With the cold and dark months creeping upon us, the Copenhagen sky is like a thick grey blanket, suspended for a seeming eternity. The same sky provides the murky backdrop for such recent TV successes as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge.
The entire world, it seems, has fallen for Scandinavia’s bleak psycho-thrillers of murder, corruption, families and politics. Yet they’re also stories that revolve around everyday characters living ordinary lives and working regular jobs. What is it about these shows that has taken the world by storm, and has led to American and British remakes by the reel-load?
“In Denmark, we like strong hero characters too, but we’re always trying to do something based on reality,” says Birger Larsen, conceptual director of The Killing.
“The most successful shows are grounded in the reality around us. You always add something more to your characters that is slightly bigger than the environment that we’re in. But not too much, or people won’t believe it. The audience won’t buy it.”
With the international successes of first The Killing and now Borgen, Denmark has become water-cooler material. But the chatter isn’t about the Little Mermaid or snaps. Does the world audience relate to the everyday working-class characters in The Killing?
“They aren’t all underdogs. They are just people doing solid jobs, with everyday problems that the audience can identify with,” Larsen says.
“It flows through the screen to the audience as easy as soft-serve ice cream, because everybody has a piece of the character they’re watching inside them,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a female cop, a male cop, or a female prime minister, it has to be grounded in reality. It’s important that the viewer feels like part of the universe that they are watching.”
The Gal Next Door
Another common thread in many of these shows is that the lead character is often a woman. Detective Sarah Lund (left) is the ‘hero’ in The Killing. Does Larsen see it as a sign of the times?
“The writers got together and thought, ‘Hey, we haven’t had a female cop as a lead character in Denmark, this might be something that works,'” recalls Larsen who is currently in Edinburgh shooting three episodes of the successful new series Murder, which won him his second BAFTA award in 2013 for best single drama.
“We didn’t invent strong female characters. Agatha Christie had Miss Marple before World War II. We used Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect – starring Helen Mirren – as a role model for our character Sarah Lund,” he continues.
“We are not doing this because we think there should be more women in films, we’re doing it because we think it’s the most interesting thing to do for the story.”
It’s perhaps another example of the development of gender equality in Scandinavia – especially in the company of directors like Lars Von Trier, who seems to enjoy violating political correctness and taboos.
“Von Trier is so interesting and he always has really original ideas,” continues Larsen. “He can do whatever he wants because there’s always an artistic angle to it. You’re watching an art form, not real life. Of course there are a few things that he won’t touch, and I honestly think he has his own boundaries. But he’s a true original and a great artist.”
Crime TV in a new format
Asked whether Larsen feels a responsibility for the moral aspects of the stories he writes, he answers that his primary responsibility is making sure the stories are as good as possible.
“It sounds strange because on one hand, I’ll kill people in a flash. I have an enormous body count in my films. But if the story is immoral, I won’t make it.”
But what explains the audience’s fascination with dark issues – is it the Danish culture, the brooding climate, the darkness?
“For The Killing, it was a case of both good timing and a well-written and intertwining plot,” Larsen says.
It was also a game changer for TV dramas – it was a taut, drawn-out, episodic story of a single murder, compared with the drive-thru style of murder stories found in American crime procedurals like CSI: Miami and Dexter.
“It pushed production companies around the world to do something different, realising that it’s actually okay to have 20 episodes about one murder. Suddenly it had the English watching French and German series, and inspired shows like Hinterland, which is played in the Welsh language. When BBC4 first aired [The Killing] in the UK, it was like a public secret, and it was the first time that a foreign show with subtitles actually worked. And because it was a secret, people started talking about it and then it became immensely popular.”
Apart from launching his career in the UK, Larsen’s hit series paved the way internationally for other Danish programmes. Next was Borgen, a political drama based on the election and rise of Denmark’s first female prime minister.
Its director, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen – also an acclaimed songwriter and co-founder of the Dogme movement – argues that the show not only reflects Danish politics, it also ended up shaping it: shortly after it premiered, Denmark elected its first real-life female prime minister.
“That was what we hoped for. When I first read the script, I found it important, and a possibility to give Danes the chance to look into the toolbox of politics.” Jacobsen says.
“I also saw it as an entertaining way to teach people about democracy, because I think everybody should learn about it. I’m sure later on that it had an influence on Helle Thorning-Schmidt getting elected.”
Stranger than fiction
It was clear that with the real political circus in full swing just outside the window, Borgen struck a chord and attracted an intelligent audience.
“The writer Adam Price wanted a light and smooth-moving vehicle to hold the heavy political cargo,” Jacobsen explains.
“The writers knew what was going to happen for the first six episodes. And every day, when they opened the newspapers, the real political situation was even more flamboyant and colourful than the fiction they were writing. I said, ‘if you want inspiration for two more episodes take a look at what’s happening on the real political stage.’ It’s absurd!” proclaims Jacobsen.
Following the success of The Killing and its gripping lead female character, Borgen had its own hero in the controversially cast Sidse Babett Knudsen, who was more known for her comedic roles.
“I found it so strong and so right that a political figure could have all these facets, like being funny and charming and colourful,” he says.
“Every time you see a political show from the States, it’s always male characters. But engaging female performers keep the audience glued to the screens.”
Domestic politics goes international
It’s not just locally that men and women have reacted to Borgen’s strong characters and thrilling plot twists – Borgen fever is still running hot from Norway to Australia.
“We Danes take our filmmaking very seriously. We’ve always made films with strong support from our government and fine subsidies compared to other countries and we have a very well-developed film school,” Jacobsen recalls.
“When we first made Borgen, I asked, ‘why do we have so little money per minute compared to other productions?’ And everyone said ‘because this programme can’t travel.’ So it took everyone by surprise when we sold it all over the world.”
There’s no shortage of riveting and engrossing television made right here in Copenhagen to see you through the winter. But is the future looking bright for more quality Danish TV?
Birger Larsen muses, “I think when DR stops trying to please the audience, something good will happen. They should have a responsibility to experiment and try something that is outside the mainstream.” M