Another Scandinavian TV revolution will sweep across British screens this week. Only this time there will be no grisly murders, imploding families or detectives in woolly jumpers. This time not much will happen at all.
Instead, BBC Four will broadcast a two-hour canal journey in real time. No soundtrack, no host or voiceover, no fancy camerawork; just a serene, unedited pootle through the British countryside.
To many viewers that may sound like a one-way ticket to Planet Boring. Cue jokes about watching paint dry. But the BBC’s first foray into the world of “Slow TV” is actually a wise and welcome move.
Why? Because so much television nowadays is too fast for its own good. Desperate to hold our attention, broadcasters bombard us with crashing scores, breathless voiceovers, hyperactive hosts, split screens and dizzying edits. My pet peeve: announcers yelling about what’s Coming Up Next as soon as the final credits start rolling. It’s frantic, shallow and dispiriting.
Slow TV is an antidote to all that. It is not a return to the television of the 1950s. Who wants that? On the contrary, it’s a glimpse into the future, a marker for how technology can help us stop and stare.
Slow TV is a Zen experience, like doing yoga on a deserted beach or slipping into a hot bath. By serving up an unfiltered, real-time, high-definition window on the world, it encourages us to notice and savour the details, texture and fine grain of what’s around us. Take that canal trip. From the comfort of your own sofa, you can revel in the gentle joys and modest pleasures of the British countryside: spotting wildlife, commenting on the weather and ignoring fellow ramblers.
Slow TV can even spur deeper reflection. Because there is no narrative it is up to the viewer to search for meaning in the images and sounds on the screen. Slow TV becomes a backdrop or a canvas upon which to weave our own stories.
Norway invented Slow TV, and the BBC version is small beer by comparison. The first show featured the view from a train travelling seven hours from Bergen to Oslo. Then came 12 hours of knitting. Slow TV finally hit the jackpot with a five-day boat journey. More than half the Norwegian population tuned in and the trip sparked a carnival of audience participation, with viewers lining the fjords and hundreds of private boats chugging along in its wake. Even Queen Sonja of Norway put in a cameo by waving regally from her yacht.
Slow TV is unlikely to make the same waves here. But it does open a new chapter in British television. The relentless pace of modern life takes a heavy toll on everything from our health and happiness to our relationships and communities to our ability to work and think. That’s why a Slow Movement is on the rise. Think Slow Food, Slow Sex, Slow Education, Slow Exercise, Slow Management, Slow Medicine, Slow Travel and so on.
Because “Slow” is not a Luddite throwback, its forward-looking adherents are also seeking ways to harness technology. Just look at the boom in meditation or mindfulness apps. Slow TV is the next step – and it’s spreading fast. A US version is now in the pipeline.
So let’s thank BBC Four for this feast of slowness. If the canal trip doesn’t float your boat, you can always watch artisans crafting a wooden chair or a steel knife, or take a leisurely tour through the National Gallery. As Mae West famously observed, “Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.” And that includes TV.
(First published in Radio Times)