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Forget Nordic murder noir. Continuing our look at European culture, we find Scandinavian TVs new obsessions are go-getting young girls, wartime Royals and the Swedish origins of Spotify

Before 2011, it seemed inconceivable that the British could be gripped in their living rooms by subtitled TV drama, night after fraught night. Surely that was the stuff of arthouse cinema, not edge-of-the-seat primetime viewing. Then along came a trilogy of Scandinavian exports The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge and what was once niche entertainment became a nationwide obsession.

Soon, a single item of clothing was getting more attention in the British media than most series get in their entire life: Sarah Lund, the detective at the heart of The Killing, was as relentless in her wearing of Faroe Isle jumpers as she was in her pursuit of the murderer at large on the streets of Copenhagen. Scandi noir had arrived in Britain, and the connections it tapped into went much deeper than knitwear.

Relentless jumper wearer Sofie Grbl as detective Sarah Lund in The Killing. Photograph: Tine Harden/DR

According to Walter Iuzzolino, of Channel 4s foreign-language, on-demand strand Walter Presents, these shows held up a very interesting, distorted mirror to the British soul. Scandinavia has the same level of slightly gloomy, desaturated, rainy, cold, foggy, darkness, he says. But it also has beautiful aspirational interiors. This pared-back Scandinavian look triggers something. Its almost us, but not quite us. Its a version you like to spend time with because its tidy, its orderly.

But are we still spending as much time with our Scandi mirror-selves in 2020? It is true that lifestyle magazines have got over their craze for hygge, a term meaning anything cosy, cuddly or convivial; and, yes, Ikea recently announced its first major UK store closure. However, Nordic noir still seems to be going from strength to strength. That 2011 invasion has now given way to a steady flow. Ifits harder to name the big breakthrough Scandi shows these days, that is only because there are so many more contenders.

Swedens latest export is The Truth Will Out, a gripping detective drama based on the true story of one of the countrys most famous miscarriages of justice. In classic Nordic-noir style, it uses the fraught relationship between demoted murder detective Peter Wendel and his public prosector ex-wife to expose high-level governmental corruption. Already a smash hit in Sweden, The Truth Will Out has just appeared on Walter Presents.

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‘We knew we were the best’: original drama from Sweden – video

In terms of architecture, The Truth Will Out fully conforms to genre expectations, from the functional exteriors of looming government buildings to the cool uncluttered premises of flustered suspects. Indeed, architecture is so integral to the Scandinavian TV canon that two of that founding trio were named after spectacular structures: the five-mile resund Bridge that connects Copenhagen in Denmark to Malm in Sweden; and the Danish governments Christiansborg Palace, known informally as Borgen.

Whats more, there is always a blanket of snow on The Truth Will Outs rural scenes, just as there is on otherwise disparate dramas such as Wisting (the Norwegian serial-killer series on BBC iPlayer), Fortitude (Sky Atlantics English-language Arctic homage to the genre) and Icelands Trapped (soon to air its third season).

Still, people, not places, continue to define the best Scandi TV. When it comes to Nordic noir, says Mattias Bergqvist, chief TV critic of Swedish newspaper Expressen, Im convinced it all began with the Beck books by Maj Sjwall and Per Wahl, a wave of writing that continued with Henning Mankells Wallander and reached its peak with Stieg Larsson. That tradition of having well-evolved characters has been important.

Overtones of The Crown Sofia Helin, who played Saga in The Bridge, as Princess Mrtha in Atlantic Crossing. Photograph: Julie Vrabelova/Beta Film

Its no coincidence, then, that the Danish producer behind the original screen adaptations of all these works, Sren Strmose, is also the producer of The Truth Will Out, developed with Swedish crime writer Leif GW Persson. Strmose credits his successes in part to the glimpses he provides of Scandinavias utopian or apparently utopian welfare society. International audiences are curious about the cracks, he says.

Also, in possibly another echo with Britain, Sweden has long enjoyed an influence disproportionate to its size. Its a small country economically, he says, but internationally, its a humanitarian big power. And now you have the Greta Thunberg effect showing no one is too small to make a difference.

The UK office of Yellow Bird, Strmoses production company, has just produced its first series for Netflix, Young Wallander, and its working on another, about the rise of Swedish music streaming giant Spotify. It is a typical example of how Scandinavias big public broadcasters SVT, DR, NRK are being joined by newer platforms and production houses, among them Swedish streamers Viaplay. And there is no shortage of international buyers, eager to follow a TV trend with proven staying power.

Norways answer to Girls Young and Promising. Photograph: Eirik Evjen

As the Spotify project shows, the results are not all crime series either. State-of-a-generation dramas include Young and Promising (Norways answer to Girls) and the web series Skam (its answer to Skins), both of which have been very popular. Netflix cannily combined the two strands in Quicksand, a drama about a high-school shooting in an affluent Stockholm neighbourhood. Curiously, Scandinavian audiences typically like their period dramas British, but shows such as SVTs Our Time Is Now and DRs State of Happiness are changing that. The latter has been acquired by BBC Four.

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Fans of The Bridges chief investigator Saga Norn who lives her life gloriously unaware of social norms, possibly because she has Asperger syndrome will be pleased to hear that Sofia Helin, who plays the much-loved character, will be appearing as Princess Mrtha in Atlantic Crossing, a drama about the Norwegian royals during the second world war with overtones of the Netflix hit The Crown.

