When it comes to drama, the Danes have a winning formula

Ahead of The Bridge beginning on BBC4, Maggie Brown reports from Copenhagen’s TV crime HQ

After The Killing became a surprise, niche hit 18 months ago I gave myself the task of working out the reasons why.


So, just as the Duchess of Cornwall travelled last month to Denmark to visit DR, the national broadcaster, and the set of her favourite programme, so I’ve been to the drama’s headquarters in Copenhagen and engaged in many subsequent discussions, listening hard to the writers, producers, television executives and, of course, the actors, led by Sofie Grabol – Sarah Lund.

Top-class TV

“The Danes Do Murder Differently” was how an article in The New York Times in March accurately summed up this strange moment in television history, when Denmark became a byword in top-class TV – cemented by the success of The Killing II.

Meanwhile, BBC4 bought The Bridge, which reverts to type – after the success of political thriller Borgen – with a plot about a grisly murder hunt.

DR is remarkably similar to the BBC: both are public service broadcasters supported via a licence fee, created back in the 1920s. DR’s licence fee is higher, at around £250 per household, but raised from a much smaller population.

Without advertising breaks, it makes hour-long drama, without injecting cliffhangers. But DR raises only an eighth of the UK licence fee total and can afford only a tiny amount of original drama, perhaps one big series annually: ten episodes are the usual length.

The drama it backs are sagas, for the dark winter Sunday nights. They take a gamble a year. So, there are no undiscovered gems or rich archives. Remarkably, what we see here on BBC4 is all they make. It is an example of how doing less can be more.

One caveat, though: The Bridge is a sign of evolution and experimentation. It is backed by DR but also by SVT, the neighbouring Swedish broadcaster, the first co-production to share costs and pave the way for an extra midweek drama.


But DR sets clear rules. Dramas must be contemporary, original, not a remake of classic novels. They must depict and say something penetrating about Danish society, reflecting, for example, the strong influence of career women, as with Borgen’s Brigitte Nyborg, the fictional prime minister.

The creators/writers are given overall power, but are set challenging audience targets. They’re expected to take time mulling over plots. Then episodes are filmed in sequence.

The result is “deliberate methodical storytelling” said The New York Times correctly. And a formal, old-fashioned pace.

Interrogations, briefings, discussions take us through the storylines, which have a political twist. It isn’t just car chases and more murder, although The Killing II got brutal.

As I see it, Danish culture has always treasured elegant design, architecture and arthouse film-making. Now it has diversified and is recognised as a stylish maker of television drama, too.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 April 2012.


The Bridge starts tonight with a double bill from 9pm on BBC4