Maybe it’s not as hysterical and wide-reaching as Beatlemania in the 1960s, but Danskemania/Dane-mania/Denmark Mania – acclaim for all things Danish – has surely hit some kind of high-water mark (or high-water Denmark?) in the UK, among certain sections of British society at the very least. It would be nice for Worldly Scandifriend to do some serious swotting on Anglo-Danish relations throughout the centuries to put this into some kind of historical context, and we will make sure that that follows in good course – but let’s look at the 2012 evidence for the time being.
We have new-found British residents of Copenhagen happy to extol the city in largely glowing terms in very prominent articles in the national press. If they’re not alone in having made the move in recent times, it may be because they and others took a very strong cue from newspaper articles suggesting they should do so. We have also reached the point where Noma, hailed as the best restaurant in the world, is perceived not as an isolated anomaly or one-off but the jewel in a very rich crown of interwoven references as far as Danish – or at least Copenhagen – cuisine is concerned.
Centre-stage at the heart of this cultural zeitgeist is an unfailingly modest yet utterly triumphant trinity: the actress (Sofie Gråbøl), the detective she plays (Sarah Lund), and the woolly jumper synonymous with both. The actress, replete with woolly jumpers, has just got to meet the future Queen of the United Kingdom – although Brits might have had alternative interpretations on the day as to which one was royalty.
Now I may not have the full historical context on this one, but I remember when Danskemania didn’t exist on this side of the North Sea – and it wasn’t that long ago. This article from 2003 by John O’ Mahony, scathingly slating endeavours within Danish theatre, made an impression on me, not least because it so obviously echoed the legendary words uttered by the Harry Lime character played by Orson Welles in the 1948 film The Third Man: to the effect that safe, consensual, peaceful and democratic societies which put a weighty emphasis on such qualities simply don’t produce good art.
To his credit, O’ Mahony did perceptively note that the advent of populist right-wing politics in Denmark at the very beginning of the 21st century might serve as some kind of wake-up call. And it is indeed impossible to dissociate the subsequent social and racial tensions, Muhammad cartoons and all, endured by the country in the last decade from the grim ‘trust no-one’ mantra espoused by The Killing, the series which has (surely) made Gråbøl a legend in her own lifetime.
But which vision of Denmark rings more true? It’s difficult to believe in this environment that the country’s new Social Democrat-led government is on an easier footing than its historical predecessors – yet ‘better quality of life’, and the very idea of social democracy still in many ways intertwined with that notion, remain a default tag for Denmark and its Nordic siblings among those Britons who have made, or might be tempted to make, the move Danmark-side. See the links in the second paragraph if you don’t believe me.
At the same time, part of the attraction of programmes such as The Killing and Borgen is surely that they are prepared, in humane and balanced yet highly persuasive fashion, to tackle sensitive social issues – not just multiculturalism, but especially the concept of 21st-century feminism and the role of women in the workplace. In the UK, that has cut some serious ice – and not just with the liberal-left intelligensia.
Sometimes this head-on approach can stoke tensions – as seen in the decision by theatre group Cafe Teatret to use the manifesto at the heart of last July’s Norway massacre as the basis for a drama. That event felt like (and still does feel like) the worst moment of Worldly Scandifriend’s life, even as a relatively distant spectator – so it’s understandable if the bereaved have strong reservations about how Anders Behring Breivik’s legacy might be interpreted for artistic purposes.
It remains to be seen whether such works can convert freedom of speech into something of palpable artistic merit that will serve humankind as a whole throughout the generations. But, as far as Denmark and its theatre is concerned in the immediate present, what a distance travelled since O’ Mahony’s 2003 critique. Ivory tower drama and Downton Abbey this ain’t.
On this basis, I would return to one of my previous posts and suggest that if Denmark has retained its social democratic/’quality of life’ credentials, it is in an atmosphere where those who espouse such beliefs have to stand up and make their voices heard if they want to be regarded as potent and credible. One such example might have been the response to recent right-wing demonstrations in Århus. That must have evoked some relief among liberal- and left-slanting people in Britain, but if you think that’s stating the obvious, it’s again worth thinking of this in some kind of modern historical context.
In 1994, if a lot of UK-based residents reacted with relief to anything emanating from Denmark, it was Whigfield finally ending Wet Wet Wet’s hegemony on top of the hit parade. We still think of that moment fondly, but we feel that Anglo-Danish relations have in the interim become more critical, more subtly nuanced, and more valued – perhaps in a way which they haven’t been since 1945. In particular we note one thing. Political correctness started to get a beating in Blighty around the aforementioned 1994 – especially as lads’ mags moved into the ascendancy. Worldly Scandifriend hazards the thought that in 2012, Denmark makes sense to a number of Brits because it appears cool and right-on. And scrapping hard to be both.