The lights suddenly go out on the ten-mile Oresund Bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark. When they come on again, we see that a body has been placed with morbid precision slap in the middle, half on the Danish side, half on the Swedish side.
It’s at this point those who admire BBC4’s supernatural knack of picking fantastically slow, bleak yet strangely winning subtitled Scandinavian crime thrillers will think all their Christmasses, Easters, birthdays and every other feast day on the calendar have come at once.
Because The Bridge is a Swedish-Danish TV co-production. Yes, the countries that brought us Wallander and The Killing are working together!
This is such a joy because our love of so-called Nordic Noir has become a quiet, rolling tide; a cultural phenomenon that began when readers wrote to RT saying how they loved the Swedish Wallander, first shown on BBC4 in 2008, with Krister Henriksson in the title role.
Our devotion to Scandinavia’s dark, spiky thrillers was sealed last year with The Killing, a 20-part Danish murder mystery that arrived on BBC4 without fanfare on Saturday nights where it was adored by legions of obsessive (in a nice way) acolytes who picked over every plot development.
The Bridge follows the bloody tracks in the snow left by Wallander and The Killing: a highly efficient serial killer becomes known, thanks to his conduit (an ambitious, dissipated journalist), as the Truth Teller. He or she is a kind of twisted politically driven avenger, who thinks he is drawing the attention of a brutal and careless society by killing, often in horribly drawn-out ways, its most vulnerable members, including the homeless and mentally incapacitated.
But, after the body is found on the bridge, the hunt is on, led by the latest clever, strange, emotionally disconnected Scandinavian TV detective, Saga Noren, backed up by a beardy, shambolic, much-married, once-fecund Danish detective from Copenhagen, Martin Rohde, grimacing in pain after a recent vasectomy.
Saga’s very oddness and lack of guile make her endearing and bleakly funny, and the partnership with her portly oppo is an appealing one. You end up caring because her utter lack of connection makes you fear for her. She’s an off-kilter heroine cut from the cloth (though most certainly not from the jumper) of The Killing’s ruthlessly focused detective Sarah Lund.
No one actually says so but Saga is probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum; she has no social skills and no empathy. In the first episode she point-blank refuses, without a backward glance, to let the ambulance carrying a heart transplant patient to hospital for life-saving surgery cross the bridge.
No one can cross the bridge, and that’s all there is to it. We very quickly learn that Saga Noren needs rules and, what’s more, she needs to stick to them.
Saga is played by Swedish actress Sofia Helin: “Saga is everything I am not. She doesn’t know how to behave socially, though she is very good at her job and has the best results in her department. But, when it comes to relationships, she is very bad. And she is very lonely.”
Saga’s remarkably accepting colleagues make little of her curious character. When the Oresund Bridge investigation begins and Rohde (Kim Bodnia) arrives, someone wonders if he knows that Saga is “a little odd”. But that’s all, apart from a telling line from Saga well into the series when she says: “I don’t pick up on signs.”
But we can see that Saga, consumed by the case, is emotionally detached in both her professional and personal lives. When randy, she goes to a club, picks a likely candidate and dispenses with any formalities to ask: “Do you want to have sex at my place?”
Unsurprisingly, he does. After some enthusiastic rumpy-pumpy, she turns to her computer and scrolls through gory crime-scene photos right in front of her dozy bedmate. He doesn’t stay for breakfast.
A different kind of heroine
Helin says that the lack of direct reference to any kind of autism is deliberate. “It is very modern today in drama to say someone has Asperger’s or autism. But we didn’t want to make it like that. We just wanted to make her different. No one says exactly what is wrong with her. Saga doesn’t know exactly what is wrong with her. But she lives with it.”
As do Saga’s colleagues; none of them bat an eyelid when she changes T-shirts, with a staggering lack of self-consciousness, in the office, stripping down to a grubby bra. She wears leather trousers and a tatty beige cardigan and seems at times to have the ear buds of her mobile phone surgically attached. Rohde, though initially bemused, grows to like and respect his partner.
Helin is aware that there is a British TV audience that’s obsessed by Scandi crime thrillers and their skewed heroines. “Yes, I heard about that, and I’m surprised. I think we all are. You have to remember, Sweden is a very small country of just nine million people. But when I was shooting The Bridge, I counted 13 different Swedish crime productions. It’s an explosion, and obviously we are very good at it!”
Indeed they are. We have become a nation of Scandi crime lovers, both on television and literature (think Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo and all of those tables in bookshops piled with translated fiction and their snowy covers). Such adoration has even crossed the Atlantic: American TV has remade (not entirely successfully) The Killing and plans to do the same with The Bridge.
The BBC’s head of acquisitions, Sue Deeks, who shops around the world for the best imports, hopes The Bridge will chime with devotees of The Killing and Wallander. “We liked the fact it’s set both in Sweden and Denmark and shows similarities between the two. I think viewers who enjoyed The Killing and Wallander will find that The Bridge has its own original take on the Nordic Noir genre, which is equally compelling.”
They will: The Bridge is a riveting adult thriller, dark and tough, but not so brutally cold that you want to look away. It has a lovely, ghostly theme tune, too, by the Danish band the Choir of Young Believers.
And it really is easy to get lost in such a curious, frigid landscape, thanks to The Bridge’s expertly washed-out cinematography; all of those belching industrial chimneys, blasted landscapes and utilitarian apartment blocks. It’s also good at capturing loneliness of all kinds, the hollowness of city life if you’re alone, even the isolation of partners in a marriage that isn’t working.
Nordic Noir has won big audiences for BBC4. Devotees accept that Saturday nights are no longer for socialising; they’re for embracing chilly death in foreign lands.
Its reach is wide – last month the Duchess of Cornwall, a huge fan of The Killing, looked thrilled beyond words visiting, at her own request, the set of The Killing III. She was presented with a Faroe Island cardigan with a “Lund” pattern by Sarah Lund herself, Sofie Grabol. The Killing, Camilla said, is the only drama she and her husband watch together.
Our best crime fiction writers love it too. Val McDermid is one of Britain’s most successful crime writers, author of the forensic psychologist Tony Hill series that was turned into a successful ITV1 drama, Wire in the Blood. Her most recent thriller, The Retribution, topped the fiction bestseller charts. She adores The Killing.
“For me, the best thing was that it took 20 episodes to resolve one crime. The fact that it garnered this really passionate audience sent a message to programme-makers that we are quite a sophisticated audience and we don’t have to have everything wrapped up in a 60- or 90-minute bite. We can stay for the long game and become engaged with proper storytelling”.
Creator of DI Tom Thorne, Mark Billingham, whose latest novel, As Good as Dead is a bestseller, chairs this year’s Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. He makes the prosaic point that “blood looks very good against the snow. It [Scandinavia] is an odd, spooky landscape if you’re unfamiliar with it, much more suspenseful than a French valley or an Italian lake.
“It’s a landscape of huge extremes of weather and strange extremes of light and dark. There is a certain sort of dourness and spareness in terms of dialogue both in the books and TV series that goes against everything Midsomer Murders is, everything a typical primetime TV drama is here. It’s understated, spare and muscular.”
He echoes McDermid’s point about viewer commitment. “These dramas treat viewers as intelligent who will commit to a piece of programming and don’t want instant satisfaction. These are not shows you can dip in and out of.”
Perish the thought. The joy of Nordic Noir is immersion. Wrap yourself in a blanket. Saturday nights are closing in again.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 April 2012.
The Bridge begins tonight with a double bill from 9pm on BBC4