All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride

In the (quite literally) dark days of February 2013, NRK (the Norwegian Broadcast Company) dedicated their primetime Friday night slot to a programme which began with a marathon four-hour discussion on the correct methods of stacking wood, and culminated in live uninterrupted footage of a roaring fire that continued for a further eight hours.

Whilst for the Norwegians keeping warm in the winter can be, plainly, a matter of life and death, for the Danes staying cosy by the fire plays into their much more intangible concept of hygge.

Hygge, a word which has no direct English translation, can be best described as the feeling of warm, carefree contentment that curling up on the sofa in candlelight surrounded by your nearest and dearest (and  dessert) often provides.

It seems the BBC had hygge in mind when they commissioned All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride this Christmas, BBC Four’s festive foray into Slow TV.

Though the concept of Slow TV is often traced back to 1963, where it is attributed to Andy Warhol’s film Sleep, the genre in its current form can be more closely compared to New York City local TV channel WPIX’s 1966 looped broadcast of a fireplace to the sound of Christmas music. Typified by the filming of the duration of an often ordinary event that progresses in an unhurried manner, the genre was resurrected by NRK in the mid 2000s.

Whilst comparatively brief in contrast to most other Slow TV,  All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride is a highly immersive, engaging two-hour programme that aired at 8pm on Christmas Eve. A static camera is attached to a sleigh to capture a Sami woman in traditional dress leading her reindeer down a road snaking through the Arctic Tundra. The resulting footage is a refreshing, at times hypnotic, visual display that captivates the viewer in a way vastly different to any other programme available amongst the smorgasbord of festive entertainment.

Travelling past frozen lakes, unending skeletal forests and traditional settlements, there is more than a hint of an anthropological ‘Natural World’ in All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride. However, unlike in a nature documentary, where the viewer is directed towards animal behaviours or specifics of the environment related to the subject matter in hand, in this soothing treat the viewer is granted the freedom to observe either individual elements of the environment or the overwhelming beauty of superbly beautiful vistas without the distraction of a continuous narrator. This results in a far more absorbing, highly relaxing experience.

The rhythmic crunching of snow in the bleak, near silent wilderness, accompanied by the occasional encouraging click given by your guide to a sometimes reticent reindeer, the cheery greeting of a fellow traveller or the crackle of sporadic roadside fires is gently rhythmic and comforting, allowing the viewer to become more wholly engrossed in the scenes they see on a multi-sensory level.

Despite a distinctly hands-off approach to presenting, it would be a mistake to see All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride as totally without editorial direction. The decision to allow the sights and sounds of the tundra to speak for themselves is bold, however the full impact is hindered by unnecessary intrusion. The presence of an occasional factual text bubble or still, which appeared to the side of the road in the form of bursts of freezing vapour, were graphically clunky and brought little to the overall viewing experience.

Available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 24 January, All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride is an intense viewing experience. The visual equivalent of whale music, watching this programme in the wrong frame of mind could easily result in it being mistaken as monotonous, even dull. Undeniably a slow burner, given a little time this programme is a calming balm, ideal for those stressed, hungover or just looking for a little hygge.

Image: Heather Sunderland

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