Remembering Brian Cant

brian cant henSomething rather peculiar happened earlier this week in Britain. Amid what seems to be an interminable national crisis of confidence with political and social turmoil at every corner, pundits and commentators briefly stopped to pay tribute to the late actor and children’s television presenter Brian Cant, who has died at the age of 83. There was a certain element of the WH Auden poem Stop All The Clocks – or perhaps in this case Stop All The Trumpton Clocks – about it.

david allen green brian cant

patrick kidd brian cant
An obvious conclusion that can be derived from this is that in a state of shell-shock we are looking back to what we perceive to be a kinder, simpler time in our nation’s history. Certainly the ritualistic frequency with which the trilogy of stop-motion animation series narrated by Brian Cant – Trumpton, Camberwick Green and Chigley – appeared on repeats on our televisions from the late 1960s through to the 1980s meant that he became synonymous with a certain kind of reassurance derived from public service broadcasting.

For a certain generation, Cant’s voice introducing us to the Trumpton clock still oddly, yet very tangibly, provides resonance and certitude to this day: a bit like a junior model of the much-loved BBC shipping forecast that has somehow not yet reached a best-before date. For the soothing punctuation of Radio 4 presenters telling us that all in Cromarty, Tyne, Dogger and North Utsire is good, substitute Brian Cant intoning that the Trumpton clock was telling the time steadily, sensibly, never too quickly, and never too slowly (adverbs which, appropriately, could be used to define Cant’s narration style itself).

Yet there is perhaps something more subtle than mere nostalgia here at play. If some of the best-known children’s programmes of recent years, and some of the best qualitatively – Balamory and Old Jack’s Boat – have relied on a certain unobtrusiveness and reliance on simple story-telling, then this surely makes the case for the actual merits of individual programmes, as opposed to the time period from which they come, being a telling factor in why someone like Brian Cant is held in such high regard. Perhaps the man himself hit the nail on the head when he said in this 1995 interview:

You were always trying to make the child feel that you were doing the programme just for them; I think it paid off, and I think it’s why so many people remember it as being special to them, because they got to know each and every one of us as brothers, sisters, uncles or whatever. But no-one ever called me Uncle Brian; it was  more as if I was just a grown-up mate who came over and messed around, chatted, read stories…”

it is indeed the warmth and simple intimacy with which Brian Cant approached his three most renowned series – the Trumpton trilogy, Play School and Play Away – which may mean that he can justly have the title of the David Attenborough of children’s television conferred upon him. It is worth remembering that these are three different programmes requiring three very different presenting and narrating styles: in Play Away he was necessarily the benevolent ringmaster or wisecracking centre of attention; in Trumpton he had to play supportive narrative amanuensis to the stop-motion figures who were the centre of attention; in Play School he had to appeal to the nursery school demographic just a notch below the demographic at which Play Away was centred.

In this respect, it is no surprise that Brian Cant was of that generation that learned a separate vocational trade (in his case, printing) before moving into repertory theatre (which by definition requires versatility) and then, finally, the world of children’s television via Play School in 1964, when he was in his early thirties: a far cry from the world of the 21st-century where there seems to be immense pressure on people with an interest in a media career to get straight on the television the moment the ink has dried on their degree certificate. Everything about Brian Cant that might seem an anachronism – treating acting as seriously as a craft as printing, being able to effortlessly move between adolescent television sub-genres, being measured and not desperately over-excitable in his attempt to win the audience’s attention – is actually what gives the television programmes synonymous with his name an air of timelessness.

The odd personal effect (for me) of having grown up with these different incarnations of Brian Cant was trying to reconcile all the Brian Cants. I remember one national newspaper in the early 2000s satirically taking a shot across the bows at British badminton player and subsequent mixed doubles world champion Gail Emms when she professed herself to be scary, with the said journalist saying that things more scary than Gail Emms included Brian Cant. Yet for one split second in my childhood, I was a little deterred by Brian Cant, perhaps because I was watching Play Away at the time and not quite in the relevant age bracket to deal with the fact he appeared to have a joke and an answer for everything.

having an answer for everything

Having an answer for everything 

Maybe I just didn’t like someone else apart from myself having an answer for everything: about the same time, my mum and dad tried to get me to hold their hands when we were going for a walk, and I responded with the imperious: ‘No, I want to be the master’, and strode on ahead of them. I like to think I’m less imperious (and more grey-haired) than that nowadays, but back in adolescence, my Brian Cant Entente Cordiale really didn’t take that long. As an only child, I was often left to my own devices, and one of those occasions involved being on my own at the kitchen table with a bag of crisps. My exact memory is wishing that Brian Cant was there to enthusiastically share the crisps and make jokes about them and roll up at a surprise party just for me where he took to stage with the crisps. Subjectively, it now seems that the timespan between Wanting To Be The Master and The Great Crisp Reconciliation was, well, slightly less than the average timespan of an episode of Play Away (even if Brian Cant never actually did come round to share my crisps).

