I was astonished to see trailers last weekend for a midweek edition of cosy British detective drama, Midsomer Murders' 100th edition, as it was to be at least partially set in Copenhagen, taking it out of its traditional world of the English home counties. Of course, for a centenary episode, just like a 'holiday edition' or a Christmas special, going to another more exotic location is not that unusual, but the surprise element was that the programme would feature several actors who had become familiar to the UK audience through Danish dramas on BBC4.
Audiences here have taken to the more gory Danish dramas, with the first series of The Killing averaging around 500,000 viewers per episode on BBC4, climbing by the third series to more than a million. At home in Denmark, a country with a population of about 5.5 million, the programme regularly attracted more than 1.5million per episode, peaking at 2.1 million for the final episode of series 1- the equivalent, in percentage terms, of 20 million watching a programme in the UK- which hasn't happened for years.
Borgen, a drama about politics, had similar viewing figures, which is remarkable for both countries, given the 'unwritten rules of TV commissioning' that Michael Grade recently described- never make a drama about politics or a backstage programme about television, given that Borgen is pretty much about both! The remarkable success of the series certainly indicates that it struck a chord with audiences. In a talk that I heard Grade give recently at the National Film and Television School, he argued that the programme was much more about principles and how they have to be compromised, rather than about gender politics. I am not sure that I would agree. One of the key features of the three big successes of Danish TV recently, Borgen , the Killing and The Bridge, has been the centrality of female characters and their experiences. Sara Lund, in The Killing, is our tortured and flawed heroine; Katrine is a campaigning journalist and Birgitte Nyborg the Prime Minister in Borgen, while The Bridge has Saga Noren as it's co-star Swedish detective. In each case, I would argue that the central female breaks many conventional media stereotypes- they are rarely an unproblematic 'object of the male gaze', the complex dynamic between their home lives and their work is foregrounded, but not in a way that puts them down, and they are certainly not female victims to be rescued by male heroes.
The viewer- male or female- is invited into a complex identification structure with them, admiring their skill but also being aware of their flaws, and certainly sharing their anxieties across the series. The male characters, by contrast, although sometimes justified in their actions, are often shown as weak or duplicitous, and though their stories may run across a number of episodes or come to the fore in individual episodes, with the possible exception of the equal billing of lead Danish detective Martin Rhode, in The Bridge, they are always secondary to the lead females.
Of course, if you get a successful series (or film) that is not in the English language, everyone thinks they are ripe for a re-make. The Killing was re-made in the US (I must get round to seeing it) and The Bridge (originally Swedish/Danish) re-made as a UK/French co-production as The Tunnel. Having watched it before seeing the first series of The Bridge, I find myself comparing elements all the time, but that's for another blog maybe- adaptations. The Americans are apparently going to re-make Borgen, but it is hard to imagine how it will translate...
Anyway, if you haven't seen them, give them a try- all are available on DVD, some on Netflix.