Category Archives: Global television

TV crime fiction as period drama

Roger Allam (in the hat) and Shaun Evans in Endeavour

Roger Allam (in the hat) and Shaun Evans in ‘Endeavour’

I’ve just caught an episode of Endeavour, ITV’s Inspector Morse prequel series. It’s a very impressive production with an excellent leading pair of Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as DI Thursday. Tonight’s episode was set in January 1966 with generally very good production design but thankfully not a soundtrack packed with pop songs. The musical references, appropriately for Morse, were mainly classical but there were two good live performances of r&b/blues in a nightclub. Barrington Pheloung’s music was always an important ingredient of the original series.

My interest here is to raise questions about genre and the global market for crime fiction TV. Inspector Morse (Carlton/ITV 1987-2000)  was in many ways an influential TV export, not least because of its relatively large budget (arguably more than for domestic UK cinema features on an hourly basis). The most obvious reference for Endeavour in terms of period setting and narrative potential is the BBC series Inspector George Gently which began in 2007 with Martin Shaw in the lead. I was struck tonight by the central narrative thread which was shared by Inspectors Thursday and Gently as tough London cops who have had to leave London to work in Oxford and Tyneside respectively, but who are now facing up to the past they thought they had left behind. The London underworld, property development and town planning corruption as seen in the Endeavour episode are very much authentic 1960s crime narrative material. Endeavour scores because of the single-minded moral strength of the young Morse, very different to the unpleasant reactionary values of young Sergeant Bacchus in George Gently. I like George Gently but I do wonder if it doesn’t draw a little too much on the nostalgia repertoire of Heartbeat and its spin-off The Royal which filled ITV’s early evening Sunday slot. These were comic cop and doc dramas set in North Yorkshire in the 1960s, which fed voraciously on 60s nostalgia for cars, pop songs and other aspects of popular culture (I say this from only the very briefest of glimpses of long-running series and I’m happy to be corrected).

A slightly closer reference for George Gently and Endeavour might be Jericho with Robert Lindsay as Inspector Michael Jericho – a high-budget Granada series broadcast in 2005 and set in London in the 1950s. This was seen as linked to the success of ITV’s Foyle’s War with Michael Kitchen as a police inspector working in London during 1939-45. That series has recently returned, reportedly because of public demand and has moved into the immediate post-war period. Soon another new ITV ‘mini-series’ (2 x 1 hour) Murder on the Home Front will be broadcast dealing with the Home Office pathologist and his secretary investigating a series of murders in London in 1940.

I think we have here a quite distinctive crime genre repertoire covering crime fictions with ‘personal’ stories (i.e. interesting characters with back stories?) set in the 1940s-60s and drawing on crimes of the period in social/cultural/political terms. On the other hand, a much broader repertoire of ‘crime fiction mixed with costume drama’ could be seen to include a very large number of UK crime fiction production on TV over the years. The original Sherlock Holmes and more recently Ripper Street, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and other stories are all effectively period drama, but not treated in the same way as this current trend. These earlier series feel more like attempts just to use a colourful backdrop rather than to explore something about the time period in question.

Endeavour (the mysterious first name of the Morse character, if you weren’t aware) feels like the most ‘serious’ of these historical crime fictions, perhaps because of the personality of the central character. Some of the others exploit the comic potential much more and in the case of the BBC hits Life On Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-10) the comedy is partly social satire and postmodern ‘play’ mixed with science fiction. These two theories also dealt with the slightly more recent past of the 1970s and 1980s.

I guess I have two questions for others interested in TV crime fiction in a global context. First, is this a peculiarly UK genre? I remember as a child watching the US series The Untouchables (1959-63) and there has been a more recent Canadian series of Murdoch Mysteries (2008-) but neither of these seem quite the same as Endeavour/Gently/Jericho etc. I’m hopeful of Young Montalbano which I think we’ll get in the UK later this year? Do you agree that there is a distinctive new genre repertoire? If so, how do you think we should begin analysing it?