The other obvious component of Trying To Reconcile All The Brian Cants partly stems from the immense wave of nostalgia for a certain era of children’s television starting roughly at the time the BBC committed to showing certain programmes daily (Play School, with Brian Cant at the helm, on BBC2 in 1964) through to the advent of colour television (the Trumpton trilogy in the late 1960s, although Trumpton itself, from early 1967, slightly predates BBC2’s landmark colour coverage of Wimbledon later that year), an improved budget for (then) more ambitious studio-based children’s programmes (Play Away from 1971 onwards) and the onset of video games and multi-channel television meaning it was difficult to keep a child’s attention centred on one place (circa 1984, when Play Away ended and Brian Cant’s tenure on Play School had drawn to a close).

Unlike David Attenborough, who has spent more than sixty years as a basically permanent fixture of public service broadcasting, Brian Cant never really appeared much on the BBC once this particular golden era was over, arguably meaning that we a) are more prone to getting nostalgic about said era b) potentially have problems with our memory banks identifying what took place when in the BCE (Brian Cant Era) c) have to ask ourselves whether we actually remember what we think we remember at all. In this respect, the rather horrible confession on my part is that there is no foolproof Proustian trigger to be gained from someone saying: ‘Remember Brian Cant on Play School?’ because I barely remember Brian Cant on Play School, if at all. If very familiar libellous (and tedious) claims about another classic stop-motion programme, Captain Pugwash, seem to do the grapevine rounds at least once a year and apparently need to be unequivocally refuted once a year, I’m worried I’d spiritually libel myself and Brian Cant if I enthusiastically bluffed the above question and went ‘Ooh, yeah!’ with my eyes doing a classic left-to-right mendacious slide. I could afford to pretend Brian Cant was helping me to eat my crisps when I was five: an enthusiastic (but not bona fide) ‘Ooh yeah!’ when I am 43 is a different matter entirely.

crisps

Not a Proustian madeleine in this instance, but Scandifriend crisps

And yet. The Proustian trigger comes from the fragmented memories rather than the very whole and unimpeachable ones, and one thing I can definitely remember is Brian Cant reading the poem The Train To Glasgow. This may or may not have been Play School, but here in a sense the actual factual detail matters less than all the emotional connotations of Brian Cant in his element as a children’s television presenter: reading poems steadily, sensibly, not too quickly, not too slowly; reading them with such benign authority he made you feel he’d written or owned the poem himself (indeed he did write whole episodes of Play School); having a gift for interpreting words and language (this being the cornerstone of his one-man alliterative monologues in Bric-A-Brac towards the end of that golden era); and helping foster literacy in a generation which didn’t necessarily have access to that many books (again, perhaps a timeless consideration in itself; bookshops are a million times better than they used to be at catering for children and children themselves seem a million times more literate than when I was growing up, but I do worry about the connotations of living in cash-strapped 2017).

It might be that struggling to factually remember exact moments from the television schedule of yesteryear has something to do with: a collision of memory eventually failing us all; blanket transmission of certain programmes and the ubiquity of certain presenters, alongside regular repeats (especially in the case of Trumpton), resulting in one memory blurring into another; and the programming schedules in that particular era being messed around with (again, perhaps no change there). Here my memories, subjective or otherwise, are thankfully in tune with those of Brian Cant:

“The only problem was that because Play Away was lodged between two feature films it never seemed to have a regular time slot, and it often ended up clashing with the football results on BBC-1 – so we’d have sackloads of letters from irate children whose parents had insisted on watching the results programme!” (1995 interview)

