After four seasons starring in Swedish/Danish smash-hit series Bron/Broen (The Bridge), Sofia Helin is setting up her own shows and helping to coordinate a protest about the way women are treated in the film and TV business in Sweden.
As Nordic noir continues to ride a wave of global popularity, one show still stands taller than the rest. Wallander and Forbrydelsen (The Killing) came before it and new dramas will surely follow it, but until something repeats its international success, Broen/Bron (The Bridge) is arguably the biggest hit to come out of the Scandinavian crime genre.
Central to its success has been Sofia Helin’s star turn as Saga Norén, a brilliant yet unorthodox Swedish detective who teams up with her Danish counterpart to solve a series of gruesome murders discovered around the Øresund Bridge that links Malmö in Sweden to Danish capital Copenhagen.
Helin is now well known around the world thanks to her iconic role in a series that will conclude after its fourth season, which began on New Year’s Day on Denmark’s DR and Sweden’s SVT.
“Of course I cried on the last day [of filming], we all did. It’s been an amazing journey, a long journey, a deep journey, a hard journey,” Helin says of working on the show, which first aired in 2011. “My daughter was one year old when we started and now she’s eight, so it’s been a [significant] period of my life and it has opened so many doors. I learned so much from it. It feels good to say goodbye but I will always have it very close to my heart.”
The actor says she is now considering what to do next. She has already crossed borders to star in The Same Sky, a German-produced spy thriller set during the Cold War. “That’s where I am now, thinking what can I do with this platform. I’ve come to the conclusion I love being a storyteller and I love being a part of the process.
“I’ve learned so much by developing The Bridge more and more each season that I feel now I have to move on and use that, so that’s what I’m doing. I’ve also been longing to work together with other female actors. For a long time, the industry has looked like five men and one woman in the middle like a jewel, so I look forward to working with my female colleagues.”
To that end, Helin is already developing two new projects. The first, Get Naked, is described as a comedy about female sexuality, particularly focusing on older women. Miso Film is producing alongside distributor FremantleMedia International.
“After a certain age, women just disappear,” Helin states. “If you go into a store and you see all the newspapers, you see there are no mature women. They’ve just vanished. Mature women’s sexuality is just invisible, but we have it and it’s a strong power.
“Our inspiration for that show is [HBO hit] Girls, which does the same thing but with younger women. It’s about four characters and they are all having problems and issues. It starts with them being all by themselves thinking about this topic, and they come together to talk about it and do something about it.”
The second project, Heder (Honour), is a thriller set in a law firm that works with victims of sexual crimes. Helin created the series with fellow actors and executive producers Julia Dufvenius, Anja Lundqvist and Alexandra Rapaport, who all star. It is produced for Discovery by Bigster and distributed by Eccho Rights.
“They have a common past that brings them together for life that they try to avoid,” Helin explains of the show’s characters. “The big philosophical question is: is it possible to pay for your guilt or what you’ve done by doing good things? Also, the word ‘honour’ is chosen specifically because when you are harassed or raped, someone takes your inner honour from you, and when you say, ‘That’s not right what you did to me,’ it’s a redemption process.”
Honour is a particularly timely piece, coming in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations coming out of Hollywood and elsewhere in the film and television business and the #MeToo campaign on social media, both of which have had a big impact in Sweden.
Helin has been a particularly vocal supporter of the #tystnadtagning (#silenceaction) movement, which saw almost 600 Swedish actresses sign a letter calling out the Swedish film and TV industry for failing to protect women from sexual abuse.
“It started with #MeToo and then, after a while, a few of us actresses felt we had to say something publicly about what it’s like in our business,” she recalls. “We started writing on Facebook, just like 10 of us, and then in 36 hours we had more than 1,000 members. So many horrible stories were written on this group, so we realised we had to do something more – to tell the world about our world – so we started a revolution, you could say.
“We want to change the industry from the ground up. Just stop behaving like that. For all of us, it’s a new way of looking at the world so we have to learn together. It’s not a matter of us and them, it’s about doing it together. Hopefully it’s going to spread throughout the world so we can start talking about this without just blaming and having a war.
“But I’m a bit worried that it will soon be yesterday’s news, which is why we have to keep working and take responsibility for this, what’s happened. I think at least in Scandinavia this is a revolution, and I think it is in Hollywood also.”
This isn’t the only movement taking place in Sweden, however, with Helin identifying another change in society that has come to light through the making of The Bridge.
“This season is about identity and it’s been so amazing, and sad also, to go through this period because when we started the show, the bridge was a symbol of gathering,” she concludes. “It was an open bridge where you could go between countries. The cities of Malmö and Copenhagen were growing together and there was a very positive feeling around the bridge.
“Now it’s a bridge we use to close the border, to control our countries. It’s where many tragic events happen because people aren’t let in. It’s a completely different situation to when we started so this season will reflect that, of course. It’s still The Bridge, but you have to move with society.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Adam Price’s first major TV project brought the machinations of a coalition government to Danish screens with Borgen, which picked up an International Bafta during its three-season run.
Now he is taking on religion in Ride Upon the Storm, with two seasons of the show already commissioned by Denmark’s DR and Arte France.
Sitting alongside star Lars Mikkelsen, Price tells DQ how he hopes to address the big questions of life and religion in the show, which ostensibly focuses on the family of Mikkelsen’s priest Johannes, his wife and, in particular, their two sons, who each choose different religious paths.
Ride Upon the Storm is produced by SAM Productions and distributed by StudioCanal.
As technology continues its assault on traditional television models, success is no longer just about overnight viewing figures. So in today’s crowded drama marketplace, what defines a hit – and how are our views of success changing?
When the BBC and FX announced there would be a second season of Tom Hardy’s extraordinary period drama Taboo (pictured above), the UK pubcaster took the unusual step of spelling out exactly why the series would return.
Taboo was a solid, if not spectacular, performer on BBC1, drawing three million viewers to its Saturday night debut and staying above 2.5 million for subsequent episodes.
Yet it earned its recommission by becoming one of the most successful dramas ever in terms of views on iPlayer, the broadcaster’s digital catch-up service, a result credited to word of mouth and social network mentions that led new viewers to seek out the series.
Within seven days, episode one’s audience rose to 5.8 million and episodes averaged seven million at the 28-day cut-off. The first episode achieved iPlayer’s third highest audience ever, following Sherlock and docudrama Murdered By My Boyfriend.
Announcing the recommission in March this year, Charlotte Moore, director of BBC Content, said: “Taboo has been a phenomenal success and proves overnight ratings are not the only measure of success, as the series continues to grow beyond live viewing. Launching in a new Saturday night slot on BBC1 provided us with an opportunity to take risks and showcase distinctive drama, and the growing talkability of Taboo has engaged younger audiences, seeing record numbers coming to BBC iPlayer, with the availability of the box set maximising audiences even further.”
The BBC went further, suggesting BARB audience data underestimated the final audience for Taboo as it only recognised iPlayer viewers using the service via a connected television and not through laptops, mobiles and tablets.
Sue Gray, the pubcaster’s head of audiences, added: “The live broadcast audience remains important and we know audiences highly value collective viewing experiences. However, an emerging younger audience group is increasingly influenced by social recommendation and will come when the ‘noise’ around a series becomes compelling. The broadcast moment can fan this flame, with BBC1 and iPlayer providing a virtuous circle which maximises audience opportunity to engage. Broadcasters and commentators increasingly need to play the long game in their quest to understand audience behaviour.”
In truth, the emphasis on viewing figures has been waning for several years as box set binges have become a worldwide phenomenon. Ratings for a single episode no longer provide a clear picture of how many people have watched – and will watch – a programme over the days and weeks after it airs, while digital platforms ensure programmes can be watched and rewatched long after their initial debuts. So how do those in the industry now define a successful series?
Despite putting less focus on overnights, writers, producers and commissioners will admit to still keeping an eye on the ratings just to see whether they have an instant hit on their hands – unless you happen to ask people at Fox, the US broadcaster that decided overnights were “no longer relevant” in November 2015.
In a letter to staff, co-CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman explained why the network would no longer be publishing Live + Same Day ratings. “The connections between viewers and our shows today are more complex and, in many ways, deeper than ever – but they no longer only happen overnight,” they wrote. “So why do we, as an industry, wake up every morning and talk about those Live + Same Day numbers?
“This has to stop. It’s time for us to ‘walk the walk’ and change the conversation. The Live + Same Day rating does not reflect the way people are watching our series. It leaves out the vast majority of fans who choose to watch on DVRs, and virtually ignores those who stream our shows or watch on-demand.”
Though they might not admit it quite as openly, other US broadcast networks are clearly taking less notice of overnights, if the decline of early cancellations of freshmen scripted series is anything to go by. Once upon a time, it would only have been a matter of weeks, or a handful of episodes, before the first series would be cancelled each fall as a result of low ratings. But for the past two seasons, shows that have received a lukewarm reception have been allowed to play out their first-season orders to try to generate the catch-up numbers that are now such an important part of the business.
Only those dramas seemingly without any hope – see 2016/17 examples Doubt (CBS) and Time After Time (ABC) – are unceremoniously pulled from the schedules.
The Walking Dead aside, most cable shows would be happy to have the ratings scored by cancelled network series, as pay TV provides a supportive model for dramas tackling niche genres – particularly science fiction.
That’s why IDW Entertainment, producer of Wynonna Earp and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, defines a ‘hit’ on a case-by-case basis. “It’s looking beyond the ratings, as the audience varies widely from network to network and digital,” says president David Ozer.
“IDW plays in the genre space, so the fandom plays such a huge role in determining a ‘hit’ for us. What’s happening on social media? What’s the audience saying? Are they trending? Who’s showing up to cast promotional events? We obviously need to deliver as large an audience as possible for the network and/or streaming platform, but there are other factors definitely involved now beyond traditional ratings.”
These days, actors can often be found live-tweeting along to their show as it airs, speaking directly to fans, while events like Comic-Con can propel a drama’s popularity, often before it has begun airing.
“Wynonna Earp is fascinating to watch,” Ozer says. “Week after week, we saw ratings growth [on Syfy], but also social media growth where we were trending weekly. The series gained a large LGBTQ audience because of one of the storylines, and you felt momentum. When it came to time for a renewal, Syfy was inundated with fan responses, and not just the usual letters but genuine notes about how important the series was to them.
“With Dirk Gently, BBC America saw immediate time-period growth and, again, a lot of activity across social media, and a second season was ordered. There was a buzz about the show that continued to grow, and reviews were very positive. While we don’t see actual results with Netflix [where both shows are available in certain territories], we were able to see success based on the social media conversations internationally.”
At Irish broadcaster RTÉ, acting MD of television Dermot Horan describes a hit show as one that “delivers more than its timeslot’s average consolidated audience, but which also delivers well on the RTÉ Player and gets positive social media and press coverage.”
