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Knitwear in prime time

A jumper-clad detective and a prime minister with a messy private life have won a huge global following. Although The Killing, Borgen and other Danish TV series take place in a country that few know, and in a language that even fewer understand, they have captivated viewers worldwide.

By Rikke Albrechtsen. Focus Denmark magazine June 2012.

The Killing' is a darkly atmospheric murder mystery series set in a rain-soaked CopenhagenIt is not every day that the team behind a Danish TV series receives a letter from a British Prime Minister. But that was nonetheless the case for the creators of the political hit series Borgen who received a letter from 10 Downing Street in which David Cameron expressed his admiration for the series about the political and personal intrigues that enmesh a fictional female Danish prime minister.

Nor is it every day that a British duchess insists on visiting a film set where a dour Danish jumper-wearing police detective is busy solving murders. But Camilla, the wife of Prince Charles, is a great fan of the crime thriller series The Killing and had personally asked to stop by the film set when she and her husband visited Denmark in spring. The duchess even received a cardigan similar in style to the trademark Nordic knitwear worn by the main character of the series, Copenhagen cop Sarah Lund, as a souvenir of the occasion.

Danish TV series are going from strength to strength at present, not only in Great Britain, but also as far away as Japan, Brazil, Russia and the Republic of Korea. The great international interest in especially the two aforementioned series have taken most by surprise. The Killing, which resembles the American TV series 24, but takes place at an ultra-slow pace in a rain-soaked Copenhagen, and Government, which is seen as Denmark’s version of the American TV series The West Wing, have both been a hit with viewers in Denmark. But it is rare that a domestic success can be exported to the extent that is currently taking place. And although Danish drama gained international acknowledgment up through the 00s and has won a handful of prestigious Emmy Awards in the US, the two new series have exceeded all expectations.

“There is significant interest in Danish fiction, and it has been growing in recent years,” confirms Helene Aurø, who is head of international sales at Denmark’s public service channel, DR, which produced both series.

She recently returned from the annual international MIPTV fair in Cannes, where Denmark received somewhat more attention than usually. The hype has even grown to a level where international purchasers are looking in the backlists to buy older Danish series to satisfy the thirst for Danish drama, says Helene Aurø. She makes it clear that other Danish series have also previously been sold abroad, but the extent has taken on new dimensions.

“We can sell them currently because viewers want to watch original language TV which extends beyond the main global languages. In that way the markets are constantly changing,” she says.

 'Government' depicts the interplay between politicians, spin doctors, the press and the public. 'Borgen' depicts the interplay between politicians, spin doctors, the press and the public. 


Challenging issues

Nadia Kløvedal Reich, head of fiction at DR, thinks that one of the reasons for the great interest in Danish TV series is that Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia have developed particular insight
concerning the sexes, careers and society matters which are reflected in the stories and characters in the series.

“It means something that women in Denmark were early onto the labour market to carve out careers, and that our children have been looked after in daycare centres. It helps us to tell stories which have both a political dimension and relate to the dilemmas that exist between family and society,” says Nadia Kløvedal Reich. An example of this occurs in an episode of Borgen, where the prime minister solves an international conflict while her daughter is developing a mental disorder. In addition, The Killing breaks with the conventional form of TV crime thriller where each episode is a self-contained story.

“We were among the first to present one story in 20 episodes, which enables us to examine issues which are more challenging,” says the head of fiction.

The Danish engagement in the war in Afganistan is incorporated into 'The Killing'
The Danish engagement in the war in Afganistan is incorporated into 'The Killing'


Scandinavian crime thriller wave

The 20 episodes were initially a hurdle, concedes Jan De Clercq, the head of TV DRAMA distribution company Lumiere in Belgium which handles sales of The Killing, Government and many other Scandinavian crime thrillers in the Benelux countries. Although the Danish series benefits from a Scandinavian crime thriller wave driven by the bestselling Millennium Trilogy featuring Lisbeth Salander by Swedish writer Stieg Larsson, and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, no one was willing to bet that viewers would watch a Danish TV series in so many episodes.