Even with bigger budgets, though, Scandinavias relatively small industry is stretched. It takes time to get experience, says Strmose. To manage big budgets, complicated long-term shoots, and work with wonderful, great egos. His great success has lain in utilising this newfound spending power without losing the charm and craftsmanship of a cottage industry. Scandinavian drama has always had that enjoyable repertory theatre feel, with the same faces popping up again and again. Now the likes of Maria Sundbom (The Bridge, Quicksand, The Truth Will Out, Before We Die) and Sren Malling (The Killing, Borgen, Dicte, 1864, The Investigation) will be even busier. And there wont be many complaints about that.

This industry might not be the biggest, or even the best, in Europe but what they do, they do to perfection, especially where those thrillers are concerned. Scandi is unique in its ability to deliver a compellingly dark thriller, says Iuzzolino. Theyve mastered that art better than anywhere else in the world.

Gloriously unaware Helin as Saga in The Bridge. Photograph: Jens Juncker/BBC/Filmlance International AB, Nimbus Film

Even the most successful exponents of Nordic noir, however, do sometimes chafe against the constraints of the genre. If you think about the original French meaning of the word noir, says Strmose, you associate it with cheerless lightning. But our lighting is not cheerless! His latest show, Thin Ice, is a climate crisis thriller set among the melting ice caps of east Greenland. Im trying to introduce the subgenre Nordic blue, to show the cheerful colours of our snow, ice and the sky above us.

Of course, corruption, greed, cheating and treachery take place in Scandinavia all the time. But [noir] doesnt reflect the humanity of our protagonists, or our interest in equality between the sexes, and the welfare state. To have a real democracy you have to constantly attack the cracks in the judicial system and the crime genre is one way to do that, hopefully creating debates.

Brave new show Caliphate with Gizem Erdogan, left. Photograph: Johan Paulin/Filmlance

The Truth Will Out was the big talking point of 2018. This year, it is undoubtedly Caliphate, a thriller about Swedish Islamic terrorists. Its not perfect, but its a brave show taking on pressing questions, says Karolina Fjellborg, TV critic of Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. She also recommends the dramedy Bonus Family and is not surprised by all of the appreciation of Scandinavian television. As a Swede who grew up watching all kinds of TV with subtitles, Ive never understood English-speaking peoples aversion to foreign-language shows. It was about time subtitles made a breakthrough.

Next year, meanwhile, perhaps the big show will be The Investigation, a drama about the real murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall aboard a mini-submarine in Copenhagen harbour. It is written and directed by Borgens Tobias Lindholm.

Whether or not any of these shows will grip the UK, the international influence of Scandinavian TV is abundantly clear. In under a decade, these shows have created a global TV grammar, with seemingly every other talked-about show of the last few years boasting a Scandi feel. Black Mirror? Nordic. True Detective? Nordic with a Cajun twist. Succession? So, so Nordic. For a region famed for its tolerance and peaceful neutrality, Scandi TV has managed global domination.

Watch the season three trailer for Bonus Family

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Horniness, confusion and grief combine to give a suburban teenager Carrie-like powers in Netflixs explosive teen drama

If there is one undeniable fact that young adult movies and TV shows have taught us, it is that teenage feelings are extremely powerful. From Carrie massacring a whole prom with telekinesis to Sabrina Spellmans Big Witch Energy, we must both respect teen emotions and fear them at the same time. That is why middle-aged men mock fans of One Direction and BTS: theyre scared that, if not cowed by embarrassment, the energy could cause some kind of world-ending weather event. Which is why, when Sydney in I Am Not Okay With This (Netflix, from Wednesday 26 February) destroys a whole forest with her mind because shes really, really horny, it sort of feels realistic?

Lets recap. The show follows 16-year-old Syd (Sophia Lillis), who has moved to a boring Pennsylvania town with her mum Maggie and little brother Liam. Im not special and Im OK with that, she writes in the diary she has been told to keep by the school counsellor, in the wake of her dad killing himself in their basement. Yes, the basement of the house the family still lives in. And, like the old Native American burial ground trope, the basement channels Syds teenage rage into Carrie-like powers that levitate objects when she is upset and kill her brothers pet hedgehog.(RIP, Banana Bigglesworth.)

I Am Not Okay With This is from the producers of Stranger Things and directed by The End of the F***ing Worlds Jonathan Entwhistle, and anyone who has seen those shows, or Netflixs other huge teen hits The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or Riverdale, will recognise some familiar themes. A protagonist who feels like an outsider, powered by the boiling-hot rage of lifes unfairness (or, in Syds case, being asked to walk to the supermarket exactly once by her mum). A manic pixie dream boy; here, Syds neighbour Stan (Wyatt Oleff), who is every teenage girls ultimate fantasy a non-threatening weed dealer who drives a vintage car. Extremely stylish teenagers with impossibly good hair. A beautifully shot US town (Brownstone, where Syd moves, is a wash of 70s-style ochres). And a setting in that weird Netflix realm that could be any time in the last half-century (the characters go to 50s-stylediners, listen to 80s music, own 90s VHS tapes and have mobile phones).