That definition has emerged because much drama is now consumed via DVRs or VoD services, due to “the increase in linear channel competition, the rise of SVoD players in Ireland, the numbers of homes with PVRs and the increase in homes without TVs,” Horan adds.
For Piv Bernth, head of drama at Danish pubcaster DR, a successful drama is one that both attracts a strong audience and stands out from the crowd. “Of course, the enormous competition makes you look more over your shoulder, but I think the conclusion so far is not to get confused by the oceans of TV series and instead to keep the focus on what kind of content you think will make a difference,” she says.
“From a public service point of view, the choice of story and the way it is told is as important as the obligation to tell stories that reflect the lives of the audience and create a debate. At DR, we try to do original stories, like Avingerne (The Legacy), Bedrag (Follow the Money) and, coming soon, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm) – all series with complex stories told through relatable characters and, therefore, entertaining and understandable. That is still the way to measure a success – get good viewing figures on series that makes a difference.”
Jakob Mejlhede Andersen, broadcast group MTG’s exec VP of programming and content development for the Nordic region, found success this year with comedy-drama Swedish Dicks, which set viewing records on MTG’s Nordic streaming service Viaplay. “We believe a hit happens every time a viewer is engaged by our content,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to create an inclusive portfolio that speaks to everybody while raising important questions. We’re on a journey to become the Nordic region’s leading producer of original content, and today we have more than 50 projects in the pipeline.”
MTG is reaching viewers across streaming, free TV and pay TV services, and Mejlhede Andersen says the multi-platform approach allows the broadcaster to differentiate its content depending on where it is being made available. For example, Viaplay’s latest original series, Veni Vidi Vici, explores the descent of a struggling Danish movie director into the adult film business – a story the exec says “works much better on-demand through a streaming service than on primetime linear TV.”
Beyond ratings, MTG is now also using international distribution deals to measure success, with Swedish Dicks being picked up for global sales by Lionsgate. “Of course, we’ll keep listening to our audiences to ensure our stories always entertain and engage,” Mejlhede Andersen adds.
Christophe Riandee, vice-CEO of Gaumont, which produces Pablo Escobar drama Narcos for Netflix, says that while the way people watch TV today means it is harder than ever to define a hit, “one way that speaks the loudest is when you have volumes of fans engaged with your shows.”
He continues: “From social media engagement to consumer products, fans across the world let you know that you have a hit. Netflix does a great job activating fans, developing extensive campaigns that are unique to different platforms, creating hundreds of original assets for social media channels and engaging directly with fans.
“Within the first three months of the launch of Narcos, Netflix had amassed a social following of two million fans [of the show] across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and, over the course of the campaign, afforded Narcos the title of the most mentioned Netflix original series on social in 2015.”
Gaumont was also behind another Netflix drama, horror series Hemlock Grove – and while the streamer famously keeps even its own suppliers in the dark about viewing figures, Riandee highlights one surefire way you can judge ‘success’ online: “I would say by the number of seasons a media partner is ordering. Netflix ordered two additional seasons of Narcos at the same time; we are currently in production on season three.”
Despite their reluctance to release ratings, SVoD services are now key to building audiences, often long after a drama has debuted, and later seasons can see a bump in live ratings after viewers have caught up online. AMC’s Breaking Bad was one of the first to enjoy that kind of success in a world where TV shows are finding it harder and harder to break through.
“First and foremost, a show has to be good.It needs compelling storytelling and quality production with a best-in-class team and talent,” IDW’s Ozer says when asked what it takes for a show to be deemed a success in today’s crowded market. “We are spending quite a bit of time ensuring we’re bringing unique properties to the market, with major elements attached. Our recently announced Locke & Key deal with Hulu is a great example, where we have bestselling author Joe Hill, Carlton Cuse as our showrunner and Scott Derrickson as our director.
“With so much programming in the market now, it has to stand out. There are shows that are perceived as hits now based on outside influences, series that have catapulted through word of mouth. There is also the ‘hang around theory,’ meaning if a show is around for multiple seasons, because of content distribution platforms like EST [electronic sell-through] and SVoD, more people can find it later in its run, creating value for the networks.”
In an ideal world, RTÉ’s Horan would like to see a single rating – combining live and non-live views – used to judge the success of series, but that may be several years away.
“The other point to make is that less can be more these days,” he notes. “For free-to-air channels, it is all about cutting through and having programmes in your schedule that make an immediate impact. Thus short-run series like Doctor Foster, Happy Valley and The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story can work better than the longer-running US network dramas.”
For now, though, Riandee believes success will continue to be measured through a combination of ratings and social media. “But to have that success, now more than ever we have to provide the market with shows that are compelling,” he says, “with novelistic and addictive storylines, AAA showrunners to deliver highly visual cinematic programming and, of course, relatable actors.”
A family of priests are at the centre of Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), Danish writer Adam Price’s follow-up to political drama Borgen.
From a topic that may not immediately seem the most exciting – coalition politics in Denmark – Borgen creator Adam Price (pictured above) crafted a captivating drama that gripped audiences around the world. And now, turning his attention to religion in the forthcoming Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), the writer is hoping lightning will strike for a second time.
The series reunites Price with producer Camilla Hammerich and Danish broadcaster DR to tell the story of a family of Danish priests. While one son has followed his father into the priesthood, his brother has chosen another path.
The cast is headed by Lars Mikkelsen and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen as the parents, with Simon Sears and Morten Hee Andersen as their grown-up sons.
“I can think of no other broadcaster in Denmark that would be willing to tell a story that is as tricky, difficult, demanding and potentially provocative as this will be,” Price says. “My last show dealt with politics and I thought, ‘Where do I move from this?’ You can [take inspiration from] so many emotions as a writer – the emotion for this show is definitely curiosity.
“In the times we are living in now, it’s almost more political to write about religion than about politics – because when we’re talking about integration, immigration, social issues, geopolitics and terrorism, we are in fact dealing with religious issues. It is one of the great topics of our time.”
It’s the family at the centre of the story through which such issues are explored. “If you want a compelling story, you need to tell it from the point of view of the characters,” says Price. “It would be very difficult to talk about religion from too aloof a position, to talk about great ideas, religious history. It’s too big. You need to pull it down to a human level. The characters must always be at the heart of the story.”
DR is producing Ride Upon the Storm as a coproduction with French-German network Arte and SAM le Français, in association with distributor StudioCanal. The series, which is being filmed in Denmark and Spain, will debut this fall with 10 episodes, while DR has already ordered a second 10-episode season scheduled to air in autumn 2018.
Alongside Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and Broen/Bron (The Bridge), Borgen is regularly held up as one of the TV dramas that brought Danish – and Scandinavian – drama front and centre on the world stage.
“Nobody ever thought Borgen would travel or moderately interest an audience because, when you pitch the series, everybody should be running away screaming,” Price jokes of its niche political content. “Religion is definitely just as difficult a main topic as politics, but if you have captivating character stories then you can talk about all the difficult things on top of that. That was the way we told the stories of Borgen so I’m delving into the same bag of tricks. I hope it will still work.”
With the show in development for two-and-a-half years, Price spent six months working on Ride Upon the Storm by himself before setting up a small writers room, just as he did with Borgen, which was penned by just three writers for the first two seasons. Staff writers Karina Dam and Poul Berg joined Price in writing the first 14 episodes across Ride Upon the Storm’s two planned seasons, while Price and Dam are completing the final six episodes together.
The writers room, however, was more than just a collaborative effort. Price explains: “It was very important for me to have different attitudes of faith in the writers room – Karina is a Christian, Poul is probably an agnostic and I guess I am a non-believer myself, but a very curious one. It’s important in a show
like this that we take religion and faith extremely seriously.
“I’m not here to make people not believe, and the show is also not there to make people believe. What we really want with the show, apart from telling hopefully compelling, character-driven stories about faith and religion, is to make viewers wonder about
faith and religious issues and to make people discuss them.”
As the head writer, Price is typically hands-on across the entire project, overseeing up to six drafts of each script before they are approved for shooting. “I try to sketch out the full season because we need to know what we are moving towards so we don’t invent the world anew every time we storyline and pitch an episode,” he says. “It’s very important to know the end point on the map, so that while we can make many interesting and meaningful detours, there is a very clear course set for the whole story.
“The actors know the characters’ mid-points and end points in the season. We discuss that vividly with them every time we meet. If a character is to suffer a nervous breakdown in two or three episodes’ time, the actor has a right to know so they can build up to that moment and it won’t be a steep mountain to climb in the actual episode. It’s so important that we can see small traits of [such a plot point] in the way the character behaves a few episodes in advance.”
Research is another part of Price’s writing process, but he says it’s important not to become “lost” in details that can limit creativity in the writers room. A priest has also been on hand as a religious advisor, sitting in the room once a month to listen to pitches for the next block of episodes.
“With reference to Borgen, it’s one thing to step on a person’s political beliefs, but it’s another entirely to step on their religious faith,” Price explains. “We need to know when we’re stepping on any toes; we can’t step too wildly and in all directions without researching or planning quite thoroughly. This is definitely territory where people can be very upset. It can and will probably happen.”
After the success of Borgen, which ran on DR for three seasons and starred Sidse Babett Knudsen as the Danish prime minister, Price admits he tries not to concern himself with the expectations over his follow-up series, which is coproduced by the SAM label founded by Price, fellow writer Søren Sveistrup (The Killing) and producer Meta Louise Foldager Sørensen (A Royal Affair) in 2014.
Also on SAM’s slate is Gidseltagningen (Below the Surface), a hostage drama for Denmark’s Kanal 5, and Mercur (Something’s Rockin’), a radio station-focused show that launched in March on TV2 Charlie. The company also has projects in development in Denmark and the UK, as well as the US with HBO and AMC.
“The Danish industry has changed – it has become much more international,” Price says. “We should just be grateful that we’re able to finance these shows with big countries in Europe and across the world.
“Now they know our shows – and if we can do something as good as The Killing, they want to be a part of it. That’s a great privilege because it allows us to tell even more ambitious stories. We are standing on the shoulders of our own success, which is very demanding but also a great privilege.”
What makes Denmark’s DR so successful when it comes to drama? DQ hears from its drama boss and examines two of its lesser-known series.
Danish public broadcaster DR has been one of the world’s most influential drama commissioning channels over the past decade, responsible for acclaimed series such as The Killing (pictured above), Borgen and The Bridge (aka Broen/Bron, a coproduction with Swedish public broadcaster SVT).
But how did this network become one of the biggest signatures for quality drama in international television, and what is the secret to its success?
“For me, it started with the theatre,” reveals DR’s respected head of drama Piv Bernth. “I was a stage director for five or six years before a colleague of mine went to DR and brought me over. For a while I directed theatre and TV and then another colleague at DR asked me to come and work there as a producer.
“As a director, I had complained a lot about working conditions, so he said, ‘Why not come over and do something about it instead of bouncing off the problem from the outside?’ So I signed up with DR on a three-year contract.”
After a couple of productions in the late 1990s, Bernth’s first big breakthrough was the comedy Nikolai and Julia. Written by Soren Sveistrup, it won an International Emmy.
