Seriously scary: Michael Gambon as the photographer Henry Tyson in Fortitude
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

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