At first, compared to its rival shows, I Am Not Okay With This feels a bit low stakes. Syd is not on the run for murder or fighting monsters created by shady corporations she has discovered that if she gets annoyed at someone, they might have a minor nosebleed. It doesnt have The End of the F***ing Worlds humour, or Stranger Thingss heart. But it soon becomes clear that Syds new supernatural powers might be fuelled not by grief but by the raging horn for her best friend, Dina. And thats where Syds EBTM (Extremely Big Teen Emotions) could actually save the show.

Instead of admitting she is gay, Syd goes into denial. Because shoving teenage feelings down under the bubbling lava of anger, horniness, confusion and grief wont result in them exploding out at the very worst moment like, say, the homecoming dance Syd agrees to go to with Stan, will it? Bring on the pigs blood and slam the fire exits shut: things are about to get interesting.

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The actor on secondary school remorse, belly-button piercing and giving away spoilers

Born in Essex, Michelle Dockery, 38, studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In 2004 she made her professional stage debut at the National Theatre, in His Dark Materials. From 2010-2015 she played Lady Mary in the ITV television series Downton Abbey, receiving three Emmy nominations. Her latest film is Guy Ritchies The Gentlemen, in cinemas now. She lives in London.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
Falling flat on my face during a curtain call at the National Theatre. The play was Pillars Of The Community and I tripped on my long skirts. Epic.

Aside from a property, whats the most expensive thing youve bought?
A very nice holiday.

What is your most treasured possession?
A St Christopher my mum gave me. I travel a lot and always carry it with me.

If you could bring something extinct back to life, what would you choose?
The dodo. I like birds.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Spoilers. I am the absolute worst for giving away the endings of films. It just happens. I cant control it.

What is your favourite word?
Apricity. It means the warmth of the sun in winter and reminds me of my childhood.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Many things. I remember wanting to be a vet, a ballet dancer and a hairdresser.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Keeping Up With The Kardashians or The Real Housewives any season, any time.

What do you owe your parents?

To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?
A teacher at my secondary school. We used to write and sing songs about him. Sorry, Sir! You were a great teacher.

Have you ever said I love you and not meant it?
On a few occasions I act for a living!

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Audrey Hepburn, Chris Lilley, Paul Newman, Walter Matthau, Gene Wilder, Celine Dion and Maggie Smith.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Oh my God.

What has been your biggest disappointment?
Carrie and Aidan not ending up together.

If you could edit your past, what would you change?
Several haircuts and my belly-button piercing.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?
Woodstock 1969.

When did you last cry, and why?
Watching Big Little Lies season 2. Shailene Woodley made me bawl.

How do you relax?
Sitting on the sofa watching TV with a cup of tea.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My friendships.

Where would you most like to be right now?
Anywhere in Italy eating pasta.

What keeps you awake at night?
Most things really. Im a night owl.

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In the decade that was simply the worst of times, we went from Downton Abbey dross to a swaggering masterwork about the first modern lesbian. Costume drama has loosened its corset at last!

As a lens through which to view the past, period drama is the obstinate, headstrong girl! of British culture. If you want to get all Jane Austen about it, which of course you do. The genre most blindly beloved by the country has spent decades stubbornly shooing history away with a gloved hand in favour of a more manicured (read: posh, white) version of how we used to live. Backpedal to the comparatively sunny uplands of the late Noughties, when New Labour was in its death throes and phone hacking at News International crowned its head (OK, not so sunny). What were we saluting our slippers to on a Sunday night? Cranford! That confection filled with candied dames force-feeding cats laxatives to retrieve lost Victorian lace. Not exactly representative of the times. More like hitching up its skirts to escape them.

In contrast, the 2010s which to take a hammer to the Dickens quote was simply the worst of times were when period drama finally loosened its corset. When a genre characterised by nostalgia cast open the Georgian shutters to the realities of race, class and sexuality that had always been there. Sort of. It was also the decade that launched with Downton Abbey. Yet this, too, was in perfect keeping with the 2010s ever-rising levels of polarisation. In what other 10-year span might we have entered stage-right with Julian Fellowes elegant post-Edwardian drama, which ran for six buttoned-up seasons and culminated in the promise of a film only Americans could love. Then exited stage-left with Gentleman Jack, a sly, swaggering and deeply sincere masterpiece about a Yorkshire woman dubbed the first modern lesbian, directed by the Andrew Davies of the 2010s. Our new crown: Sally Wainwright.

It was in Wainwrights skilled northern hands that period drama shifted into the tanking present. Became raw, bleak, true, subversive, funny in the most off-kilter British sense. In To Walk Invisible, her stunning account of the three pinched years in which the Bront sisters wrote the novels that made them famous, we got a version of then that was viscerally now. There was poverty, alcoholism and not a marriage in sight. Everyone looked cold, all the time. In Gentleman Jack, Wainwright proved she could pull off a romp while crafting cliffhangers out of the trials and tribulations of 19th-century coal mining. Consider the high romantic finale, tuned in to by millions, that saw Suranne Jones roguish Anne Lister and her beloved, Ann Walker, declaring their love atop a windblown Yorkshire hill. Dont hurt me. Im not as strong as you think I am, Lister said, before adding with a soft-butch stoicism never before seen in a primetime period drama slot, Well, I am, obviously. As an antidote to the badly-acted costume drama playing out in parliament, it was perfect.

