Der Pass (Pagan Peak) is latest drama to take inspiration from Scandinavian hit The Bridge, putting a German/Austrian spin on the cross-border crime format. But, as the producers tell DQ on set at its mountainside filming location, this is a completely new story.
Despite becoming a global hit in its original form, Scandinavian crime drama Bron/Broen (The Bridge) has spawned several local adaptations. First there was The Bridge, set on the border between the US and Mexico; then The Tunnel, pairing the UK and France. There is also another version set between Russia and Estonia. So a new German/Austrian adaptation may not seem the most original contribution to the golden age of TV drama we are currently enjoying.
But when you find out the producers of Der Pass (or Pagan Peak, as it will be known in English) are Max Wiedemann and Quirin Berg, responsible for Netflix’s cult genre-bending hit Dark, as well as the hugely respected Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others, it’s hard to be so flippant.
“We didn’t want to just remake a series that’s already been remade twice,” says Philipp Stennert, one half of the directing/writing team, the other being his long-term collaborator Cyrill Boss. Together, they recently made Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle for ARD, a miniseries about the two brothers who separately created the Adidas and Puma brands during Nazi-era Germany.
“Apart from the premise of two countries working together and finding a body on the border, everything else is pretty much a completely new story,” he says of Sky Germany’s new eight-part series, which is distributed globally by Beta Film.
In keeping with the original format, the story centres on the discovery of a murder victim on a snowy mountain pass between Austria and Germany. But the most striking difference from the original is the role of the serial killer in Der Pass. Broen was a ‘whodunnit,’ with the detectives from either side of the Swedish/Danish border spending season one trying to find out who is culpable for the atrocious and often spectacular deaths. But in Der Pass, we find out the killer’s identity early on, and thus he plays a far larger role in the series as a whole. “We’re so interested in this evil that we wanted to follow it – how do they work and what drives them?” says Stennert.
The creative team spent a lot of time researching serial killers (slightly disturbingly, hundreds of interviews with the most notorious of them, such as Charles Manson, are available online) and they worked closely with Germany’s top criminal profiler to develop the character. Franz Hartwig, the actor who plays Gregor Ansbach, Der Pass’s serial-killing IT expert, was profoundly affected by playing the character.
“It’s really weird. I came to a point that I actually understood him and liked him,” says Hartwig. “His ideas totally make sense but unfortunately he choses completely the wrong means of achieving them.”
Indeed, on the set of the series, DQ is confronted by the aftermath of one of Ansbach’s most devastating crimes. With sirens wailing and hundreds of extras playing members of the public, the police and ambulances services are all covered in a horrible grey dust as they flee an explosion in a fictionalised mall on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria. Out of this apocalyptic scene, on a brief but apparently much needed espresso break, emerges Nicholas Ofczarek, who plays Austrian police officer Gedeon Winter.
“Gedeon’s given up, he’s cynical,” he says of his character. “He’s addicted to everything – alcohol, uppers and downers – and to pay for these addictions, he’s got involved in organised crime. He’s a good cop but he’s wasted.”
However, the case sparks something in Gedeon that gives him a desire to atone for his former failings, as does his relationship with his German counterpart, Ellie Stocker, played by Julia Jentsch. “She gives my character a perspective in his life and in his job, a faith in humanity,” says Ofczarek.
But unlike the heroine of Broen – Saga Noren, who is socially awkward to the point of showing traits of Asperger syndrome – Ellie is “very in touch with herself and the humans around her,” says Ofczarek. In Broen, the male detective Martin was the happy-go-lucky one. In Der Pass, everything is reversed. Ellie presented the biggest writing challenges. “It was very hard to write a character who is truly good but also interesting,” says Stennert. But over the course of the investigation, Ellie and Gedeon’s roles switch.
Then there is the scenery. The Alpine border between Austria and Germany is, by any standards, one of the most beautiful locations in the world. But working 2,600 metres up the side of a mountain in up to half a metre of fresh snow every day was not without its difficulties. “The snow and the mountains are 40% of the show,” says Stennert. “Part of you thinks, ‘Oh no, we have to shoot in that again, it’s going to be really tough,’ but the other half is thinking, ‘This is going to look so good.’”
Following Deutschland 83/86, Ku’damm 56/59, Berlin Babylon and Dark, Germany is now enjoying a newly earned reputation as a contributor to the best TV drama coming out of Europe. In this new, exciting industry you have to take risks and be bold – and go against Germany’s stereotypically risk-averse nature. “Sky’s drama department felt that something, between the producers, the authors and the cast, came together,” says Carsten Schmidt, CEO of Sky Germany. Then it was time to “make sure high production values are available, put confidence in it and not question it.”
