A new genre is born, says STEPHEN ARMSTRONG: the Scandi Medi Noir. Channel 4’s latest Nordic installment is a dystopian drama from Norway: Valkyrien
Valkyrien, which began last week on Channel 4 takes Scandi Noir to new heights. Erich Richter Strand, its creator/director says its appeal is “much more universal.” “Last year, the German government sent out a public announcement that every citizen should stockpile enough food for ten days and clean drinking water fro five days,” he says. “We’re all feeling undercurrents of angst and the sense that something dark is happening with your Brexit and America’s Trump. The only thing that surprises me is that there aren’t more television dramas about these fears.”
If shows such as The Killing are European television’s version of the 1940s Bogart and Bacall thrillers, Valkyrien is The Manchurian Candidate – throwing the genre up in the air, with its twisted take on real and rising social fear.
The series, which began on the neight of the week that was previously occupied the the equally dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, is ostensibly focused on the story of Ravn (Sven Nordin), who runs an illegal underground clinic in an old bomb shelter. Here he treats criminals and emergency patients to fund the strange experiments he desperately hopes will save his dying wife. But that’s not the whole story.
“Scandi drama is getting a little formulaic- missing girl, forest, troubled detective,” says Walter Iuzzolino, creator of Channel 4’s Walter Presents. “It’s still most of what they do, and the rest of the world has stared doing it, too. But when they showed me Valkyrien it was like Almodovar’s Talk to Her crossed with Breaking Bad – this man who’s so in love with his wife that he keeps her in a coma underground to try and save her. Society is decaying, more and more people need to be treated off-grid, and you have this bromance between an older professional doing bad things and an extreme, troubled young man.”
“When they showed me Valkyrien, it was like Talk to Her crossed with Breaking Bad – this man who’s so in love with his wife that he keeps her in a coma underground to try and save her.”
The young man in question, Leif, is part of the wider picture of Valkyrien, the first fictional depiction of one of the world’s fastest-growing movements: the “prepper” community. Preppers believe the world is on the brink of an apocalypse- be it cyber, nuclear, financial, environmental or even zombie- and they stockpile food and water, buy nuclear bunkers, carefully arrange finances and medicines and pack crossbows, guns and “bug-out” bags to ensure they’re ready.
Leif (Pål Sverre Hagen) is an eccentric civil servant with a hi-vis vest and prepper views who’s in sole charge of the five hundred or so Cold War nuclear bunkers hidden under the streets of Oslo. His underground network proves the perfect hiding place for Ravn and his comatose wife – with wounded gangsters and hitmen in search of new faces making up Ravn’s illegal clinic’s clientele. Gradually, however, the apocalyptic prepper sub-plot rises to engulf the show.
Leif’s speeches outlining his fears – in episode one he lists twelve threats that could cause society to collapse (including overpopulation, climate change, deforestation, pollution and energy storage) and berates his brother for not having a fireplace in case there’s a power failure- have gripped Norwegians and Americans alike. In Norway, Valkyrien attracted an astonishing 49.8 per cent viewing share, and Hagen was invited to address a conference organised by the country’s National Security Authority, Norway’s MI5, in character as Leif. “I told them he was just a character,” Hagen shrugs. “But they insisted. And when people like that insist…”
These days of course everyone’s feeling a bit like Leif; after the NHS computer meltdown, the Russian hacking shenanigans, North Korea and climate change. It’s hard to get exact figures for the number of preppers in the UK- many, like Leif, are discreeet about their fears- but ukpreppersguide.co.uk attracts up to 140,000 visitors a month, while on Facebook the ‘Preppers UK’ group has 3,488 members and ‘UK Preppers and Survivalists’ 3,588.
“I have customers from healthcare, a couple of airline pilots, folk who work in factories and, yes, a few military types, but they’re not the majority,” says Lincoln Miles, who runs a prepper shop in a farm building near Bedford. Last month, he was advising a man who had persuaded his wife to let him build a panic room- “more like a panic house in fact,” he laughs. “He’s kitting up with air-filtration systems, water purification, gas masks and suits. I looked at his company e-mail a little later, and he’s very senior at a big financial institution. I thought, ‘He’s got some money behind him.'”
Erik Richter Strand, meanwhile, has previous in this kind of prescience. In 2015’s Occupied he imagined the rise of a Trump-like figure leading to a Russian invasion of Norway. “As films get harder to finance an dystopian novels are relegated to the level of “genre fiction”, it’s really only television that can explore our fears,” he says.
There are foreign dramas airing in the UK this summer that seem to prove Strand’s point, including False Flag from Israel, which follows ordinary Israeli citizens caught up in the assassination of an Iranian minister in a kind of North by Northwest meets Zero Dark Thirty, as well as Polish immigration drama The Border, about a patrol caught up in a terror attack.
A British remake of Valkyrien, set in London, has in fact already been cast, with Mark Strong on board. So, it seems, with Norway leading the way, the revolution will be televised.
STEPHEN ARMSTRONG is a television critic at The Times.