TV drama 1864 fights to win over the Danes

Asked if Denmark has its next international success on its hands, Sidse Babett Knudsen, one of the stars of the new TV drama 1864, tells The Local: “I just want the Danes to like it.”

TV drama 1864 fights to win over the Danes
Sidse Babett Knudsen's Johanne L. Heiberg puts Nicolas Bro's Monrad in his place. Photo: Per Arnesen/Miso Film
While working as political correspondent for ITV News, the Danish series Borgen became essential viewing for almost anybody involved in British Parliament. From MPs to us lobby hacks, everyone was glued to this political drama. In particular, we were all obsessed with the fictional prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg.
So you might understand the excitement this journalist felt when she realised that she would finally get the opportunity to interview Sidse Babett Knudsen, the Danish actress who plays the PM. I am pleased to report that Knudsen is not only engaging and funny but also patient. She kindly agreed to something that secured international headlines for real Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt – a ‘selfie’.
The article's author with one of the stars of 1864I met Knudsen at the press launch of the new television drama, 1864, which begins on Sunday on DR1 and will be broadcast in the UK next year. It’s the most expensive Danish TV series ever made and has already caused some controversy over its interpretation of the second Schleswig War between Denmark, Prussia and Austria. Danish historians have attacked it for what they claim are historical inaccuracies including the idea that ‘mad nationalistic Danish politicians’ were responsible for the war.
Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Johanna L. Heiberg, the ‘Grand Lady’ of Danish theatre.  She admits that although a strong nationalist, the real Heiberg was completely different from the character she portrays. Once you’ve seen Knudsen in this role, you wouldn’t want it any other way. “She is much more of a monster in the series which was so pleasurable to play – just to be a witch,” she tells me, smiling. 
Despite the politics involved, Knudsen admits it’s a world apart from Birgitte Nyborg.
“The great thing about playing Birgitte was that her stature and position was so strong that it allowed me to show a lot of vulnerability, weakness and mistakes. I could really explore a wide range of expression and we really got to know that character. This [1864] is much more stereotypical and [Heiberg] has much more of a function.”
Can period drama find the same success as modern classics?
That function, demanded by director Ole Bornedal, is that she must constantly play a role. In one scene we see Knudsen on stage as Lady Macbeth. In another she’s climbing on top of the Chairman of the Danish Council of Ministers (played by Nicholas Bro), as she demands he re-find his political conviction. Everything about her shrieks drama.
“I haven’t done any period drama before,” Knudsen admits to me. “I’ve always wanted to, but we don’t have a big tradition of either period or historical drama in Denmark. This is definitely more theatrical than what we are used to.”
So following on from the success of Borgen, how does she think 1864 will go down abroad?  
“I have no idea,” she admits. “It is very different and it’s made for Danish people, like the other series were. We are just very grateful that people like them. But I feel likes this is very new for Denmark and we don’t have the tradition or the money to make big productions.” 
And somewhat nervously she adds: “I just want the Danes to like it.”
Photo: Per Arnesen/Miso Film
Some detractors are questioning 1864’s historical accuracy. Photo: Per Arnesen/Miso Film
Did the 1864 defeat pave the way for the welfare society…
Another familiar face from both Borgen, and The Killing is Søren Malling, who in 1864 plays an old soldier called Johan. He’s under no illusions as to why he thinks Danish drama is so successful.  
“We have the guts to tell unpolished stories and we are not afraid to look at the dark side. People can identify and see themselves in a lot of the Danish TV shows,” he says.
As for 1864 Malling says: “This story is also about identity – not just a person’s identity but an entire country’s. Because we went from being a European superpower – or we thought we were – and we lost big time.”
While the politicians and leaders appear gung-ho in this drama, Malling’s character shows restraint. Perhaps that’s why he can be so philosophical about the effect the war had on Denmark. 
“It made us start thinking in another way and has led to what we have today, such as our welfare system. We protect people from the big world out there and that’s a good thing,” Malling says.
… or for Jantelov?
Lars Mikkelsen, another actor in 1864 who is also known for his roles in both Borgen and The Killing, takes Malling’s idea further.  He believes that the war has resulted in a dichotomy for Danes.  On the one hand they still believe they’re ultimately the best. On the other Mikkelsen thinks this is where the idea of Jantelov began to develop  – that no Dane is better than another. 
“There’s a saying here in Denmark,” he tells me. “Don’t fly any higher than your wings can carry you.” 
He points to the success of Danish TV drama: “We celebrate them more out of the country than we do in it. There’s a tendency not to be able to see that success here in Denmark.”
No wonder then that the actors are nervous about how 1864 will be received. But while some historians may be unimpressed, it’s the public that matters. And on Sunday those involved in this epic drama will be praying that they can win over their own country before marching on abroad.
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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