Denmark’s new TV drama entertains and educates

1864 is the most expensive TV production in Danish history. We sent journalist Alex Forrest to the press premiere to find out what to expect from the period drama.

Denmark’s new TV drama entertains and educates
1864 tells the story of how Denmark lost a lot of its territory to Germany. Photo: Per Arnesen/Danmarks Radio
Stars of TV and screen were out in force on Wednesday for the press premiere of 1864, the most expensive Danish TV drama ever made.  Although many of the actors involved are well known for their roles in series like The Killing and Borgen, this production couldn’t be more different.
1864 is a period drama based around a nineteenth century war that re-wrote Danish history. That war with Prussia resulted in the loss of 5,000 Danish lives and more than a third of the country’s territory.  As 1864 producer Peter Bose told me, “The war was insane – and it was one that we started.”
But before you think this series sounds like a history lesson, writer and director Ole Bornedal explains: “1864 is no war movie, but the tale of human beings. It’s about absurd political interests, human sacrifices and the Danish national mind. 1864 is a tale of time – a story about all of us.”
The drama focuses on the lives of two brothers, Peter and Laust, whom we first meet as children in 1850. Their father (played by Lars Mikkelsen) returns victorious but wounded from the first war over Schleswig and Holstein. Fourteen years later the brothers, who leave behind the childhood sweetheart they share, are heading into battle with Prussia and Austria over the same disputed territories. This time though, the results for Denmark are catastrophic.  
Jump forward 150 years and we meet Claudia, a difficult dropout who’s also dealing with the cost of war – her brother was killed in Afghanistan.  The drama manages to effortlessly flip between the worlds of 1864 and 2014 as each character tries to understand who and what they are.
The cast of 1864. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Scanpix
1864 features many recognisable faces from Danish TV and film. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Scanpix
The majority of the series, which will also be made into a two and half hour movie, was shot in the Czech Republic. The cast spent seven weeks there filming the battle scenes in temperatures ranging from -10C to +40C. No wonder then, that thirteen people fainted in that heat. In total there were 2,000 extras, 36 locations and 323 sets. 
I’ve only seen the first two episodes of ‘1864’ but already I’m hooked. From the child actors to those who’ve dominated Danish TV and film for some time, each performer gives imaginative, emotional and believable performances.  The most recognisable among them may not have the largest roles but they certainly add drama and excitement. 
Lars Mikkelson said that he’s been waiting for “a big epic like this that tells the story of Denmark in such an emotional way”.  Actor Søren Malling explains that the series is about the country’s identity – what happens after a state realises it’s no longer a superpower. One poignant line from the second episode stands out: “The Danes are convinced they are right.”
Sidse Babett Knudsen, best known as Denmark’s fictional prime minister Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen, depicts the colourful but domineering Johanna L. Heiberg, the Grand Lady of Danish Theatre. Knudsen said it is unusual for Danish TV to embark on expensive period drama.  And at a cost of 173 million Danish kroner, there’s no doubt that ‘1864’ was costly for Miso Films to produce for DR – even with the 100 million kroner kicked in by the Ministry of Culture. 
But this production is about so much more than a big budget. It’s about a defining moment in Danish history that resulted in not just a loss of life and land but also pride and self-esteem. No longer a strong military or political power, Denmark was almost forced to start again, in order to rediscover its identity.  This series tells that story through powerful, human drama.

1864 premieres on DR on October 12th and will be aired on the BBC later in the year. Alex Forrest is a freelance journalist. You can find her on Twitter at @_alexforrest.

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Danish shows take TV world by storm

With original boundary-breaking content, thrilling plots and charismatic actors, Danish television series have captivated audiences worldwide in recent years.

Danish shows take TV world by storm
Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen plays the lead role in Ride Upon The Storm (Herrens Veje). Photo: Mads Joakim Rimer Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

The latest show to hit the small screen is “Ride Upon the Storm” (Danish title: Herrens Veje), which is being distributed in almost 80 countries with a debut later this month in Britain, where it will be broadcast on Channel 4 by the station’s foreign language arm Walter Presents from January 28th.

The new drama was created by Adam Price, the BAFTA winner behind the acclaimed drama “Borgen”, which followed the political and personal tribulations of a Danish woman prime minister.

Danish shows, with both exoticism and gritty realism, have quickly soared in popularity beyond their initial local Scandinavian viewership, Pia Jensen, an Aarhus University communications associate professor specialising in television series, told AFP.

Long known for the Nordic noir crime genre, the big international breakthrough for Danish shows came with “The Killing”, a hard-hitting series following a Copenhagen female cop's investigations.

Then came crime thriller “The Bridge” in 2011.

The Nordic noir genre has proven so popular that its aesthetic and themes are now being replicated beyond Scandinavia's borders, with shows such as “Shetland” and “Broadchurch” made in Britain, Jensen said.

For foreign audiences, Denmark as it is shown on television is “an exotic society, something to aspire to because of the welfare state and the strong women characters”, she said, referring also to the 2010 hit “Borgen”.

She added, clearly amused, that it's “as if Denmark is the fantasy land of gender equality”.

Paradoxically, in this almost utopian world, the characters are “normal” people with whom audiences can identify, according to Jensen.

But now Danish TV series have moved beyond Nordic noir.

“Ride Upon the Storm” is a character-led drama about faith and a family of Danish priests, dominated by Johannes Krogh, a tempestuous God-like father battling numerous demons.

Actor Lars Mikkelsen, known from “The Killing” and his role as the Russian president in Netflix's “House of Cards”, plays Johannes, a role for which he won an International Emmy in November.

Mikkelsen “has set new standards for the portrayal of a main character in a TV series”, the show's creator Adam Price told AFP.

Johannes “is the 10th generation of priests, it's a huge burden that haunts him and he lets it haunt his sons too”.

His eldest son Christian is lost and at odds with the family and society, while younger son August is married and following in his father's priesthood footsteps before becoming a chaplain for troops stationed in Afghanistan.

“In the Bible, you have lots of stories of fathers and sons and brothers. That was the perfect ground to tell (a story) about masculine relationships, the competitive gene between men in a family,” Price said.

Elements from “Borgen” can be seen in Price's new venture: the efficient prime minister Birgitte Nyborg and Johannes Krogh, who is headed for the top as Bishop of Copenhagen, are both characters passionate about their work.

“But Johannes reacts differently than Birgitte (does) because his ambition is not within the world of politics, but with a more supernatural power,” Price said.

Thoughts on faith, religion and spirituality are mixed with a complex study of family.

“Religion is sometimes something imposed, as authority can be imposed on our children in a family. And both are dealt with in 'Ride Upon the Storm',” he said.

Price is currently working on “Ragnarok” for Netflix, a six-part Norwegian coming-of-age drama based on Norse mythology but set in a modern-day high school.

The second season of “Ride Upon the Storm” just wrapped up on Danish public television DR, which produced the series, and had around 500,000 viewers.

“Danish producers are mainly thinking of a Danish audience. It has to stay relevant to the Danish public and that's why DR keeps experimenting,” Jensen said.

“Some of the shows will travel and some won't.”

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