Arne Dahl: Misterioso (Sweden/Germany/Finland 2011)

Shanti Roney as Paul Hjelm and Malin Arvidsson as Kerstin Holm, two of the A Group

Shanti Roney as Paul Hjelm and Malin Arvidsson as Kerstin Holm, two of the A Group

I thought I’d spotted most of the major Nordic crime writers but there always seem to be more. Arne Dahl is the ‘crime fiction pseudonym’ of Swedish writer Jan Arnald. It looks like a kind of anagram but it makes me think of Arlene Dahl (a B picture contract star at MGM in the 1940s/50s). Arne Dahl has written around ten crime novels about a team of elite police officers known as the ‘A Group’. The first of these has been translated into English as The Blinded Man and was published by Vintage in 2012. The first five novels were each adapted for television as 3 hour films, presumably shown in two parts. That’s how BBC4 have decided to show them in the UK in their favoured Nordic Noir slot on a Saturday night. Part 1 of The Blinded Man was screened under its Swedish title Misterioso – the title of a Thelonious Monk track featured in the film.

I suspect that many of the Killing/Bridge fans won’t like this as it is certainly not a procedural/melodrama with a careful script. I worried that it might be a US type SWAT squad show but it looks more like Stieg Larsson territory with as much violence but possibly a little more humour. I was pleasantly surprised. In this opener we have a version of the Danish three-part structure. Someone is assassinating bankers (make your own wish here) while a bunch of Estonian gangsters is concerned about their operations in Sweden and the Stockholm police decide to put together an elite squad of misfits from all over Sweden to find the banker-killer. We even got the classic Dirty Dozen/Dirty Harry narrative device of a police officer who has done something dumb in catching a miscreant and is then whisked away to join the A Group – when he should be being disciplined. The rest of the A Group includes a short working class IT expert and a huge body builder type (who IMDB reports is played by a real one-time bodybuilder). The short guy is played by Matias Varela who currently has the highest profile with his work on the Easy Money franchise in Sweden. This large and short duo go out on a job and a suspect refers to them as Laurel and Hardy. A couple of the other funny scenes are quite deadpan and I was reminded of the work of Roy Andersson. This reference was strengthened by the use of music, jazz being important – but the camera and the fast editing were not at all like Andersson.

I found that 90 minutes whizzed by and the show seemed quite fresh. Only one of the six in the A Group hasn’t been properly introduced to us yet, but already they seem like an interesting crew. I’m looking forward to next week’s second part.

Film and TV in Denmark

The Grand Teatret, the principal arthouse cinema in the centre of Copenhagen.

The Grand Teatret, the principal arthouse cinema in the centre of Copenhagen.

Danish film and television is very much a presence in the international arena. With an Oscar nomination for A Royal Affair next month and the extensive international sales of the filmed TV serials The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge, this small European country with a population of only 5.5 million and a language only intelligible to its Scandinavian neighbours is competing effectively with much bigger international players.

According to a Cineuropa report, 2012 was a successful year at the Danish cinema box office with record attendances of 14.2 million – the best for 30 years. 28% of the film market was captured by the 21 Danish releases with the three standouts being A Royal Affair alongside Susanne Bier’s Love Is All You Need and Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis’ This Life. Bier’s film is a romantic comedy-drama starring Pierce Brosnan set for release in several European countries. This Life is a Second World War family drama which I don’t think has sold outside Denmark yet.

The Hunt, which has gathered so much praise around the world, isn’t included in these figures because it wasn’t released in Denmark until 10 January 2013 – when it had the second highest audience figures for an opening weekend since 2000. It was delayed so as not to compete with the other Danish releases, but it has contributed to the success of Danish films at international festivals where they have won 82 prizes from the 272 screenings.

Denmark sees only half the number of film titles released in the UK, France and Germany – 256 in 2011. There are approx. 161 cinemas with 396 screens, but only 18 multiplexes (2011 figures). With local films getting over 20% of the market, around 55% goes directly to Hollywood and 15% to other European films (the biggest earners being UK-US Hollywood productions such as Skyfall, the biggest box-office winner in 2012). Overall Denmark competes with Norway for the role of most cinema visits per head in Scandinavia at around 2.2.

Acoording to Cineuropa’s ‘country profile’ the average budget for a Danish film is €2.3 million with nearly 40% of funding coming from the Danish Film Institute (a useful statistics manual, in English, is available for download) – in 2012 the total DFI Production and Development spend was €39 million. The two main public service broadcasters in Denmark, DR and TV2 are both expected to support the funding of Danish films and to broadcast them. DR’s television serial drama productions such as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge have played a central role in introducing the amazing acting talent in Denmark to audiences worldwide with series sold to terrestrial networks and VOD providers around the world. The serials feature actors who work in cinema features and theatre and episodes are written and directed by creatives also working in cinema. These three serials will go down as marking a change in Denmark’s international film profile much as the first Dogme films did between 1998 and 2002.

