‘Where Are We Now? The Legacy of Nordic Noir,’ Andy Lawrence, Freelance Writer

A cursory examination of UK TV schedules from the 1970s and early 1980s demonstrates that foreign language programming was a regular fixture on the broadcast landscape long before the emergence of the Nordic Noir sub-genre. In a less competitive televisual environment prime time slots were routinely devoted to series from the continent, most notably Heimat and Das Boot (BBC2) Châteauvallon and The Black Forest Clinic (Channel 4). Operating under public service principles, childrens’ schedules also contained examples of international content to promote cultural awareness. Using a mixture of dubbed prints (The Flashing Blade, Monkey, The Water Margin) or retaining the original dialogue track but burying it deep within the mix and placing  an English language narrator at the front of the sound design (Tales from Europe, Storybook International) a mixture of self contained and anthology series employed popular generic forms to educate the viewing public about other social structures and practices.


The BBC has a guaranteed income in the form of the licence fee and to a certain extent the corporation is immune from commercial pressures. However, it nonetheless has to justify its existence in the form of satisfactory appreciation index data and substantial viewing figures. With the arrival of a new station specifically set up to cater for minority audiences ITV soon dropped foreign language content from its schedules leaving the BBC and Channel 4 as the only UK broadcasters screening non-English language series. 

The funding model which Channel 4 adhered to in its formative years ensured that it did not need to worry about a collapse in advertising revenue as any shortfall would be met by the ITV network. In short, this meant that Channel 4 could screen whatever it wanted, provided the programme met broadcasting guidelines, and not be concerned about alienating potential advertisers. Emboldened by the financial safety net offered by ITV Channel 4 decided to screen subtitled TV drama. Alongside the aforementioned Châteauvallon and The Black Forest Clinic several Brazilian telenovellas, including Isaura the Slave Girl,  were given afternoon slots frequently competing directly against Australian soap operas in the same slot on ITV. 


Despite positive critical notices for Heimat and Das Boot, after 1993 the BBC restricted its transmissions of non English language content output to features films. Channel 4 soon followed the BBC’s example and removed TV drama from its schedules. The reality of having to compete for mass audiences in an increasingly competitive cross platform climate meant that free-to-air stations may have considered the prospect of screening subtitled drama as no longer being viable. Two decades would pass before a  station decided to once again start showing series from mainland Europe. 

Currently enjoying levels of popularity and visibility that may have seemed impossible a few years ago, European TV drama has transformed from niche programming into a high profile regular fixture of BBC Four’s schedule. With The Killing and Borgen now consigned to the immortality of DVD boxsets naysayers might have been tempted to inaccurately predict that the Scandinavian TV phenomenon had peaked. From Stieg Larsson through to the closing moments of our window in Birgitte Nyborg’s personal life and political career, Danish and Swedish culture has been covertly invading our high streets and TV screens. Retail outlets now routinely stock Faroese inspired sweaters to customers who may be unaware of their precise cultural significance and the relatively recent television series Broadchurch has demonstrated that creative professionals are studiously paying attention to how their Nordic counterparts craft quality popular drama.


High turnout to the recent Nordicana event and consistently impressive viewing figures for The Bridge‘s second season is testament that interest in all things Danish and Swedish remains buoyant. Not only is BBC Four committed to maintaining its now traditional Saturday foreign language slot throughout 2014, it is complemented by programming from More4 who are currently screening the Norwegian series Mammon, Fox who will soon air the third season of Braquo. and Sky Arts who have purchased  The Legacy from Denmark. 


Fans of Nordic Noir frequently find themselves simultaneously gazing in multiple directions; on the one hand attention is firmly focused on what new books, shows, and films will be coming to the UK within the next few months and on the other curiosity may lead them to engage in finding tantalising hints of information about those titles which up until now haven’t managed to secure distribution within English language territories.

The fandom which actively celebrates its appreciation of broadcast series and DVDs initially interacted via social networks. In June 2013 this subcultural group was offered its first ever physical space to cement its enthusiasm with Nordicana  a two day convention specifically designed to commemorate Scandinavian culture. The first event of its kind, this expo was sponsored by Arrow Films, Danish Arts Council, Film Institute Denmark and Danish Broadcasting Corporation in association with English and Danish PEN. What Nordicana represented was a bold initiative that demonstrated how in a relatively short space of time Nordic Noir has gone from being an under explored literary curiosity to a visible brand with an ever growing fanbase that is warm and welcoming.

An audacious experiment, the first Nordicana was rapturously received by an audience which never expected to have the opportunity to see in person the shining lights of Scandinavian drama. Despite being an undoubted success few could have predicted a second event would be staged within months. In Febuary 2014 a sophomore festival was mounted that expanded its parameters offering a veritable smorgasbord of Nordic screen talent, key literary figures, a celebration of cuisine, and a UK film première (The Hour of the Lynx). The rapid expansion of its fanbase forced the organizers to seek out a building large enough to house the many aficionados clamouring for the opportunity to attend. Bidding farewell to the Farmiloe Building, Nordicana upped sticks and relocated to Spitalfield’s Old Truman Brewery and then promptly set about trying to fill every inch of available floor space with entertaining talks, screenings, and demonstrations. Offering a more varied schedule than the previous event, it placed greater emphasis than before on Scandinavia’s rich legacy of crime literature whilst simultaneously celebrating the current crop of TV favourites and offering an intriguing glimpse of the future for Nordic Noir with a preview of The Legacy.   

hour of the lynx

Broadcast in a high profile slot on New Years Day 2014, ratings for  The Legacy exceeded all expectations. Published figures state that the first instalment was watched by 1,784,000 people and the second episode attracted an audience share of  61% with nearly two million viewers. Directed by Pernilla August (Beyond) the series is a contemporary drama that explores the consequences of progressive approaches to parenting which gained widespread social currency with Denmark in the late 1960s. Well known artist  Veronika Grønnegaard is terminally ill. Her children live very different lives, each bares a unique emotional scare as a consequence of decisions taken with regards their upbringing. Liberalism and tradition are at odds as long harboured secrets come to the surface and lies woven across the decades are exposed. Purchased by Sky Arts whilst still in production, the effect such a high profile series being sold to a pay broadcaster may provide ample scope for further investigation into subcultural responses.  

During interviews to promote the third season of The Killing  Piv Bernth series producer and head of drama at Danish public service broadcaster DR was unequivocal in her belief that the series had come to its logical end, lessons learnt during the production process would be employed on a new slate of series. The re-branding of Danish TV drama also includes the historical drama 1864 which is currently in production 1864, slated to air in the autumn.

In March 2014 it was announced that Nadia Kløvedal Reich would vacate the post of Head of Fiction at Danish public service broadcaster DR and be replaced by Bernth, series producer on The Killing and then current Head of Drama. During her tenure Nadia has transformed the face of Danish drama and unwittingly spawned a fandom. The future of Nordic Noir is assured but with such a rapidly shifting sub generic form it is impossible to predict what shape it will take or how its attendant fan community will adapt. 


Andy Lawrence maintains the blog Euro But Not Trash (http://eurodrama.wordpress.com/) , a space for the celebration of European films, TV series and literature with a heavy slant towards Nordic Noir. He is a regular contributor to Nordic Noir Magazine and UK Film News and has also written for Scan Magazine and Crime Time. He is currently researching Icelandic TV drama for an as yet untitled text.