The rest is silence

TA84grabWe’re back, for Year 3 of Telly Addict, and, after an unprecedented two-week break, during which I allowed all the germs of the season to infect me while my immune system was off guard, my voice is on the way out. Thankfully, we managed to squeeze the last few drops out of my larynx before silence set in, and thus, here is an unplanned BBC-only review, with Borgen‘s welcome return to BBC4; the arrival of Ripper Street to BBC1; a very good documentary series, Queen Victoria’s Children, on BBC2; and finally, the latest Attenborough epic, Africa, on BBC1. I accuse Sir David of “husky hyperbole”, but wrote that, during the day, when I had no idea how husky my own voice would turn out to be. I hope you can hear the words I am saying, and that you feel my pain. Normal service will be resumed next week. And a haircut, I think.

(My full review of Seasons Three and Four of Breaking Bad will follow separately.)


There’s her jumper

I’m sorry, I have a cold. Hopefully it won’t hamper your enjoyment of this week’s Telly Addict, which takes a keen interest in … Sarah Lund’s knitwear in The Killing III on Scandinavia’s BBC4, the portrayal of a fantasy BBC you could really trust in the 1957-set The Hour on BBC2; the tragic trajectory of Nadine Dorries MP on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! on ITV1; and a bit of prime Gyp Rosetti on Sky Altantic’s Boardwalk Empire, but don’t worry if you’re a spoiler-shy Sky refusenik and are waiting for the box set, it’s a stand-alone clip that has no bearing on the plot, other than Gyp Rosetti is in it.

Dansk in real life

I won’t add to the chorus of approval for Channel 4’s wisely-chosen US import Homeland, which came to a satisfying conclusion at the weekend. Mark Lawson was the latest to have to argue against British TV drama from its long, persuasive shadow in the Guardian on Monday. But for my money, The Bridge, aka Bron in Swedish, aka Broen in Danish, is even better. The latest Scandinavian import to arrive on BBC4 – following Wallander, Forbrydelsen and Borgen – it is surely the perfect encapsulation of what makes the region so fertile in terms of drama and setting. In fact, if you’ve immersed yourself in the Denmark of Forbrydelsen and Borgen, both set in Copehagen and linked by an interest in the politics peculiar to that country, you’ll have a decent head start on The Bridge (which I’ll call The Bridge rather than have to juggle the subtly different Swedish and Danish translations).

I hardly need to go over the set-up, but I will: a body is discovered at the exact halfway point of the elegant, five-mile-long Øresund Bridge, which links Malmö to Copenhagen by road and rail and thus unites two police jurisdictions in solving the crime. (The body, which turns out to be two halves of two separate bodies, has been placed there to get the attention of both, and that’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot, so worry not, those who have yet to catch up, or plan to box-set it.)

It’s as if the dark police procedural of Forbrydelsen has been linked to the more brightly-lit corridors of power of Borgen, mixing social issues with a good old whodunit. In the leads, Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin create a fabulously mismatched detective duo, one that surely has legs far beyond this one case. Martin Rohde, a rotund, homely, good-humoured, rumpled maverick from Copenhagen is everything that Saga Norén, of Malmö, is not. She’s borderline autistic, socially inept, emotionally stunted, professionally by-the-book, but her powers of deduction are keen and her no-nonsense attitude (and lack of meaningful home life) ensure she gets the job done.

Unlike Sarah Lund, Saga is more overtly sexual in her leather trousers and slash-neck tops (which in the first episode she kept whipping off in the office and changing); she is seen picking up a man in a bar for functional, no-questions-asked rumpo. And yet, she is cold and efficient, and in many ways asexual. Rohde has been emasculated by a vasectomy and feels the need to assert himself sexually but he’s more of a teddy bear. I won’t say how but if there is any sexual tension between them it is subsequently defused in a very surprising way.

