Surely 1.6 million Norwegians can’t be wrong? Three long hours into Salmon River – Minute by Minute, one of broadcaster NRK’s astonishingly popular “slow television” programmes, I decided that the nearly a third of the population who tuned in to the 18-hour marathon must have had a screw loose – or the boredom threshold of a Norwegian fisherman.
I’m certainly not relishing the thought of the Beeb’s foray into the genre, BBC Four Goes Slow. They’ve commissioned a series of programmes doing away with high-production values, commentary, script or drama, slowing everything down to “celebrate the simple pleasures of life in the slow lane.”
Watching NRK’s production, filmed on the first day of the salmon fishing season, made it clear why angling is often a solitary sport: with all the yawning, smoking and rod adjustment going on, even those knee deep in the water looked bored stiff. I’d only endured a sixth of the salmon extravaganza (fish caught: 0), and I wished I could swim far away from this televisual hell.
Compare it with a flashier counterpart like Robson Green’s Extreme Fishing, the series in which the actor wrestled sharks, barracudas and piranhas from Papua New Guinea to Patagonia.
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It’s easy to get excited about piranhas. Salmon River struggled to show us a single fish, even in the murky underwater shots. At one point I thought I saw something but it was just a ropey bit of bait.
Enjoyment wasn’t helped by the weather. Everything – sky, water, riverbank – was grey. It reminded me of Scotland on a dreich day (only 190 miles across the North Sea).
High points were brief. At sunset, the fishermen looked almost romantic silhouetted against the water reflecting the pink sky – until the shot changed to another khaki-clad fat bloke puffing on a ciggy. Later, some ducks came into view. At last! Wildlife! Then the jazzier one got obscured by a bush. There was some woefully sporadic atmospheric music, as if too much stimulation might blow our fish-addled brains.
Occasional campsite shots tipped it into Big Brother live stream territory (remember that?). The fishermen slept while I stared blankly at their caravans and dome tents wondering where it had all gone wrong. I focussed on the minutiae: why was that man’s bait holder blue not green? Did the cigarette smoke put off the salmon? I honed in on wedding rings, imagining fishmen’s home lives; whether they smelt of fish. Rather than appreciating the magic of salmon spawning, I was slowly going insane.
The most popular of the Norwegian shows (including a knitting-athon) has been Hurtigruten – Minute by Minute, a five-day cruise along the country’s west coast which sustained a 36-per-cent audience share during its transmission over 134 hours, 42 minutes. Locals came out in droves as the boat went by and it was so popular on social media that Twitter crashed. Crucially, Hurtigruten, like the majority of NRK’s pieces, was broadcast live, with an interactive element. The three commissioned for BBC 4 – one celebrating traditional craftsmanship, another an uninterrupted two-hour canal boat journey and a behind-the-scenes look at the National Gallery – will be pre-recorded before their broadcast later this year. This suggests they haven’t quite got the courage to go full Salmon River.
The Canal sounds most like a less gutsy version of the show that started off the whole thing: Bergensbanen – Minute by Minute, following the route of the Bergen Line journey across southern Norway in real time, all seven hours 16 minutes of it. It was an unprecedented smash hit, even making it on to British Airways’s inflight entertainment (apparently inspired by the popularity of the flight path screen). I was briefly hypnotised by the train winding round snow-sprinkled hills, through stations and vistas much more picturesque than the salmony water. The problem was, every time (which was a lot) it went through a tunnel, my eyelids drooped. Verdict: more soporific than stimulating – it’s one for trainspotters or insomniacs.
In a TED talk, NRK television producer Thomas Hellum said that the sort of topics that make great slow television are the ones “when people say ‘oh no, you can’t put that on TV’.”
So here’s a thought for you, BBC – don’t. Just don’t.Reuse content