Denmark’s latest TV hit attracts audiences worldwide

MALMO, Sweden — It was a celebration of sorts, of a highly-unexpected achievement.

On Wednesday, Adam Price met the main actors in "Borgen," the Danish television drama he writes, for a read-through of the show's next series. It was their first get-together since "Borgen" ran on the BBC, becoming the biggest hit on British television.

“They almost can’t believe it,” Price told GlobalPost from his offices in Copenhagen. “We’ve always looked up to the BBC as the lighthouse of European drama production, and we couldn’t imagine a Danish drama would be sold to the British, and thrill a British audience. It is beyond comprehension to us.” 

It’s not just the United Kingdom. The show, made by Denmark’s state TV channel DR, has been broadcast by Link TV in the United States, and by state channels in Sweden and Norway. Arte, the Franco-German cultural channel, will start broadcasting it next week. It has also been bought by a channel in South Korea. 

“When we started writing this series, the head of drama at DR said that this drama would not travel,” Price said. Indeed, the show's subject hardly seems like fodder for a blockbuster: It's a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the Danish political process. 

At the time, Prince thought it might be shown in Sweden and Norway, but nowhere else. "I think we’ve now sold on five continents," he said.

"Borgen" is the latest in an emerging new genre, Nordic noir, which is taking over screens worldwide. 

The phenomenon took hold in 2008, the year Stieg Larsson’s book, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," became an international bestseller. The same year, British Shakespeare actor Kenneth Branagh filmed an English version of three Kurt Wallander novels by Swedish writer Henning Mankell.

Of course, the genre conquered Hollywood this year, with David Fincher’s version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," a Swedish crime novel, which has been nominated for five Oscars. 

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Daniel Ahlqvist, whose Yellow Bird productions produced the Wallander series with Branagh, and also the Swedish version of the "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," said the attraction is quite intangible. 

“There's something with the Scandinavian style, the Scandinavian mood, that attracts people,” he said. “It's often a little heavier, a little darker than American drama.” 

What made "Borgen" possible was "The Killing," a Danish police drama, which last year became a runaway hit in the UK, winning the country’s prestigious BAFTA television award. 

More from GlobalPost: BAFTA award nominees 2012

“Obviously we owe a lot to 'The Killing,' because that really paved the way and gave us an audience in Britain,” Price said. “And the whole Scandinavia craze, with the Nordic Noir genre, we owe a lot to that.”

Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, who plays the intrepid TV reporter in "Borgen," said she thinks Nordic drama is somehow refreshing for international audiences.  “I think maybe 'The Killing' appealed because it was so dark and rainy, people thought of it as very Scandinavian,” she told GlobalPost. “I suppose it comes off as exotic — a cold, Northern type of exotic, not a Hawaiian one with pineapples.”

Jacob Neilendam, a prominent film critic in Denmark, argued that the TV series builds on the work of directors such as Lars von Trier, who started Dogme 95 — a Danish film movement that outlawed special effects and technology to focus on the bare essentials of story and acting. Von Trier's latest film, "Melancholia," won Kirsten Dunst the best actress award at the Cannes film festival.

“It’s pretty much the same thing that made Danish films successful ten years ago. Dogme, the realism, the true-to-life stories, have really been what made Danish films so popular abroad. Now it’s TV drama which does the same things. A lot of the people behind the camera are the same, and a lot of the actors are the same.”

Price, whose English forbears came to Denmark three hundred years ago, said that as TV drama has become a more dynamic medium, it has also become more international. 

“The main dramatic revolution that has happened in the past five to 10 years has taken place more in the world of TV drama than it has in the world of movies," he said. "I adore all of the great series from HBO, and I loved 'The West Wing' and I’ve loved 'The Wire' and 'Six Feet Under' and all these brilliant series.” 

"The Killing" broke new ground with British audiences by being broadcast in a foreign language with subtitles. Fox TV wasn’t willing to take that risk in the US, and the story was remade by in an American setting, with Mireille Enos taking the lead role.

With "Borgen," the BBC went further still, opting to keep the show’s original Danish title, which refers to the Christiansborg, the country’s parliament. 

It is also the first Scandinavian success outside of the crime genre.

“'Borgen' was a bit different because it’s not a crime series, it’s about politics and its about making choices in life,” said Helene Auro, head of international sales at DR. “We are excited about how well it has done, because it’s a totally different genre.” 

Price never expected an international audience to warm to his depiction of Scandinavian coalition politics, with all its compromises and inter-party deals.

“We are very surprised,” he said. “I believe that what brings people from different countries around this series must be the strength of the characters, and the ability of the actors that portray them. Also, many of the main questions that we talk about, such as ‘how far should we go in protecting democracy?’ could be asked in any country, except perhaps North Korea.” 

Arvid Jurjaks, a critic who writes for Swedish newspaper Sydsvenksan, believes the engine of production is now in full throttle. 

“There's a slight obsession with finding the next success. If a publisher can find a new Swedish author and put on the cover, 'the next Stieg Larsson,' he knows that might work in the United States. The phenomenon itself is selling.”

Next week, for example, Netflix plans to release a Nordic noir as its first ever original production. Lilyhammer, which it made in collaboration with NRK, Norway’s national broadcaster, stars Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante in The Sopranos), as a New York mafiosi who moves to Lillehammer, a small town in Norway, as part of a witness-protection program.

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Meanwhile, Sony Entertainment is planning to shoot the two other books in Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

Yellow Bird recently finished shooting a new series of Wallander with Kenneth Branagh. DR is already shooting a new series of "The Killing," and it’s set to start shooting a new series of Borgen later this month. 

The latest cultural export has seen the Swedes teaming up with the Danes. The Bridge, a co-production centered on the bridge linking the two countries, will be broadcast in the UK in May.

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