There is reality TV, and there is reality TV Norwegian style. The reality of life in Norway is that events take a long time and unfold very slowly. Norway is a country with a population of barely five million people, spread along a 1,500 mile peninsular of rainy, windswept fjords and inhospitable inland terrain. It takes a long time to get from A to B. It takes a long time to get back again. It takes a long time for the sun to return once it’s disappeared for the winter. Time in Norway is passed in the mountains or on the sea; living the good life.
In 2009 the state broadcasting company NRK celebrated the centenary of one of the engineering wonders of the world, the East-West railway from Oslo to Bergen, in a characteristically Norwegian fashion. The famous journey was filmed and broadcasted not framed in grandeur or excitement, but in real time, slowly chugging, warts and all, over six hours, from beginning to end.
This became a Norwegian phenomenon and was followed up by a filming of the 134-hour journey of the legendary coastal steamer, Hurtigruten, from the south to the far north of the country, stopping off at ports along the way. I watched some of it and it was totally mesmerising. More than half the Norwegian population agreed and tuned in to follow the agonisingly slow journey of a boat as it meandered along a coastline.
The point is that in Norway the ordinary is extraordinary. The landscape is stunning, the tiny coastal communities are a world away from the mayhem of cities and commuting and pollution. It’s the kind of experience that the majority of 21st century people just can’t find but which Western Norway has in abundance. So the head of programming for the Bergen region, Rune Møklebust, decided to make it available to TV viewers.
More “slow shows” have followed, including a day of salmon fishing, and one in February this year all about firewood, watched by a quarter of the Norwegian population. This included top tips about firewood stacking and culminated in a 12-hour broadcast of a Norwegian fireplace in all its glory. If you thought the vitriol that surrounded the grand finale of the Great British Bake Off this week was unedifying, you should sample the furious debate that ensued over the best way to stack logs among Norwegian viewers. Should the bark face up or down? It’s a question that sent waves across the nation. “One thing that really divides Norway is bark,” observed Lars Mytting, whose best-selling book on wood inspired the television programme in the first place.
Reality TV outside Norway is a very different beast. It exposes life lived at a relentless pace, punctuated by a lot of shouting, regular vomiting and occasional exposure of those parts of the body best left inside underwear. The viewer in turn enjoys the mawkish spectacle of lives about to go wrong, of people about to get hurt, of bodies damaged and reputations tarnished. We can just as easily see all of this without the intervention of television by going into any town centre on a Friday night, and it makes for cheap, unimaginative viewing which might have titillated the sensibilities of the middle classes for a season but which is now, after so many repeats, just dispiriting.
Still, there is hope that production companies are turning to something different. The Great British Year on the BBC in the UK dedicated an hour of prime time viewing each week to a celebration of the seasons, exposing viewers to aspects of our country we don’t see every day, allowing them to enjoy not simply more of what makes reality something to avoid but an alternative reality. All the same, this isn’t slow TV. It makes copious use of time-lapse filming, speeding very slow processes up to vertiginous tempi. Would a British TV company have the chutzpah to go the other way and slow things down to real time and simply relish that time passing?
To some, Norwegians are pretty eccentric. They throw themselves down mountains and live in freezing temperatures, consoled only by astronomically priced alcohol. But this is a country with no national debt and the highest standard of living on the planet, so there is plenty to celebrate, like coastal landscapes and extraordinary engineering and ancient traditions. And, above all, a slow pace of life when the rest of us are getting ulcers. When I moved to England from Norway some years ago, my friends looked at me with incredulity. “But life is so good here!”, they exclaimed.
Norway is no TV nirvana; it has had its Big Brother, but viewers are turning off in their droves. Between 2001 and 2011, average audience figures for that quintessential example of reality TV dropped from 480,000 to 86,000.
But this month, Norwegians tuned in to a five-hour broadcast of eight people knitting. It’s slow, for sure, but it’s a celebration of something far from boring.