Certainly there was a period of two decades when Brian Cant never seemed to be off the television (albeit subject to BBC1 and BBC2 whims more chaotic and less steady and sensible than the Trumpton clock). There are a few verbal and musical mnemonics which cast me back to the heyday of Play Away, including the inevitable rejoinder ‘Here’s a word! Here’s a word! What can this word be?’, its natural partner in the riddle stakes ‘We’re a pair! We’re a pair! What are we a pair of?’, and the chunky, slightly blues-based piano of the Play Away theme, but these make me think of Play Away regular Toni Arthur and the show’s pianist, Jonathan Cohen, as much as they do Brian Cant. Even so, I think the whole point here is that such shows were by definition collective endeavours with Brian Cant presented as the benevolent head of a de facto family (which might explain why Play Away appealed to adults such as my mother, who tried to get us tickets for the show, as much as it did to children). It was genuine family entertainment, and if there aren’t many defining catchphrases or tics we need in order to bring Brian Cant into our memory, well, he probably didn’t need them.

play away toni arthur jonathan cohen

The benevolent Cant-Arthur-Cohen triumvirate (and friends)

The final words here really must take their inspiration from the words of the man himself. In an era when political correctness has been increasingly demonised, often with the charge that Britain is ‘not like it was in the old days’, Brian Cant appeared to explain in no uncertain terms in the cited 1995 interview that inclusivity and egalitarianism were values intrinsic to the success of Play School in that bygone era itself:

“The format was already there; they wanted a programme aimed at the single child at home, so you were working eyeball-to-eyeball. I think that was why it was so successful; whoever you were talking to, you had to make them feel that they were the only one, that you were doing it just for them, and so there were all sorts of guidelines we had to follow. We were never allowed to say “ask your mother/father” because they might not have a mum or dad, so you’d say “ask a grown-up” or “ask an adult”, and you couldn’t talk about going to play on the lawn, because there’d be lots of children in high-rise blocks who didn’t have gardens, so you’d talk about playing in the park.”

And what must surely go hand-in-hand with that naturally attuned sense of empathy is the modesty of Brian Cant himself. Asked in the same interview why people regarded the era we have looked at here as a ‘golden’ one for children’s television programmes, he simply replied:

“I don’t know really…. they just seem to have stayed in people’s memories.”

The below photo shows Brian Cant celebrating the 50th anniversary of Play School in 2014 with other notable presenters. I like to think that the warmth and affection this image exudes is self-explanatory.

brian cant playschool

Led Zeppelin and Denmark

led-zeppelin-early-days

A very familiar photo – but no less jolting nearly 50 years on. The Zep Back In The Day

Yes, we know. More long monastic silences here, occasionally punctuated by blogging stuff. We like to think that the silences are actually worth something. I mean, if John Cage could write one of the most renowned musical works of the 20th century predicated on silence then maybe silent blogging could assume a certain artistic merit. Then again, maybe not.

To cut to the chase. Led Zeppelin and Denmark. We’ve been back on a Zep bender recently with a certain amount of intrigue as to why the band chose Copenhagen for their secret comeback gigs in the summer of 1979 ahead of their two appearances at the Knebworth Festival. But then, I guess, one could equally ask: why not?

For a start, they’d had plenty of previous in the country: Denmark was where the band kicked off their first concert tour in 1968, with a gig in school gymnasium in Gladsaxe. It’s where they had one of their rare-as-the-blue-moon television appearances, with a half-hour gig purposely for Danmarks Radio early in the following year. If they were trying to assign some special significance to Denmark, they were helped by others, most notably Countess Eva von Zeppelin, who spat (figurative) blood at them in person after hearing them and denouncing them as a desecration of the family name. As such, for one gig (and one gig only) they appeared as The Nobs in Copenhagen in 1970 in order to avoid a tricky lawsuit (we still don’t really get the total randomness and one-off of this one but if they really wanted to sail close to the wind they could have called themselves Led Nobs or Led Zepnobs in order to see what happened).

In total the band played 10 gigs in Denmark and 11 in Sweden in their career span. To get this into context, they only played six times in France, just once in Italy and never in Spain: Anglophone markets such as New Zealand, Australia and Ireland also saw scant action in comparison.