“I pushed for it for several years,” explains Jan De Clercq, who initially had great problems selling the TV rights to The Killing. It was not until a leading Dutch morning newspaper embraced it, promoted the series in its columns and advertised it on its webshop, that things seriously gained pace. “They thought that they could sell 3,000 copies, but they ended up selling more than 10,000 box sets,” says De Clercq.

That was the start of a hype, with the result that today there are more copies of The Killing sold in Benelux than in Denmark, and that the TV stations ultimately had to jump on the wave. “I think that The Killing was the most important series ever in Benelux in terms of drawing attention to the quality of Scandinavian TV series,” says De Clercq, who thinks that both The Killing and Borgen address an audience who want something more from both plot and genre:

“I think people are a bit tired of clichéd American and British crime thriller fiction.”

Universal problems

At the Franco-German channel Arte, which is screening both series, head of fiction for Arte France, Marie-Cathrine Marchetti, is also enthusiastic. “It’s often the case that European series are national clones of American hospital dramas and crime thrillers. That type of product is not particularly interesting to others,” she says.

She adds that The Killing separates itself from the crime thriller formula – even though it is principally about the investigation of a murder – because it also explores what it means for a family to lose a loved one, and for a woman to have to choose between family and career. In 2011, The Killing was remade in a US version, produced by Fox and screened on AMC. “The fact that a remake was produced in the US indicates that the series has its own identity,” says Marie-Cathrine Marchetti.

With regard to Borgen, Marie-Cathrine Marchetti comments that although the plot is locally-based and depicts the difficulties of a classic Danish minority government, the interplay between politicians, spin doctors, the press and the public is debated in many countries.

“All the problems that are explored in Borgen are the same problems that aff ect the rest of the western world, although there are diff erences in political systems,” she says, adding that a number of political analysts writing in French newspapers during the recent presidential election have drawn parallels with the fictional universe of the series.

In 'Government', the prime minister solves an international conflict while her daughter is developing a mental disorder.
In 'Borgen', the prime minister solves an international conflict while her daughter is developing a mental disorder.


Help from the real world

Professor Gunhild Agger of Aalborg University, who researches media history and especially TV dramas, agrees that the broad appeal achieved in recent times by the Danish series is due to their particular skill at focusing on universal themes which extend interest in them beyond the country’s borders.

Furthermore, Borgen has had some help from the real world, in that Helle Thorning-Schmidt became Denmark’s first female prime minister in October 2011, one year after her fictional predecessor gained the title.

“That was a real scoop seen retrospectively, since the series depicts some of the same dilemmas that aff ect our politicians in real life,” she says.

Gunhild Agger also argues that Danish foreign policy over the last 10 years, which has seen  Denmark play a more active role in conflicts around the world, has rubbed off on Danish TV drama.

“The producers of the series have been responsive to the problems of our time – not only in Denmark, but also abroad. This is for example reflected in The Killing, which incorporates the war in Afghanistan,” she says and adds that major foreign policy subjects are also addressed in Borgen.

"Before Denmark became engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, series like these could not have been made convincingly. The last time this was possible was during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II when people also felt the gravity of the situation.”

Although Borgen has become an international success, it was not the original intention with the series, says its producer Camilla Hammerich. The principal aim was to make a series for the 8 pm Sunday slot on DR, which is traditionally a prime family viewing time. The series shown at this time have sometimes attracted an audience consisting of half the Danish population.

They are made with the ambitious public service goal of portraying Danish society and to create national cohesion with the licence fee funding that fi nances them. Camilla Hammerich, who as a teenager played in the iconic Danish TV series Matador, never imagined that Borgen would receive such a level of international attention. “Our main aim was to get the Danish public interested in politics,” she says.

“It’s quite surreal to think that it is being broadcast in Brazil and the Republic of  Korea, but also enormously gratifying. It is very satisfying, considering that we are a small TV station in a small country.”