“Now, when we all are sitting here – they can’t cut down the trees, can they?”
Viktor, rag doll
What is a society? When the modern city grows, who should be able to decide its path? By what means could ordinary citizens make themselves be heard in the great process of modernisation? Such questions were being asked in many countries in the years around 1970. In Sweden, they crystallized in one specific event, which occurred on the 11th and 12th of May 1971. And there was a children’s television programme there to document and interpret it.
Due to a deficit in the underground railway system in central Stockholm, a decision was made by the city council, supported by the Swedish government, to cut down thirteen majestic Scots elm trees situated at the entrance of the station Kungsträdgården in the central area of Norrmalm. In protest at the decision to remove the trees, local citizens organized a massive rally on the day of the planned enforcement. They protested with a sit-in, with tents, tree climbing, concerts and public speeches – a manifestation which lasted several days. In the end, the massive political mobilisation was successful. As a result of the public protests, the planned reconstruction of the Kungsträdgården station was eventually moved some hundred metres east of the location of the elm trees, to a smaller and parallel street. Most of the trees are still standing there today, one of them with chainsaw marks as a testament to the events that once took place there and to the interruption of ruthless urban reconstruction.
In Swedish 20th century history, the so-called ‘Battle of the Elms’ of May 1971 has become intimately associated with the era of radicalization. Together with another emblematic event, the occupation of the Student Union Building in May 1968, it has come to epitomize the 1968 movement in Sweden. The eventual rescuing of the trees taught the activists that public protests can actually make a difference, and thus it demonstrated the political empowerment of unheard voices in society. It was also a highly mediated event, with extensive media coverage and it even caught some international attention.
The symbolism of trees is – as we all know – a powerful force. The significance of trees is also something children could easily comprehend, according to one very influential producer at Swedish television. Her name was Gunila Ambjörnson. She was already well-known to the Swedish public due to her influential book Skräpkultur åt barnen (Trash culture for children, 1968), in which she argued that the moralism and commercial frameworks of the publishing houses had distorted children’s literature and turned it into a deeply reactionary enterprise (see also Helle Strandgaard Jensen’s previous blog post). So, in the middle of the elm conflict commotion, they went to the sit-in and shot one episode of Ambjörnson’s children’s programme Ville, Valle & Viktor there. A hand-held camera followed the three main characters of the series – two homeless street musicians Ville and Valle, and their rag doll, Viktor – as they moved their way into the crowd at Kungsträdgården.
Ville, Valle & Viktor was a programme broadcast in two different seasons, 1970 and 1972. In a total of 8 episodes, each about 30 minutes long, modern city life, technology, urban reconstruction and environmental issues were addressed. The title of the s eries from 1970 was Ville, Valle & Viktor upptäcker Sverige (Ville, Valle & Viktor discover Sweden), pointing to the main emphasis of the programme – to discover how society works. The 1972 series that incorporated the passage at the Battle of the Elms followed this same theme and was entitled Ville, Valle & Viktor och den mystiske mannen (Ville, Valle & Viktor and the mysterious man).
In the history of Swedish children’s’ television, there is a debate on whether or not this episode is an illustration of ideological 1970s leftist propaganda (see for example Rydin 2000, Rönnberg 2012; Gustafsson 2015). But, much like the Battle of the Elms itself, Ville, Valle & Viktor’s main focus seems to have been rather on democracy, citizens’ rights, challenging the establishment and above all environmental issues. The episode criticized the architectural reconstruction of downtown Stockholm as a modern, cultural and commercial centre, but with no place for the young or the poor. Years of discontent with ruthless city planning in Stockholm, including two decades of concrete dust covering Norrmalm, came to the fore during those days in May 1971. This paved the way for the later environmental movement and green politics, but also for a wider belief in the power of participatory action. In Ville, Valle & Viktor, the two tramps Ville and Valle explain how society works to Viktor, the innocent but rebellious rag doll, who never ceases to ask questions. ‘Now, when we all are sitting here – they can’t cut down the trees, can they?’, Viktor asks as the three sit down underneath one of the elm trees in the middle of the commotion. ‘No they can’t,’ Ville says and pulls up his guitar to sing a song with the crowd.
Ville, Valle & Viktor and the mysterious man was contemporary history-in-the-making woven into a programme for children. It did not tread lightly, but its political message was rather anti-authoritarian than outright socialist or communist. It aimed to raise children’s political and environmental awareness and empower them to raise their voices against unfair urban development. In one passage of the elm conflict episode, Viktor firmly states: ‘One has the right to ask why. One has also the right to get an answer, because otherwise there is no point in asking.’ And together, the two street musicians and their puppet interrogated contemporary Swedish society and tested its view on democracy and citizens’ rights. They found it wanting.
Further reading (in Swedish):
Ambjörnson, Gunila, Skräpkultur åt barnen, 1968.
Gustafsson, Tommy, Det var en gång. Historia för barn i svensk television under det långa 1970-talet. Malmö: Universus Academic Press, 2014.
Daniel Helldén, Demokratin utmanas. Almstriden och det politiska etablissemanget, Stockholm: Statsvetenskapliga institutionen, Stockholms universitet, 2005.
Ingegerd Rydin, Barnens röster. Program för barn i Sveriges radio och television, 1925–1999, Stockholm: Stiftelsen Etermedierna i Sverige, 2000.
Margareta Rönnberg, Vänstervridna? Pedagogiska? Av högre kvalitet? 70-talets barnteveprogram och barnfilmer kontra dagens, Visby: Filmförlaget, 2012.