A soft-butch stoicism never before seen in primetime period drama … Gentleman Jack. Photograph: Aimee Spinks/BBC/Lookout Point/HBO

Most awkward, unsurprisingly, was the insertion of race into a genre that for half a century has been almost exclusively white. In Vanity Fair, the Sedleys servant, Sam, was black and, though not fleshed out enough, a great character: proud, dripping with contempt, endlessly ignored. His silent presence for such lines as better than sending him back to India into the arms of some dusky maharani, better than a dozen mahogany grandchildren foregrounded the everyday racism of the time without falling into the trap of anachronism. Howards End, the BBCs simultaneously old-fashioned and highly timely adaptation of EM Forsters great novel about Englishness, just about walked the line between representation and tokenism by making the Basts an interracial couple, and giving the Schlegels a black maid. These were changes so incremental they often felt uncomfortable. Nevertheless, they made the Merchant Ivory version seem as long ago as the novel. The race problem in period drama, as it was termed, was better addressed in series that focused on black and Asian history from the outset. Like The Long Song, a stellar adaptation of Andrea Levys Booker-shortlisted novel set during the last days of slavery in 19th-century Jamaica. It was intelligent, ambitious, heartbreaking.

Intelligent, ambitious, heartbreaking … The Long Song. Photograph: Carlos Rodriguez/Heyday Television

Turning to sex, which all period dramas must in due course, Harlots was a microcosm of 2010s confusion. On the one hand, it was your average sauce-fest inspired by the sex trade in Georgian London and overflowing with ever more purple euphemisms for cockstands. On the other, a criminally overlooked post #MeToo feminist triumph, created by and starring women and for once, focusing on the brutality of prostitution without reducing it to a load of actually quite sexy sex. At times it could be both at once, and I didnt know whether to be enraged or enjoy myself, which was probably the point. A similar discomfort was induced by The Crown, which was so sumptuous, eye-wateringly expensive, and bloody well done that you had to applaud, even while an actual royal was stepping down from all 230 of his patronages over his association with Jeffrey Epstein.

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The star of Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock and new period drama Dickinson discusses a career spent playing narcissists and some very strange souvenirs

There were two reasons that Jane Krakowski signed on for Dickinson, the new comedy-drama in which she plays the mother of the great American poet Emily. One was that her own mother was a fan of Dickinsons work, so much so that the young Krakowski could recite a few of the poets greatest hits by rote. The script, then, immediately piqued her interest. Its changed now, she explains, but in the original, it started with: Im Nobody! Who are you? And she reads the whole poem. At the end she looks into the camera and she goes: Im Emily. Im Emily fucking Dickinson. I was like, wait. What is this? She smiles: This is not your moms Emily Dickinson.

Krakowski also wanted to play a character who would be entirely unlike two of her best-known roles, 30 Rocks Jenna Listen up fives, a 10 is speaking Maroney and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts Jacqueline White/Voorhees, another of her immaculate, iconic narcissists, a spoof of the 1%. They are two of the greatest comedy characters of recent times.

Krakowski is in London to promote her shift to the sort-of period, sort-of drama of Dickinson, but she is a devoted Anglophile, particularly when it comes to comedy. She had her first experience of panto last Christmas, when she took her son to see Julian Clary in Dick Whittington. He was hilarious. He seemed like the king of panto. I had the best time. I was like, why have I waited so long to go? My son didnt know all the double entendre jokes and he said, why are you guys all laughing so hard? I said, one day, youll understand.

Dickinson follows over a decade of Krakowski being Tina Feys favourite sort-of bad guy. Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock left her comedically fulfilled in a way that made her wonder what to do next. I think I came out of that going: Theres no way Ill be able to top that kind of comedic writing. So lets go for something entirely different, to have a whole other experience.

Whisper it, but the fact that Krakowski is playing the conservative mother of a 19th-century poet in a modern-historical hybrid with a thumping contemporary soundtrack, in which Wiz Khalifa has a cameo as Death, is quite, well, Jenna Maroney. Jenna is every excess of a celebrity turned up to 11; when Tina Feys Liz Lemon describes her as a high-strung perfectionist, she zings back: I prefer soul-sucking monster.

Cant stop the rock… Krakowski in 30 Rock with Tina Fey, Jack McBrayer, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

Krakowski arrived on 30 Rock after the unaired pilot, in which a far less ego-driven Jenna was played by comic actor Rachel Dratch. She was in Guys and Dolls in the West End when Fey and Robert Carlock, who co-produced the show, asked Krakowski for a meeting. They wanted to see what sort of sense of humour I had about myself, because the part was to send up the entity that is an actress. I couldnt think of anything more fun than to get to exploit the worst traits of actors and live them fully on screen, because then you get it out of your system and you dont have to do it in real life, in a way, she laughs. I could take every horror story I had ever heard and put it into Jenna.

