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TV review: State of Happiness, Art of Scandinavia, and Hotel Custody

26 August 2022


Anna Hellevik (Anne Regine Ellingsaeter) in State of Happiness (BBC4, Saturdays)

Anna Hellevik (Anne Regine Ellingsaeter) in State of Happiness (BBC4, Saturdays)

EVEN in the television desert of late August, submission to the scheduler’s art yields rewards. When I was settling in for the second series of Saturday night’s Scandi drama State of Happiness (BBC4, Saturdays), my screentime unexpectedly continued for Andrew Graham Dixon’s Art of Scandinavia (BBC4, Saturdays).

Dressed in an enormous parka and delivering breathless pieces to camera outside 800-year-old stave churches, Graham Dixon posed two intriguing counterfactuals. If the 16th-century Swedish priest Olaus Magnus, author of A History of the Northern Peoples, had succeeded in persuading Rome to support a Scandinavian Counter-Reformation, would we now have the Lutheran-influenced art of Grieg, Ibsen, and Munch? “Reversing time’s arrow”, was Munch’s art the start of something new, or the endpoint of a melancholy evidenced in Norse mythology, and developed by the landscape artists Johan Christian Dahl and Lars Hertervig?

The questions posed in the second series of State of Happiness were more everyday. Would prayer-loving Marius be baptised in the Pentecostal Church, as his maternal grandmother wished, or follow his half-sister Marie to the font at the Lutheran church in Stavanger? And would a name change to Arne enable the economics whizz Anna to land a job worthy of her talents rather than be rejected because oil companies only saw women as secretaries?

State of Happiness is set in the Norwegian oil-boom town in the early 1970s, and shows the effect of sudden wealth on a community. Stavanger’s first family, the Nymans, find their place in the social hierarchy disrupted by the arrival of American oil executives and journalists in town to cover the blow-out of the Bravo oil rig. An old fashioned prayer hall is converted into a funky bar Studio 52, and throngs with oil workers on shore leave.

An ensemble cast, especially Malene Wadel as the bar owner Tovil, and Ole Christoffer Ertvaag as the heroic, sleep-deprived rig worker Rein, make for compelling viewing. And the deft use of symbolism — from the opening shot of a rubbish bin emptied into the sea to a cross’s being chiselled on a wall — creates a visually cohesive world.

Across the North Sea in Grimsby, Hotel Custody (ITV, Thursdays) shows that an economic boom may be tricky, but decline is worse. Once home to the UK’s biggest fishing fleet, Grimsby is one of the most deprived places in the country. Birchin Way cost £14 million and is shaped like St Bridget’s cross. The Custody Centre is a pilot for treating more humanely people who have been detained by the police.

Versed in the ways of docusoap, the detention officers wisecrack, deliberate over “dirty refs”, refreshments from fast-food takeaways, slip into hooded overalls and goggles to clean dirty-protest cells, and end shifts reflecting on a difficult job well done. Birchin Way’s clients tend to be pixelated, intoxicated, semi-clothed, and fed microwaved all-day breakfasts.

Only the town’s 62-year-old “gangsta granny”, Lesley, whose prodigious shoplifting was featured in The Sun, took things in her stride. Suspected of stealing a water pump, she strolled to her cell carrying a paperback, saying that she was mending her ways. While Lesley’s morals may be imperfect, her understanding of television was spot on.

The Revd Gillean Craig is away.

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