There’s real humour in the writing, despite the Gothic nature of the crimes, and much of this emerges in the sparring between Rohde and Norén. There’s also a lot of subtle stuff about the differences between the Danish and Swedish way of doing things – and in the intricacies of language and pronunciation. (This is a Danish-Swedish co-production, a coalition that actually pays dividends, and slices straight down the middle. I mean: can you think of a cleverer pitch than The Bridge in terms of setting out its geographical stall? Usually footage of cars going over a bridge in drama is there to provide a bumper; here, it seems vital. And it’s a beautiful bridge, especially at night against that amazing Scandinavian sky.) We’re six episodes in, with four to go, and all six are available on iPlayer, so get in there if you haven’t already.

I know “Scandi drama” is a phrase that’s tiresomely overused at the moment, and I sympathise if you’re put off by yet more Guardian-reader hype, but The Bridge drew over a million to BBC4 in its first week (more than The Killing), which is hard to argue with. I find the bendy sound of the Danish and Swedish language to be easy on the ear, and I guess I’m used to it, having previously organised my own home-schooling crash course in the works of Ingmar Bergman. About ten years ago, when his back catalogue started to come out at a rate of knots via Tartan, I eagerly got up to speed, and titles like Winter Light, The Silence and Wild Strawberries became instant all-time favourites.

At the weekend, I went to the Curzon Chelsea to see Ordet on the big screen, my first taste of Carl Theodor Dreyer, the father of Danish cinema and often cited as one of the greatest directors of all time. I feel a little late to the party, but what a way to start! Ordet (The Word) is one of his later films, made in 1955, when Bergman was enjoying his first international hit with Smiles Of A Summer Night. Dreyer had made his name in the 1920s, helping to forge the medium. I must now delve into that early work – notably The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr (which I’ve always been aware of, thanks to all the history of horror books I used to devour as a boy), and what I know to be his 1940s classic Day of Wrath. I loved Ordet. It is utterly captivating; hypnotic stuff.

Based on a 1932 play, although I assume the film is set in the 1950s, it has a theatrically staged feel, with characters standing in rows, coming in and out of doors, and enunciating very precisely and slowly against flat backdrops, but it opens melodramatically on location in the dunes around a rural farm, where the haunting character Johannes (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who has gone insane and thinks he is Jesus Christ, declaims to what he considers to be a Godless universe. The rest of the Borgen family – yes, you may spot links between Ordet and the previously mentioned modern Danish culture – find themselves caught between God and science, tradition and progress, birth and death, true faith and cold, hard reality. They also come into conflict with a neighbouring evagelical Christian sect, for whom faith is grim and joyless, while the Borgens’ is about warmth and celebration. (Having said this, it’s all relative, and the Borgens are not exactly dancing around the place, flinging flowers in the name of the Lord.)

It’s mesmerisingly slow and deliberate, and everybody seems to walk at the pace of Frankenstein’s monster, and if this is what Danish theatre was like in the 1930s, I want to go there. It’s been hailed as a masterpiece, and I can see why. Not only is the subject matter profound, and heart-stopping at one crucial juncture (which I won’t ruin), but, again, there’s humour here. Surely Dreyer was anticipating a laugh from the audience when Johannes’ condition is explained by his father (Henrik Malberg) to a visitor who assumes it was “love” that sent him mad, but in fact, he explains bluntly, “It was Kierkegaard.” (It’s a gag worthy of Woody Allen.)

Unlike Peter the Tailor in Ordet, I’m not here to convert anybody. This kind of cinema is not going to be for everybody. I would understand if you found it irritating and punishing, and that you found Johannes comical – which I feel sure he’s not meant to be, and anyway, it haunted me. I just find myself with a real urge to soak up Danish culture. Denmark is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

I could murder a Danish/Swedish

This week’s Telly Addict, which features a new jacket (rain-spattered on the walk up to the Guardian from the British Library, but hopefully you won’t notice), covers many things: The 70s on BBC2; The Bridge on – where else? – BBC4, or BBC-SvedeDansk as I think we should all call it; Four Rooms on C4; Two Greedy Italians on BBC2; and Smash on Sky Atlantic, which turned out to be the first bum note in the channel’s short history.

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!