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Corona Diaries: an antidote to lockdown – a piece of Scandi blanc

May 28, 2020

Since I’ve been rumbling on about British politics for the past three days, let me offer an antidote, in the form of something very far from the gloomy present: a Norwegian TV series with a happy ending. No Nordic gloom – well, at least not much. No murders, psychos, eviscerations or conspiracies. And no bloody super-heroes.

State of Happiness, if you haven’t seen it, starts in 1969, just as the North Sea oil boom is about to transform Stavanger, a small, God-fearing fishing town.

The main characters are from two families. The Nymans are the wealthy owners of a fishing and cannery company. The Helleviks, by contrast, scratch out a living as farmers on the headland above the town. As the first major oilfield starts producing, the oilmen make their presence felt, both in business and in their pursuit of the local girls.

Norway is at a crossroads. Should it join the European Community? Which town should it make the capital of the oil industry? And should it establish a state oil company, or rely on royalties from the likes of Shell and Phillips Petroleum?

Put this way, the story sounds rather dry. But actually it’s far from it. It’s about how people and communities come to terms with far-reaching change that happens within a generation.

The Norway it portrays is a patriarchy. The men make the decisions. The women are the wives, secretaries and factory workers. Yet as the series progresses, you sense that even in the deeply conservative community of Stavanger, that dynamic is changing, both in personal relationships and in the role of women in society.

As with all such series, it’s the characters that bring life to the story. Anna, the sparky secretary in the mayor’s office who’s engaged to Christian, the wayward heir to the Nyman business. Toril, who gets pregnant with one of the oilmen, and, for the sake of maintaining the family’s respectability in the eyes her local congregation, has to marry Bengt, a gawky fisherman years older than her. And Jonathan, the brash Texan lawyer who falls in love with Anna.

State of Happiness is just the latest in a series of Norwegian dramas that have come to British TV in recent years. Most recently we’ve had Twin, featuring Kristofer Hivju, the fearsome-looking guy with the red beard who had a major role in Game of Thrones. He plays twin brothers who have a disastrous falling out. Before then was Occupied, a political thriller set in the near future, in which the country is annexed by Russia. None of them fall into the classic gloomy and gruesome Scandi Noir genre.

There was also The King’s Choice, a fine feature film that told the story of Haakon VIII, the King of Norway who defied the Nazi invaders in World War 2 and eventually made his way to exile in Britain.

What made me a little sad watching State of Happiness is that it’s the product of a vibrant film and TV industry in a small country. It could just as easily have been set in Aberdeen or the Shetlands, since the north of Scotland underwent a similar transformation as Norway.

Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but there doesn’t seem to have been much output from Scotland to match that coming from Norway – at least not since Trainspotting and Braveheart. Years ago, there were a couple of well-regarded low-budget movies set away from the major cities – Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, but not much since. Or at least, nothing that has caused me to seek it out.

The Scots might argue that they don’t have the benefit of Norway’s massive oil wealth. Investors are perhaps far and few between. But the same goes for Wales, which has produced some excellent drama over the past three years, of which Hinterland and Keeping Faith stand out.

Perhaps someone in Scotland should produce a series about an alternative present, in which the country has gained independence early enough to have enjoyed more control over the oil wealth off its shores. Would it look more like Norway? I doubt it. It would probably have squandered the wealth in its own sweet way, unlike the Norwegians. But it might make an interesting story.

Speculation aside, if you’re bored of nature programmes, sick of news coverage of the pandemic and crave some entertainment that doesn’t involve angst, blood, guts and retribution, you might want take a look at State of Happiness, which can be downloaded in the UK from the BBC iPlayer. Not sure how you get to see it from elsewhere, but where there’s a will there must be a way.

From → Film, UK

  1. Sylvia Horn permalink

    You’re doing Scotland a disservice here – especially if you can’t remember much since Gregory’s Girl from 1981!! It’s unfortunate you don’t seem to like crime drama, because there’s a wide range of styles and moods in Scottish productions. Some for you to consider: SHETLAND with Dougie Henshall and the ubiquitous Mark Bonnar/ the brilliant THE FALL with Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan (he of 50 Shades but much more talented in other ways too)/REBUS – with Ken Stott/ TAGGART (okay, original was eons ago) and if we can include Scottish actors, the unforgettable CRACKER – although set in Manchester – had Robbie Coltrane. Currently there’s also OUTLANDER for those who like historical drama with a twist (time travelling).
    Had considered Happiness- will now give it a go.

    • Hi Sylvia. Yes I probably am! I do like crime drama, but there’s a limit to how much I can take. I watched the first episode of Shetland, but it didn’t grab me. Missed The Fall, but did enjoy Rebus and Cracker. Taggart? Nah. Outlander I might watch. Thanks for pointing out my rampant prejudice. And do watch State of Happiness… S

  2. Andrew Robinson permalink

    While waiting for a Tartan Passport (choose YOUR OWN cover, hand-woven in the Highlands) to swap with my now-superfluous UK one, I am following the Scottish language course for passport applicants at BURNISTOUN on “YouTube” (which means “you idiot!” in Scots).

    Ah’ll daeyit, tu! Up eh road, wi’ ye. I think you’ll find that’s legal tender….etc.

  3. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Stiiyat home, ye glaekits!

  4. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Binge-watched “State of Happiness” in two goes Saturday night and Sunday morning. More orange and brown than dour grey and a good storyline, although I guessed the outcome at the end of episode 2 (and I have a witness!).

    • Andrew Robinson permalink

      ……dour grey, and a good storyline… (all the success he had had had had no effect on his talent with punctuation).

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