The reasoning behind the attraction to the Nordic countries notwithstanding, what seems to stand out as a common thread in terms of the Denmark music – and the circumstances in which it was played – is the unpretentiousness. Zeppelin seemed to spend at least the latter half of their career running up against the charge of being pretentious (especially following the advent of punk), but it’s genuinely difficult when appraising the various Denmark sojourns to understand why. The bootleg of the 1979 gig, which took place just after punk had been at full throttle, actually sounds remarkably blistering and insouciant and danceable and bouncy, all full of musical majesty but still inflected with riotous joie de vivre like a bag full of kittens let loose in an unattended full-fat milk dairy. And it certainly doesn’t sound leaden. I suppose Bounce Miaow Zeppelin doesn’t quite have the same gravitas as a band name though. Arguably the same goes for The Nobs one-off nomenclature, which is all a bit William Hogarth meets Monty Python (ribald and randomly subversive), and hardly pompous.

For what it’s worth, I remember seeing the 1969 television concert on BBC in the Christmas holidays in 1989/90, and being captivated. It’s the final years of monochrome television but that somehow makes the visual spectacle all the more arresting: the black-and-whiteness of the broadcast lends it an arthouse quality, but the overwhelming, once-in-a-hundred-years feverishness of the music makes you wonder if the band themselves are going to alchemically turn the screen lurid, ebb-and-flowing, purple-loon-pant technicolour at any moment. This is truly a cultural tipping point in every sense. It’s fun to speculate on why Led Zeppelin chose Denmark for so many landmark events (and it would enhance our Scandifriend credentials to do a bit more research on this), but I guess the whole point is that they just knew how to make an event out of an event in any instance. Repeatedly and consummately.

led-zeppelin-denmark-1969

The revolution will be televised and Robert Plant threatens to turn into total hair in the process. Led Zeppelin, Danmarks Radio television gig, March 17th 1969

 

 

Why Brexiters need to take Maggie to task

Back in the day

Back in the day

This morning on Twitter, people were sneering at George Soros and David Beckham for coming out in favour of the Remain vote in the UK referendum membership of the EU, as they were ‘part of an elite’. Well actually, Beckham started out as a working-class East London boy and Soros couldn’t attend school in Nazi Hungary in WWII because he was Jewish so nothing was handed to them on a plate. Part of the reason they thrived is because of a free market ideology and the idea that anyone from any background can get on in life.

Here we often refer to such an ideology as ‘Thatcherism’. It has been the defining ideology of our modern times. Free market ideology also goes hand in hand with the idea that people like Beckham and Soros are free to move to and live in other countries as they have done in order to further their lives and their happiness and their career. Much as the forefather of Thatcherism, economist Friedrich Hayek, was (rightly) given citizenship and refuge here in the UK so he didn’t have to go back to the tyranny of Nazi rule under Hitler in Austria.

By the same logic, much has been made of the idea that Eastern Europeans can easily travel here. Again, look to a thing called ‘Thatcherism’. It promotes the idea that communism, as seen in Eastern Europe from the end of WWII to 1989, is the greatest form of tyranny and that what ultimately matters is individual liberty in order to foster economic success.

Admittedly Tony Blair encouraged immigration from the early 2000s in a way that Mrs Thatcher didn’t, possibly because she resigned before the issue of migrant labour in Europe really took off, but broadly speaking, the Polish plumber or the Czech cabbage picker in this country is the natural consequence of Thatcherism taken to the next level, though such people are of course not necessarily right-of-centre in the way Mrs Thatcher was.

By the same logic, much has been made of the idea that we unduly prefer workers from Europe over people from other continents who might be more skilled workers. Again, look to a thing called ‘Thatcherism’, or more specifically, Mrs Thatcher herself. She was reluctant to take in Vietnamese boat people at the start of her premiership because she felt that Eastern Europeans, for example, would assimilate better.

(Personally I am a lefty pinko colour-blind type on this point and I love all my friends of Eastern Europe and other countries without discriminating – but I do perceive that it puts her seriously at odds with certain Eurosceptics who feel they are honouring her legacy.)

By the same logic, much has been made of the idea that workers from other countries are taking away the jobs of British workers. Again, look to a thing called ‘Thatcherism’. It promotes the idea that nobody in life is owed a job and that they have to roll up their sleeves and get on with it if they want to get on in life. Irrespective of their background.

By the same logic, much has been made in this referendum of our industrial decline. Again, look to a thing called ‘Thatcherism’. It promotes the idea that if you raise interest rates high and strangle the money supply and reduce investment in businesses then they will be forced to become more competitive. This is why we ended up with a collapse in manufacturing and mass unemployment in the 1980s and social scars which have possibly never properly healed – not least because the timidity of Mrs Thatcher’s four successors as Prime Minister in challenging her legacy.

