A few months ago, I had coffee in Copenhagen with the woman who first knitted Sarah Lund’s jumper. She knitted another one while we chatted. Not that you’d have known it: Susan Johansen knits with the nonchalance of a teenager sending a text. Her needles click furiously through the yarn heaped in her lap – but apart from the occasional downward glance, her gaze is directed elsewhere. At her coffee, at passing bikes, at me. She’s a social worker by trade; knitting is just something she does on her way to work.
Which is unexpected, because for many people – particularly the millions who watch The Killing, finishing for ever on Saturday – her knitting has reached cult status. If there’s one thing that sums up why a swathe of BBC4 watchers have fallen in love with Denmark, it’s Susan’s cuddly jumper. Shows like The Killing and The Bridge depict dark crimes in gloomy times but they also hint at a country that is familiar yet appealingly different from our own. A country where women – like Lund in The Killing or Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen – are in charge. Where the latter travels to work by bike. Where even cops decorate their homes with designer lampshades (The Bridge).
True, we like these shows for their gripping plots and understated characters and because they’re a respite from the usual American fare. But perhaps they also appeal because they hint at a country and culture that appear to be more wholesome, communal and tasteful than consumerist Britain. And nothing seems to symbolise that better than Susan Johansen’s knitting.
I say “seems”, because while The Killing and its jumpers hint at Denmark’s different culture, they don’t flesh out this difference in any great detail. Attempting to fill in the gaps was partly what led to me having coffee with Susan Johansen. Researching my book, I bounced from the cafés of Copenhagen to the windmills of west Jutland, interviewing actors, farmers, politicians, journalists, students, teachers, architects, chefs, and, yes, knitters. Essentially, I was trying to answer one question: is Denmark really as cosy and communal as its television suggests?
One answer lies at the private school where they filmed the playground scenes for The Killing’s first series. Long-time fans will remember that it was near this playground that Lund finds a secret blood-splattered cellar. But when I visited, I made an even more surprising discovery. At private schools like this one, the government pays for around 80 per cent of the school fees.
It’s a good example of both the cohesiveness of Danish society, and the keenness of the state to lessen social divisions. On the whole, the students at Ingrid Jespersen Gymnasium do come from wealthier backgrounds than their counterparts at Danish state schools. But they also represent a far wider social range than those at an equivalent private school in Britain. “If my parents had to pay for everything at this school, I couldn’t afford to come,” an 18-year-old called Rasmus tells me. “We don’t have that money.” Many Danish private school students are in the same boat.
It’s policies like this that make class less of an issue in Denmark. “It’s a myth that we’re all equal,” admits Nyborg in Borgen (left). Yet the gap between rich and poor in Denmark is nevertheless the lowest in the world. On average, a judge earns less than double that of a social worker like Susan Johansen. A lawyer earns barely twice more than a cleaner. So while race and religion are fraught subjects in Denmark (remember the Muhammad cartoons?), class isn’t. Rasmus remembers a school-trip to Scotland, where his Scottish exchange partners “mentioned ‘working class’. In Denmark, of course we have that, but the difference is not very great. You can go from working class to upper class if you get a good job. And if you get a good education, you should be able to get a good job.”
Getting that good education is much easier than it is here. University is entirely free. In fact, Danish students are, in a sense, paid to go there: they receive around £500 a month in living expenses. It’s a different mentality. Students aren’t seen as a burden on the state, but as people whose skills will one day support it. They’re future participants in Danish life, and they’re treated as such. Every effort is made to make them better able to participate.
Participation is central to this Danish sense of togetherness. Mothers, for instance, are actively encouraged to go back to work after having children. Once a baby reaches six months, the state begins to subsidise at least three-quarters of the cost of its childcare often more. This means that 77 per cent of Danish mothers return to work – while in Britain, it’s just 66 per cent. In fact, there’s a theory that since the introduction of state-sponsored childcare in the 70s, so many children have spent so much time around other kids that Danish pronunciation has changed as a result. No wonder that Denmark’s most famous export – Lego toys – is derived from the Danish “leg godt”, or “play well”. And only in Denmark could there be an acclaimed board game – Konsensus – based around the concept of collaboration.
Of course, all this costs money. Most people pay around 50 per cent of their salary to the taxman. VAT is at 25 per cent, so eating out is a luxury. And there’s an 180 per cent levy on cars, which makes four-by-fours a rare sight. But though attitudes are slowly changing, most people don’t begrudge the state. Fittingly, the Danish word for tax – “skat” – is also a term of endearment.
This kind of social cohesion didn’t happen overnight. It’s a mentality that goes back 150 years. It’s rooted in the many agrarian cooperatives founded in the late 19th century by Danish farmers. Pooling resources and sharing profits, it was these pig and dairy farmers who paved the way for the huge welfare state that emerged in the 1970s. It’s linked, too, to Denmark’s coalition-based politics – no Danish political party has won an absolute majority in a century. And it’s linked to the presence of a very Danish institution that has few overseas equivalents: the folk high school.
Attended by adults of any age, Denmark’s 70 folk high schools are state-subsidised, non-academic boarding houses that aim to develop their students’ extra-curricular interests. Dotted around Denmark’s flat countryside, they offer three-month courses in creative subjects like art, writing, dance, theatre, gardening, philosophy and debating. Any adult can go – and they hold such a special place in the Danish identity that around one in ten Danes attend at some point in their lives.
“It’s part of this Danish tradition that everyone has to take part in political life, or in life in general,” says Else Mathiassen, who runs the West Jutland folk high school. “Each individual should be developed in his or her own way – but also know how to function within a group. And to do that, you need to be enlightened… to enable you to be part of the democracy that we have.” Borgen, it seems, didn’t happen in a vacuum.
How to Be Danish by Patrick Kingsley is published by Short Books. To order your copy for £7.99 (usually £9.99) with free p&p from the RT bookshop, call 01603 648176
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news