A change has occurred in living rooms across the UK. Walk down a quiet suburban street on a Sunday evening and it’s unlikely to be English you hear coming from the television set the inhabitants are glued to, but French, or Danish, or possibly Swedish.

Foreign language TV has never been more popular, and even home-grown shows are starting to get a Scandinavian makeover. It seems British networks have finally realised that needing to read subtitles is unlikely to put someone off watching really good drama.

Of course, foreign language TV is not something that has burst on to our screens out of nowhere, just as non-English films weren’t invented as a result of the popularity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the Swedish novel by Stieg Larsson that was successfully adapted into a film. Shows like Heimat – following a German family through the trials and joys of the 20th century – were a favourite among British audiences years ago. They were also often well received by critics. Meanwhile, world cinema has always had a loyal audience, with movies including Das Boot, Way of the Dragon, Run Lola Run, Amelie, City of God, Let the Right One In and The Artist breaking into the mainstream.

Non-English language TV series also used to pop up regularly on British television screens, but increased competition from satellite channels and the importance of securing advertising arguably meant network executives became less willing to take risks. As a result, viewers had to console themselves with a sporadic trickle of quality television imports.

All of that changed when BBC4 bought Danish crime drama The Killing and broadcast it in the Saturday night slot. It was a risk not taken completely blindly, as previous shows like French police show Spiral, had previously proven popular – but it was still a risk. Indeed, few people could have predicted this well-plotted intelligent drama centring on a female police officer with a penchant for patterned woolly jumpers would become the must-see TV hit of the year. Such was its success, it spawned an American remake and saw critics penning the term ‘Scandinavian Noir’.

After The Killing came Broen (The Bridge), Borgen and Salamander. Even viewers who weren’t specifically seeking out original Scandi Noir were enjoying a taste of it, as British dramas like The Fall and Broadchurch were distinctly Killing-esque in tone.

Indeed, while subtitled viewing continues to rise in popularity, so too do bleak murder dramas. The Killing, The Bridge and Wallander all revolved around the crime, and have inspired new gritty British dramas to do the same. Such is our obsession with this grizzly fare that last year Charlie Brooker commented in the Guardian: “You can’t go three weekends without stumbling headlong into yet another bleak and unflinching two-part exploration of the crushing banality of evil, tinged with a heavy green-grey filter that conveys seriousness and is only ever so slightly undermined by the need to cut to a brightly coloured yoghurt commercial every 15 minutes to keep the show on the road.”

The latest non-English language show to be in with a chance of reaching water-cooler status is The Returned (originally Les Revenants), which has made headlines for being the first subtitled series to make it to Channel 4’s schedule for many years. However, given it was the highest-rated show on the French network that first aired it in 2012, it’s a risk that could well pay off.

Unlike earlier hit foreign imports, The Returned is less crime thriller and more supernatural drama, with a dash of horror and a pinch of family tragedy thrown in for good measure. On one normal evening in an unassuming Alpine town a handful of people arrive out of the blue, despite the fact they have all been dead for years. Yet this isn’t a zombie gore-fest like The Walking Dead, and has been likened more to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

The first episode pulled in an audience of more than 1.9 million according to BARB, suggesting that Channel 4’s gamble has paid off. Already, blogs and sci-fi forums are buzzing with questions and theories about some of the mysteries that lie at the heart of the show.

TV editor at the Radio Times Alison Graham told the Guardian last month that people can enjoy a certain sense of superiority by boasting that they watch foreign language shows. “It’s the new snobbery for people who claim they don’t watch television,” she explained. A few years ago, such people might say they had no time for television apart from The West Wing and The Wire, and today these American productions have been replaced by the likes of Borgen.

For those of you who can’t get enough of great subtitled TV, here are the box sets you must have on your shelves.

The Killing

The DR-produced show (called Forbrydelsen in Denmark) that sparked the Scandinavian TV craze – and with good reason. This Danish neo-noir centred on the murder of 19-year-old Nanna Birk Larsen and Detective Inspector Sarah Lund’s attempts to unravel the case. Muddying the waters further is the revelation that the crime is linked to the local mayoral campaign.


French cop show Spiral helped to pave the way for shows like The Killing to take over British television schedules. This time the focus is on the French judicial system, and some of the characters’ more unethical ways of ensuring justice is done.


If history is your thing then this epic film is sure to please. Serialised for TV, this German family drama has a scope that can only be described as epic; spanning eight decades from 1919 to 2000. Interestingly, the word ‘Heimat’ has no English equivalent, but describes the love and connection a person has to their geographical and social roots – or homeland.

Hatufim (Prisoners of War)

This is the Israeli show that Homeland is based on, and the two were created by writer Gideon Raff. The Israeli version begins with two prisoners of war and the remains of their fellow captive returning home following a 17-year absence.

The Bridge

The original version of the Swedish/Danish crime thriller drew in an audience of one million when it aired on BBC Four last year. A second series will be broadcast later this year, and it has also prompted not one but two remakes – a French-English version and a US-Mexican one.