From France’s Spiral to Denmark’s Borgen, the last couple of decades have witnessed a revolution in British TV viewing habits.
No longer were we prone to a reaction bordering on vampires sensing garlic when subtitles emerged at the foot of our small screens.
Europhiles that we are (or at least 48% of us were, according to some poll or other from five years ago), we rejected the cult of dubbing (a certain vintage of viewer might still shiver at the out-of-sync horrors in The Flashing Blade) and embraced real-time translations.
Before long, devotees were casually throwing ‘tak’ and ‘statsminister’ into conversations instead of ‘thanks’ and ‘prime minister’.
The biggest import during the 2000s’ Eurodrama explosion arrived in the crime genre, in particular the gloomily atmospheric Nordic Noir of The Killing (which became as much of a hit for its knitwear as for its entangled whodunits), Wallander (from the unit-shifting Henning Mankell books and later remade for British crowds with a grizzled Kenneth Branagh in the title role), and The Bridge (with the iconic Saga Norén sparring with her brilliant sidekicks while fighting unnamed inner troubles with social interaction that felt a lot like Asperger’s).
Even the lesser hits such as Iceland’s Trapped and Sweden’s Arne Dahl seemed wildly exotic and highly addictive fare compared to many British and American crime series of the era (some observers remarked that successful UK cop shows such as Broadchurch and Unforgotten had a distinctly Scandi vibe to them).
The Bridge and The Killing have long since run their course, and also been the subject of various multi-country remakes, while Wallander has been recently reinvented for an origins-story series, and the race is on for the next big Scandinavian hit.
For now though, two returning series are aiming to fill that Eurodrama void, in the shape of Beck and The Nordic Murders.
Setting the template
While Mankell’s Wallander tales of the 1990s is viewed as the moment when Nordic Noir made its breakthrough, Beck’s creators can argue that they set the template for the Swedish police procedural.
Novel-writing duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö penned 10 books about Martin Beck (who starts off as an unhappily married heavy smoker permanently struggling with some ailment or other) between 1965 and 1975, before TV, film, and radio producers spotted a potential for adaptation.
Walter Matthau, Derek Jacobi, and Steven Mackintosh were among the actors to have taken on the lead role before Swedish TV launched a small-screen version starring Peter Haber that is now largely viewed as definitive.
This week marks the eighth series of Beck (the BBC got on board with the show in 2015 by airing episodes from series four) with the lead character now a mainly deskbound chief of police (all that illness and sadness have fully taken their toll) helming a younger team of detectives who throw themselves into the major crime-solving duties.
Each of the four episodes in this series are standalone 90-minute pieces, with Beck himself turning up now and again to offer the odd spot of sage advice, while a deteriorating health starts impinging on his ability to work at all.
It may be Nordic but it’s actually German
Despite its title, The Nordic Murders is a German series set on the border with Poland, albeit featuring one Danish investigator.
Primarily centring on a public prosecutor mother worried about her private investigator daughter who has gone missing during a covert operation among neo-Nazi bikers, the series has a more surreal touch than previous Nordic crime dramas: it’s certainly hard to imagine The Bridge featuring a bison that bashes down a wooden shack in the countryside.
While perfectly fine shows, neither Beck nor The Nordic Murders are likely to fully satisfy those who crave the originality and verve of The Killing and The Bridge, both of which featured timeless characters investigating often harrowing crimes.
But as amiable as the lead cops are here, there’s not a complex Saga Norén or a fully rounded Sarah Lund in sight. Perhaps it’s time for those of us who dream of past glories should simply leave them there, and accept that for now, the Nordic Noir explosion is simmering away nicely without offering the fireworks of yore.
- Beck starts on BBC Four, Saturday July 3, 9pm; The Nordic Murders starts on More4, Friday July 9, 9pm.