Scandi noir reduces you to an exquisitely suicidal state

Plus: The Wrong Mans on BBC2 is a good reminder of how repellant stag parties are

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

Some things I have learned about Iceland after watching six episodes of Trapped (BBC4, Saturdays).

1. They seem to feel much the same way towards the Danes as the Irish or the Scots do towards the English.

2. Some typical Icelandic first names: Andri, Ásgeir, Dagný, Hjörtur, Hrafn, Þórhildur. But even if you did Anglo-Saxon at university and know what a ‘thorn’ looks like, they’re still pronounced nothing like they’re spelt.

3. They drink more coffee than booze, even at night. Only tourists, millionaires and politicians can afford alcohol.

4. If it weren’t for the excitement provided by the swimming-pool, the kids in remote Icelandic towns would die of boredom.

5. Everyone in Reykjavik is poncy, effete, synthetic. You can tell by the way the men dress — a confection of greys and blacks and charcoals, with prissy gay ties and scarves and mincing, shiny anoraks with puffy sections, like you get from Uniqlo but presumably way more expensive.

6. Even in Iceland they place far too much store by the economic miracle that is, supposedly, China.

7. The word for police is Lögreglan. (‘Law order’. So, actually, that Anglo-Saxon wasn’t a complete waste of effort, after all.)

8. It is quite possible to go through six hours of an Icelandic crime drama without hearing a single track by Björk. They do listen to other stuff, you know.

9. Policing methods seem to consist largely of bumbling about moodily with a perpetually pained, wistful, almost Christ-like air of noble suffering, and just sort of hoping that if enough people die and enough weird external events (avalanches, etc.) happen, the solution will turn up eventually.

10. It looks quite amazingly bleak and depressing and everyone appears to be on a massive downer, but still you really, really want to go there.

I’m presuming you’ve watched it, otherwise that list will have been completely wasted on you. And if you haven’t you should: there’s something about Scandi noir drama that fulfils a need no other TV can satisfy. The names, the setting, the cultural quirks, the all-pervading gloom — they suck you in and reduce you to an exquisitely depressed catatonic state just the right side of suicidal. (Two more recommendations if you’ve never had the pleasure: the vampire movie Let The Right One In — also featuring a swimming-pool; and the very-hard-to-track-down but utterly brilliant album by Swedish post-rock band Logh Every Time A Bell Rings An Angel Gets His Wings.)

I had high hopes for Stag (BBC2, Saturdays) — a three-part black comedy by some of the team responsible for the superb The Wrong Mans — about a stag weekend gone hideously wrong in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. Stag parties are so often, in my experience, the best reason for wishing you had been born a woman: all that pressure to show yourself the alpha male, among painfully mismatched, pumped-up lads you often barely know, having to drink more than you’d like, watching skanky whores that do the opposite of arouse you. Can’t tell you how glad I am to have got past that stage of my life.

What Stag captured very well, I thought, was the sheer repellance that stag groups often exude. I could certainly identify with the character of Ian (Jim Howick), the outsider who turns up late, doesn’t know anyone, and finds that merely to survive the weekend he’s going to fall in with the alien banter and submit to the random rules of arrogant bullies led by Ledge (short for ‘Legend’, played with Flashmanesque swagger by JJ Feild). (Ledge is scripted as having been to Harrow. This is wrong. He would definitely have gone to Wellington — at least as it was before Anthony Seldon came along and emasculated it with My Little Pony caringness classes.)

But I didn’t quite buy the tone. Obviously, it was nice to see the tossers all being picked off, one by one, Deliverance-style by the locals. But I didn’t feel they’d been shown doing quite enough to deserve it. For these things to work — see also Southern Comfort — you have genuinely to be persuaded that the natives are sufficiently psychopathic and inbred to enact this kind of mayhem; and also, I think, to find the victims sufficiently sympathetic for you to care rather than cheer when they get cut in half, disembowelled, etc.

The Night Manager (BBC1, Sundays) continues to be the best thing on TV. I find the whole set-up of the arms-dealer baddie (Hugh Laurie), his hot trophy girlfriend, and his entourage (especially Tom Hollander) at his Mallorcan redoubt so fantastically well acted and plausibly drawn that you can quite overlook the worthiness of le Carré’s tedious lefty politics.

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Show comments
  • mrmrsspence

    I am taking a bag full of ingredients to Norway next weekend. My enchiladas are world-renowned and have prevented a many man on the edge from stepping over the line.

  • Landphil

    Everyone smells of fish.

    • Father Todd Untious


  • Sean L

    Talking of Scandi noir, The Hunt, a Danish film about a teacher falsely accused of child abuse, is the only thing I’ve ever seen on screen depicting caring left wing liberals as the scary people they really are – to a normal bloke with no minority status, that is. Right up your street I’d have thought.

    • jamesdelingpole

      Seen it. Love it.

    • Damian Hurts

      What about Rubber Tarzan, Gummi-Tarzan (original title) 1h 29min | Drama, Family | 16 October 1981 (Denmark). Proper noir, that.

  • Bertrude

    ‘Hot trophy girlfriend ‘?
    She’s a drug addled stick insect

  • EJ

    Thanks for the casual bit of homophobia – “poncy, effete, synthetic. You can tell by the way the men dress — a confection of greys and blacks and charcoals, with prissy gay ties and scarves and mincing”. How old school and lazy of you.

    • jamesdelingpole

      Pleasure, precious petal. As you say, I’m old school.

      • EJ

        Ah James. Your poor knuckles.

  • andylowings

    They are all such nice clean polite people, eager to show themselves as kind humans, but must all have their heads examined for what they have done to their countries. They must be as mad as the genre tells us.

  • Warwick Onyeama

    I agree with you entirely about the strangely compulsive quality of the recent spate of Nordic Gothic crime dramas. There is something utterly compelling about them such that one can hardly wait for the next episode. What is it they have going for them that English crime dramas can’t match?