On Television

Pure gold among the C4 dross

Adam LeBor strikes television gold

Back in 1982, when Channel 4 launched, I was a student at Leeds University. I lived in a shared house with six male friends in memorable squalor. We drank a lot of tea and watched a lot of television. It doubtless seems incredible, perhaps especially to younger readers, that just three terrestrial channels then broadcast in Britain: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. We were so excited about the arrival of another that sometimes we watched the static preview announcement telling us Channel 4 was coming soon. Or maybe we needed to get out more.

Initially at least, Channel 4 lived up to its promise. Its programmes were edgy, intellectual, challenging. After a decade or so it went mass market. It brought us Big Brother, which spawned a whole genre of reality television. Nowadays Channel 4 is a long way from its original remit. On a recent weekend in February its tired offerings included Men In Black II, The Simpsons and Four in A Bed, where B&B owners compete against each other. A documentary series about the Royal Family at least looked intriguing.

Yet buried among the dross is a rich seam of pure television gold. It’s called Walter Presents and it’s devoted purely to international crime and thriller drama series. Walter is Walter Iuzzolino, an Italian self-confessed television fanatic. Walter has excellent taste and curates programmes from South America to Scandinavia. You know that feeling you get when you scroll through Netflix and lots of programmes come up that look kind of interesting but nothing really grabs you? Walter Presents is just the opposite. I want to mainline all of these shows, now. Best of all, Walter Presents is free to view, or pay £3.99 a month to get the advertisement-free version.

Walter’s picks are crime drama at its best: probing, sceptical, uber-topical. Like Dickens, they dig deep into contemporary society, but without preaching. They show, not tell. I lived for many years in Budapest, so I was intrigued to watch Home Guards, a Hungarian two-parter. Captain Acs, a charismatic police chief, arrives in Tarnad, a deprived town in northern Hungary. Tarnad is fictional, but is instantly familiar. The camera pans across dilapidated communist-era industrial sites, long closed down. The shops are poorly stocked. Petty crime is rampant. There is nothing to do except drink, deal dope or steal.

Acs recruits the local young males into a quasi-militia, which quickly evolves into his private army. The Home Guards turn out to be violent thugs. They launch private patrols, beat up local Gypsies. The Home Guard is a thinly disguised version of the Magyar Gárda, or Hungarian Guard, a quasi-paramilitary group set up by the far-right Jobbik party in the late 2000s. The Magyar Gárda was eventually outlawed, but the social tensions it exploited have not lessened.

Blue Eyes, a taut, fast-paced political conspiracy thriller set in Sweden, was first shown in 2014. Its themes are more contemporary than ever. The series’ backdrop is soaring social tension over immigration, and the rise of the far-right Trygghetspartiet (Security Party), which may or may not be modelled on the Sweden Democrats, an actual populist, anti-immigrant party. Home Guards is very male. Blue Eyes, perhaps because it’s Scandinavian, has two female leads. One is the chief of staff to the Minister of Justice; the other is the daughter of a murdered Security Party politician. Just over 10 million people live in Sweden, but a million watched each episode.

Perhaps that’s because when a government and political class is in denial, it takes a television drama to open up the debate. Gang violence in Sweden is now so rampant that it threatens to hollow out the state. In just one night in October 2019 three explosions took place in and around Stockholm. These were not isolated incidents. In the first six months of 2019 more than 100 explosions were reported. The previous year there were 45 fatal shootings in what are known as “criminal environments”. Norway has less than three such murders a year. As Paulina Neuding, a Swedish journalist and expert on immigration, notes, a report from the Swedish Defence University warned that clan structures in some immigrant areas are putting the Swedish justice system under “severe stress”. The state is weak, witness intimidation is rampant and the clans, not the police, rule the streets.

That October 2019 bombing spree was not mentioned on the state television’s national news story. Instead it was left to local media. The most important news in Sweden that night was Instagram terminology. “Apparently,” wrote Neuding in the Spectator, “we mustn’t be referred to as ‘women’ any more, but ‘female bodies’ lest anyone’s gender be assumed.” In 2014, when the first season of Blue Eyes was shown, the Sweden Democrats won 12.9 per cent of the vote. When Sweden last went to the polls in September 2018, they won 17.6 per cent. Perhaps it’s time for season two.

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