I could murder a Danish

Some late news just in. The Killing is a good television programme. I know, I know, get hip to the beat, Granddad, but when was the last time I got in early with something? I mean, really. I do not set trends. I follow them. Usually after everybody else has stopped following them due to lack of interest, and because a better trend has just started up somewhere else. And if I’d paid attention to my Radio Times colleague Alison Graham – who just sits over there from me in the Radio Times office, and anyway, even if she didn’t sit over there, she highly recommended The Killing the week it started on BBC4 in the Radio Times, a magazine I read – I’d have been in at the ground floor. But I didn’t, and wasn’t. And then it was too late.

I mean, it was old news to the Danes when BBC4 started showing Forbrydelsen (“The Crime“), having aired, and been a hit, on Danish television in early 2007. I can’t remember exactly what was on when The Killing started here, but it must have been a handful, as we never series-linked it – perhaps it clashed with something else? – so by the time the MEDIA had spotted it, about six episodes in, it was too late to practically catch up. (And iPlayer is great, but I don’t like watching telly on my laptop – it eats up my wi-fi allowance for a start, and it’s too small, and I’ve tried hooking it up to my telly, but it’s not happening, right?) Hey, I was cool with having missed the start. I missed the start of The Office. I missed the start of The Wire. I missed the start of The Inbetweeners. I miss the start of everything. But BBC4 are smart, I thought – they’ll just show the previous episodes as a “catch-up”, maybe in the middle of the night, and we can draw up alongside, majestically. But they clearly didn’t have the rights to repeat The Killing, and The Killing remained an exclusive pleasure of a) early adopters, b) Alison Graham disciples, c) people who don’t mind watching things on the iPlayer, and d) some Guardian readers. Not all Guardian readers. But some.

At this point, I became as stubborn as a mule. If the BBC, which I’d already paid for, wouldn’t show The Killing again from the start, I would not – that’s WOULD NOT – shell out for the DVD box set. I remained unanimous in this. It became a badge of honour. When the box set came out, I did not buy it. Friends who did buy it found themselves with waiting lists, as others put their hands up to borrow it. So much time passed, I wondered if I would ever see this bloody programme.

BBC4 announced that they had purchased series two of The Killing. C4 announced that they had purchased the US translation of The Killing. A-boo! How could I watch either of these things without having seen the original. And then Zoe Ball stepped in. She lent me her box set, even though she was only halfway through it, as she couldn’t foresee sufficient quality time ahead to fit any more of it in for the next two weeks. Grateful, I brought hers home with me after appearing on her Radio 2 show last Saturday. And I must give it back to her next Saturday. This will not be a problem. I’ve nearly finished all 20 episodes.

The Killing, or Forbrydelesen, which feels a more respectful name for it now that I have been sucked into its Danish ways, is superior, intelligent television. It’s a whodunit, if you didn’t know that already, with echoes of Twin Peaks in that there are a lot of trees, the music’s all synthesised, and it revolves around the question, “Who killed …?” (In Twin Peaks, it was “Who killed Laura Palmer?”; here, it’s “Who killed Nanna Birk Larsen?”) Oh, and like Twin Peaks, it’s gloomy and foreboding. Unlike Twin Peaks, it’s not weird. It’s a fairly straightforward police procedural, albeit one that’s plotted exquisitely, and unfolds at a sometimes funereal pace, daringly allowing the reality of the situation – the grief, the suspicion, the subterfuge, the domestic – to breathe in among all the clues and red herrings. The weirdness lies simply in the fact that it’s all unfolding in Copenhagen. What a fascinating insight into another culture this is! And how much we are learning about the national character and the mechanics of local government and the best type of wood for a sauna (although, to be fair to Denmark, the character who’s interested in the wood is Norwegian and having a house fitted out in Sweden – the subtle differences between, and cultural friction between, the three Scandinavian countries provides a lot of intrigue for we outsiders).

You may have picked up on the vital fact that the lead detective, DCI Sarah Lund (the mesmerisingly natural Sophie Grabøl), wears a Faroese jumper. In fact, she wears two, one white with a dark pattern, the other dark with a white pattern, a negative of the more famous one. It does speak of the show’s essence, certainly you might wear one if you lived in cold, grey, wet Copenhagen, with thermals underneath, and in that sense it’s key, and – as has been pointed out already – it’s a rare flash of light in the seemingly permanent night of Denmark. But it’s not all that matters. What matters is that, even though it’s subtitled – and Danish is a really difficult language to follow, with very few Anglicised words (apart from, mainly, “alibi”, “station” and “fucked”) – you’re gripped. We all know that subtitles are considered commercial poison. This is why even foreign films with a wide release in this country are trailed by trailers that feature no dialogue, just in case we spot that they’re not in English! But BBC4 have bucked this trend. Firstly with Spiral – which I started watching but couldn’t really fall in love with – and now this, which I could.

You’re into a whole new strata of modest numbers once you leave behind the main five channels, but to have pulled in 600,000 viewers come the end of The Killing‘s run is a remarkable feat. Especially when the much less Danish and much more relentlessly marketed Mad Men drew nowhere near that amount to BBC4 in its last series, opening with 370,000. Hence its purchase by Sky Atlantic for the fifth. The Killing is a hit by anyone’s standards. And it’s all foreign. This is cheering news for non-philistines. (And in this matter, I speak as someone who was once subtitles-intolerant, but had that allergy massaged out of me about ten years ago.)

And can I just nominate Bjarne Henrikson as The Killing‘s finest performer, among many? He plays Nanna’s bereaved removals-man father, Theis Birk Larsen, the Scandinavian Harry Secombe. Stoic and often wordless, this great bear of a patriarch conveys the whole paintbox of human emotion with those hooded blue eyes, blonde sideburns and tiny, expressive mouth. (Yes, he conveys emotion with his sideburns.)

