The secret to the success of Danish broadcaster DR: home of The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge

Piv Bernth – head of drama at DR – reveals the creative process that enables Denmark's national broadcaster to produce award-winning television

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The following essay is an extract from Tomorrow’s People: Making Cultures for Creativity, a new book from UKTV promoting British creativity.


If you want to run an organisation with creativity at its heart, I have some advice that might surprise you. Because my advice is to keep the “creatives” as far away from the “organisation” as you can.

I’m Head of Drama at DR, which is Denmark’s national broadcaster – roughly the equivalent of the BBC. Our shows have included Borgen and 1864, as well as current hits such as The Legacy and The Bridge. Until 2012, I spent seven years producing The Killing.

At the moment, we have four drama series in production or pre-production. All of the creative talent for these shows – the “software”, as I sometimes say – comes from outside DR. Those directors, actors, producers and writers need a creative room where they can work. – and the most important thing that I can do, to help those people do their best work, is to protect their creative room.

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The writers’ room for The Legacy (below) is out at Søborg, a suburb of Copenhagen, in one of the few buildings that remain of DR’s former campus headquarters. As they write and produce their final season, The Legacy’s producer Karoline Leth, creator Maya Ilsøe and their team really don’t need to know what’s going on back at head office. I meet regularly with the controller of our main channel, DR1, who’s a great partner for discussing how our drama series are going. But if those discussions include disagreements, or if I hit corporate problems or whatever… well, Karoline and Maya don’t always need to know. I think that’s one of the reasons why producers and writers like to work with us – because they feel that the freedom in the creative room is real.

Another thing that we do differently from many other broadcasters is to give the writers a little more time, when they’re first starting out on a project. It’s not that expensive to have a couple of writers sitting in a room, figuring stuff out. We did that with Jeppe Gjervig Gram, who had been a staff writer on Borgen, and who is now the creator of our big new financial crime drama Follow the Money. He had funding for about six months with his producer and one other writer, so they got really grounded in the concept. It only becomes expensive when you start to get lots of other people in – the director, and more writers. Investing a little more money in that “cheap” period is really vital, I think.

And it’s really vital for me to get involved with some of those early scripts, too, to make sure that what is on the page is the same as what was pitched. Some people argue that subtlety and nuance can come when the actors and the director get involved, but I don’t agree. As the Americans say: “If it ain’t in the script, you ain’t going to get it.” And, of course, the more you know when you start shooting, the less expensive that shoot will be.

When we came up with The Killing, about 10 years ago now, it started in a similar way to Jeppe’s project. It was just me and Søren Sveistrup, the creator, in a room. That was out in Søborg, too, in a building that’s since been demolished – in the old DR “barracks”, just a single-storey wooden building round a courtyard, like a summer house. The rain would sometimes come in through the roof. And there was a sort of weird sweet smell in the air – so we had someone from the cleaning company come in, who took up the floorboards, and found lots of dead rats underneath. It was a real creative paradise.

Anyway. Søren was a big fan of the thriller genre – he got me to watch the Brad Pitt movie Seven, as well as many other thriller movies. We decided to try and come up with a thriller series. The first idea that we really pinned down was that the father of the victim would end up going on a journey with the killer. Fans of The Killing will remember that climactic scene, at the end of season one, where Theis headed off into the woods with… Well, I won’t do any spoilers here. But he headed off into the woods with the killer.

Even though it was police detective Sarah Lund who turned into the show’s iconic character, she developed more slowly. Actress Sofie Gråbøl was pregnant with her daughter, so initially she said a flat “no” to doing another TV series. I said to her, “Will you at least read the script, and then say ‘no’?” It was Søren’s script that persuaded her – and from then on, Sofie participated in the development of the character.

Søren was obsessed by sending Sarah into dark places – alleys, pipelines below the streets, empty warehouses – where she had to keep going and going, she couldn’t turn back. She did things most women would never dream of. If I were faced with something like that, I would get a taxi home, lock my door, take a tranquilliser and go to sleep.

We also never imagined that that sweater would become the international symbol of The Killing. The idea was just to dress Sarah down. A ponytail, blue jeans, boots, a sweater, a jacket and out she goes to fight crime. Wearing more or less the same clothes every day. Not being dirty or anything – it was the lack of vanity that was important.

And all the time we were developing this complex, subtle series, my boss left us alone. Ingolf Gabold was then the Head of Drama at DR, and he said, “I trust that you can do it.”

I had also had another mentor who was very important to me. When I was first starting out in the 1980s, getting my education as a director at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, I met Birgitte Price. She was an actress at the Royal Theatre, but she also directed, and she asked me to help her with a production. It was Birgitte who introduced me to television, because she became Head of Drama at DR.

The biggest gift that Birgitte gave me was her confidence in me. She really trusted me and my talent, and she kept saying, “You’ve got to go all the way, Piv.” And she was a fighter herself. I remember once being in an editing room, and Birgitte came in. She’d been with executives at the top level of DR – they’d cut her budget and wanted her to make a lot of changes. She said, “I’m going to resign, I’m out of this.” But then four hours later, she came back. She said, “I know what I’m going to do.” She had a complete plan of how she was going to operate with these cuts and changes – she stayed on, of course. I was so impressed by that. I respected her so much. (Birgitte also gave DR another important gift that I mustn’t leave out: her son, the writer Adam Price, who created Borgen, below.)

Of course, over the years I’ve also learned from management styles that I didn’t like so much. When I was a producer, we used to have very strict meetings, where you sat with an agenda. It was pretty much just the management talking to the producers. Each producer only had five minutes to say how their show was going – “I had some trouble with this or that, but I’ll solve it”, that kind of thing – and we had to listen to the management talking about corporate stuff for an hour and a half.

As Head of Drama, I don’t do that anymore. Every Wednesday, from 9.00am until 11.00am, I have a meeting with all the producers. We don’t have an agenda, we don’t write down what’s been said. We have a very open discussion about everything – I hope that the producers feel they can say anything to me. It’s a room full of trust and confidence. Someone might say, “I need a director in October, do you know anyone who would be good?” We might talk about the trends in American TV drama from the LA screenings, or about European and UK drama. It can be anything.

I want to stay away from a “management” mind-set. In Denmark, DR is often perceived the way the BBC seems to be perceived in the UK – bureaucratic and expensive and traditional. But nobody else would have made The Killing like we did, with the story of just one killer told over 20 episodes. Or Borgen. “We’re doing a series about Danish politics.” People said, “You’ve gone crazy.” Yet it turned into a worldwide hit. And The Legacy could have just been a soap – but at DR, Maya has been able to give the characters and the conflicts such depth and complexity.

It’s actually because we’re a long-established public service broadcaster that we have to make sure we don’t get stuck in a comfort zone. It’s because we are funded by a licence fee, because the Danish people pay our wages, that we have to be first movers. New writers must come into DR and tell their stories. In a way, we’re a little bit like Sarah Lund as she heads down a dark alley into the unknown. We don’t know how it will turn out – but we just have to keep going.

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Tomorrow’s People: Making Cultures for Creativity is available as a free download from iTunesGoogle Play and UKTV