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Culture

Scandi fever

Agnes Frimston
Blame grisly murders and knitwear for the Nordics' global cultural influence, which has left Britain trailing behind.

The Scandis have long enjoyed superb living standards, unrivalled benefits and breathtaking scenery, so why has their terribly civilised way of life only recently started to broaden its appeal?

Britain loves the Scandis and their autistic spectrum detectives. More than one million viewers tuned in to each episode of the final series of The Killing, desperate for further adventures from Sarah Lund and her woolly jumpers. And then, like the hussies we are, we fell just as easily for Saga Norén and the most Viking-like character on BBC4, Martin Rohde, in The Bridge. We appear to love murders, strong female leads and perpetual darkness.

Our Scandi soft spot

Our political image of the Nordics has subtly changed. Denmark, Finland and Sweden are now held up as egalitarian idylls. The left-leaning in Britain are no longer just salivating over Birgitte Nyborg’s decor, but increasingly, her Borgen-style policies. The Nordics are interesting role models, and they have ridden the latest global economic crisis far better than most of Europe, without resorting to swinging budget cuts. They have high rates of taxation, great living standards, efficient production, low unemployment, and some of the highest levels of equality in the world.

But many have had similar policies for years, so why does Britain seem to care so much about them now? It’s BBC4. It’s all the books we read, the films and television we watch. When it comes to global cultural influence, it feels as though the Nordics are winning. In FutureBrand’s 2012 Cultural Brand Index, Sweden was voted number four.

Such is the power of culture. The concept of ‘soft power’, coined by Professor Joseph Nye in 1990 and defined as “the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce”, is gaining more and more column inches and government energy, as the West continues to worry about global power and influence shifting towards the East.

The impact of entertainment

In Monocle magazine’s annual soft power survey in 2012, the UK overtook the US to win the top spot, largely due to that year’s summer Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But we’ve become rather complacent about our cultural outreach. The current coalition government’s readiness to cut arts funding does not bode well for the future. The Foreign Affairs Committee reported in 2012 that the Spending Review 2010 may “have a very damaging effect on the Department’s ability to promote UK overseas interests.”

Governments are starting to realise that their country’s films and music can have as much of an impact on the world stage as their foreign policy.

Prime Minister David Cameron certainly knows this, if his retort to criticism from one of Vladimir Putin’s aides is anything to go by: “[Britain has] one of the best records for art and literature and contribution to philosophy and world civilisation… our music delights and amuses millions. The Beatles, Elgar and, slightly less congruously, One Direction have conquered the world.” Added to that, analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that the arts budget accounts for less than 0.1% of public spending, yet directly leads to at least £856m of spending by tourists in the UK.

Hey, big spender

The British Council has pointed out that while Western countries such as the UK are investing less in their arts industry, China is spending more than any other nation. The former Chinese president Hu Jintao wrote in 2011 that “the culture of the West is strong while we are weak”.

Over the past few years, China has invested heavily in its film industry, its state broadcaster and the Confucius Institute, which aims to promote Chinese culture. The country may still have some way to go, but you don’t see it agonising over the minutiae of cost effectiveness, because it understands the importance of cultural influence. 

Does our art look big in this?

But what does the world think of Britain? A 2013 Vice article accuses Curtis of seeming “harmless, but his back catalogue has forever redefined what foreigners will see as ‘ordinary’ and quintessentially British”.

Our most popular television exports are telling: Downton Abbey, Sherlock and Dr Who. The US has gone bonkers for Downton, which has won a Guinness World Record for highest critical review ratings for a TV show. The premiere of Dr Who series seven had 1.6 million viewers, and the second series premiere of Sherlock had a whopping 3.2 million. In novels, Harry Potter is still the behemoth to beat, although British author E L James of Fifty Shades fame has crept up the charts. As her trilogy is set in the States, it’s not yet seen as a reflection of the UK’s sexual habits; the bumbling Curtis floppy-haired lead man is still the norm.

In a world where television, books and films can have as much of an impact on global reputation as foreign policy, perhaps the UK needs to move away from geeks and poshos and go for some more grisly murders. Or at least some better government-supported knitwear.

Agnes Frimston is Deputy Editor at The World Today magazine, Chatham House. Image credit: CC Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho

Analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that the arts budget accounts for less than 0.1% of public spending, yet directly leads to at least £856m of spending by tourists in the UK

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