One of Jennas many talents was an ability to belt out a tune at the drop of a hat, which was written into the scripts as a result of Krakowskis Broadway experience. Did she have favourites? I feel like Jenna was most known for Muffin Top, and, of course, Werewolf Bar Mitzvah [sung by co-star Tracy Morgan], which went viral before viral was a thing. [Kimmy Schmidts] Titus Burgess sent me a clip that I had totally forgotten about. It was a commercial I made in Japan … She laughs. And all I do is hold up a soda, and somebody slaps me, and then I just keep smiling and drinking the soda. We got to do such outrageously fun things as part of that show.

After 30 Rock, Fey and Carlock wrote the part of Kimmy Schmidts Jacqueline, a woman running from her past by hiding behind the self-involved grandeur of New York society wives, specifically for Krakowski. At what point does she start taking that kind of casting personally? I think people feel that Jenna and Jacqueline are quite similar, she says, gamely, and I do think the cadence of the comedy is very similar because its written by the same people. But Ive always felt that they were very different characters, certainly in the approach that I take to them, because Jacqueline was a far more vulnerable person than Jenna ever was or could possibly be.

For a comedy, she adds, Kimmy Schmidt was incredibly dark. You break that down and youre like: its about a woman whos been kidnapped for 15 years and comes out of a bunker … The show will end for good with an interactive special, due at the start of 2020. Does she think she will work with Fey and Carlock again? I would be so thrilled to do something else. Id like to convince them that its three times a charm.

Now 51, Krakowski grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey where her parents hobby was community theatre. We didnt have the funds to get babysitters all the time, so they would bring me with them. Her mother sent her to open calls when she was a child. I admired the moxie she had to give me the confidence to maybe just go try, she says. Her son Bennett is now eight, the same age as Krakowski was when she first started going to auditions, but she doesnt yet know if hell follow in the family business. Hes naturally very funny, she says. Hell do comedy bits at home, and Ill be like: Wait, how would you know that? But I havent felt his need for applause, or to be seen or heard in that way, which is probably psychologically more healthy. I dont want to necessarily keep him away from it, but Ill let him find his own way, if thats what he wants to do.

A lawyered performance… Krakowski with Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal. Photograph: Everett/Alamy

She got her first TV role in the early 80s as a teenager, on the daytime NBC soap Search for Tomorrow. I was in high school when I was on that show, so I was doing my homework on the bus ride during my commute. After she made her career on Broadway in the likes of Starlight Express, Grand Hotel, Company and Nine she returned to TV in 1997 as Elaine, the office assistant in Ally McBeal who invented the face bra. Krakowski still has one at home. It was nice to have a souvenir, and I think that was the epitome of Elaines inventions.

Ally McBeal was a genuine phenomenon. Internationally, too, she notes, which I had never experienced before. I think, apart from Courtney Thorne-Smith [who played McBeals love rival, Georgia], none of us had been on a TV show.

She moved from New York to LA to work on it, and remembers being in her car, driving back from the set, hearing a radio show analysing a recent episode. Thats when I think we all realised it was what we now call a watercooler show.

It changed their lives completely. Far more for Calista [Flockhart] than for the rest of us. I think people felt Calista was Ally McBeal for a very long time, and she had to work very hard at making people realise that she was not that character, because she played it so beautifully. Many of the characters that Ive played, especially in the TV shows Ive been on, have been very heightened and exaggerated, and so I havent felt that people think I am my characters.

When it comes to Jenna Maroney and Jacqueline White, thats probably a very good thing.

Dickinson is available on Apple TV+ now

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It was Britains answer to The Wire. But the gang drama was dead until the rapper stepped in and pitched it to Netflix. Its stars and writer talk grime, gentrification and Boris Johnsons Britain

I told them I was on my way out to meet some singer called Drake, says writer Ronan Bennett, recalling the unlikely story of how he went out for dinner with the Canadian rapper and somehow managed to make himself seem less cool in front of his children. Drake was a fan of Top Boy, Bennetts Channel 4 drama about the lives of drug dealers and residents on a fictional Hackney estate called Summerhouse. He had been recommended it while on tour and loved it so much, he began posting stills from the show on Instagram with clumsy attempts at London slang (real bod man). When he found out it had been cancelled, he decided to bring it back by teaming up with Bennett and pitching it to Netflix.

The pair arranged a dinner in London to thrash out a plan much to the disbelief of Bennetts kids, who had to inform him he was about to meet one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. My children were like, Whaaaaat? he says. But honestly, I didnt know who he was.

Luckily for Bennett, Netflix and quite a few other people did. He was into the shows music, says Kane Robinson AKA Kano, the grime MC who starred in the original series as Sully, a duplicitous but driven dealer. It wasnt a shock that Drake liked it. What was more shocking was that when he posted about Top Boy, the reaction was mad. Youd wake up and have hundreds of messages.

He understands the culture and saw that [the show] needed to come back, adds Ashley Walters, who plays Dushane, the titular Top Boy who rises from low-level street dealer to potential East End kingpin. We were all on the same page it just happens that hes Drake.

Drake fronted a pitch to Netflix in LA and an hour later they had a deal. But Top Boy wasnt the easiest sell. Originally pitched to the BBC as a one-off TV film, the Beeb balked at the language and its stark gang-related subject matter, so Bennett shopped it to Channel 4, which commissioned it and greenlit a second season. The Independent called it Britains answer to The Wire, while Vice dedicated an oral history to the making of it. The show got a mixed reception from residents of Hackney when the Observer screened it to youth groups, but it was lauded by critics for its brutal portrayal of life in east London just after the 2011 riots.

