The Killing and Borgen: Danish drama wins global fanbase

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Copenhagen

  • Published
Clockwise, from left: The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen
Image caption,
The Bridge (top right) joins Borgen and The Killing in cementing Danish success

Danish dramas The Killing and Borgen have been sold around the world, making the country the envy of the global television industry. Emma Jane Kirby visits the sets of both productions to try to unearth the secrets to their success.

The old military airbase where The Killing is currently being filmed looks so deserted and desolate that I almost feel I'm inside an episode of the Danish detective show, rather than just witnessing the filming of one.

Our driver is hopelessly lost and very frustrated, but after several phone calls, barking in rapid Danish to an unknown person, we finally spot the blue car we're here to find.

We follow the car to the air hangar where Series 3 is being filmed, and before we get out, we're asked once again to swear we won't reveal our location or give away anything about the plot.

I had been enjoying the sunshine and blue sky of the day but as soon as we push open the door of the hangar, that pleasure ends brutally.

Media caption,

The Killing's Sofie Grabol: 'Sarah Lund is not a hero to me'

Inside, on the set, it's damp, dark and below zero and over the fisherman's boat where the main action is taking place, the special effects team has set up a constant miserable mist of drizzle. In the corner, scowling and snapping on forensic surgical gloves, I suddenly spot the dour Detective Sarah Lund. And she's wearing that jumper.

"It's very sad, it's miserable, it's always raining and Sarah Lund never smiles - but this is Denmark." grins Piv Bernth, who's The Killing's producer and the head of DR (Danish Public Broadcasting's) drama department as she welcomes us on set.

"So why has it become cult viewing across the world?" I ask Bernth.

It is absolutely extraordinary that a subtitled police show with a dysfunctional Danish detective and a pretty low budget should enjoy so much international success.

Yet from Britain to Brazil, from Iceland to Australia, audiences are hooked. Their dedication is absolute - in the first series you have to sit out 20 episodes before you're told "whodunnit".

Bernth motions towards the set: "The Killing is ground breaking. It's the first time you have a detective drama over 20 episodes - other series had one killing per episode.

"And we also have this three-plot structure - what does it [a murder] mean for a police investigator, what does it mean for the parents, what does it mean for the politicians.

"It's not just about finding the murderer. That's important, but it's not all."

Suddenly the director shouts "Lunch!" and in the same instant Detective Sarah Lund bursts out laughing and shares a joke with one of her co-stars. As she jogs over to us, you can actually see the dour detective melting away from her.

Image caption,
By royal approval: Duchess of Cornwall meets Sofie Grabol

By the time we're shaking hands, she's very much the vivacious and generous-spirited Sofie Grabol. She's also convinced that the secret of The Killing's success is its pace and timing, and that it doesn't give all the clues at once.

"I think there's a tendency in television drama to serve all the dishes at once. I personally enjoy very much when I'm not served the whole dish, when I'm allowed as an audience to co-create - when I'm not pacified.

"When you hold back, when you actually allow a space for the audience to imagine, then personally for me that's the strongest drama."

In fact, during filming the actors know little more than we do - they are never told who the killer is and are never sure if they themselves are the murderers. Only Bernth has the inside information and she's telling no one.

"At the beginning they (the actors) were frustrated," she tells me with a Machiavellian laugh.

Sofie Grabol shrugs.

"It's true we have a writer who insists on writing as we go along," she confirms. " Right now, I don't know what is going to happen in the next episode."

Although most of the Danish men I spoke to found Sarah Lund far too terse and miserable to be remotely attractive, there can barely be a man in Britain who's not in love with Sarah Lund. And when I mention this to Sofie she roars with laughter and points out that not even she really knows who Sarah Lund is.

"She has a lot of secrets. She's uncompromising. She's not really able to communicate with people. She's not good at working with other people, she's lonely. But I like her a lot. When I put on that stupid jumper, there she is, very strongly."

As shooting restarts, Bernth tells me that Sarah Lund has become such a strong character that she's almost become a real person in her own right. While she's very close to real-life Sofie, she admits she's a little edgy around fictitious Sarah and adds that everyone on set is "too embarrassed" to probe the character's very private background.

Danish Inspector Lund has already earned her place in the TV coppers' hall of fame alongside such greats as the seasoned British Inspector Morse, and the Belgian Inspector Poirot.

Image caption,
Is Lund comparable to Poirot and Morse?

But it's not just detective series that are giving Danish drama an international reputation. Admittedly a subtitled show about Danish coalition politics may not sound thrilling on paper but Borgen's gone global.

It's big in Brazil, a cult in Canada, and it's even taken South Korea by storm. The show follows the election of a fictional female Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg - and it traces the ins and outs of the fictional TV company that covers her policies.

"Better turn that one over," says Borgen's creator Adam Price as he shows me around the set of Borgen's TV newsroom and spots a newspaper with a front-page photo of the real Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. "That would be very confusing for poor Birgitte."

Price, who in that multi-talented Danish way is also a celebrity TV chef, says he's amazed the show has travelled outside Scandinavia. But he was always confident that the overriding story of Borgen, that of a woman trying to balance work and family, was a universal theme.

"We never thought of having a male prime minister," he says. "It just wouldn't work. I mean we men have already been letting down our families for hundreds of years."

Image caption,
In Borgen, Denmark's prime minister is Birgitte Nyborg (right)

The show has a big political fan base - David Cameron is an addict and Helle Thorning-Schmidt herself follows Birgitte's every move. Price explains the producers work hard to keep the show realistic, inviting political journalists and analysts into the writing room to steer them away from too wild a plot.

"But this is fiction," he laughs. "And we'd prefer a thrilling fiction to a boring reality."

We walk over to the set of the TV newsroom kitchen and I ask him to translate a note that's been stuck onto the fridge.

"It says 'Clear up after yourself. Your mother doesn't work here.'

"Yeah, we got most of these little touches from DR's real newsroom."

Upstairs in the writing room, which is covered with wall-to-wall white boards outlining new plot structures and the balance of power in the fictitious parliament after recent fictitious elections, I meet Camilla Hammerich, Borgen's producer.

She's slightly nervous that we're meeting in the power hub of Borgen until she remembers I don't speak a word of Danish so can't work out if Birgitte is still occupying the prime minister's office in Series 3 or whether she's been demoted to cleaning it.

But Hammerich's view of why Borgen is so gripping comes as a big shock.

"The third series of Borgen will also be the last one," she announces firmly. "We're a small country and we can't go on forever. We need new shows and that's also the secret. We try new stuff."

I must look crestfallen because she adds, kindly: "We'll find new characters, I promise."

Media caption,

Set tour of Danish drama Borgen

There's an icy wind now blowing on the set of The Killing and the dusky light is definitely getting darker. It's not just Borgen which is winding up. After the third series is complete, The Killing is being bumped off too.

All good things must come to an end but with the sombre Killing, you can't really bank on that ending being a happy one. I turn to Sofie Grabol for comfort.

"I don't know how it's going to end," she says, "but I definitely can't imagine her [Sarah Lund] sitting in a house with a nice husband."

So when she hands back her gun - and that jumper - for the very last time, will she worry about Sarah Lund being lonely without her?

"I am starting to get this separation anxiety," she admits. "It's going to be a tough divorce."

We both sit quietly in sad contemplation for a moment.

"I still have the jumpers at home," she remembers brightly.

"I can always put it on if I miss her. That's a comfort."