Borgen Season 2 (Denmark 2011)

A wonderful melodrama composition featuring Birgitte (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and behind her Cecilie, Birgitte's husband's new partner. (High res image courtesy DR taken from the website at http://www.linktv.org/borgen/press)

A wonderful melodrama composition featuring Birgitte (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and behind her Cecilie, Birgitte’s husband’s new partner. (High res image courtesy DR taken from the website at http://www.linktv.org/borgen/press)

The second season of Borgen has now reached halfway on BBC4 in the UK (having aired in Denmark in Autumn 2011). I don’t think I’ve waited so eagerly for something on TV for a long time. But what’s it like the second time round? I’m conscious that I might be watching it in a different way – or perhaps reflecting more on what I’m seeing.

Season 1 established that there would be three central characters and this has continued in Season 2. Birgitte as Prime Minister and Kasper as her political adviser are engaged in trying to keep the coalition government in power, but both have issues with their partners/families. Meanwhile Katrine has left her job at the TV company and joined the tabloid edited by the disgraced Labour Party leader. Katrine also has a new partner of sorts with Episode 1 showing her growing professional relationship and friendship with the older journalist Hanne who has a drinking problem. The structure of each episode has remained the same with an ‘external’ issue concerning the government involving each of the three protagonists to a different extent. Each has also got an ongoing personal narrative and at least one of these is advanced in each episode – and sometimes two or all three. My impression is that the central political narrative is beginning to fade into the background at this halfway point. The political stories seem more cut and dried, more neat somehow. Birgitte seems to solve a problem in a skilled but not altogether plausible way. She appears much harder and more pragmatic. In one sense of course this makes sense as she is likely to change with experience – but the writers seem less interested in the political stories and more in how the three central characters are under stress.

I think that this shift – if it exists and isn’t just a function of my own shifts in how I’m reading the narrative – means that the overall narrative is becoming more of a melodrama. The serial structure does allow for reflection over 10 weeks in the Danish case (and over several months between each season). In the UK there are two separate episodes/stories transmitted one after the other which perhaps alters our readings here slightly but I think I am reacting to each episode as if it was just another episode of a well-loved soap opera. That sense was confirmed after episode 5 when we have just seen the return of the PM’s secretary Sanne to her old job. It’s almost that like Birgitte, we’ve missed Sanne’s warmth.

Kasper and Katrine follow Birgitte to Afghanistan in Episode 1 of Season 2 (picture credits as above)

Kasper and Katrine follow Birgitte to Afghanistan in Episode 1 of Season 2 (picture credits as above)

If it is getting more like a soap or perhaps more like a telenovela, I have to say that the tension for me is all about Kasper and Katrine. There seems little mileage in Kasper’s attempt to set up home with his new partner Lotte and Katrine has just gone through a whirlwind change of jobs (four, over six episodes). I want Katrine to be happy and Kasper to get sorted out. Birgitte is clearly going to have more problems with her children. I know that many viewers are fond of Birgitte’s husband Philip but I’ve always found him a bit dispensable. I’d rather Birgitte found someone more interesting. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind if Birgitte got to grips with some more complicated politics and left the shenanigans to Kasper.

On a recent Late Review, there was discussion (à propos of the revamp of Yes Minister on Sky) about how politics are treated in British drama/entertainment. The suggestion was that we are just too cynical in the UK and can only take politics as satire/comedy in shows like The Thick of It or thrillers like House of Cards. I didn’t quite follow this and there didn’t seem to be any suggestions as to why 1 million of us watch Borgen or even more followed West Wing so avidly. Perhaps we need a telenovela that extends beyond the remit of the UK’s community or institution-based soaps? The Danish political world is institutional of course, but it is also exotic – and oddly glamorous. Or at least Kasper and Katrine are glamorous if not the politicians. What does anyone else think?

The Killing III (Forbrydelsen III, Denmark 2012)

Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund in uniform, with her hair down, at the beginning of The Killing III with (on the right) Sigurd Holmen le Dous and Nikolai Lie Kaas as   Asbjørn Juncker and Mathias Borch. On the left is Stig Hoffmeyer as Niels Reinhardt, one of the major characters in the story.

Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund in uniform, with her hair down, at the beginning of The Killing III with (on the right) Sigurd Holmen le Dous and Nikolaj Lie Kaas as her partners, Asbjørn Juncker and Mathias Borch. On the left is Stig Hoffmeyer as Niels Reinhardt, one of the major characters in the story.

The third serial featuring police inspector Sarah Lund returns to the mix of elements of the first and for me represents a distinct improvement on The Killing II. Again it’s presented as 10 x 58 minutes episodes rather than the 20 episodes of the first outing. In the UK these have been transmitted as double episodes over five Saturday nights. I’ve found this too intense and we’ve watched the second weekly episode on the following Sunday evening – hooray for BBC iPlayer.

In retrospect, I think we can now see that The Killing II lost something by moving too far away from ‘family melodrama’. Its focus on the Danish armed forces and their role in Afghanistan didn’t allow the various narrative strands to cross-fertilise in quite the same way as in the first and third serials (even though there were both family issues and political intrigues). The three serials have all had the same mix of murder, families and politics but the balance of ingredients has shifted. In The Killing III there are as many as five ‘families’ or family situations. We learn something about parents and children in terms of ‘victim’, ‘perpetrator’, politician and both the main police officers. This allows the narrative to place Sarah Lund in almost impossible situations in which we are invited to consider her own relationship with her son as well as what her actions might mean in respect of the other families. I can’t think of any other film narrative with quite such a complex meshing of relationships.

Reinhardt in the offices of Zeeland with the family owner Robert Zeuthen (Anders W Berhelsen)

Reinhardt in the offices of Zeeland with the family company owner Robert Zeuthen (Anders W Berhelsen)

 

Story outline

[NO SPOILERS here if you haven’t watched the serial yet.] The serial this time links very big business (a major shipping company with a large presence in the Danish economy) with a general election and a focus on the main party leaders. The central narrative concerns the abduction of the young daughter of a shipping magnate (played by Anders W. Berthelsen – who has starred in several Danish films released in the UK). Sarah Lund is once more brought back from a less demanding post to head the investigation of a series of murders that will turn out to be linked to the abduction. Sarah’s familiar problems with her mother and her son are still in evidence. This might explain why she treats her new sidekick Juncker, a very eager and determined young man, in an offhand way. She also finds herself having to deal with an old flame who she hasn’t seen since her days at police college. Mathias Borch (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) works for Special Branch (‘PET’ in Denmark) and his presence is explained by the importance of the shipping company Zeeland to the Danish government. The Prime Minister who is soon to face a General Election is keen to keep Zeeland in Denmark as a major employer (the company is a conglomerate with many interests). Later we will discover that the PM’s family is also involved in some way with the central story.

The Prime Minister, Kristian Kamper (Olaf Johanessen) and his advisor Karen Nebel (Trine Pallesen)

Prime Minister Kristian Kamper (Olaf Johanessen) and his advisor Karen Nebel (Trine Pallesen)

 

Nordic noir

The Killing has consistently deployed the main genre elements of the current cycle of Nordic noir. The female investigator is faced by male suspects and has to deal with the men who are her professional partners and bosses and also the majority of the political figures. In The Killing III there is a female political leader and, in an important role, a female political advisor. The writer Søren Sveistrup has been careful to make two of the other female leads less than perfect characters – but perhaps this means that their characters aren’t properly developed? Some of the themes of the third serial are very familiar from other Nordic noirs. The death which is eventually revealed as the inciting incident for the whole narrative concerns a young woman in care. The global perspective is limited in this case, but the narrative does manage to raise questions about Denmark’s open borders with Sweden and Germany and, through the shipping company, its links with issues globally. The first two serials involved journeys to Sweden. The climax of the third serial takes place in Norway. The politics of the third serial is ‘national’ and focuses on the Prime Minister. In some ways it pushes The Killing closer to Borgen with a focus on the pressure of party politics – and the leader’s family. Some blog comments have suggested that these machinations are less interesting than the local (mayoral) elections in The Killing I. I tend to agree with this and I think that the Special Branch involvement means that this third serial faces the problem of balancing the frustrations of the spy thriller type narrative – i.e. the truth can’t be allowed to ‘come out’ because of national security/paranoia of the rulers – and the requirements of the Nordic noir to critique social conditions and cultural changes in a liberal democracy. As a result, there seems to be an inevitability about the weight of expectation placed on the behaviour of Sarah Lund – as if her state of mind is indicative of the condition of Denmark.