“Then Soren talked to me about an idea he had for a 90-minute movie,” she recalls. “I said to him that it felt like it should be a longer story, so he went away and worked on it for a few months. He came back with a concept that would eventually grow into The Killing.”
Also crucial in developing The Killing (known locally as Forbrydelsen, which ran for three seasons) was lead actress Sophie Grabol’s involvement. “Sophie had been the lead in Nikolai and Julia and was used to playing talkative, emotional women,” says Bernth. “At first she wasn’t interested in The Killing because she was expecting a baby. But after giving birth she read the script and agreed to do it. She played a big part in the development of her character and the show.”
The Killing was the series that got DR noticed internationally. For this, Bernth expresses gratitude to BBC head of acquisitions Sue Deeks: “Sue saw season two of the show by accident and immediately wanted to see season one. The BBC buying it was a turning point and it went on to do well across Europe.”
The Killing was unusual because it told the story of a single murder across 20 episodes. “People said we were crazy at the beginning,” admits Bernth. “But it started with something a policeman said to us – which is that if you don’t get the killer in the first three weeks, your chance of doing so gets much lower. So this was about solving the case in 20 days. But it was also about the other storylines running throughout the series.”
The carefully controlled pacing of The Killing is something that now stands out as a hallmark of Nordic drama. “The Americans are more impatient than we are,” Bernth says. “It takes them 24 hours to save the world, whereas it took us 20 days to catch a killer – that’s the difference.”
In hindsight, Bernth believes part of the show’s appeal was that it presented an unexpected side of Denmark: “It showed Denmark as a country with a dark side, which took people by surprise because they were used to us all smiling and being friendly. I also think the look of the landscape appeals to people. In The Killing it is Copenhagen, but in another of our shows, The Legacy, it’s more about the countryside.”
Bernth says the production process at DR has a lot to do with the success of shows like The Killing. “We have an advantage in the fact that DR is a public broadcaster, so we have a large part of our budget in place very early, which makes it easier for us to plan years ahead. We also have our own in-house facilities, which means we can make our budget go further.” DR dramas typically come in at about €1m (US$1.1m) per episode.
In terms of individual shows, “the ideas come from the writers who are then teamed with producers,” Bernth explains. “This isn’t so much about talent as chemistry – the two really have to want to do something together. Recently, we’ve looked at other ways of doing things because we don’t want to be in a situation where this becomes a routine we can never get away from. But we do always try to keep to the central idea of one vision.”
Supporting show development is the team at DR Fiktion, Bernth’s department. “All of our producers meet every Wednesday from 09.00 to 11.00 and we talk about everything,” Bernth explains. “It’s important they are all free to discuss any issue. At the same time, they are all there for each other during the week. If they want someone to come and look at a sequence in the edit suite and give them advice, they are always able to do so. That collaboration is very special and it’s the kind of environment we also encourage between the writers. The writers are very important to us. Without them, we have nowhere to go.”
The success of The Killing and The Bridge has led some to pigeonhole DR as a Nordic noir producer – though Bernth prefers to place the primary credit for The Bridge with DR’s Swedish partner, SVT. She says the reality is that DR is backing a much wider range of shows: “Everyone is doing crime. There’s a lot of good crime, so we are looking the other way.”
There is The Legacy, for example, and Follow the Money, which has been sold to the BBC. And now DR is working with Borgen creator Adam Price on a show called Rides Upon the Storm. “This is about the impact faith and religion have on our lives,” Bernth says. “It’s about a family of priests and it asks questions like what if you lose faith – how do you get it back?”
Bernth makes no excuses for the tough subjects DR chooses, adding that she is grateful to the channel’s higher authorities for backing her department’s judgement. “We want to tell complicated stories in an accessible way,” she notes.
“My ambition is for us to continue to be courageous in the themes we pick for our stories. So one area we are looking at is multiculturalism. If we do another crime series, it won’t just be a crime story.”
That, says Bernth, is the way it should be for a public broadcaster. “The commercial broadcasters have to be safe, so it is our job to take on the complicated stuff. We try to give the audience what they want – but challenge them as well.”
Follow the Money
Follow the Money (aka Bedrag) recently aired on DR and achieved strong ratings, debuting to 1.3 million viewers in January this year and adding a further 150,000 for episode two. It has since sold to broadcasters including the BBC.
Explaining the genesis of the financial crime series, creator and writer Jeppe Gjervig Gram says: “When the financial crisis hit the Western world in 2008/2009, I found it frightening but fascinating. As a writer, I didn’t see it coming and realised how terribly important it is to understand big finance.
“I thought everyone would do a series about financial crime but nobody did. So after I finished working on (DR’s hit political drama) Borgen, I started Follow the Money and it is still one of the only shows on the subject.”
Gram says the idea was to “construct a story about the whole of society. So we have the big money of the upper class, the middle-class cops and the working-class underdogs who stumble upon some money that belongs to the bad guys.”
Producer Anders Toft Andersen says the challenge was to turn a complex theoretical construct into something definite. “We made everything as physical as possible and very specific,” he explains. “We also knew from the get-go we had to make it a story about greed and how it takes many shapes. It might be the desire for money and material goods, but it could also be the search for the perfect life.”
Gram echoes this sentiment: “We used greed like a fixed point when telling the story. A lot of people looked the other way and didn’t ask questions about why their house rose in value – instead asking, ‘Who did this to us?’ The way we dealt with greed was that something done out of necessity was not greed. Greed was about characters always wanting a little more.”
The Legacy (aka Arvingerne) is a relationship drama about four siblings who come together to sort through their famous hippy artist mother’s possessions after her death.
The process becomes the focal point of their relationships with each other and leads to a re-evaluation of their feelings towards their parents. As such, The Legacy of the title is not just what they have been left, but how, as adults, they process their feelings about their childhoods.
The show is an evolution from the usual producer-writer relationship found behind DR dramas in that it also involved a third participant, production designer Mia Stensgaard.
Producer Karoline Leth says: “The production design was central to how we scripted the show. The props (mainly works of art left behind by the deceased mother) represent the mother.”
Stensgaard says this meant she had to have a close ongoing dialogue with writer/creator Maya Ilsøe: “It would start with me interviewing Maya about what is going to happen and how we could integrate people through art. And we’d look at how the props could make the dead mother live forever.”
Ilsøe says the actors also played an important part in the development process: “We work with the actors early in the story and if they tell us a character would not do something, we adjust it. Everything has to be very specific to each character. We can’t just have them sitting around the table.”
The way the creative team works on The Legacy was completely new, says Ilsøe, “so it was very stumbling at first. But now we have a system for working as an ensemble.”
The show, which is about to enter its third season, addresses tough family issues – including the fact that one of the siblings had been given away by the parents as a child.
Ilsøe calls it “a psychological drama where, through the rooms, the props and the ghost of Veronica (the mother), the siblings’ childhood is everywhere. They are people struggling with their histories.”
She stresses that The Legacy is not easy to pigeonhole, with light and dark elements driving the story forward. DR head of drama Piv Bernth says this is one of the things she likes most about the show: “The complexity of character in this series is amazing. One minute you think ‘she’s crazy’ and then you think the opposite. That’s wonderful. It’s a story that asks how you create a family when you have no role models of your own.”
In terms of oversight, Bernth says: “I read the scripts, but I trust these guys. That is how you get creativity and innovation.”
Ilsøe adds: “Trust is essential. It gives the calmness and freedom to develop the language the way we think it should be.”
In honour of ITV’s Brit noir series Marcella, DQ looks at some of the women detectives who have helped reinvigorate a genre that used to be the preserve of cantankerous middle-aged men.
When ITV launched the excellent Prime Suspect in 1991, female coppers were still a novelty on UK television. But these days it seems as though the entire police system is in the hands of no-nonsense women taking on a world of desensitised or deranged male bastards.
When they aren’t dealing with criminals, they generally have to contend with the fact that their husbands and colleagues are also a) psychotic, b) philanderers or c) perversely obstructive.
For the most part, the female cop formula seems to be working, with little indication as yet that the UK audience is getting bored by it.
Despite its various structural flaws, ITV’s Marcella, starring Anna Friel, has just finished its eight-part run with a solid audience of around five million and looks like a decent bet for a season two renewal.
Other female cops who have secured a strong fanbase include DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) in Broadchurch, Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley, DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes) in Line of Duty and Superintendent Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) in The Fall, which returns for a third season this year.
And it doesn’t end there. Other female crimefighters include the cast of Channel 4’s No Offence and Detectives Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey in ITV’s Scott & Bailey. The latter, which starred Lesley Sharp and Suranne Jones, finished this April.
Without exception, all of these shows have achieved good to great ratings. Sometimes this is down to the writing, but more often than not it feels as though the real secret of their success is the quality of the female leads. All of the above shows have been graced with exceptional acting performances that make you stay loyal even if the wider production starts to lose its direction.
Based on IMDb scores, Marcella doesn’t actually fare that well, scoring 7.1. This is probably a reflection of the gaps in the plot, which caused a lot of angst on social media platforms like Twitter. Much stronger are shows like Happy Valley, Broadchurch, The Fall and Line of Duty, which achieved scores in the 8.3 to 8.5 range.
With the general success of female cops, it’s no surprise that ITV is going back to its Prime Suspect franchise with Tennison. This show, from Lynda La Plante, imagines the central character, Jane Tennison, as a young woman starting out on her career. Set in Hackney in the 1970s, it recreates a world where women police constables are treated with suspicion by their male colleagues.
The female cop theme is not, of course, restricted to the UK. It has played a big part in the emergence of Nordic noir as a global force. Writer Hans Rosenfeldt, who gaves us Marcella, previously introduced us to Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) in his acclaimed Danish/Swedish copro The Bridge. And this then gave rise to UK/France copro The Tunnel, where viewers have been beguiled by feisty French cop Elise Wassermann (Clemence Poesy).
Equally important has been Danish broadcaster DR’s The Killing, which saw Sofie Grabol playing DI Sarah Lund. This was adapted for the US, where Grabol’s role was played by Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden.
In France, meanwhile, audiences on public broadcaster France Télévisions have recently been introduced to Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) in Witnesses (Les Temoins). More mainstream is Candice Renoir, about a French police commandant, played by Cecile Bois, who solves crimes in the South of France. The show has also secured a number of sales around Europe.
The US, of course, has never been afraid to place female cops on the frontline – think back to Cagney & Lacey or Angie Dickinson as Sergeant ‘Pepper’ Anderson in Police Woman. More recently the mantle of number one tough female cop has been taken up by Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) in NBC’s long-running procedural Law & Order: SVU. The character of Benson has appeared in 385 episodes of the show and risen to become commanding officer of the SVU division.
Angie Harmon, as Jane Rizzoli in TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles, is another who deserves to be given a medal for services to the TV industry. Among the new female cops is Harlee Santos, a single-mother NYPD detective played by Jennifer Lopez in Shades of Blue.