Top girl Letitia Wright in the original series. Photograph: Tristan Hopkins/Channel 4

Bennett cant remember the reason Channel 4 gave for cancelling, but it felt abrupt and left him shocked with a storyline for a third series that looked destined never to see the light of day. I didnt ever think it was going to come back, says Robinson. It looked like it was a non-starter.

But despite the cancellation, Top Boy didnt disappear completely. Both Robinson and Walters were asked about it incessantly as it began to find another audience, first on DVD and then on Netflix. It became a touchstone in the music world, with such grime acts as Skepta working references into his Mercury prize-winning album, Konnichiwa. It proved to be a hothouse of young black British talent: Michaela Coel had a bit-part in the original series, as did a pre-Black Panther Letitia Wright, who stood out as an ethically compromised young gang member. Other grime MCs, including Scorcher and Bashy, also featured before going on to get parts in films. In 2016, rumours that the show was coming back began circulating. Then, during his sold-out run at the O2 in London this April, Drake played a trailer confirming its return.

The UK has changed a lot since Top Boys debut in 2011, especially in the way gangs are viewed. The rise in knife crime has become part of the national conversation, with the media reporting on such concepts as county lines, in which drug gangs send young members to rural locations to drum up new trade. Drug dealers have never been more under the microscope, especially after 2018, when there were 135 homicides in London, 76 of them stabbings. So was there any hesitation in bringing back Sully and Dushane, dealers who manipulate young kids, murder rivals and use knives?

No, says Bennett without missing a beat. I think its important to bring it back in that context. Why? I consider myself a highly political person in everything I do, says the writer, who up until recently was the chair of his local Labour party. But I never beat the audience over the head with a message. However, I dont think anyone who watches Top Boy would fail to realise that the answer to the question Why is knife crime happening? is simple. Its poverty, exclusion and its racism. Thats why these kids feel completely outside the norms of a society that cold-shoulders them, that closes doors on them, that looks down on them, that despises them. And then its a spiral.

Theyre denied any kind of self-respect. Where are they going to find that respect? They need to feel good about themselves and they need to find that value somewhere. They create a different value system and its one that is deeply, deeply fucked up.

Belated return Walters and Robinson in the forthcoming third season. Photograph: Netflix/PA

Robinson and Walters think there is an urgent need to bring a gang drama to the screen, believing the new series will provide a vital window into a world that is still misunderstood. The medias attention [to gangs] is on another level, says Robinson. But who are we if were not talking about the current climate? What picture do people want us to paint? Its not a true story but there are a lot of truths within it.

Whoever is outside looking in, says Walters, should see this as correspondence. Youre getting the people who are down there at street level reporting to the rest of the world. Thats what I see Top Boy as, thats what I see Kanes music as. Its important for people to listen and take time to watch whats going on in these shows, especially the ones like Top Boy that are painting an accurate picture.

Poverty has a smell. Its cheap, bad food. Its damp, unwashed clothes Ronan Bennett Photograph: Antonio Olmos

That picture isnt pretty. In the new series, which will launch on Netflix in the autumn, theres a glimpse of the harsh life inside British prisons, where disagreements from the street continue to fester. There are young men still children, really forced to look after their families and turn to drug-dealing to provide. An immigration story surfaces that has echoes of the Windrush scandal.

Top Boy has always been about showing the wider view of how societal pressures add to the chaos of street life. In the first two series, we see a salon owner and the manager of a chippy struggling to stay open as rents increase. A mother with mental health issues has to deal with her own problems and the needs of her son, who is perilously close to getting caught up in the drug game. For Bennett, thats all a way to paint a fuller picture of life in breadline Britain.

Until recently, wed go around canvassing [for Labour] and you could literally smell poverty, says Bennett. It has a smell. Its cheap, bad food. Its damp and unwashed clothes. When they open that door, you think, Would I like this life? No. Thats why this happens and thats what Top Boy shows.

Walters believes gentrification plays a part. I think its one of the reasons why a lot of knife crime is happening, he says. What were not talking about is how people are being displaced and how somewhere like Croydon has one of the highest knife crime rates because all the kids from Peckham, Brixton and the surrounding areas were being moved there which created war, essentially, because all the kids were being mixed up together.

Then there are middle-class drug users, who have been accused of fuelling the gang problem. A well-off couple appear in season three is that who Bennett is skewering? Ive seen the whole debate about middle-class drug use, says Bennett, who adds that he has never taken or bought drugs. That obviously happens. I guess thats something people have to confront, but for me the answer is decriminalisation. Nothing else works. Would that include all drugs? Yes. Im in favour of decriminalisation but with regulation. I would say to my kids, Please dont do this. I think its bad for your health and taking drugs is really risky. But this is the way to make it less risky.

Bennett points out that in the Shoreditch restaurant were sitting in, there are probably people who have bought or sold drugs that day. Are they fuelling knife crime? he asks, looking around. I guess. But in a bigger way, its the entire apparatus that weve built around the so-called war on drugs that is responsible.