Lund is in charge – whatever her partners might think

Lund is in charge – whatever her partners might think

 

Sarah Lund

The Killing turns out to be all about the state of Danish ‘public service’ and personal responsibilities expressed through the troubled social and working life of Sarah Lund. You do wonder if they might have called it Lund and made the comparison with Wallander more explicit. (In Germany the serial is titled Kommissarin Lund: Das Verbrechen or Inspector Lund: The Crime.) Lund is younger than Wallander, in her late thirties when the serials began in 2007, but she seems just as dysfunctional and as worn down by the job. Like Wallander with his daughter, Lund is a single parent making a less than good job of bringing up her son. Like Wallander too she is dogged in her pursuit of criminals and like him she makes mistakes, sometimes serious ones. Inevitably, the investigations are extended because of this – and the serial takes full advantage of the extra time to explore the frustrations of police procedures. But whereas Wallander operates in a generally peaceful small town in Southern Sweden, Lund operates from a base in Denmark’s capital city and is always under pressure from politicians and national police/security bosses. Again, where Wallander blusters, drinks too much and eats badly, Lund seemingly internalises everything. She doesn’t drink, smoke or listen to opera. Everything is bottled up, threatening to emerge in a violent eruption of some kind. In Killing III there is a moment of sudden ‘warm’ emotional release but it is over quickly. Inevitably, this repression builds up the narrative pressure on the last episode of the serial that ends with a climactic scene which for me works quite well – unlike the disappointing climax to Killing II.

Lund works well as a character. Although unknown in the UK before The Killing, Sofie Gråbøl has a strong star persona in Denmark which includes film, TV and stage work. She has just completed a month’s revival of her lead role in a stage adaptation of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander at the Danish National Theatre in Copenhagen. As Lund she offers a powerful performance as a senior female police officer displaying total commitment, single-mindedness and stoicism in the face of failure. She has the occasional flash of insight and she is able to recognise the importance of tiny clues but she isn’t a ‘superwoman’ by any means. As a female hero she doesn’t have to be glamorous – though even in her jumpers and jeans she is an attractive figure and on the odd occasions when her hair is down and she is more relaxed she becomes positively beautiful.

The Killing has been remarkably well covered in the UK press. The audience for the BBC4 screenings is around 1 million – significantly larger than the cinema audience for most subtitled films. This is also the audience most likely to read the ‘quality press’. The Guardian ran a Killing blog with around 2,000 comments for each of the five weeks of broadcasts. It’s interesting to read the article by Patrick Kingsley, a young British journalist who has cashed in on the popularity of Danish TV drama with a book on Danish culture for Brits. The ‘reader’s comments’ on his short article are fascinating. They reveal very different views on Denmark’s democracy, its liberalism, equality and cultural homogeneity – and the allegations of racism and xenophobia.

Even though the serial is taken to be a ‘Danish’ production by the Danish psb (public service broadcaster) DR, it is in reality a co-production with ZDF, the German psb and it is also supported by Swedish and Norwegian broadcasters. According to Wikipedia, the serial (or at least one of the three serials) has been bought be 120 countries. Unlike most Nordic films that are usually confined to their own domestic cinema market, Nordic TV genre series are widely seen across the Nordic region and now, thanks to the ZDF sales team across the world. (For a detailed analysis of Nordic Films and TV see this report – available to download as a pdf.) This is truly global television on a scale to match Hollywood. Borgen 2 starts in the UK on January 5th – I can’t wait!

Sebastian Bergman (Den fördömde, Sweden/Germany 2010)

The murder squad with Bergman (Rolf Lassgärd) centre and Vanja (Moa Silén) on the right.

This two-part narrative offers an unusual TV format – two 90 mins crime stories which together make a single 180 minute narrative about the principal investigator. (The German TV channel ZDF lists them as 2 x 100 mins, so there may have been cuts.) I’ve not come across this before as far as I remember. Usually a ‘mini-series’ or ‘special’ will be a single crime story spread over two or three episodes. What seems to have happened here is that the Nordic Noir interest in the personal life of the central investigator has been pushed to the limit and has now become the main narrative driver.