By the same logic, much has been made in this referendum of the idea that communities and society as a whole is at breaking point. Again, look to a thing called ‘Thatcherism’. It promotes the idea that there is no such thing as society and that people must look to themselves first.

By the same logic, much has been made of the idea that we have ceded so much power to Europe over the last forty-odd years. Again, look to Mrs Thatcher:

She enthusiastically campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Economic Community in 1975;

She stood on a pro-EEC platform in the 1983 general election when her Labour opponents campaigned to leave – and she won a smashing election victory whilst Labour tumbled to the most disastrous defeat in their history;

She agreed to take us into the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1990 – a move which ultimately resulted in much rancour and bitterness among Eurosceptics who took up her cause (or thought they were taking up her cause) in the years that followed her resignation;

Most pertinently of all, she signed the Single European Act in 1986, a move which codified European Political Cooperation and therefore hastened the arrival of the European Union itself.

Obvious questions then:

Why are the chief proponents of the campaign to take Britain out the EU, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, attacking Europe so much instead of concentrating on how Thatcherism has got us to where we are now?

Are they scared to attack Mrs Thatcher because they can’t reconcile their admiration for her with these points and because it wouldn’t look patriotic?

Why are they banging on about lack of democracy and Europe bossing us around when Mrs Thatcher set us on the way to where we are now by winning three elections and then going about doing what she wanted, not what her counterparts on the continent were doing?

If the whole idea of Brexit is that our nation’s history and heritage is so important, why are we being so wilfully blind about a path in recent history which we have chosen ourselves?

If what has happened to our society owes so much to Thatcherism, who – especially in the Brexit camp (though, to their credit, not principled consistent left-wing patriotic Eurosceptics) – is going to have the balls to stand up and say that as the system that has prevailed since 1979, that it is in so many ways what they are complaining about?

If they are complaining about the natural consequences of Thatcherism, why are they exclusively blaming Europe and not Mrs Thatcher and those who followed in her path?

If Nigel and Boris and co can’t actually come up with a decent positive alternative to Thatcherism other than blaming Europe and others for everything that goes wrong, how are we expected to positively thrive as a nation?

This has been a bitter referendum, but it seems to boil down to two choices. Vote for trying to be nice to one another in the wider world and share and solve our problems together. Or vote for pretending your history didn’t happen and pressing fruit machine buttons in the hope the three cherries will come up.

I prefer the former.

And in case you think I’m a fence-sitter, on the issue of championing individual liberty, I think Mrs Thatcher in many respects had a point. Like her or hate her – we are dangerously playing with fire if we pretend her legacy doesn’t matter.

 

Still frothing over Trapped: the wonderful Andri-Hinrika dynamic

We’ve been increasingly drawn to the plays of Anton Chekhov in the last week or so, possibly because they are so naturalistic and unprepossessing (yet so beguiling). More than a century after they were written, they still make their mark as they are such a counterpoint to all the more obvious ‘classical’ drama that came in the centuries before.

Could it be, we wonder, that our simultaneous fascination with Trapped stems from the fact that is the Chekhov of Nordic Noir compared to the Shakespearean tomes that are The Bridge, Borgen and 1864? It has plenty going on (certainly a greater body count than in Chekhov’s plays) but in purely relative Nordic Noir terms, it’s not grand drama with grand set pieces, and there aren’t any obvious characters with all-too observable Shakespearean tragic flaws in the same way that there are in other Nordic Noir dramas. The world of Trapped is rather more shaded and restrained in terms of dramatic denouement.

And yet somehow Trapped has upped the ante for Nordic Noir in terms of an intangible ‘big things from a small country’ artistic equation. Few could quite believe that Denmark, with a population of less than six million, could produce such compelling television drama for the 21st century. Now we have to mentally readjust to ask how Iceland, a country with a population smaller than the London Borough of Croydon, can produce something which takes the very idea of Nordic Noir to new levels – or puts it in a completely new cultural and geographic place.

We already offered five reasons why Trapped hit the bullseye in terms of viewing pleasure. We don’t even know where to start in terms of offering more reasons, but one has to be the wonderful Andri-Hinrika dynamic.