Producers Wiedemann and Berg have played no small part in raising the bar for the German industry, not only with Dark but also other highly respected recent productions such as TNT’s gangster drama 4 Blocks and neo-Nazi-focused miniseries Mitten in Deutschland: NSU (NSU: German History X). But interestingly the super-producing duo also make episodes of the show that most symbolises Germany’s traditional TV drama output: Tartot. To many, the hour-long crime series, which has been running for decades, and which features a new, neatly wrapped-up storyline each week, sums up everything the German industry should be trying to get away from.
“Tatort is like coming home; it gets the family together, it’s a great German icon. We’re very proud to be a part of Tatort,” says Berg. “Some shows attract a broad audience, some are niche. You shouldn’t compare disciplines that are very different. I love that, in TV today, there are so many different things going on.”
It seems that one of the keys to the success of Wiedemann and Berg lies in their questioning of accepted norms. Likewise for viewers sceptical about another remake of The Bridge, it may well turn out that Der Pass is the series they most eagerly binge-watch in 2018.
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.”
There’s a strong international flavour to drama commissioning this week, with plenty of action in terms of format deals, coproductions, acquisitions and plans for movie adaptations.
FremantleMedia, for example, has just announced that its Australian prison drama Wentworth is being remade in Flemish for Belgium-based commercial broadcaster. With a working title of Gent-West, the new 10-part drama will be coproduced by FremantleMedia Belgium and Marmalade Productions. Although the show doesn’t debut on Vier until 2018, it will be shown prior to that on Telenet’s paid cable channels Play and Play More.
Stefan De Keyser, MD of FremantleMedia Belgium, called Wentworth “an explosive drama filled with twists and emotion. Its suspenseful storylines and powerful female cast are sure to captivate Flemish audiences and we hope that Vier’s commission will build on the worldwide success of this scripted property.”
The Flemish version of the show will be the third adaptation following Celblok H (Netherlands) and Block B – Unter Arrest (Germany). Wentworth is also popular in its original form: to date, the show has aired in 141 countries worldwide and is still going strong on home soil after four series on SoHo.
FremantleMedia also revealed this week that the new Ukranian version of its New Zealand soap Shortland Street has started well. Known locally as Central Hospital, the 60-part drama is currently airing on channel 1+1 and is Ukraine’s number-one show. Central Hospital has also been sold on in its completed form to Georgia and Kazakhstan. Following the success of the show, Anne Kirsipuu, format sales director for CIS, Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic States at FM, said: “We’re looking forward to introducing more local adaptations (of other FM shows) soon.”
Elsewhere in Europe, producer/distributor Beta Film has secured the rights for Light of Elna, a Nazi-refugee drama directed by Sílvia Quer (Velvet, Grand Hotel). The Spanish-Swiss coproduction tells the story of Swiss teacher Elisabeth Eidenbenz, who created a maternity home for female WW2 refugees about to give birth. Beta Film will serve as the worldwide distributor, having previously sold Spanish dramas Velvet & Grand Hotel worldwide.
Scandinavian crime drama continues to prove its appeal worldwide. This week, Germany’s ZDF Enterprises (a big supporter of Nordic Noir) licensed the third season of Bron (The Bridge) to Japan’s Tohokushinsha Film Corp. Under the terms of the deal, TFC gets VoD and DVD rights in addition to television rights. ZDFE and TFC have a longstanding relationship that has already seen deals for the first three seasons of The Killing and the first two of Bron. The latter has been a hit worldwide, selling in its completed form to 140 countries and being adapted in the US and UK/France.
Continuing with our globetrotting, there are also reports that leading Argentinian broadcaster Telefe has signed a deal with Diego Maradona to make a drama about the iconic footballer’s life. There is certainly plenty of on-field and off-field action to fill a series – as Maradona noted in a modestly worded statement: “Every month of my life has enough for someone to write 100 chapters. Everything that I lived exceeds any fiction. I’m happy and excited that Telefe is developing this project for the world.”
Telefe contents and international business director Tomas Yankelevich added an equally measured summation: “This is an incredible challenge as a producer to think about turning into fiction the life of the best soccer player of all time, and probably the most famous person in the world. We think of an unprecedented super-production, and are looking for partners to join us. We expect to make a global show without borders.”
Notwithstanding the hype, Telefe is undoubtedly the right company to lead the project. Owned by Telefonica, it is one of the major producer/broadcasters in Latin America with activities that stretch across film and TV. Recent productions include Story of a Clan, Educating Nina and coproduction The Return of Lucas.