Countries where female cops are not so prominent include Germany and Italy, where the chaps still get to solve most crimes. But even here there are a few exceptions.
One is Charlotte Lindholm, a detective in the Hanover-set production of ARD’s long-running crime franchise Tatort. She has been played by Maria Furtwangler since 2002, making her something of a German TV icon. Italy, meanwhile, gave us Donna Detective, in which Detective Lisa Milani (played by Lucrezia Lante Della Rovere) requests a desk job in a small town outside of Rome in order to spend more time with her family. As luck would have it, she gets called back to assist with a major case and is placed in charge of an entire investigative squad in the capital.
The clear message from all of the above is that female cops have reinvigorated the detective genre, creating a new kind of character-based complexity around ideas like work-family balance, competing in what is perceived to be a man’s world, tackling problems from a female perspective and demonstrating skill sets that run counter to traditional assumptions.
What’s missing, perhaps, is a black or Asian female lead. There have been fleeting sightings (in US shows like Southland, The Wire, Rogue and Deception). But as yet there is nothing comparable to the breakthrough made by Idris Elba in BBC hit series Luther.
Given the recent strength of British broadcasters in the female cop genre, this is an area where they should really bite the bullet.
Klaus Zimmermann and Clive Bradley reveal how they kept crime thriller Trapped grounded in its Icelandic setting while navigating the tricky waters around this intricate international coproduction.
While international coproductions perhaps no longer seem the terrifying prospect they once were, the story of how Trapped came to air may still send shivers down the spines of some television executives.
With nine different broadcast partners on board, making the series – created by renowned director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) – looks a frightening task from the outside. But executive producer Klaus Zimmermann (Borgia) and writer Clive Bradley (The Killing Gene) say those fears are misplaced, as all partners worked together to create an authentic Icelandic drama that takes the popularity of Nordic Noir into new territory.
The 10-part series opens with snow falling as a ferry from Denmark pulls into a small Icelandic port. With 300 passengers stranded until the storm passes and with the main road into town impassable, a mutilated and dismembered body washes up on the shore – leaving a local police chief convinced a killer has arrived. As word of the death spreads, order descends into chaos as the ferry’s passengers and the town’s residents realise they are all possible suspects and that a killer is trapped among them.
Produced by RVK Studios and distributed by Dynamic Television, Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Bjarne Henriksen, Ingvar E Sigurðsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.
Zimmermann joined the show in 2013 when Kormákur approached him with a project that he couldn’t get off the ground.
“I looked at the material he had worked on and the general idea was already there,” Zimmermann explains. “I took on the development and started to look for a team of writers who could make this more international without breaking the authentic charm of the show.
“Besides the original Icelandic writer, I identified Clive, with whom I’ve worked before. We went to Iceland and worked from scratch by imagining what a show needed to please an international audience. It took us a while to go back to the material, to develop the strong story arcs and strong characters, and after two months we had a new script.”
Several broadcasters had already turned down the project but, undeterred, Zimmermann went back to them with the new script. Germany’s ZDF joined as a coproducer, with plans to air the show in its popular Sunday evening Nordic Noir slot. France Télévisions also came on board, followed by the BBC.
They joined Iceland’s RUV, SVT in Sweden, DR and DRK in Denmark and Finland’s YLE, while The Weinstein Company took rights for the US.
Trapped launched in Iceland in December 2015 to a 90% share of the audience – the biggest in the country’s TV history. Launches followed in Norway in January and France and the UK in February this year, while March saw the show’s arrival in Sweden and Denmark. The German debut is set for this autumn.
“The idea was never to make an international show set in Iceland, like Sky did with Fortitude,” Zimmermann says. “We wanted to do something that specifically made the audience come to Iceland and witness how people live, what the troubles are; to create a really authentic drama.”
Trapped had originally been plotted in Icelandic, the language in which the show is filmed. But an English treatment was written up and sent to Bradley. He then wrote the script in English as part of a mini writers room that also included Zimmermann, French writer Sonia Moyersoen and the original Icelandic writer Sigurjón Kjartansson – who translated the finished scripts back into Icelandic for filming.
Bradley, who describes joining the project as a “no-brainer,” explains: “Klaus set up a fantastic system where, after I wrote two episodes, we’d meet for a week and plan the next two, and then I’d go away and write them in English.
“Sigurjón was always the one to check what I wrote. In my first draft, I had some people with umbrellas because the weather was terrible – but apparently people in Iceland don’t use umbrellas. There were other interesting points, like if you write that a cop goes home and has a glass of whisky – well, no, he doesn’t in Iceland. Instead, he has a glass of milk, which is a lovely detail. Because it was an Icelandic project in the first place and because of Sigurjón’s involvement, we were always grounded in Icelandic reality.”
Zimmermann adds: “We worked out the stories together and then Clive would execute the script. We would all comment on that and once the English script was finished, it was translated into Icelandic by Sigurjón. There were some changes because of the translation. Icelanders speak with fewer words – there’s one scene where there’s a big drama and lots of dialogue and the actor just makes a ‘hmm’ noise. This is the translation, but it works.”
Despite the number of broadcast partners, Zimmermann says the success of the series’ development came down to the amount of time the four-strong creative team spent in the writers room. “We had eight months to write 10 scripts, in a team of four with Clive doing the writing,” he says. “Every two months we spent the week together and two or three times we went to a small cabin in Iceland. In the evening we watched TV shows and in the daytime we plotted terrible things happening in Iceland.
“This atmosphere and working structure is part of how this project was generated. The show has a very nice pace. It starts slow but it picks up more and more speed, and in every second episode there is something happening you wouldn’t have imagined – someone jumping out of a helicopter or an avalanche coming down on the village, for example. Hopefully the audience will wonder what will happen to the town and the hero in the next episode because they’ll be thinking it can’t possibly be more terrible than what has already happened.
“It was quite an unusual development process but it’s an encouraging example of how television works today where you have a very original story, setting and a solid first script, with everything you expect for a primetime drama. In Iceland the production process is terribly complicated but the price is quite competitive. Part of the equation was that we weren’t asking broadcasters for a fortune. We were asking for a reasonable proportion of the risk to be taken by several parties at the same time, and that’s how the budget slowly came together.”
Costing more than double the average production in the country, Trapped wasn’t cheap by Icelandic standards but Zimmermann says the results justify the outlay: “A normal Icelandic production can be produced for as little as €300,000 (US$326,200) an hour, and this is more than €750,000 – but the standard of the production is comparable to any high-end Scandinavian drama.
“The reason for that is the production company behind this is owned by Baltasar, who is mainly a feature film director and only works to the highest quality standards available. So the equipment was top, there was enough time to produce and some of the actors have international careers. The lead actor, Ólafur, is working with Steven Spielberg on The BFG so it’s the crème de la crème of Iceland on screen.”
Key to getting the broadcasters on board was convincing them Trapped would be unlike anything they had seen before, and the combination of Kormákur’s back catalogue, the Icelandic setting and Zimmermann’s experience in international drama completed the package.
“They were not commissioning broadcasters. Their level of commitment was below the commission, with less control, but the process was still very collaborative,” says Zimmermann, revealing how the broadcasters fell into the production process together.
“The director does his cut, I give my input. You send it to a few of the broadcasters and you get a feel for who wants to be more involved. A channel like BBC4 expects something authentic. It doesn’t have the infrastructure to be hands-on, so it relies on the mechanic to work.
“ZDF, however, was very hands on. The slot where it wanted to air Trapped is very competitive. We also had a lot of discussions with France Télévisions, which has similar needs for its audience. It came to rough-cut screenings, so that was the heart of the process in the end.
“We had some difficult moments, especially when things became very Icelandic. We had a comment on the first rough cut where someone said there was too much snow. The weather starts to get very bad after the first 10 minutes because the village is trapped by an ice storm, so there’s really terrible weather in the rest of the episode.
“The first reaction was, ‘We can’t have all this snow,’ but it looks fantastic with the effects, sound and music. We had to go through that process of saying this is a winter show, an Icelandic show.”
For Bradley, Trapped marked his first venture into a writers room, and he says he would happily repeat the process – perhaps during season two, which is under discussion. “The four of us would be in the writers room for several days. In the UK, you don’t do that. More and more projects are starting to have a version of the American writers room but it’s still quite rare. It was the first time I’d done anything like that. Rather than spend several hours with producers and script editors, spending days thrashing out the details was one of many things about the experience that I want to repeat.
“It’s an incredibly productive way of proceeding with developing a story. I’d never done 10 hours before and it’s amazing having that length of time. Obviously you have to find a story to fill it but to then have characters you can develop compared with an hour-and-a-half running time, it’s a great experience.”
For a small nation, Denmark knows how to pack a punch. It makes great lager, gave the world LEGO and even managed to win the UEFA European Football Championships back in 1992. In addition to all this it is now producing some of the most compelling and intriguing TV drama series in the world.
It wasn’t always that way, says Adam Price, the creator of Borgen, an acclaimed political drama that first aired on public broadcaster DR. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, Danish TV drama was really terrible. It had no audience at all. So DR sent a fact-finding mission to the US to see how it was done.
“They made a quite deliberate decision to improve TV storytelling and came up with a model that works for the Danish market. That model is what has made the difference to Danish drama output.”
Distilled down to its basics, there are three core elements, says Price. “It begins with the one-vision dogma – the idea that one writer’s vision is central to the process. But this is supported by the idea of the deadly duo – a producer and writer working in partnership throughout the process. And finally there is an insistence on the concept of the double story. It’s not enough just to have a good plot, shows need to tell us something about what it means to be a citizen in contemporary Western society.”
Once these elements are in place, a high level of trust is ceded to the creative. “You aren’t put through some kind of entrance exam on every episode,” says Price. “If your show doesn’t get an audience, you might not be hired again. But as long as you are working diligently on your show, you are trusted. The result is that you get shows that are not just consensus ideas.”
Price broke into the business when this new model was in its formative years: “There were no formal writing courses available in film schools back then. But I come from a family of theatre writers and directors that dates back two centuries. I was working in theatre when I was given the opportunity to work on a show called Taxa (Taxi). I learned my trade there and then progressed onto a romantic comedy called Nikolai and Julie. From there I was given the opportunity to create Borgen.”
Around this time, the international market started to get interested in Danish shows. So Price decided to set up his own indie production company alongside Soren Sveistrup (creator of DR’s The Killing) and Meta Louise Foldager (A Royal Affair). “We launched a company called SAM, with backing from StudioCanal,” he says. “The idea is that we continue to work on ideas for the Danish market but also build a slate of shows that are more targeted towards international audiences.”
He is, for example, working on another high-profile piece for DR called Rides Upon the Storm. Centred on a Protestant priest, “it’s a show that uses personal faith as the motivation of the action. I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion. It has had such a terrifying impact on the politics of the world in the last 15 years that I wanted to make a show that tries to understand it. I’ve always found that things that puzzle you can serve as the topic of compelling stories. For me, it is about satisfying a kind of scientific or journalistic curiosity.”