The quiet, subtle emergence of the Andri-Hinrika double act – or, indeed, the subtle emergence of Hinrika as a strong character in her own right, over the course of several episodes, is a key component of the show. As strong as The Bridge and The Killing were, there was a very obvious cop double-act identified and put in place very early on in the proceedings, with the emphasis on the female lead. But look what happens in Trapped. Initially, we become used to the idea that the burly, brooding Andri is ostensibly in charge of the whole shebang of sorting out the multiple whodunnits in the remote Icelandic fjörd town where the action takes place. How can he not be in charge when he’s chief of police?

But then we notice that undemonstrative, stoical, scrutinising-yet-motherly female figure deftly going about another questioning, putting another piece of the jigsaw in place, and boldly confronting one of the numerous villains of the piece at the climax of the series. Perhaps one of the small yet vital components of dramatic genius within Trapped is that Hinrika nearly always wears uniform and Andri doesn’t (again, completely unlike what has come before in Nordic Noir double-acts); it raises questions as to who is actually the more discerning and palpable police figure, especially given Andri’s chequered history in the police force prior to moving from Reykjavìk to this rural backwater.

Hinrika is not an obvious ‘strong female lead’ in the same way that Saga is in The Bridge and Sarah Lund is in The Killing, but then in her own way she is challenging what ‘strong female lead’ means in Nordic Noir to start off with. With our conception blurred as to whether Andri or Hinrika is truly in charge of the case, and with so many people guilty of breaking the law come the end of the show, this is perhaps not as much as a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘who solved it’. Maybe the comparison between Trapped and Chekhov is only valid up to a point; unlike the angsty eponymous characters in The Three Sisters, the woebegone Masha and Nina in The Seagull, and the put-upon Sonia in Uncle Vania, Hinrika is implacable and gets things done.

Cometh the hour, cometh the deceptively formidable lady in the furry police hat - Hinrika, as played by Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir

Cometh the hour, cometh the deceptively formidable lady in the furry police hat – Hinrika, as played by Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir

 

Reality check on UK ‘Tory war’ over Europe

Just a quick word from our homeland on the rubbish that the Conservatives are supposedly ‘tearing themselves apart’, ‘imploding’ or ‘falling apart’ over the issue of the EU referendum on June 23rd. That’s not the case until the opposition Labour party, or anyone else, looks as if they are in a position to benefit. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, appears to be backing continued EU membership simply because he wouldn’t be able to get away with presiding over a party of largely pro-EU MPs and not backing it. The Labour figures most likely to make a strong case for staying in the EU are ex-Prime Ministers who are no longer in Parliament, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (which doesn’t say a lot at the moment for those pro-EU Labour MPs that are in Parliament, with the possible exception of former Home Secretary Alan Johnson).

To all intents and purposes, the referendum is a de facto Conservative party leadership contest between Prime Minister David Cameron (pictured below) and London Mayor Boris Johnson, both of whom are on opposite sides of the debate. But the Conservatives will still be in power come June 24th (unforeseen disasters notwithstanding) – and they’ll probably rally around the figurehead who has prevailed in the election. Because that kind of pragmatism is what Conservatives do well. The weird thing is that although there is clearly a lot of in-fighting taking place in the Conservative party, it only underlines how much their opponents are – for now – in the wilderness.

David Cameron

 

Danish hygge in 2016 – or putting things in perspective

There has been a lot of stuff about Danish hygge floating around in the Anglophone media in the last six months. Here, for example. And here. And here. Nothing wrong with that: the idea of cosiness and happiness is a key metric in assessing the quality of one’s life.

What has bothered me more is that many of the articles reporting on hygge, and how Denmark is one of the happiest countries, if not the happiest country, in the world, don’t appear to take into account stuff like this. And this. And this. And a lot of this was on the cards after last June’s election – or even before it, when a victory for the right bloc (and the very aggressive right-wing politics it was propounding) was a strong possibility.

No-one would suggest that Denmark is all about seizing assets from refugees, placing ads in foreign newspapers telling refugees not to come to Denmark etc. But clearly by the same token it’s not all about eating home-made cinnamon pastries and curling up underneath duvets either (certainly not at this moment in time). Without wishing to sound churlish, some journalism that put things into perspective and attempted to reconcile the two strands wouldn’t go amiss either – maybe as Patrick Kingsley did a few years ago. There’s nothing wrong with being kind to yourself but surely one has to wonder why Danish politicians (who got their jobs because people voted for them*) have not exactly displayed the milk of human kindness in profuse proportions to others (and whether metrics projecting Denmark as one of the happiest countries in the world are inviolable). Some might say that we don’t sound very Scandifriendly on this occasion – but concerned Scandifriendliness and Scandifawnery seem to be two very different entities. There, we’ve probably burned our Øresund bridges now.