Oh, and I haven’t finished watching it yet – three more eps to go! – and for those here who have yet to even start it, let’s steer well clear of whodidit spoilers, please. Tak!

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13 thoughts on “I could murder a Danish

  1. It did get repeated on Wednesday nights, but not an en-masse catch up, no.

    Nicely reviewed and I’ll be interested to hear if you work it out before the reveal (my guess turned out to be right, for something I spotted in episode 1 that did not rear its head again until much later on).

    Can’t decide if it counts as sacrelige or not (I have Danish blood in my veins), but we are now watching the US version purely to spot the differences.

    • Don’t beat yourself up about it.

      The Danish version is a great show and I really enjoyed it, but we must be honest and say it’s only great because it’s Danish. It’s by no means the best thing ever, as some are saying, and the very fact that we have to read the subtitles means we’re papering over any cracks that might appear in plot or acting or dialogue. The whole setting makes it interesting, and you find yourself asking lots of questions about the way of life, the way of work, food, registration plates, town planning, everything – something you don’t do when you’re watching a cop show set in East Anglia or Bristol. Nice knitwear though.

      Anyway, without ruining anything for you I found the ending to be a disappointment. But then I find every ending a disappointment.

      Thank God the Danish are doing this sort of thing and the French make the equally wonderful Spiral. We’ll never get that here. I very much doubt the BBC or ITV would ever commission something like those. Supposing it wasn’t a hit? They’d be stuck with all these episodes that nobody wanted. No one’s going to take such a big risk.

      There’s been a touch of elitism about this show: it’s far more exclusive to watch something in a foreign language on a minority channel than it is to watch the same on a terrestrial channel. Otherwise everyone would be talking about the US version wouldn’t they? And they’re not.

      I’m currently enjoying Single-Handed on ITV1. Did you know, it’s the Irish Wallander? Seriously.

      • I’m not getting that “elitism”, F-C. Everybody was talking about The Shadow Line and that was on terrestrial TV and in English. If someone said they couldn’t be bothered with all the subtitles, I wouldn’t argue with them. It’s a much more intense viewing experience, something in a foreign language. In our house we’re often having to rewind to catch half a sentence we missed while, say, looking away, or looking down at the dinner which has to be eaten in the front room for fear of wasting valuable Killing time.

        Totally agree that UK telly would never commission anything like this. The Shadow Line was amazing, and the best advert for the BBC this year, I think, in terms of indulging a writer/producer/director, but that was only … ten parts? Imagine if we actually did something in 20 parts! Imagine! (Don’t mention soaps, they’re different.)

  2. The Danish version is a great show however, and I really enjoyed it, but we must be honest and say it’s only great because it’s Danish. It’s by no means the best thing ever, as some are saying, and the very fact that we have to read the subtitles means we’re papering over any cracks that might appear in plot or acting or dialogue. The whole setting makes it interesting, and you find yourself asking lots of questions about the way of life, the way of work, food, registration plates, town planning, everything – something you don’t do when you’re watching a cop show set in East Anglia or Bristol. Nice knitwear though.

    Anyway, without ruining anything for you I found the ending to be a disappointment. But then I find every ending a disappointment.

    Thank God the Danish are doing this sort of thing and the French make the equally wonderful Spiral. We’ll never get that here. I very much doubt the BBC or ITV would ever commission something like those. Supposing it wasn’t a hit? They’d be stuck with all these episodes that nobody wanted. No one’s going to take such a big risk.

    There’s been a touch of elitism about this show: it’s far more exclusive to watch something in a foreign language on a minority channel than it is to watch the same on a terrestrial channel. Otherwise everyone would be talking about the US version wouldn’t they? And they’re not.

    I’m currently enjoying Single-Handed on ITV1. Did you know, it’s the Irish Wallander? Seriously.

  3. I’m watching the US version at C4 pace. I’d considered watching the Danish version, but chose not to due to the C4 showing being more convenient at this time. I feel a bit cheap for having made that decision, as I’m sure this will mean I’ll never watch the original.

    I’d guess that most people who’ve seen the original will view the US version as inferior merely because it’s not the same. Is there a way to get an as-objective-as-possible view on it?

    • When the US Killing aired on AMC in the US the vast majority of people I read/follow reviewing it had never seen the original, so most of the good US critics – Alan Sepinwall, the A.V. Club are my faves – have a purely objective view of the US version. Though be careful and the wrap up to season 1 provoked massive opinions amongst the internet massive, so be careful as there be spoilers.

      • So, am I right in thinking that the 13 eps of US Killing so far only take us halfway through the Danish Killing story? How does that work? (Without spoilers!) Must be horribly frustrating having to wait for the second half of the whodunit …

  4. Without giving anything away, both I and the only other woman at work I know who was watching it got to the end feeling that there were a couple of loose ends; and there was one specific incident in a late episode upon which I would like others’ opinion, so let us know when you’re done so we can talk about it! But those minor grumbles aside, what I found so impressive about The Killing was the emotional reality of it. In most murder mysteries, all we follow is the case, the unravelling of the clues. But in The Killing, we saw her parents’ lives devastated by the murder, and not just as a token for a couple of episodes but on, and on, and on. Unusual, appropriate, and it gave a weight to the drama which you’d never see in, say, 24 (for which I also have time, but you take my point.)

    • In a perfect world, there would just be the BBC, showing EVERYTHING. It is not a perfect world. We must act accordingly. Some choose to watch television illegally via the Internet. I reject that option.

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