Before becoming a writer, Michael Ridpath used to work as a bond trader in the City of London. After writing eight financial thrillers, which were published in over 30 languages, he began the “Fire and Ice” series, featuring the Icelandic detective Magnus Jonson. He has also written two spy novels set at the beginning of World War II. He is a frequent visitor to Iceland and an enthusiastic participator in Iceland Noir.
Borgen (Denmark, 2010 -13)
‘I don’t understand why I like Borgen. It’s about party politics in one of Europe’s dullest political systems, it’s about pig farming regulations and shifts in minor party coalitions. The female protagonist juggles her job with getting her kids’ homework in on time. A journalist can’t decide whether to take another job or not. How humdrum can you get? Yet for some reason, I absolutely loved Borgen.
The series follows the career of Birgitte Nyborg, the fictional first female prime minister of Denmark. It is superbly acted and written; there is something about the relatively clean and dull background of Danish politics that puts all the political shenanigans into stark relief. The characters seem much more realistic and easy to identify with than, say, The West Wing or House of Cards, excellent though both of those series are. Somehow this makes the viewer care more about them. “Borgen” is the nickname for Denmark’s Parliament building, by the way.’
Rams (Iceland, 2015)
‘This is a 2015 Icelandic film brilliantly directed by Grímur Hákonarson, who owns a nifty little flat cap. It concerns two grey-bearded brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, whose sheep farms are next door to each other, but who haven’t spoken for decades. They communicate by sheepdog messenger. When there is an outbreak of scrapie in their dale, the vet orders their ancestral flock to be destroyed and the brothers are almost forced to work together to save their sheep.
This is shot on a very low budget with actors who are so authentic that they look like amateurs, but aren’t. There are wonderful views of wide dales, and some great sheep scenes. The traditional Icelandic characteristics of hardiness, toughness, self reliance and unbending stubbornness are here in spades. It is Halldór Laxness’s Independent People for the twenty-first century. I was brought up in the Yorkshire dales and I like sheep, so I loved this film.’
Deutschland 83 (Germany, 2015)
‘This German series concerned two subjects I have considered writing novels about in the past: East Germany and the nuclear standoff in 1983, when the world was almost as close to blowing itself up as in 1963. Moritz Stamm is a 23 year old East German Stasi agent who travels to the west standing in for a murdered aide to a West German general. Deutschland 83 shows the startling differences between east and west at the time, and also the similar impulses of disgruntled youth on both sides of the iron curtain. It’s also really exciting as our hero uses the traditional techniques of creeping around offices at night and bonking secretaries to discover cruise missile secrets. I am surprised the producers allowed the writer to get away with the massive holes in the plot, for example the way Stamm can pass himself off as a graduate of West German military college yet not find his way around a western supermarket. But I’m glad they left the holes in, because it makes the series much more exciting.’
Pressa (Iceland, 2007 – 16)
‘I need an obscure Icelandic TV series (at least to non-Icelanders) and this is my choice. Pressa is a drama series about a tabloid newspaper in Iceland, which lurches from dodgy headline to dodgy headline. The heroine, Lara, is a single mother, desperate to keep her job on the paper and to fend off the unwelcome advances of her bosses. Pressa is fast paced and tense. The temptation to compete for the bottom in gutter journalism is universal, as is the corporate corruption. Pressa perfectly sums up how Reykjavík is a both a dull small town and also one of the most extraordinary cities on earth. It’s the kind of series that makes you wish that Hampstead Garden suburb (where I live) had its own little lava field. But it doesn’t. Which is why I write about Iceland instead. I bought my copy, in Icelandic with English subtitles, in a bookshop in Reykjavík.’
Yes Minister (UK, 1980 – 88)
‘I think I’m allowed one British choice. Or am I? After Brexit, does a British TV series from the 80s count as European? After Brexit, we all need to watch Yes Minister. It is a timeless comedy from the 1980s, where Sir Humphrey Appleby, a senior civil servant, spars with Jim Hacker, the Minister for Administrative Affairs, whose sporadic displays of eagerness to get things done, are cleverly disrupted by Sir Humphrey and the forces of inertia. It’s what I watch when my wife is out, I am feeling a bit glum and I am too tired to read. I suspect it is also being watched at the moment by today’s British civil servants as they seek inspiration to preserve the status quo in a country where – let’s be honest – nobody has a clue what they are doing. There is so much here for the rest of Europe to learn from us.’
Thanks to Michael Rodpath and Iceland Noir.