* to make it doubly clear, the one thing we don’t dispute is that the right bloc is back in power in Denmark because people voted for them. That’s how democracy operates, and the collective left failed to make a better case for election last June even if the departing Prime Minister was still by some margin head of the biggest party. What we do dispute is whether the policies pursued by the new government are an unambiguous sign that Denmark is a very happy country in the way that some people make it out to be.

Getting immersed in Trapped – the five good reasons why

The protracted absence of any blogging activity here shouldn’t be seen as a dwindling of our interest in Scandinavian matters. Too much to blog about and too little time – same old fiendish equation. Somehow we seem to have had a window of opportunity presented (or framed?) our way so we are going to jump through it. Five reasons to get immersed in Trapped, the Icelandic detective series currently airing on BBC4 in the UK.

1. It’s not really a detective series. Chinese investors looking to bring a brand new spanking port to a remote Icelandic fjörd town. Brutal wife-beating mayors getting their comeuppance. Old, sage-like figures warning of disaster and then invoking it when they misguidedly attempt to stop an avalanche. Families cleaved apart by a distressing death and then brought together by the realisation that the chief suspect isn’t the perpetrator. It’s all a bit..well, it’s all a bit like a modern Icelandic saga. Especially because the fact everyone is trapped by the snow intensifies the feeling of what you might call communal remoteness (or remote communality?)

2. Protagonist Andri isn’t really a classic Nordic Noir detective. He doesn’t have any of the ‘superwoman with baggage’ characteristics of Saga Norén or Sarah Lund (admittedly because he’s not a woman in the first place, but you know what we mean). He doesn’t have any of the ‘lieutenant superman with baggage too’ characteristics of Henrik in Series Three of The Bridge. He isn’t an alcoholic like Wallander. He’s just very ursine and (a bit) cuddly, terse, weary and unobtrusive. He’s paralysingly normal by any Scandi sleuth standards. And that’s actually quite endearing. He’s the bloke next door in the town where everyone’s got something to hide behind their door (except maybe Andri).

An Everyman amid the skeleton-filled cupboards: police detective Andri Ólafsson, as played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson

An Everyman amid the skeleton-filled cupboards: police detective Andri Ólafsson, as played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson

3. The low-key stuff. A lot of the best scenes aren’t obviously about anything in the grander scheme of things yet they matter all the more. Hjörtur, the character suspected of the murder of Andri’s former sister-in-law, stands out as the awkward social hermit in the town, savagely burned by the fire which killed his partner seven years previously, and with no obvious allies to hand (and his former partner’s father clearly an enemy). The scene where Hjörtur goes to a pool party and summons up the confidence to shed some clothes and jump in the pool (and potentially rediscover love) is very understated, but it’s very poignant and rewarding as well.

Seeking a way back into society: Hjörtur, as played by Baltasar Breki Sampar

Seeking a way back into society: Hjörtur, as played by Baltasar Breki Samper

4. The fact so much of the action takes place in just once place. No buzzing back and forth over the Öresund Bridge. No jet-setting like the Arne Dahl crew to Italy or the Baltics. When so much detail rests less on the big geopolitical picture and more on which snowman might be outside which house (and serve to blow the cover of two hapless trafficked girls looking to escape their ruthless trafficker), you’re forced to concentrate on the detail.

5. It’s all about Total Trappedness. Trapped by the snow. Trapped in a house where you dare not expose your cover (see above). Trapped on a ferry until the police say otherwise. Trapped by the cold until the shady ferry captain turns the heat on. Trapped in unhappy marriages. Trapped by society’s perceived norms until you find a way to break free or accept society for what it is (see Hjörtur above). Trapped by the social conventions where you’re expected to make an effort with your ex-wife’s partner for the sake of the family (as Andri is, or appears to be). Trapped by the prospect of an avalanche. Trapped by the actual avalanche which probably didn’t have anything to do with the prospect of the avalanche. Trapped by remoteness which requires you to let foreign investors do their bidding in order to potentially secure the livelihood of the town. To coin another phrase, we’re all entrappened in this one.