The central character is a psychologist/psychological profiler named Sebastian Bergman (the joke about the famous Swedish film director comes in part 2). He’s played by Rolf Lassgärd – one of Sweden’s best-known actors. Lassgärd is excellent but he carries a lot of baggage having played Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander – in the first Swedish incarnation of the character – and appeared in a series based on the Martin Beck novels, the original Scandinavian police procedural success from the 1970s. Mankell himself married Ingmar Bergman’s daughter a few years ago. The producers of this series worked on the original Wallander and Part 1 of this series went out on Christmas Day 2010 in Sweden – creating a TV event which must have been a bit like the death of Inspector Morse on UK TV in terms of its resonances.

Sebastian is in virtually every way an unsympathetic character. We are introduced to him via a scene in some ways reminiscent of one of his Wallander roles (the opening to The Man Who Smiled, 2003) – giving a lecture to police officers, during which he reveals himself as an egoist who makes offensive remarks to two of the women in the audience. Simply put he is a serial shagger and that is an important element in the narrative. Brilliant though he may be as a profiler, Sebastian is a vulnerable man in terms of controlling his libido and he has been damaged by the loss of his wife and small daughter in the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean – believing he could have saved his daughter.

The original Swedish title of the series translates as ‘The Condemned’ or ‘The Doomed’. Does this refer to Sebastian? In Part 1 the ‘retired’ Bergman helps to solve a shooting in his own home town where he has gone to visit his old house after his mother’s recent death. He clearly knows the two senior police officers conducting the investigation who accept his help, but he immediately antagonises Vanja, the bright young woman who does the main leg-work for the murder squad. The young blonde policewoman at various times wears her hair tied up Lassgärd in a short ponytail – at which point she looks remarkably like the late Joanna Sällström who played Kurt Wallander’s daughter, Linda in the Krister Henriksson version of the Mankell stories. In Part 2 Bergman again forces himself upon the reluctant investigation team in order to solve the serial killing of three women which seems to be the work of a ‘copycat’ killer. Bergman himself ‘solved’ the original crime and it soon becomes apparent that the killer has a personal interest in Bergman.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasure of anyone who wants to watch the series – on the BBCiPlayer in the UK – but it will be fairly obvious that the main focus is on the central dynamic of many Nordic Noir narratives, i.e. the relationship between the older, damaged/vulnerable male investigator and the bright, confident young woman.

I enjoyed watching both parts, but on reflection they seem very different. Part 1 seems to be in the tradition of the small-town procedural. I like the use of the school gym as the temporary murder squad HQ and the general sense of claustrophobia in the small community. Part 1 is directed by Daniel Espinosa who made the big film hit, Easy Money (Snabba Cash) immediately before this TV episode. The shaky camerawork is irritating I know, but he does achieve an edginess which works well with the claustrophobia and the short flashbacks to possible crime scenarios fit well into the editing pattern. By contrast, Part 2 is directed by one of the two co-writers, Michael Hjorth. This seemed much blander and closer to TV crime series conventions. The crime story has no links to Part 1 at all and as a serial killer story it’s much more North American (and also closer to the recent Those Who Kill, the Danish series on ITV3). All the Swedish (and Danish) series seem to me to be much weaker when they go for the action genre finale. Even in The Killing 2 and The Bridge, I found the final confrontation to be much less compelling than what went before. The characters are what make these series unmissable – we can get chases, fights and stand-offs at any time.

Bergman, as portrayed by Lassgärd, is a fascinating character. You want to punch him in the mouth, but you know that he is going to come up with something (after several mistakes). I’ve seen several comments that make him out to be very similar to the Robbie Coltrane character in Cracker. I didn’t watch enough of that series to be able to make that judgement but there always seems to be a sense of fun about Coltrane – Lassgärd is a much darker presence. I could take more of him in episodes that were more like Part 1 here. In the meantime, it’s back to the French series Spiral which I haven’t yet got into. We expect the Scandinavians back in a couple of months – anyone know when exactly?

Borgen (Denmark 2010)

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg with (right) Johan Philip Asbæk as Kasper Juul and (left) her mentor in the Moderates, Bent Sejrø (Lars Knutzon)

What do viewers want from a TV serial (as distinct from a series)? Serials demand time and commitment since they rely on narrative continuity. In the modern world of ‘catch-up TV’ it is certainly possible to organise viewing so as to catch each episode – but it is a burden for viewers with busy lives so a serial must deliver on several fronts to make the burden bearable and leave a surfeit of pleasure. It’s remarkable then that I have followed the first season of Borgen (10 x 58 mins, screened in pairs each week in the UK) so avidly. The first reason I stuck with it is because this comes from the production team at Denmark’s PSB (Public Service Broadcasting) TV provider who made the first two series of The Killing –  that TV phenomenon that has sold around the world. The Killing II was perhaps not quite as good as the first series but I still hung on to the end. Borgen has several familiar faces from The Killing and in some ways I think it is even better.

