By Kenneth Roy
If the brave new Scotland fancies modelling itself on a nation of creative dynamism, then it need look no further than Denmark. The good thing about this idea is that it needn’t wait for the referendum, by which time most of us will have been smothered to death by learned papers on the second question. (Couldn’t we have three or four questions? I adore questions.)
We could do it now. Like so much else, we could do it now. But I acknowledge that it’s much easier to witter on about dates with destiny than to look at practicalities which might improve the sense of well-being that we feel as a community.
I have a soft spot for Denmark and the Danes which recent events have happily confirmed. So, before I tell you why we should be over there pronto, picking their brains, except that we may be too full of puffed-up pride to believe that we have anything to learn, I will give you the personal history.
When I was presenting ‘Reporting Scotland’ and not terribly happy because I was broke, the BBC gave me a week in Copenhagen in lieu of a pay rise. It was a brilliant wheeze on the part of my employer since it cost them nothing. The trip was financed by someone else.
My opposite number at Scottish Television, John Toye, was one of the jolly party which set off from Glasgow Airport one fine spring day, as well as a few chaps from the Scottish press. John, however, detached himself from the group as quickly as indecently possible. He fell in love with the tour guide who had been hired to take us from the airport the short distance by bus to the city centre – he was nothing if not a fast, adroit worker of the opposite sex – and we saw little of him (or, needless to say, the tour guide) for the rest of the week. It was a sadder though not necessarily wiser John who rejoined us for the flight home. He seemed sunk in melancholy. It must have gone well.
Some years later, when the silly boy killed himself in a cottage in the west country to which he had retreated after losing his job in Glasgow, I thought fondly of Copenhagen, of John’s charm and good looks and fatal depression, and wondered what happened to the tour guide.
For the rest of us who stuck loosely to the itinerary, the week was not without incident. On our first night, I accompanied the representative of the Glasgow Herald from the hotel a few hundred yards to the waterfront. There we found ourselves, Scoop-like, on the periphery of a crime scene: a young prostitute had just been murdered; we had missed her strangulation by minutes. We returned to the hotel thinking Copenhagen fairly edgy.
Paradoxically, the years of political excitement have been accompanied by a steady diminishing of ambition at BBC Scotland. The best it can do these days is ‘River City’. Well, no one ever said it was art.
The other Danes we encountered – the ones who didn’t go around bumping off young prostitutes – were delightful. I had not come across, and haven’t since, so friendly and intelligent a people. One night we were entertained to dinner by the Danish government, one of whose members – a cabinet minister – delivered an indiscreet after-dinner speech.
The discussion turned to the economy – it was one of those faraway interludes of rampant inflation – in which Denmark enjoyed a reputation for carefree spending on the good life.
‘Isn’t there a danger,’ asked one of our number – it might even have been me – ‘that Denmark is going off the rails?’
‘Yes, yes,’ the cabinet minister agreed with obvious enthusiasm. ‘But what you must remember is that we’re all travelling first-class!’.
How could I resist a country in which everyone was going off the rails but travelling first-class? I couldn’t and didn’t. I fell in love with Denmark on the spot, just as the absent John Toye had fallen in love with a Danish tour guide.
Unlike Scotland, Denmark continues to travel first-class. Last year, the most outstanding television drama to hit British screens was ‘The Killing’ (followed by ‘The Killing 2’). It was much remarked upon for the Fair Isle jumper of its single-minded heroine, to the extent that its many other merits tended to be overlooked: its superb craftsmanship, the subtle skills of the writing and acting, the deeply credible characterisation. For 30 hours, aficionados were gripped. Why can’t Britain produce something of this quality? (I fell to wondering). Why can’t Scotland?
I consoled myself that ‘The Killing’ was a one-off – the big one which had absorbed all the resources of Danish state television, leaving nothing in reserve. I was wrong. Astonishingly, the same team is now bringing us ‘Borgen’, a 10-part political drama with the same remarkable properties – as well as a human warmth lacking in its more forensic predecesssor.
The series is already being widely praised, and rightly so. But it needs pointing out that these programmes are the product of a country of comparable population to Scotland: a country of 5.5 million people.
There was a time when Scotland produced television drama of exceptional standard. In 1972, Pharic Maclaren delivered Bill Craig’s masterly adaptation of ‘Sunset Song’ to the BBC network; in 1987, John Byrne at the top of his form gave us the sublime ‘Tutti Fruti’. Since then – nothing. Paradoxically, the years of political excitement have been accompanied by a steady diminishing of ambition at BBC Scotland. The best it can do these days is ‘River City’. Well, no one ever said it was art. Over at STV, we have had the competent but formulaic ‘Taggart’, and not a lot else.
Yet we have the actors; we have always had the actors. I am not so sure about the writers or the directors, but I’m prepared to believe that they are still out there with all sorts of wonderful, unrealised ideas. All that we need to spark a revival of television drama in Scotland, with its capacity to examine ourselves critically at a time when critical examination is so badly needed, is the will or the imagination or the resources – or a bit of all three. Unfortunately, all three appear to be lacking.
Scotland fails to travel first-class. That is the crux of the nature of the national problem. No amount of political grandstanding will change it. But I have a modest, not very expensive suggestion. Send someone to Denmark and find out how they do it.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review