March 4, 2011 11:18 pm

A dark detective tale sheds light

Danish writers produce a fable of contemporary life that speaks to the western condition

In The Killing (BBC4 Saturdays), Danish writers and directors have produced a fable of contemporary life that speaks to the western condition. Woven around the sadistic rape and murder of a 19-year-old schoolgirl in Copenhagen – the Scandinavian noirs are at their noirest in the nature of their crimes – are stories of relationships whose private strengths and weaknesses are inseparable from the duties and evasions of their public lives.

It is rare to see a fiction of any kind so alive to the moral and immoral choices of people who must live, in democracies, under the scrutiny of their fellow citizens – mid-ranking police officers, local politicians, business people, teachers, civil servants.

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John Lloyd

Central to the viewers’ satisfaction is its observation of women, how they walk the line between private ties and public efficiency, how they cope with the legacy expectations of family and society. Scandinavia is a laboratory for the full and practical emancipation of women through use of the law: quotas for representation in political and corporate life, extensive state provision for the care of infants and – as we know from the travails of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – a new crime (in Sweden) of “minor rape”, which attempts to bring law to bear on non-consent for intercourse within general consent.

Especially in the figure and relationships of the central character – Detective Inspector Sarah Lund, who is about to move with her 12-year-old son and new partner to Sweden – we see how women negotiate the social spheres constructed to ensure equality and respect. Lund is pulled towards her son, who tells her he cares only for the dead; to her mother, who is shocked by her inability to recognise her womanly duty to son and lover; to her lover, who wants her to begin anew with him. She is torn from private delight and surrender to others by a mixture of recognition of her duty and shocked fascination for the nature of the murder.

Retreat into private happiness is not an option: public tragedy demands an explanation, even if this means an enervating battle with a fellow officer – more brutal in his methods – with whom she must work but who is noisily impatient to replace her. Drawn into her inquiry are an ambitious politician running for mayor, whose lover is also his press aide; the parents of the murdered girl, of whom the husband has a criminal, violent past he seeks to suppress; a Muslim teacher of North African origin, who at first seems a model citizen, then a strong suspect.

Its strength is in the straightforwardness of Lund, a world away from Helen Mirren’s playing of Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect. Lund, unlike Tennison, is not a self-conscious Woman in a Man’s World. Rather she is an officer whose life is made the more grinding by having to deal with a colleague’s impatience – partly sexist, but mostly stemming from a desire for control – and, worse, a mother’s fearfulness that her daughter’s career betrays her woman’s destiny.

The Killing is halfway through its run and is steadily gaining delighted recognition.

Friday Night Dinner (C4 Fridays) is new and seems good: a comedy set in a household only residually Jewish, where Friday dinner, unattended by any religious ceremony, still brings the two grown sons back home. The comedy lies in the habits of a family trying to be individuals while clinging to familial relationships that both annoy and sustain.

Old-fashioned stuff – but not as old as the acts celebrated by Michael Grade in The Story of Variety (BBC4, Mondays). Grade is an entertainment oligarch by talent and inheritance and his evocation of the world in which his family made its fortunes is full of aged men and women recalling the boards on which they trod and the lodgings they endured. The Glasgow Empire was a common palace of horrors: Ken Dodd, as a young comedian, tried to break the Clyde ice by opening with: “You’ll be wondering why I asked you here”; no response, until a drunk in the front stalls awoke, looked at him and said: “Christ, what a terrible sight!”. The ice broke, and Dodd was OK.

Another evocation effort, Me and Arthur Haynes (BBC4 Tuesdays), to honour the comedian via the memories of his straight man, Nicholas Parsons, was much less successful because more cramped and slapdash. Mrs Brown’s Boys (BBC1 Mondays), with Brendan O’Carroll playing a single Irish matriarch coping with grown but still at home family and an ancient grandfather, is hilarious. “She” is a mix of cruelty, profanity and sentimentality, as shamelessly playing to the audience as any 1930s variety comic.

Delighted when foreigners find us eccentric, we British find ourselves eccentric too and honour eccentricity. Patrick Moore has been fronting The Sky at Night longer than any other single person has presented a TV programme anywhere, ever, and on Sunday will rack up 700 programmes, at the age of 88. He’s one of the last public figures who speaks like his fellow octogenarian, the Queen, pronouncing an “a” like an “e” – as in flettened – with the speech seemingly coming from one’s nose. That, combined with a monocle, a rapid and now slurred delivery and real knowledge, has brought him affection. He knows it, plays to it, and is as real a trouper as any who trod the boards.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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