Theres always been a bleak, nihilistic thread running through Top Boy, as young people without much hope struggle to simply get by. Can Bennett see things getting better in real life under a Boris Johnson government, with the hardline Priti Patel in the Home Office? No, not remotely. If you handpicked a bunch of characters in Britain that have less intelligence, less sympathy and less understanding of the kind of social and economic backgrounds that our characters come from, you could not do a worse job. There is no hope that they will have any understanding of what it would take to solve this problem. They are unbelievably out of touch.

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In the absurd yet absurdly compulsive drama What/If, the Oscar winner makes an unlikely comeback as a devious, scenery-chewing billionaire

Its tricky to explain Renee Zellwegers new Netflix show What/If to somebody who hasnt seen it, because its an exercise in diametrically opposed contradictions. Its a sexy thriller, even though its about as sexy as slow-transit constipation. Its unique selling point is that it follows the consequences of actions, even though that also describes every single story ever told by anyone in the entire history of humankind. Its a television series, even though its title is punctuated like a sub-tier early noughties boyband.

And most importantly, I cant stop watching it, even though I hate it.

What I can say with confidence is that What/If is trash. The pilot episode was directed by the man who directed Sharon Stones 1993 boobathon Sliver, who appears to have been preserved in amber ever since the moment that film wrapped. The characters, the dialogue, the sets and costumes and music are all firmly in mid-90s, low-budget erotic thriller territory, and theres barely a concession to modernity to be found anywhere. Its confusing, too; the second scene takes place a year after the first scene, but the third scene takes place three days before the second scene. Whats more, almost all of the episodes establishing shots take place during a thunderstorm for some genuinely unfathomable reason.

One of the lead characters runs a struggling molecular sequencing company, despite being so aggressively stupid that its a wonder she ever figured out cutlery. The profession is an afterthought clearly, nobody from the writer down cares a jot about the nuts and bolts of molecular sequencing but it adds a vaguely futuristic sheen to the series, giving it shades of a Hallmark Channel Black Mirror reboot.

Taken on the surface, What/If looks like a grand error; like another Cloverfield Paradox sold off to Netflix in a fire sale because its studio couldnt believe what a clunker it was. But thats the weird thing about What/If. I think and I might be wrong, because this is pure conjecture that its trashiness might actually be sort of deliberate.

The best case for this argument lies with Zellwegers character, a sexually voracious billionaire puppetmaster taken to wandering around her sprawling apartment late at night pontificating about the nature of destiny versus free will into a 2010-model dictaphone. Read that sentence back. That has to be deliberate, right? No sensible person, with the possible exception of EL James, would ever create a character this preposterous on purpose, surely. And I havent even mentioned her primary hobby yet. Its doing archery in her kitchen. Of course it is.

And Zellweger relishes every second of it. Its a huge, camp, scenery-licking wink of a performance that channels every broad rich bitch trope you care to imagine. Shes the sort of person who writes AT ANY COST in block capitals on a piece of paper before we smash-cut to a day when her new book At Any Cost has become an epoch-defining bestseller. Shes the sort of person who keeps her keys in an enormous plexiglass cube in the middle of the room. Shes the sort of person who, when her butler sniffs that one of kitchen arrows has hit the target left of centre, smirks: Three words no one has ever used to describe me.

What/If might be the best worst show, but then again it also might be the worst worst show. Photograph: Erik Voake/Netflix

In What/If, Zellwegers character meets a barman and invites him home. He declines, and so she escalates her offer. For one night with him, she offers to pay his wife (the molecular sequencer) $80m to rescue her ailing molecular sequencing business. Its a plot, as the sequencer states in a rare moment of self-awareness, thats been ripped out of a bad 90s movie. But it doesnt end there, because it starts to look as if Zellweger chose the barman deliberately in order to ignite a bizarre Rube Goldberg sequence of events.

Which is silly, right? The whole plot is so gaudy that it has to be tongue in cheek. But the thing is, Zellweger is the exception here. The rest of the characters, and all the subplots, are tedious and witless and played absolutely straight. Had What/If been The Renee Zellweger Show, it would have been fantastic. As it stands, shes the only thing saving the series from terminal mediocrity.

So, yes, What/If is tricky to explain. It isnt the best show youll ever see. It isnt even the worst best show. It might be the best worst show, but then again it also might be the worst worst show. Honestly, Im stumped.

  • What/If is available on Netflix from 24 May

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Motor neurone disease and physics both played a part in her split from her husband Stephen Hawking, she says. She talks about the challenges they faced in their 30-year marriage and about how close The Theory of Everything was to reality

Here is Stephen Hawkings verdict on the movie about his marriage: it needed more science. And here is Jane Hawkings verdict: it needed more emotion. Those opposing views on The Theory of Everything, which brought Eddie Redmayne an Oscar and a Bafta for his portrayal of Stephen and Felicity Jones Oscar and Bafta nominations for her portrayal of Jane, reveal a great deal about not only the personalities of the worlds most famous scientist and his former wife, but also one of the major strands of difference in their relationship.

But the truth is that science is probably more absent from the film than emotion, because what the film represents is a triumph of Janes experience and persona after decades in which the family was viewed solely through the prism of Stephens genius, who as well as being the worlds best-known scientist is also the worlds best-known sufferer of motor neurone disease (MND).