So, to directly answer my opening question, a serial needs a firm central narrative structure on which can be strung various narrative strands, some of which will be the focus for one or perhaps two episodes and others that will run throughout. Another three-part structure is the roster of characters – the handful of central characters who are key to the central story, the introduction of lead characters for one-off episodes and a cast of interesting and memorable supporting characters who we can choose to remember or not (some of them are simply ‘colour’, others might become cult favourites). The lead characters need to be likeable enough for us to want to identify with them in some way and rich enough in the detail of their personal characteristics to test our devotion when they behave badly.

That central narrative needs to carry themes with emotional weight but perhaps (and certainly for me) other themes as well which relate to the cultural-political or which pursue larger ideas. If you don’t have HBO’s budgets as a producer you also need to be pretty clever in your choice of locations and constructed sets or your narrative of 580 minutes may run away from you. It’s a tough ask but Borgen scores on every count. I can see that there may be one or two gainsayers, but for me and the wildly enthusiastic UK audience watching BBC4 (and on iPlayer) it’s a winner. Roll on series 2 and 3!

Outline

‘Borgen’ is, as I understand it, the popular name for the executive office of the Danish government (i.e. the equivalent of ‘Westminster’/’Whitehall’ in the UK). The word means ‘castle’ or ‘fortress’ in Danish. The series begins  a few days before a general election which gets much more interesting when the sitting Prime Minister is exposed for using official funds to help his wife in an emergency. In the fray, a new political figure emerges. Birgitte Nyborg is leader of the small Moderates Party but she does well in the election campaign and her party wins several seats. Denmark, like many North European countries has got used to the idea of coalition governments and with the leaders of the two main parties (Liberals and Labour) both discredited during the campaign, Nyborg emerges as the most credible Prime Minister – if she can stitch together a workable coalition cabinet. [Note for American readers – in some countries the ‘Liberal Party’ is right-wing. In the UK, Liberals are supposedly in the centre. The Liberal Party in Borgen seems like the British Conservative Party.]

Nyborg as potentially Denmark’s first female Prime Minister is clearly the lead character for that central narrative which spans a parliamentary session. She is an attractive woman in her early 40s with two children (a young teenage girl and her much younger brother) and a husband who works as a lecturer in management studies. However, there are two other lead characters. Kasper Juul is Nyborg’s spin doctor, whose job in this coalition scenario is to protect Nyborg at all costs. He has a rather unfair advantage over any competitors in that he has had a long on/off relationship with the rising media star Katrine Fønsmark, lead presenter/interviewer/journalist for TV1. These two are both in their late twenties, both highly intelligent and quick-witted (at least about their jobs) and both hugely physically attractive – but not in that bland way that makes too many of the young stars of British and US TV so unmemorable. Kasper, with his neat beard and flashing eyes seems to me to have stepped out of a Viennese melodrama from 1900 as a dashing cavalry officer. As a spin doctor he can be outrageous in his lack of feelings but somehow he remains an attractive figure.

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen plays the TV journalist Katrine Fønsmark

Although Nyborg’s story supplies the spine of the story, both Katrine and Kasper have their own episodes in which they take the lead and they also figure in Nyborg’s narrative. It could be argued that Kasper is the key figure since he has a professional relationship with both Brigitte Nyborg and Katrine – as well as an emotional relationship with the latter. Three characters means three ‘home’ locations (in fact it more since we also learn something about their parents and their earlier lives). The two work situations are the government offices and the TV station – though we do get out enough to see more of Copenhagen and rural Denmark and even a trip to Greenland.

