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

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times