Today there is an aura of unassuming achievement around Jane, who is sitting in the conservatory overlooking her garden in a quiet corner of Cambridge. Meeting her feels like fast-forwarding through time to meet an older Felicity Jones, so accurately did the actor represent her subject. But then, talking to Jane, it all turns on itself again: the reality was, she says, that she and Stephen met Jones and Redmayne when they were researching their roles, and was later astounded to realise how closely her mannerisms, gestures and speech patterns had been noted. When I saw the film, I thought: shes stolen my personality!

Jane Hawking: The difficulties of dealing with Stephens disease were much greater than they appear in the film.

Her relationship with Stephen started when both refused to be daunted by the fact that Stephen had just been diagnosed with terminal motor neurone disease. They ploughed into marriage in the face of his parents pessimism about its chances of success, and had three children. In the face of pressures that were almost too much to bear, and alongside her friendship with another man, they somehow kept their marriage together for a quarter of a century before ending it with a remarkable degree of equanimity.

Does the film present an accurate portrait of their marriage, which began at Trinity Hall in Cambridge in 1965?

The important thing is that the feelings, where they are there, are very much true to our experiences. So from an emotional point of view, its spot on. The only thing is that theyve had to minimise the strains and struggles, because in our real life the difficulties of dealing with Stephens disease were much greater than they appear in the film.

And, yes, the impression given in the film that she and Stephen managed to split up without too much acrimony and that Janes new partner and now husband, musician Jonathan Hellyer Jones, became part of their immediate family is indeed an accurate one (although for a long time after they met, their relationship was platonic).

Jane met Jonathan when, to give her a break from the constant demands of caring for Stephen, a friend suggested she should take up singing in the local church choir, run by Jonathan. It was 1977. The Hawkings, then parents of two young children, were living in Cambridge, where he was garnering a reputation as one of the most glittering scientists of his generation. Jane, though, was isolated and overwrought. How much were the demands on their marriage the product of Stephens disease without it, might they still be married today? Jane isnt sure: although his health was a huge strain, there were others. From the outset, Stephens eccentric family made no secret of the fact that they didnt think the marriage would survive.

Stephens mother once said to me, We dont like you because you dont fit into our family. On another occasion she learned by chance that the Hawkings were planning to move to Cambridge so they could be there when the marriage foundered, as they were sure it eventually would.

Jane and Stephen Hawking in 1974.

But it wasnt just about a lack of support from the wider family. The truth was, there were four partners in our marriage, says Jane. Stephen and me, motor neurone disease and physics. If you took out motor neurone disease, you are still left with physics. Mrs Einstein, you know, cited physics as a difference for her divorce …

During their marriage, she says, Stephen would retreat into himself. And, though he tried to explain physics to her, she always felt shut out of the world that was so crucial to him. But the stresses of MND were not solely or even mostly down to the physical difficulties of the condition; what brought even greater disruption to their lives was the advent of the carers who shared their home, who disapproved of aspects of their lives, and whose presence meant they could never have the privacy that every family needs to thrive.

They whispered about us and they undermined me, says Jane. Its clear the pain is still there. One of those nurses, Elaine Mason, went on to become his second wife, though the two later divorced. This is an episode of their lives Jane is reluctant to rake over, although it was this relationship that tipped the Hawkings into splitting up, rather than her relationship with Jonathan. Why did they carry on for so long, even after she had met Jonathan and become close to him? She says it never felt like a choice: she loved Jonathan and depended on him for support, but she absolutely loved Stephen as well.

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The Emmy-winning creator of the hit crime drama series will revive the franchise with a 60s-set film featuring some familiar characters

David Chase is set to return to the universe of The Sopranos with a big screen-prequel.

The script, with the working title of The Many Saints of Newark, has been purchased by New Line and will be set against the backdrop of the Newark riots of the 1960s. It was written by Chase and Lawrence Konner, who has previously written for The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.

David is a masterful storyteller and we, along with our colleagues at HBO, are thrilled that he has decided to revisit, and enlarge, the Soprano universe in a feature film, New Lines chairman, Toby Emmerich, said.

According to Deadline, details are scarce but the script will see some familiar characters from the show appear. The HBO drama ran for six seasons, winning 21 Emmys and making stars of James Gandolfini and Edie Falco.

In 2016, Chase spoke about the possibility of a prequel with Deadline. Ive said it from the beginning: if I had a really good idea and I thought it could be really entertaining and it wouldnt upset what was done I might do it, he said. Last year, when speaking to Entertainment Weekly, he suggested that he was more open to the idea. I could conceive of maybe a prequel of The Sopranos, he said. I could never see [a return of the show] except as a prequel.

Since the end of The Sopranos, Chase wrote and directed music drama Not Fade Away in 2012. It received mainly positive reviews yet was a box office disappointment, making just $600,000 from a $20m budget.

The 1967 Newark riots saw four days of looting and violence that led to the deaths of 26 people. They were the result of a long-running feeling of disenfranchisement among black people who had been racially profiled, subjected to violence from the authorities, and denied opportunities. The inciting incident was an act of police brutality against a black taxi driver.

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The Get Out and Black Panther star on why he doesnt like race debates – and what his mum makes of his American accent

Daniel Kaluuya: I’m not a spokesman. No ones expected to speak for all white people

The Get Out and Black Panther star on why he doesnt like race debates – and what his mum makes of his American accent