Aesthetics and Thematics

Compared to The Killing which was claustrophobic and often shot at night, Borgen is ‘open’ most of the time. It also feels much more cinematic. Partly this comes from the use of the RED One camera shooting HD video – which is then broadcast (according to IMDb) at a screen aspect ratio of 2.20:1. This is reminiscent of some of the issues surrounding the Channel 4/Revolution Films trilogy of Red Riding films. The ratio is much wider than the usual 16:9 setting of modern TV sets (which produces a 1.78:1 ratio). That’s fine, but I suspect many TV viewers won’t have their screens set up to display the correct ratio (I’m fanatical about the correct ratio and I still find it difficult to select the correct size on my TV’s settings). I don’t recognise most of the directors listed for the series but at least one, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, was one of the founders of the Dogme ’95 movement and made  the early success Mifune (1999). This shows the ambition of DR Fiktion in attempting to mount a major serial (now shooting its third season). It would have been good to see the serial on a cinema screen.

This cinematic quality takes the series into more direct competition with both US and British series (the UK adaptation of Wallander also used RED camera technology). This has led to the obvious comparison with The West Wing (1999-2006). However, I think that there are several important differences. In terms of its look, Borgen is much less ostentatious. One of the key features of The West Wing was the endless tracking shots as the principals swept through the White House constantly delivering brilliant lines of dialogue at high speed. Borgen is less glamorous and generally more composed. Although keeping the ‘leader’ in power is the key narrative line in both series, Borgen is much more about the relationships between the characters than it is about political ideas or indeed the political system. This is partly because practical politics in Denmark appears to be very different to that in the US. Birgitte becomes Prime Minister but her position is much less secure than President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen). She could lose a key vote at any time and the coalition could dissolve. She doesn’t have a great party machine behind her. She survives on her wits – and the wisdom of her choice of adviser and what to do with the advice she receives. Also the decisions she makes, though important, do not have the same ramifications as those of the US President – these comparisons become most interesting in the two episodes where Birgitte first visits Greenland, the former Danish colony that now has a form of autonomy and when she receives a visit from another foreign leader which involves questions of human rights balanced against Danish trading concerns. Versions of both these episodes have (as I remember) appeared on The West Wing – and been treated rather differently.

In truth there isn’t much politics in terms of ideological differences as expressed in Borgen. Birgitte Nyborg is a centrist. There isn’t much she can do to fundamentally change Danish society but her position enables the scriptwriters to effectively critique both Liberal and Labour policies. What’s important about Birgitte is that she is Denmark’s first female PM (in the real world, Helle Thorning-Schmidt became ‘Statsminister’ – leading a Left Coalition – in October 2011 during the airing of the second season of Borgen). The narrative questions are more concerned with whether she can continue to be a good mother and partner and an effective leader – and whether she can remain ‘squeaky clean’ in her political dealings and not be corrupted by the power that her position affords her in the Danish system.

The questions which face Birgitte also face Katrine in slightly different ways. She is just as committed to her fascination with politics and the political system and it runs up against both her work life and her relationships. Fans of The Killing have been amused to discover that Katrine’s boss at the TV station, Torben, and Birgitte’s husband Philip are played by the two actors who played the partners of detective Sara Lund in Killing I and II. Personally, I think that Torben’s role could be expanded and Philip is a rather irritating character – but according to the blog comments I’ve read on the Guardian site, part of the female audience is most interested in whether he will remove his vest/singlet. This reference to The Killing also reminds us that Katrine to some extent fulfils a similar role in the narrative to Sara Lund and to Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium trilogy. She is the fearless young woman who takes on a male establishment. This is particularly the case in Episode 9 when Katrine sets out to investigate the Danish military who are backing a particular defence contractor. During an interview with the Defence Minister (‘Theis’ from The Killing) Katrine takes severe umbrage at his paternalistic attitude and it is no surprise that she goes into the investigation with steely determination. Birgitte is of course also fighting within a patriarchy but she has a certain amount of power and her position is more complex as it is other women who often put her in difficult situations – and it is to two men, Bent and Kasper, that she often turns to for advice. Given the importance of family, however, we also see Birgitte having to deal with her widowed father – another strong patriarchal figure.

Borgen is for me a melodrama rather than a political drama. Series 1 ends at a point where Birgitte comes full circle (melodrama narratives tend to become circular rather than linear) and again faces the real politik of revising her cabinet for a new political term. Unlike The West Wing where, as somebody once said, a fantasy liberal Democrat President solves all problems, Birgitte’s ‘success’ is much more circumspect and several other questions about the relationships between characters are left dangling. The last two episodes were excellent – and it looks like in the UK we’ll have to wait another year to see series 2. I suspect we might be back discussing it before then.

Borgen 2 post, now added.