In Price’s opinion, Denmark makes a good backdrop for such a story “because we are all born as members of the church and pay taxes for it – unless we choose to leave, which more people are now doing. So this show looks at traditional Christian beliefs, the new younger elements and the arrival of Islam.”
Rides Upon the Storm is moving rapidly towards production, with transmission planned for 2017. With two series (20 episodes) already ordered, it’s going to take up a lot of Price’s time. But at the same time, SAM has developed a large development slate of around 25 ideas – with some in English. One project Price hopes will get off the ground is a political series for the BBC. “That’s something that predates SAM,” he explains, “an idea I developed with Michael Dobbs.”
In terms of approach, Price says: “Writers come to us with ideas and we use our experience to advise them on the next step. Soren and I have been round the block a few times so we think we can help them get their projects off the ground.”
This is not so different to the model DR has perfected. “In the same way I was trained up, others have followed,” says Price. “The creator (Jeppe Gjervig Gram) of DR’s latest series, financial crime story Follow the Money, was a writer on Borgen.”
Running a company at the same time as writing a TV series may seem like a lot of work, but Price has no problem with that. “There’s an old saying I like: ‘If you want something done, go to a busy man.’” Maybe that philosophy explains why the Danes are among the world’s perennial overachievers.
This week, the BBC formally approved the closure of its youth-oriented television channel BBC3. Despite plenty of protest, the channel will move online from March 2016 as part of a cost-cutting exercise.
As yet, no one really has a clue what that will mean for the 925,000 viewers who tune in to the channel. The best guess is that many of them will be lost to the corporation for good.
The closure now raises questions over the future of BBC4 as a TV service. Although the BBC has not yet threatened to take the axe to the channel, neither has it guaranteed its future. If the BBC is faced with further cuts (likely under the current Conservative government), BBC4 could suffer the same fate as BBC3.
If that happens, it will be a blow to fans of non-English language drama. Over the past few years, BBC4 has played a pivotal role in introducing such shows to the international market. This week, for example, it has started airing season three of acclaimed Danish/Swedish drama The Bridge, showing the first two episodes as a double-header.
Picking up where season two left off, The Bridge attracted an audience of 1.2 million for episode one and 925,000 for episode two. The first of these two figures is a record for the channel, beating the 1.1 million who tuned into the second to last episode of the previous season.
While The Bridge is an exceptionally strong performer, BBC4 has had repeated success with non-English-language scripted series. Another Scandi show that has been airing in recent weeks is Arne Dahl, which has been picking up audiences of 600,000 to 700,000 consistently on Saturday evenings. Prior to that came Beck, a series of feature-length TV films based on the novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Again, ratings were in the region of 600,000 to 650,000.
And while Danish period drama 1864 didn’t manage to hold its audience as well as some of the contemporary Scandi shows (954,000, 687,000, 530,000, 495,000 over four consecutive episodes), this still rates as a decent performance compared with the channel average.
It also attracted good reviews, with The Telegraph saying 1864 “oozed ambition, quality and an epic, cinematic scope. The latest offering from DR, the powerhouse Danish broadcaster that brought us Borgen and The Killing, has taken a key moment in their nation’s history and made it as compelling as any noir drama.”
Although Scandi shows are BBC4’s hottest property, the channel has also shown that people who are willing to watch foreign drama are not overly fussy about where it comes from. Over spring and summer, Italian detective drama The Young Montalbano regularly attracted between 600,000 and 700,000 despite having to contend with lower audiences in the warmer months (it’s noticeable actually that the show dropped a bit in June/July).
Prior to that, the year opened with a storming performance from French drama Spiral (a winner at this week’s International Emmys). Having kicked off with an audience over just over one million, the show stayed rock steady throughout January and February – bringing in audiences of around 850,000 to 900,000.
So what would happen to this kind of drama if BBC4 did disappear at some point in the next couple of years? Well, it would take away an important high-profile platform for such shows. But the truth is the channel has done its job so well that non-English-language drama would probably still find other homes.
Platforms like Netflix and Channel 4-backed Walter Presents are both buyers of such shows. And it’s even possible that BBC4 sister channel BBC2 might decide Scandi drama is worth investing in. In the meantime, though, expect The Bridge to keep doing well on BBC4.
Still in the UK, this week saw BBC1 launch Capital, a three-part drama from Kudos that stars Toby Jones. Jones, who is one of the stars of the upcoming Dad’s Army movie, helped the show to 3.8 million, which is OK but not spectacular. Scheduling didn’t help, with Capital up against ITV’s entertainment juggernaut I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!. So it will be interesting to see if the show picks up significantly in terms of time-shifted viewing.
The issue of how we judge the success or failure of a drama is an ongoing debate these days. At Fox in the US, for example, senior management recently decided they will no longer have anything to do with Live + Same Day ratings.
“We will not acknowledge them for any programming other than live events,” said joint chairmen/CEOs Dana Walden and Gary Newman. Instead, the emphasis will be on Live+3, Live+7 and multi-platform data – all of which provide a more holistic view of the audience.
Fox’s decision is understandable and follows the lead of many cable channels. In essence, it allows a measured judgement once all of the time-shifted/non-standard viewing data has come in. Still, it would be a mistake to regard Live + Same Day as irrelevant to the ratings discourse. In the same way that the movie industry places so much emphasis on opening-weekend box-office figures, Live + Same Day figures provide a valuable insight into whether a TV network has got its pre-launch publicity right, and whether it has found an editorial formula that excites the audience.
It’s also a guide to whether a show has been scheduled correctly. There is a risk, for example, in putting an expensive drama up against a show that demands live viewing – such as Capital vs I’m a Celebrity.
If viewers don’t come to a drama on its opening night, it might mean they’re saving it up for a special moment. But it might also mean that it is regarded as back-up viewing, a second-best alternative. Or it might mean there is a schism within the family – the men want to watch but the women or children don’t, for example.
You could argue that none of this matters as long as word of mouth supports the show and the audience comes to it eventually. But any good sales executive will tell you to try to clinch the sale straightaway rather than let the punter go away and think about it.
In my house, many dramas get saved for later and then deleted or forgotten about. Any delay in viewing means a window is opened up to non-viewing or viewing via piracy or via SVoD, both of which change the economic return on a show.
On the subject of how we should assess ratings, the opening episode of Sky Atlantic’s six-part heist drama The Last Panthers saw its UK audience rise from 228,000 to 696,000 once non-live figures were added in. But episode two’s live numbers dropped to 112,000.
This is a classic example of the mixed messages broadcasters have to deal with these days, though with an IMDb rating of 7.2 the message seems to be that the show hasn’t quite captured the audience’s imagination as yet. By about episode four, however, we should have a clearer picture of whether the show has gained enough support to merit a renewal.
Elsewhere in the Sky family of channels, US drama Blindspot debuted on Sky Living with an audience of 383,000, a healthy start. In the US, the show is the top-rated new series of the season and has been renewed for a second run by NBC. As such, it should settle in nicely on Sky Living and do a good job for at least a couple of seasons.
Like a plot from Doctor Who, Scandinavian crime drama The Bridge has regenerated for its third season without its leading man. Michael Pickard hears how the cast and crew overcame this change to keep the hit series on track.
For fans of Bron/Broen – aka The Bridge – the relationship between leading characters Saga Norén and Martin Rohde has been the centrepiece of the compelling crime drama.
But after Kim Bodnia, who plays Danish detective Rohde, announced he was leaving the series after season two, the cast and crew faced the dilemma of whether they should replace him – and, if so, how they could do it.
And while everyone on the Danish/Swedish coproduction was forced to deal with the emotional impact of Bodnia’s decision, there was also the practical issue of writing out the show’s leading man.
“Kim Bodnia decided to leave the show in April or May and we were shooting in September and had already done the first four scripts with a storyline with him still in it,” explains series creator and writer Hans Rosenfeldt, who is currently working on his first UK series, Marcella, for ITV.
“That was a huge problem for us. But it forced us to think about what The Bridge could be without Saga and Martin. It gave us really good energy and a feeling that we could use it as a chance to see what new situations we could put Saga in and what a new could partner give her that Martin didn’t, as well as seeing other sides of her and a new relationship.”
To ensure Saga’s new partner, Henrik Saboe (played by Thure Lindhardt), wasn’t immediately compared to Martin, the show’s creators decided to delay introducing him until the second episode – a tactic Rosenfeldt describes as “a blessing in disguise.”
“We got a lot of good things out of it,” he continues. “We’d already planned the third season to be very much about Saga because Martin had huge personal stories in seasons one and two. So before this, we decided season three should be very much about Saga, her history and her backstory as her mother comes back to haunt her.”
Sofia Helin, who stars as Swedish detective Saga, describes Bodia’s departure as “a hard and difficult process. But when we accepted that, it was a gift because suddenly I had my character. She had failed at being a girlfriend and failed at being a friend, so she’s almost alone, and I could use that so much to put her in a very vulnerable place. Now I see it as a gift. It also gave us new energy. Suddenly we were on our toes. It was good.”
Launched in 2011 on Denmark’s DR and Sweden’s SVT, The Bridge opened with a body found on the Øresund Bridge, exactly on the border between Copenhagen and Malmö that links the two countries. Norén and Rohde were subsequently paired up to solve the case, a relationship that continued into season two, which aired in late-2013.
Following Bodnia’s decision to leave, the writers opted to leave Rohde languishing in prison at the beginning of season three as Norén teams up with a partner to solve a new spate of chilling murders after a Danish woman is found murdered on a Malmö construction site.
“It is a good place to start if you’ve never seen it before; you could easily start with season three,” says Rosenfeldt. “You quickly understand where Saga is, you don’t need the backstory, you don’t need to have seen Martin and she will get a new partner and things will develop from there. We don’t look back much. Season two was much more dependent on season one than this one is (on season two).”
One thing that does continue from previous seasons, however, is the show’s brooding visual style that mixes bleak landscapes with the often dark and grey skyline.
Producer Anders Landström says: “We’ve been working a lot with the style of the show. We started it on season one and have adjusted it over the series. Shooting in Scandinavia in the winter is very dark and grey so we go with that and try to do something really nice with it.”
Director Henrik Georgsson continues: “Our ideal time (to film) is November with no leaves on the trees. We don’t like anything that’s cute or picturesque. There’s no architecture from the 19th or early 20th century – only from 1930 onwards. It’s always glass, concrete or other hard materials.
“We try to make a cold world around the actors and characters. The visual world is very harsh and gloomy – in a good way, we think. We have a filming style; we don’t use wide angles close to the characters and a lot of the time we have things in the foreground and the camera is not high up, it’s always low. We think about it as if we’re doing cinema, not television, so we try to be cinematic. We try to make pictures for the screen rather than for the television.”
The new season also deals with contemporary themes and topics such as gender equality. One character is also a prominent video-blogger who records hate-filled rants in the opening episodes before being told her targets are later found dead.
