Christmas Jumpers, Citizenship and Never Saying Goodbye – What “The Killing” Taught Me About the Power of Place

I’ve just reached the end of a marathon viewing of the first series of twisty turny Danish crime drama The Killing. I realise this puts me two years behind the rest of the country but hey, at this rate I’ll be work out what all the fuss is about The Only Way is Essex before the end of the decade.

Call me hopelessly parochial if you like, but I’ve never watched a foreign language TV series before (unless you count Keeping Up With The Kardashians).  Aside from the compelling plot and intriguing characters, Forbrydelsen, as it’s known in its native tongue, had an awful lot to teach me about the cultural shorthand I take for granted in British and even American drama.

Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert in all things – or indeed, anything – Danish.  As far as I know, they make good bacon and hate to see their beer exported. And being a bit Scandinavian, I presume they’re pretty right-on, though not as right-on as the Swedes or Norwegians, obviously.  Having now watched twenty episodes of The Killing though, I think I’m better qualified to set out a few things that separate the Danish way of life from that here in Britain.

Sarah Lund: Losing her family, her boyfriend and her marbles, but at least she's staying warm.

Sarah Lund: Losing her family, her boyfriend and her marbles, but at least she’s staying warm.

So here we go:

The Danes wear their Christmas jumpers with pride.  Now, I know festive jumpers –  by which I mean thick, knobbly woollen ones with repeating patterns of snowflakes or reindeer – enjoyed a resurgence amongst Young People last year; but that was “ironic” wasn’t it?  I mean, kids were spending fifty quid on some cream and burgundy nightmare from French Connection, not actually wearing Aunty Mabel’s lovingly home-knitted Arran cardi.  Not so in Denmark, where robust knitwear is clearly not a laughing matter.  I think that’s something we can all learn from.  I’ll be putting in my order with Aunty Mabel forthwith.

They’re just a bit more sophisticated in their politics than we are.  One of the characters in The Killing is a politician seeking election as mayor. We get to hear a bit about one of his flagship policies as a way of distinguishing him from his main rival.  If this were set in Britain he’d be talking about “crime” or “health” or “education”.  At a push, we might get “welfare”. In Denmark, the chosen policy, the one picked so that viewers will know exactly where this chap is coming from, is “integration”.  And not just whether or not it’s a good idea – that’s so last decade – but the efficacy of role models in addressing the apparently high levels of crime against some immigrant communities.

I mean, can you imagine this conversation in the Queen Vic?

“‘Ere, Peggy wot d’yer think of this Hartmann geezer’s role models, then?”

“Nah Ricky, it’s patronising innit? He’s gotta focus on the socio-economic issues!”

Nuff said.

The Danes do a fine line in interior design.  The family of the girl whose death is at the centre of the plot run a removals firm.  They rent a flat above the depot.  They’re clearly not supposed to be that well-off.  And yet their kitchen is A-Maz-Ing. There’s a whole wall of cupboards with stunning backlighting illuminating various pieces of vibrantly coloured glassware. No peeling formica or wonky doors here. It looks like a photo from an Ikea catalogue – in a good way.

I could go on, but that last one’s reminded me of my own aged kitchen and it’s all too depressing.

Suffice it to say, that The Killing taught me that the minutiae of everyday life aren’t quite as universal as I’d thought, and that bringing together those tiny fragments can show us an environment that’s subtly but inescapably different from the one we’re used to.  In other words, it’s not always necessary to write paragraph upon paragraph of description to bring your readers into the world your characters inhabit; a few, well-chosen details can speak volumes.

One more thing: some things transcend cultural barriers.  Whether they’re British or American or Danish or Gujarati, central characters in tense telephone conversations NEVER say goodbye before they hang up.

This drives me mad.  Surely there’s nothing so time-critical that the split second it would take to close the conversation politely just can’t be spared?  Nothing that wouldn’t wait for the moment needed to stop the poor sod on the other end of the line standing there saying, “Hello? HELLO?” It’s hard to maintain sympathy for the protagonist when they go around doing stuff like that.

So just to be clear: this is it for today.  I’m off now.  Goodbye.

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