Seriously scary: Michael Gambon as the photographer Henry Tyson in Fortitude
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David Lynch with polar bears? New crime series Fortitude is so much more

The series killed off Christopher Eccleston to let Sofie Gråbøl and Stanley Tucci steal the show. Intriguing or batty? It's both.

Fortitude
Sky Atlantic

The Legacy
Sky Arts

It’s pretty obvious that Sky has spent a lot of money – £30m, to be precise – on its new Arctic Circle murder mystery series, Fortitude (29 January, 9pm). If you saw the first episode, you’ll already know that Christopher Eccleston, a moderately famous actor, died long before the credits rolled, the better to let Sofie Gråbøl and Stanley Tucci steal the show. But even if shouty old Chris hadn’t been despatched so very rapidly, the pound signs are there in every scene. It looks absolutely gorgeous: not only the endless skies and blue-tinged snow, but also the Hammershøi-like interiors. You’d say it was straight out of Hollywood, except that it is far too weird to have been commissioned by some weedy, greedy, risk-averse studio boss.

Before Fortitude began, there was talk of David Lynch: the line was that Simon Donald, its writer, had updated Twin Peaks and transported it to the extreme north. But this isn’t the case. Its weirdness is all its own. If Lynch is among Donald’s influences, so too are The KillingFargo, Lost, even Midsomer Murders and Poirot. Here are woolly mammoths (discovered in the ice and possibly having provided the motive for at least one murder); children with mysterious viruses (is it mumps or is it . . . the plague?); swingers (should you be feeling frisky, look for a house with wind chimes); and, perhaps most oddly of all, Dr Allerdyce, the nastiest GP in the world (Phoebe Nicholls playing even more than usually sour).

Then there are all the accents: various shades of Scandinavian, Spanish, Yorkshire. Stanley Tucci, who has flown to Fortitude, a Norwegian-governed island, as a representative of the Metropolitan Police, is not a cockney. He’s an American who used to work for the FBI. He has much in his favour, not least his dry wit, but he’s come with no suitable outdoor gear. On the snow, he slips and slides, a Prada-ish flat cap the only thing between his delicious pate and the blast of the Arctic wind.

Fortitude is an island, an expat bubble with its own rules and its own mores. It has a human population of 713, plus 3,000 polar bears. “In this place, things can come at you from nowhere,” said one character, early on. “Monsters . . . you won’t see them, hear them, until they’ve got you in their teeth.” As if these monsters were not terrifying enough, the hammy Michael Gambon is also resident, in the form of a gurning, grimacing alcoholic photographer. Woah! Now that is seriously scary. Gambon’s character, Henry Tyson, is dying of cancer of the liver and must soon depart Fortitude, for no one is allowed to die on the island; the ice preserves bodies just a little too well for burial to be a good idea. The island’s governor, Hildur Odegard (Gråbøl, with short hair and a parka) wants rid of him and pronto – though not perhaps so much as she wanted rid of Professor Stoddart (Eccleston), who worked at the Fortitude Arctic Research Centre and who, before his untimely death, was about to put a stop to the ice hotel she planned to build on the glacier.

The trailer for Sky Atlantic's Fortitude

Does this sound intriguing or batty? In truth, it’s both. Others have called it derivative but I like it for all the things it leaves unsaid, for its refusal to spell things out; and, Gambon apart, it really is stuffed with good performances (Tucci, in particular, is marvellously subtle and delicate). I have read that the murderer’s identity will be revealed early on and that the producers are determined there will be no series two – facts that instantly put me on its side, post-Broadchurch.

Regular readers will know that I don’t have Sky at home but I must admit that Fortitude (Sky Atlantic) and The Legacy (Sky Arts), which finally finished the other day, have caused me to waver. Perhaps I should sign up. The Legacy, which I reviewed here when it began before Christmas, was among the most satisfying series of 2014. It gave me a new heroine in the form of Gro Gronnegaard (Trine Dyrholm), and its attention to the particular misery that comes of a certain kind of bohemianism produced a novelistic richness that British television often lacks, preoccupied as it is with murdered children, paedophiles and corrupt, sex-crazed cops. 

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 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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