Rosenfeldt says Scandinavian broadcasters demand these storylines outside the main plot. “It’s a requirement from our broadcasters that we should have something called the second story,” he explains. “When we pitch it, we say ‘this is what happens to our characters, this is the plot,’ but then they also want to know why it should be shown in 2015 and not five years ago or five years from now. And you always have to have an answer for that, which is good because it makes it very contemporary.”
With distributor ZDF Enterprises sending the series around the world, including to the UK where BBC4 launched season three this month, The Bridge is a bonafide international hit. But what’s behind its global appeal?
“We’re quite fortunate that we have done good stuff for a while and the rest of the world has caught up to us doing it,” Rosenfeldt says. “We have a long tradition of crime storytelling, both in books and films. We are and have been very good with characters. Plotting is the easy part of a crime show; it’s the characters you carry with you after the show and we’re quite good at creating compelling characters in Sweden and Denmark.
“I also think we are looked upon as a little eccentric. We don’t have curtains for our windows. Saga is quite free about her sex life, there’s her leather trousers, her Porsche. Maybe this isn’t so much the case in England, but I know that in Germany they love our crime shows and novels because there’s an image of us as the perfect society from the 1960s and 1970s where social security works perfectly and no one has to suffer. But those crime series show us that’s not really true. It’s another side of the story. It’s not the elks and small houses and everybody’s not jumping along singing happy tunes. It’s not Pippy Longstocking.”
Indeed, Cassian Harrison, channel editor of BBC4, says The Bridge is one of the most successful foreign-language series ever to appear on the channel.
“It’s an incredibly successful drama series worldwide and has done incredibly well for us here in the UK as well,” he says. “We’re incredibly proud of The Bridge and of being able to show it on BBC4. It’s a series on which we are only but one of many partners – (the others being) Filmlance International, Nimbus and ZDF.
“The Bridge is one of the most successful foreign-language dramas we’ve had on BBC4 and it’s been one of the real unique calling cards of the channel. Since 2006 when we started to run foreign-language dramas, particularly on Saturday nights, we’ve had some brilliant properties – Arne Dahl, The Young Montalbano, Hostages, 1864, The Bridge. Next year we’ve got some stunning new series, including a really brilliant thriller from Iceland.”
So can fans look forward to crossing The Bridge once again for a fourth season? Rosenfeldt says this has not yet been confirmed but believes the show can run and run.
“We can go on as long as we think we can do slightly better than or as good as the last season,” he says. “So we have to come up with stories worth telling and find the best way of telling them. From my point of view, we can do it for as long as it feels fun.”
A fourth outing is also likely to depend on Helin’s commitment to the show. “I have a hard time seeing The Bridge without Saga,” Rosenfeldt adds. “We managed to stay alive losing one of our main characters. I think it would be very hard to lose the other one as well.”
French drama is evolving at an increasing pace, but while broadcasters and producers are widening their international horizons, the most dramatic changes are taking place at home.
Change is afoot in France, but while landmark international coproductions might be grabbing the headlines, traditional ciné movies and crime procedurals are being replaced by serialised dramas and a gamut of new genres on screen.
Tetra Media Fiction producer Emmanuel Daucé says French drama is in the middle of a revolution that dates back 10 years to when broadcasters shifted their focus from TV movies to series, inspired by the work of US premium cable network HBO.
Gritty crime dramas such as Braquo and Spiral subsequently broke through to the international market, and more producers are now trying to follow their lead as France seeks to capitalise on the increasing demand for global drama series.
One example is The Young Pope, which sees pay TV network Canal+ join forces with HBO and Sky to tell the controversial story of the beginning of Pope Pius XIII’s pontificate. The cast is headed by Jude Law and Diane Keaton, while all eight episodes will be directed by Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino.
“It was HBO series, which not many people watched in France, that changed everything,” Daucé explains. “Telling stories through images is so important in France that we needed a cultural validation that TV could be interesting, and HBO helped a lot.”
Stéphane Drouet, producer and co-founder of MakingProd, says he is developing series for “almost every broadcaster,” as well as producing season three of cop show Cherif for France 2.
“Networks are still looking for self-contained episodes, but more and more they’re looking for serialised drama,” he adds. “Broadchurch did really well on France 2 and it may have accelerated the need for this kind of programme. They realised it would really work in primetime in France.
“Of course, there are still cop dramas. It’s a format that still works so well. But for a lot of years it was mainly procedural – now it’s more serialised, which is a good thing, and it also opens the door to more serialised dramas that aren’t about cops.”
Paris-based Ego Productions is behind TF1 series Alice Nevers, which will begin production on its 13th season this autumn, while new drama Zone Blanche, commissioned by France Télévisions, will begin shooting in April 2016. Ego is also responsible for the French adaptation of UK drama Doc Martin, which ran for four seasons on TF1.
Executive producer Pascal Wyn says French drama is playing catch-up to other territories by trying to broaden the international appeal of its stories, in the face of traditional series that still prove popular among domestic viewers.
“At the moment, the TV drama business is trying to create a revolution,” he explains. “French TV producers all want to make French television better and more international, as in Sweden, Germany and, of course, the USA. French producers want to make programmes with international appeal.
“Broadcasters say they are looking for new stories, but in fact they are very suspicious of new programmes because traditional French drama always works.”
Another factor behind the changing face of the country’s TV drama, according to Endemol France MD Nicholas Coppermann, is the decreasing reliance on US series. As long-term output deals for series such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy, House and NCIS come to an end or the shows are cancelled, primetime slots are opening up for domestic series.
“The channels used US dramas as primetime shows and it was very difficult to compete using French scripted drama,” Coppermann says. “Although there are some very good US series now, they aren’t as mainstream or coherent with French tastes.
“The channels that previously thought it was expensive and risky to pay for local drama compared with US series now feel they need some strong local pieces. They are also ready to buy more series. All this combines to create a much more favourable environment for French writers, producers, actors and directors.”
Endemol label Leonis Productions was responsible for telemovie L’Emprise, which told the true story of a woman who was acquitted of killing her abusive husband. Coppermann says the project represented a leap of faith for TF1, which he says was rewarded with the highest-rating French drama since 2007, attracting 8.6 million viewers (and 9.8 million after seven days).
The film, which debuted in January, has since been sold to Antenna 3 in Spain.
“Our drama business is up and running and we recently signed a deal for a procedural with TF1, as well as a thriller miniseries called Le Domaine for M6,” Coppermann adds. “It is penned by writer/director Hervé Hadmar, who was behind the huge French hit Les Témoins (aka Witnesses), a drama that made quite some noise because it was sold to Channel 4 in the UK before its debut in France, which is quite rare.
“TF1 used to be sceptical about miniseries, but it’s more open to them now. There’s a movement towards more serialised miniseries in France because it’s easier to grip the audience’s attention with those. However, the main free-to-air channels still need some self-contained shows. So both those genres are required at the moment.
“Canal+ wants more miniseries because it wants to create an event with every show. I think it has come to realise that its returning series, no matter how good, are not making so much noise, so it needs to bring back miniseries. TF1 has a slot for procedurals on Thursday and it wants that to be strong, but it’s also open to miniseries. The time of ‘no serialised shows,’ which was making things complicated for the French creative community, is now behind us, so there’s room for all kinds of dramas.”
Canal+ is currently preparing for the fall launch of Versailles, a 10-part historical drama created by Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft and produced by Capa Drama, Incendo and Zodiak Fiction.
But what is the cause of France’s late arrival to serialised series? Daucé says television in France has struggled to escape the shadow of cinema but, as in other territories, the tide is slowly turning in favour of the small screen. In particular, he credits another Canal+ series – breakout supernatural drama Les Revenants (aka The Returned) – for helping to improve the reputation of television series in France.
“Viewers weren’t very familiar with the format,” he says. “This is because of the importance of cinema in France. The biggest recent hit in France was Les Revenants. This is a brilliant TV series but its strength lies in its cinematic qualities. The filmmaking is brilliant. It was produced by Haut et Court, a production company that makes feature films, and was created by filmmaker Fabrice Gobert, not by someone from TV.
“Now, slowly, TV series in France are receiving hype. It’s only very recently that viewers and people in the industry have started to take more of an interest in television. There are two worlds in France — cinema and TV, and there’s still some friction between the two.”
Tetra Media Fiction’s slate includes period drama Un Village Français (pictured top), which will air its sixth season this autumn on France 3, with a seventh and final season due to begin production by the end of the year. It is also producing Les Hommes de l’Ombre, a political drama now in its third season on France 2.
Daucé adds that broadcasters are also now more open-minded about the type of series they broadcast. “Canal+ helped a lot, again with Les Revenants,” he explains. “This is a genre we never have usually. When I started Un Village Français, I was told period dramas were too difficult to produce and cost too much. But there have been a lot of period dramas since.
“Now we are, in a way, in a revolution of the way we think about TV series. Our problem is that for a long time we didn’t make TV series. We now have producers and writers who specialise in making them but this is still pretty new for us.”
With this shift in focus to television drama, the industry will only become more experienced, and this expertise will be boosted further by the surge of international coproductions being built in France.
In June, Canal+ and Swedish public broadcaster SVT unveiled Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), the first ever French-Swedish drama copro. It follows a French detective who is sent to the far north of Sweden to investigate the murder of a French citizen.
Created by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, and based on an idea by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer and Patrick Nebout, it is produced by Atlantique Productions, Nice Drama and Filmpool Nord. The cast includes Leïla Bekhti and Gustaf Hammarsten.
Atlantique has also partnered with Keshet UK, the London-based production arm of Israeli distributor Keshet International, to develop English-language drama Crater Lake. The eight-part series, created by Ron Leshem, is described as a “life-affirming, character-driven show about death.”
Oliver Bibas, MD at Atlantique, says: “People are more and more aware of international coproduction opportunities. Canal+ has a strategy to do more coproductions. It is also focused on French drama, but there is a place for coproduction. It’s the same for Arte, and now we’re seeing what will be the next move for France Télévisions, which should also step up in this area.”
Bibas says Atlantique is now developing series it wouldn’t have considered as recently as two or three years ago. In particular, the company is remaking Django, a spaghetti western from the 1960s, and is also on board the reboot of science-fiction series Metal Hurlant with producer Jamie Mathieson. “They’re not something we would have done previously but because of online platforms such as Amazon, Netflix and Canal Play, there are so many new outlets that you can go deeper into a niche genre, which wasn’t the case three or four years ago,” he says.
“We’re trying to get some more niche shows into development. Western and sci-fi are not traditional genres for scripted drama in France. But we feel that when we’re pitching shows to the networks, there is an appetite for this. The market is changing – there’s new demand from networks, and you have to find shows that are in line with our times.”
In fact, Netflix is already in production on its first French-langauge drama, Marseille, with Gerard Depardieu playing the lead role of the city’s mayor in a political story of power, corruption and redemption.
Created and written by Dan Franck, the eight-part series is produced by Federation Entertainment and will launch on Netflix in 2016.
