vase hidden in her jeans – come to think of it, she does have a bomb in her pocket, given that she’s in possession of Veronika’s last will and testament.

The coffin was white, and thanks to Gro, became a kind of installation, winched into the house like one of her mother’s sculptures; two vast wings were then draped above it, as if she would literally ascend to heaven from the drawing room. Meanwhile, everyone else was in hell. Gro’s lover had unhelpfully brought his wife to the bash; her brother Frederick had stormed off, having discovered that his mother had done a Chapman brothers and defaced an oil painting of his grandfather; her mother’s lawyer had revealed that Veronika had failed to sign the crucial papers that would ensure the house would be placed in trust and become a gallery under Gro’s direction. Worst of all, there was her father (Catweazle): he performed Veronika’s favourite song: “Riddle-me-ree”! It was as if Lou Reed had decided to channel the Sixth Form Poet.

I don’t discount the chic factor when it comes to The Legacy. Danish furnishings, sweaters, haircuts and jewellery are extremely attractive. And subtitles act as a distraction when there’s bad dialogue (I give you the plodding, cheesy Borgen, acclaimed by plenty who should have known better). Yet even taking these things into account, it looks to be an absorbing series. In coming weeks, allegiances will be built and broken, and many rattling skeletons exposed to the bright winter light of Veronika’s studio. Is Signe a latter-day Cordelia? Or is she in possession of sufficiently Goneril-like qualities to take on Gro? Either way, I’m in. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear