First ‘The Killing’ Now ‘Borgen’: How Do The Danes Do It?

BORGEN: Saturday 7th January, BBC4, 9pm

Fancy a new boxset to help you through the rest of these endless winter nights? Well let’s survey the options… there’s gritty drama The Wire, or perhaps our very own Spooks; either would easily stave off any lingering post-Christmas blues. However, what about a more international offering?

Think about Denmark and I’m sure you’d be able to squeeze out the names of a couple of famous people; there’s the writer Hans Christian Andersen, football legend Peter Schmeichel… err… does that dog from Corrie count? You’d definitely be hard pressed to name any actors; unless you watched The Killing that is.

Despite the foreign drama’s use of subtitles (on the basis of which some foolish souls may recklessly dismiss it) the programme garnered huge numbers of viewers for BBC Four and in the process managed to transform the way we think about Danish television. I’d advise you to put it on the very top of your box-set wish-list. On the other hand, if you’re short of cash after Christmas then you’ll be pleased to hear about Borgen, the new Scandanavian series which is threatening to pillage our Saturday nights.

Literally meaning ‘government’, it’s a new political drama set to start this weekend and which – if you’ve seen The Killing – stars some familiar faces. It centres around the character of Birgitte Nyborg, a party leader who is struggling to cope with a personal life and the escalating political instabilities around her. Unsurprisingly, it looks top-notch.

So why have Denmark suddenly got in on the act? Have they quietly been knocking out BAFTA-worthy drama for years, or have they suddenly come into some money and decided to give us a run for our own? It seems the answer could be a simple case of priorities. The production company behind The Killing – and indeed Borgen – is DR; also known as the Danish Broadcasting Company. Basically it is the equivalent of the BBC, funded by license fee and making it one of the country’s most watched channels alongside its rival TV2. They certainly seem to have a knack for drama and instead of predictable scripts and lacklustre formulas they are focus on intense and intricate plots. It would be pretty unusual for a British TV detective to spend an entire series trying to solve one murder… they usually get it done within the hour. In contrast, The Killing uses one plot to sustain a whole series, frustrating us beyond belief in the process and allowing the viewer to see the realistic and devastating effect of a crime on all involved. Instead of victim’s family being allowed a momentary scene or two, different points of view are shown in depth. It’s also a case of substance over style and instead of blowing the budget on a wardrobe, the main gal Sarah Lund is often seen wearing the same tatty jumper for days. How refreshing (…not the jumper).

Alongside this dedication to realism, these shows seem to respect, demand things from and eventually reward their audience. The Killing is akin to Mastermind with its drawn out conversations and blink and you’ll miss it detail. I suppose the rather genteel Inspector Frost might in comparison appear a little more like Deal or No Deal… open a box and you’ll find the murderer cowering, just waiting to be thrown in jail. One viewer’s enthusiastic tweet perfectly sums up the contrast… “Imagine a 20 episode, complex, tightly scripted, beautifully acted, crime drama produced by British TV. The Danes can do it.â€?

But the success of The Killing in the UK certainly wasn’t taken for granted by the cast. Lars Mikkelsen (who plays Troels Hartmann) was surprised with its cult status and in an interview with the Telegraph last year he said: “Newspapers here are talking about you raving about it. We’re a small country. Every time someone really succeeds with bringing what we’re doing it’s a huge thing.â€?

The unassuming actor also went on to hint at what else could have possibly contributed to the British reaction: “That’s a certain Scandinavian tone… but I think that’s why it communicates to you; it’s not that far from youâ€? he suggests. “We are related in that way which is why it translates well to your market.â€? Perhaps we can blame the weather…

Be it their dedication to producing challenging television, or indeed our shared sense of Euro misery, there’s no doubt that this Scandinavian sensation will continue to flourish. (The previous success of Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ novels and TV adaptation of Wallander is further proof). Of course it’s not just us Brits who have taken notice, with those across the pond also seeing the potential and naturally taking it upon themselves to create their own bigger and brasher version of The Killing, not to mention already getting their mitts on Borgen. Whether or not the US attempts are any good is perhaps a question of personal taste (or opinion towards subtitles) but if the viewing figures are anything to go by, the Danes clearly do it better. With British drama often being a bit hit or miss it certainly couldn’t hurt to look to our Nordic cousins for inspiration.

So as Borgen imminently graces our screens, an international crime drama could once again set the humble doldrums of BBC Four alight. Long may it continue… luckily for us we’ve discovered there’s more to Denmark than goalkeepers.