Franco-German network Arte epitomises the change in attitude towards drama among French broadcasters. Switching from
TV movies to serialised programmes, it was among the first to import European shows, most notably Denmark’s Forbrydelsen (aka The Killing) and Borgen, plus Swedish sci-fi series Äkta människor (Real Humans).
The channel is now forging ahead with its coproduction strategy. Launching this autumn is Occupied, a 10-part political thriller based on an idea by novelist Jo Nesbø and developed with Norway’s TV2.
It has also partnered with Denmark’s DR and Borgen creator Adam Price on a new faith-based series called Herrens veje (aka Rides Upon the Storm).
Alexandre Piel, Arte’s deputy head of drama in charge of international acquisitions and coproductions, says he’s not sure if what is happening in French drama is a revolution but admits the landscape is changing fast.
“Our behaviours have completely changed in the last five years,” he says. “We jumped from 90- to 52-minute slots; from mainly standalone collections to serial dramas. That’s a major change.
“Canal+ was one of the first to establish the strategy. Arte followed and we were very much open to European content as a pioneer channel. Now everyone has an eye on European content.
“From international acquisitions to French content, the standards have changed and everyone has to cope with it. Then we have to see in the coming months – in terms of international distribution and coproduction – if it’s a major change or just a short-term change.”
Arte’s coproduction strategy began with it working as a minor partner on Occupied, before co-developing Herrens veje. It is also onboard sci-fi drama Trepalium. Piel hopes Arte’s next copro will be a French project on which the network can take the lead.
He adds that Arte is open to new ideas, as it doesn’t want to run the same sort of shows that air on other channels.
“It means more risk-taking but the idea is to jump on originality, creativity and innovation, and to be able to offer something more audacious,” he says. “That’s really the keyword in terms of ambition.
“There are a lot of projects on the market. There are plenty of series but some are quite similar. I feel there’s less difference, creativity and innovation than a few years ago, but that’s normal. The industry is restructuring so we need new and different projects and a different way to work altogether.
“That’s why we’re doing a lot of pre-buys on series including Wolf Hall, Indian Summers and Danish series Norskov. We’re trying to understand the way some channels and producers are working so we can work with them in the future.”
Meanwhile, MakingProd is developing Destination Mars, about an expedition to the red planet, with Russia’s Star Media, Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Productions and Poland’s Synergy Films. It is also producing Salazar, a period coproduction with Spain’s Plano a Plano and distributor Eccho Rights.
But while Drouet acknowledges that international coproductions are gaining traction, he says networks are still predominantly focused on homegrown drama.
“French drama is becoming more and more attractive for partners and producers, so we have a lot of people coming to us saying they would like to make international coproductions,” he says. “A few years ago it wouldn’t have been possible but now it is, and it shows the success of TV drama in France.
“There will always be a strong demand for domestic drama but even now the pure French TV series are getting better and better. And even if it’s a purely French series, we have interest now from foreign countries to get shows like The Returned or Witnesses. It shows there’s a new era of TV series in France.
“Even though the shows are taking place in France and are spoken in French, now they interest foreign markets more and more because the stories we tell are more international and more universal.”
Bibas agrees that domestic drama is still the model in France. “We have a very traditional setup,” he explains. “It’s nobody’s fault – this is the way the French system has been for the past 20 years – but now more and more producers and networks are opening up a bit to something that is more modern in terms of French drama, and it’s a very good thing. We’re on the right track but it takes time to change the market.”
As the popularity of Nordic noir shows no sign of waning, DQ asks Scandinavian drama’s key players where they plan to take the genre next.
Ever since the massive global hit that was The Killing, Scandinavian drama has been punching above its weight, winning over critics and viewers internationally as well as influencing its European neighbours.
The latest Nordic noir success story is Sweden’s The Fat and the Angry (Ettor och nollor), which scooped another international award for the region when it picked up best non-English-language drama at the inaugural C21 Drama Awards last November. It came a close second earlier in the year at the Seoul Drama Awards with a Silver Bird gong in the TV movies category.
Based on true events in Gothenburg’s criminal underworld, the two-part show, which premiered locally in Sweden in February 2014, joins a long list of award-winning Nordic dramas with international careers, including Lilyhammer, The Killing, Wallander, Borgen and The Bridge – as well as Mammon, which has been the subject of speculation about a BBC remake.
The Fat and the Angry highlights an important feature of Scandinavian dramas: coproduction. Made by Göta Film and Swedish pubcaster SVT, its partners included Finnish pubcaster YLE and Swedish film prodco Film i Väst.
With a few exceptions, Scandinavian drama’s international partnerships came out of necessity, says SVT head of drama Christian Wikander. “The hourly cost for drama has gone up, which means we’re all searching for new money, and this drove the producers and the broadcasters to reach out and broaden the network.”
If anyone can find success with this approach, it’s the Scandinavians, as Liselott Forsman, executive producer of international drama projects at YLE, explains: “We’ve been coproducing since 1959. It’s really good for Nordic drama that we have subsidy methods and two important funds within the Nordic countries.” One of these is the Nordisk Film and TV Fond, where Forsman sits on the board.
“There’s much to be gained by having a lot of smaller funding and regional funding contributions, even though they don’t pay very much,” agrees Stefan Baron, executive drama producer at Nice Drama. Baron left SVT in 2014 after 21 years to join MTG-owned Nice Entertainment Group, where he’s now an exec producer heading up international coproductions. “The trick is to not have too many partners at the script stage,” he says. “When you have a couple of scripts, then you bring in distributors and coproducers from around the world.”
Beyond the region, Nordic drama’s international appeal has grown thanks to increasingly sophisticated, social media-savvy audiences and their expanding tastes, says Wikander – adding that this has also helped prise open the door to the UK, a notoriously closed market for subtitled, non-Anglo Saxon fare.
“I think audiences are very well educated and used to all kinds of storylines, plots, dramaturgy and also language,” says the SVT man. “Because social media is so borderless, we share so much in our personal networks – and one proof of that is the success of Nordic drama on BBC4. Ten years ago, if someone had told me two million Brits would sit down to watch a subtitled drama, I wouldn’t have believed them.
“The fantastic upside for all of us working in Scandinavia today is that we’re approached by broadcasters and international producers in a way we’ve never seen before, and that’s a great opportunity for us.”
SVT is Scandinavia’s largest drama commissioner and producer, with an annual output of four longform drama series (10×60’/10×45’) and four miniseries (3×60’) across crime, family drama and comedy, on a budget of around SEK320m (US$46.6m).
Around half its output is coproduced, largely with its longstanding Nordic partners such as DR, NRK and YLE. But it has also attracted a growing band of Europeans and North Americans interested in remake rights to shows like The Bridge, and ‘hubot’ drama Real Humans, with Shine-owned Kudos’s remake of the latter, simply called Humans, now airing on the UK’s Channel 4 and AMC in the US.
Piodor Gustaffson, co-founder and producer of independent production company Another Park Film, and former drama commissioning editor at SVT, says that despite smaller budgets and limited development funds in the region, he’s noticed an overall increase in the quality of drama series over the last few years. “That’s about competing with not only the rest of the world but also your neighbours, as well as occasionally using the same talent,” he says.
At SVT, Gustaffson pushed for a broader range of drama output, leading to projects such as The Bridge and Real Humans. Meanwhile, Baron greenlit Nice’s family drama Thicker Than Water. The show aired in spring 2014 to a million-plus viewers, selling internationally via Germany’s ZDFE. A second season is now in the pipeline.
There’s widespread agreement that Nordic noir has opened doors for Scandinavian producers, themselves refusing to have their output pigeonholed as simply Nordic noir. With crime at its core, the programming stretches far beyond into an exploration of society and human motivations, offering a strong identification with and empathy for characters along the way. It also embraces other genres such as suspense and mystery, and fish-out-of-water crime comedy. And now producers are moving into new areas, exemplified by DR’s family inheritance drama The Legacy.
“Of course it’s about crime – it’s Nordic noir – but it’s always been character-focused,” says Jonas Allen, producer and co-founder of Danish prodco Miso Film. “We care about the characters. It’s not only about fascination with them, but also identifying with the characters, and I think that’s the basic core to all the shows.”
Now majority-owned by FremantleMedia, Miso Film counts local hits such as Those Who Kill and Dicte for TV2 Denmark, as well as the historical drama 1864 for DR, among its productions. Crime reporter series Dicte (10×45’) returned for a successful second run last autumn, with a third season now in development. It includes TV4 Sweden and TV2 Norway as coproducers, and received support from regional Danish regional funds, the EU’s MEDIA programme and DFI’s Public Service Fund.
For Scandinavia’s public broadcasters, at least, another quintessential ingredient of Nordic drama is how it reflects society. “It’s our duty to tell all our audiences something about what’s happening in society today. It’s imperative that we entertain, but we should always enrich at a deeper level, too,” says Forsman.
Even though Nordic drama appears gloomy and dark, Forsman says one of the reasons Danish drama travels so well is that the characters care about each other. “You can feel it within 10 seconds of watching. You have to have a lot of empathy, no matter how harsh the subject.”
YLE Drama’s latest show is the thriller Tellus, scripted and directed by JP Siili. The 6×50’ drama deals with a group of eco-terrorists, exploring an “important ethical question” of how far individuals will go to fight for their ideals, according to Forsman.
NRK and SVT are coproducers and ZDFE is distributing it internationally outside of Scandinavia, making it “a typical Nordic coproduction,” Forsman adds. The drama opened to 27% shares on YLE1 in the autumn, continuing on 25%, with a second season greenlit before the final episode aired in December.
Pubcaster NRK’s latest traditional Nordic noir, Eyewitness (Øyenvitne, pictured top), which debuted on NRK1 last autumn, is also imbued with socio-cultural commentary. “It’s been a real success among critics and audiences,” says NRK head of drama Ivar Køhn, who’s also the current chair of the Nordisk Film and TV Fund.
It was scripted and directed by Jarl Emsell Larsen who, as the original father of Nordic noir in Norway, has 30 years of TV drama under his belt. “For the last 15 years he’s been really into social drama, when he discovered he could make crime and talk about society and also make it popular,” Køhn says of the director.
Eyewitness follows two adolescent boys who meet secretly in a forest, where they witness a violent murder. The story follows the events that build after they fail to report the crime to the police. It has already sold internationally in both finished (including to Germany) and scripted format forms.
But NRK is also keen to evolve its drama. Its ‘Nordic humour noir’ show Struggle for Life (Kampen for tilværelsen) “is not so much a ‘fish out of water’ story as a ‘tigers in silent waters’ one – the complete opposite,” says Køhn.
Following in the mould of series like Welcome to Sweden and Lilyhammer, Struggle for Life centres on a Pole who travels to Norway in search of his father. Although a linguist, he can only find work as a carpenter, which exposes him to a Norwegian middle-class life of self-made problems.
“It’s a really original story and a brave one for us,” says Køhn. The project was completely controlled by scriptwriters, and co-written by Erlend Loe, Per Schreiner and Bjørn Olaf Johannessen – “some of the most exciting writers we have in Norway,” says Køhn. NRK has greenlit two seasons of the eight-part comedy drama.
Miso Film is also evolving the Nordic noir genre. “It’s one of the things going on right now,” says co-founder Allen. “A lot of creatives who we’re dealing with are looking for and trying to tell new stories.”
One of its latest offerings is NOK65m (US$8.8m)-budget mystery drama Acquitted (Frikjent) (10×45’), made for TV2 Norway and launched in March this year. The project, which received NOK10m funding from the Nordisk Film and TV Fund, became TV2’s biggest drama premiere, pulling in a 46.6% share of its 20-49s target group and a 38.8% overall share (12 years-plus).
Scripted by two female writers, Siv Rajendram Eliassen (Varg Veum) and Anna Bache-Wiig, the drama is inspired by a real rape and murder case in Norway. “They were very interested in the character, and it was always about finding out about the man who was acquitted, why he came back to his hometown, what he was looking for, and the forces that drove him back. That’s the core of the development of the show,” says Allen.
SVT’s Wikander, too, is keen for producers not to come to him with the next The Bridge. “I think we need to be brave. Take Real Humans, for instance – that’s an example of being brave, and for a public broadcaster today that’s extremely important,” he says.
“We need to try out new stuff but, of course, without abandoning the established crime formats. We’re going to see a third and probably fourth season of The Bridge, but we need to balance that with bravery, and we’ve started a lot from scratch, finding stories relevant to a Swedish audience because that’s our mission. When you have that mission, you can then go into the international market, but not as a first step.”
One of SVT’s newest dramas, Jordskott (10×60’), takes the pubcaster in yet another new direction. It’s made by established Swedish commercials prodco Palladium, which formed new division Palladium Fiction, headed by producer Filip Hammarström, for its first TV drama. The show, which launched on Monday February 16, opened to 1.6 million viewers and has since averaged 1.4 million so far across its debut run.
The story follows a detective who returns to her small home town to work on the case of a missing boy, 10 years after her own daughter disappeared, and tries to find links between the two mysterious incidents. Wikander calls it a “Nordic crime meets mystery” drama.
After four years developing the idea, Palladium brought a 10-minute tape to SVT. “If they hadn’t had that 10 minutes, we would have said no, because the company had never produced a drama series before,” says Wikander.
The UK’s ITV Studios came in on the project very early, he adds, making it possible to take it to the next level of production, and is distributing the series worldwide. Finland’s Kinoproduktion is also a coproducer and the series has been pre-bought by YLE, TV2 Norway and Iceland’s RUV.
“The biggest difference of the last two to three years has been an increase in the amount spent on development, alongside international companies investing in or acquiring Nordic companies and increased budgets at the TV channels. More projects are now very well developed even before they reach the commissioning editors,” notes Another Park’s Gustaffson.
SVT has upped its development budget to help develop more new projects, a challenge many countries without the US-style showrunner/writers room approach face. “The best writers are occupied so we also need to focus also on the writers beneath them and on finding ways to get them together with producers to lift them,” Wikander explains.
Another Park is currently busy developing a number of (as yet undisclosed) film and TV projects across a range of genres, working with top writing talent. “We will go out to the market when we’re ready,” Gustaffson says. “We wanted to have that freedom when we created the company. But, obviously, we would also be open to start earlier with some partners if we shared the same vision at the development stage.”
However, Gustaffson says a key challenge for Nordic drama is the “limit to how much Swedish-language drama the local market can finance and consume.”
He adds: “There’s a bigger appetite for Nordic and Swedish drama than what TV stations commission, and that’s caused a bottleneck. A lot of interesting projects will come out of the increase in development money but this won’t result in more Swedish-language drama series – and it could mean some of the top talent start to write for companies in other countries because what they develop here won’t be financed.”
Yet Scandinavian producers remain unfazed by growing international competition in foreign-language drama from countries such as France, Spain, Israel and Turkey. Rather, they see greater potential synergies developing.
NRK is no stranger to global partnerships. It was the first Scandinavian broadcaster to strike out when it joined forces with new entrant Netflix to coproduce the crime comedy series Lilyhammer by Rubicon TV, which premiered in early 2012. Season three of the drama returned on flagship NRK1 last October, with the broadcaster this time taking a leaf out of Netflix’s book by also making the entire series available straight away on its online streaming service. Meanwhile, HBO Europe picked up remake rights to NRK’s six-part thriller Mammon.
“We were all taken and shaken by Netflix and House of Cards, when the whole series was made available on day one, while Netflix rose extremely quickly to around 650,000 subscribers in Sweden,” says Wikander. “But that has now levelled out, and one of the reasons for that – not unique to Netflix – is that 98% of its catalogue is old titles. The audience has now gone through it, and an output of four new titles a year, whether you’re a broadcaster like us or a Netflix, is too little to keep a subscriber audience with you.”
There’s another reason why distribution platforms like Netflix and HBO make interesting bedfellows: they can do niche drama, because ultimately they can aggregate lots of smaller audiences, says YLE’s Forsman. “In other countries where we have really strong public service companies with good audience shares and very well-educated audiences, we can do that too,” she notes.
“It’s really great to see channels like France’s Canal+ doing the same,” adds Forsman. “They want their drama to have deep characters and to speak about society in a new way, to be brave, risky and so on – all imperatives for public service broadcasters. We could have written the same words, yet they’re a commercial broadcaster.”
US remakes of foreign-language dramas have often struggled in the recent past, with shows such as The Returned ending up on the scrapheap. But could this negative trend be fixed with AMC’s forthcoming series Broke?
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That seems to be the message from US drama executives who are continuing to look for overseas formats that they can turn into their next drama hit.
Cable network SundanceTV broke the mould earlier this month when it debuted Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 to critical and popular acclaim. Commissioned by RTL, it is the first time a German-language series has aired in the US and the channel should be praised for its decision to air the UFA Fiction-produced spy drama in its original form.
But it does seem to be the exception to the rule that American networks prefer to remake foreign-language dramas, and that trend has continued today with news that SundanceTV’s sister station AMC has gone straight-to-series on another reboot.
Broke tells the story of two best friends who take one last shot at their dream of opening a restaurant together. One is a brilliant chef in trouble with the mob and the law, while the other is the best sommelier in the city and the widowed father of a teenage son.
Based on Danish series Bankerot (aka Bankruptcy, pictured top), which was created by Kim Fupz Aakeson and airs on public broadcaster DR, it will be coproduced in the US by AMC Studios and Lionsgate. The rights were sold by DR Sales.
Nurse Jackie showrunner Clyde Phillips, whose credits also include Dexter, will write and executive produce the 10-part series, which is expected to air in 2016.
“Broke is unique, edgy and sexy. I can’t wait to jump in and help it evolve into a groundbreaking bit of television,” said Phillips. “More than that, I’m looking forward to continuing what’s been a remarkable partnership with Lionsgate, and starting out on an exciting new adventure with AMC.”
It’s also interesting to note that many creatives from the Danish series are retaining a role on the US adaptation, with Henrik Ruben Genz, Malene Blenkov and DR head of drama Piv Bernth all named as executive producers.
Describing Bankerot as DR’s “little gem,” Bernth said: “There’s no doubt Kim Fupz Aakeson’s story of Thomas and Dion – who really is bankrupt, mentally, emotionally and financially – hits something universal. The series’ message that if we stand together and help each other against all odds, we should be fine, fits well all over the world and especially in the US. It’s great that the series will have a new life in multiple languages.”
The show has already been sold in its original form to French/German network Arte, but the deal with AMC marks the first time remake rights have been secured.
DR can now expect a flood of enquiries from other international networks interested in picking up Bankerot, such is the power of a US acquisition – whatever its form.
But that doesn’t mean the remake will be an instant success, as US networks have a decidedly chequered history with their adaptations of international hits. Most recently, A&E scrapped The Returned, its reworking of French zombie drama Les Revenants, after one season, while AMC has previously adapted another DR drama, Forbrydelsen (aka The Killing). It survived for three seasons, with a fourth picked up by Netflix. But it never translated into the breakout success the original series enjoyed.
FX also ran two seasons of The Bridge, a reworking of the Swedish/Danish crime drama Bron/Broen, before it was cancelled last October.
Of course, there have been successes, most notably Homeland, Showtime’s take on Israeli drama Hatufim that’s now heading into its fifth season.
But while all eyes will be on whether Broke takes off after its launch next year, it is more intriguing to see whether Sundance’s gamble on a foreign-language series will see more US channels following its lead and opening the floodgates to a wave of subtitled drama reaching American shores.
Television schedules are no strangers to stories of war. From BBC1’s The Crimson Field, which was produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War last year, to RTL’s Cold War spy thriller Deutschland 83, conflicts continue to provide scriptwriters with a host of compelling stories.
Fresh from producing historical epic 1864, which is set against the backdrop of one of Europe’s bloodiest ever battles, Denmark’s Miso Film is now turning its attention to a drama that will examine issues that are new to the country.
The prodco has partnered with writer/director Christoffer Boe for six-part series Warrior (fka Prospect), which is based on an idea from Boe and is being developed with Simon Pasternak.
It tells the story of a former soldier who struggles to find his way back into society after returning home from war. When he learns that a friend and fellow former soldier has committed suicide, he sets out to learn the truth behind his death.
Miso Film co-founder Jonas Allen says Warrior confronts a topic that is still very new for people in Denmark. He explains: “Christoffer is a very talented director so we wanted to work with him – but we really liked the story. It’s about a soldier coming back from war in Afghanistan. This is new in Denmark – having veterans coming back, having people in service and Denmark stepping into a war in present times.
“This story is about a soldier returning and trying to cope, but he can’t really find his place in society. I think that’s very interesting in the time we’re in right now.”
Warrior is set to go into production in spring 2016, and will air on TV2 in Denmark.
Meanwhile, 1864 was recently nominated for Best Drama at the Golden Nymph Awards, which took place earlier this month at the Monte Carlo TV Festival (though the prize was won by UK/US copro The Missing). The show’s stars Jens Setter-Lassen and Sarah-Sofie Boussnina were also nominated, for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively.
The eight-part series tells the story of two brothers who sign up for the army when war breaks out between Denmark and Prussia, and follows the love triangle they become embroiled in during a brutal conflict.
Allen says: “1864 aired last fall on DR. We were very pleased – we had one of the greatest openings. I think it was about 1.8 million viewers or 67% audience share. Our average was 1.4 million viewers, which was great.
“You look forward to the premiere and the reaction, and then it came out on BBC Four. It’s overwhelming that people really loved the show. It’s a great launch for the international market, and it also just premiered on Arte in France.”
Miso Film is also preparing to begin shooting the third season of its TV2 crime drama Dicte, which is based on Elsebeth Egholm’s novels. Production will get underway in September.