In the US, meanwhile, there’s some interesting news for sci-fi fans. Roddenberry Entertainment, the company set up by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (who died in 1991), has created a project called Holoscape that has been optioned by Storyoscopic Films. Holoscape is set in the aftermath of World War III and the collapse of civilisation. Using a mysterious device from the war (the Holoscape), a group of survivors discovers they are part of a conspiracy that has shaped the destiny of humankind, but are given the chance to escape their present and save our future.
“Storyoscopic holds a unique place in the industry due to its strong ties to China and the international market,” said Trevor Roth, head of development for Roddenberry Entertainment. “That, along with its sense for strong properties and compelling stories, makes it a perfect collaborator for Holoscape.”
Also this week, US network Fox gave a put-pilot commitment to a Marvel action-adventure series that will tap into the latter’s rapidly-expanding X-Men universe. The pilot will focus on two ordinary parents who discover their children possess mutant powers. Matt Nix (Burn Notice) will write the script and executive produce alongside a bunch of X-Men and Marvel executives.
“Developing a Marvel property has been a top priority for the network, and we are so pleased with how Matt Nix has led us into this thrilling universe,” said Fox Entertainment president David Madden. “There’s comic book adventure, emotional and complicated relationships and a rich, existing mythology from which to draw. With the brilliant production crew behind this project, it has all the makings of a big, fun and exciting series.”
Other interesting deals this week include a Netflix order for a Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory) comedy called Disjointed and a development deal between Endemol Shine Studios and acclaimed film maker Guy Ritchie, who will develop scripted series for the company. There are also reports that YouTube is talking to UK content creators about original content for its SVoD service YouTube Red.
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.
Subtitles are now a familiar element of many TV dramas, but how are languages changing the stories we watch and the way these shows are made?
Across the world, audiences have become much more relaxed about watching imported foreign-language content. The launch of Channel 4’s global drama platform Walter Presents in January this year was a particular sign of the UK’s new tolerance for subtitles.
But beyond audiences watching dramas from other countries, it is notable how many series now combine multiple languages, such as Netflix drama Narcos, which blends English and Spanish to tell the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Another example is Canadian series Blood and Water, which is described as a compelling, character-driven crime drama that delves into the secrets and lies of a tight-knit family. The show, which is produced by Breakthrough Entertainment for Omni Television, stands out because it was produced in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Nataline Rodrigues, director of original programming for Omni parent Rogers, explains: “Different characters speak in all three languages organically throughout the show. Chinese subtitles are featured when English is spoken and English subtitles appear when Chinese is spoken so the widest possible audience can watch and follow the show.
“We wanted a cross-cultural series for Omni that would resonate with a wider multigenerational and diverse audience. The premise of exploring family secrets allowed for a very relatable and fertile story world that would attract a wider audience – drawing viewers in and keeping them there with a crime story with real twists and turns.”
One of the starting points for the spate of TV series now blending languages was Bron/Broen (aka The Bridge), the crime drama that brought police officers Sweden and Denmark together to solve a murder after a body is found on the Øresund Bridge, which links the two countries.
“The unusual thing with The Bridge is it didn’t start out as a creative idea, it started out as a question. We had difficulties getting into the Danish market. Swedish broadcasters were airing everything Danish but the Danish broadcasters never aired anything Swedish, so we asked ourselves how we could cheat our way into Denmark,” recalls executive producer and Filmlance MD Lars Blomgren. “We sat down with the head of (Swedish pubcaster) SVT and tried to work out a crime drama that organically moved between the two countries because it could be in Danish in Denmark and in Swedish in Sweden. That’s how it all started.”
Seizing the chance to have a drama in two languages, where viewers in Denmark had subtitles for dialogue in Swedish and vice versa, made The Bridge part of a “new era” where the acceptance of subtitles is growing around the world, Blomgren adds.
Three different versions of the script were produced – a Swedish one, a Danish copy and a mixed version. And that’s just one example of the logistical challenges that Blomgren says make cross-border productions as “very difficult.”
He continues: “The upside is the creative side. We’re all interested in our neighbours and we can relate to the differences between the cultures. That’s good for the storytelling. And it’s also good for broadcasters because instead of one broadcaster paying 60% of the budget, you can have two broadcasters paying 30% each so it’s win-win for everyone.
“But it’s also very delicate because you don’t want it to become a Europudding. You don’t want to start bringing in actors just because they’re of a nationality that would bring more money to the table. It’s quite easy to do cross-border for solely financial reasons and we’re trying to stay away from that.”
The Bridge went on to have two adaptations. The first, commissioned by US cable channel FX, transplanted the story to the US-Mexico border, using English and Spanish, and ran for two seasons. The second remake began underwater, at the midpoint of the Channel Tunnel between England and France. Produced by Endemol Shine Group-owned Filmlance’s sister company Kudos (Humans, Broadchurch), The Tunnel was a coproduction between Sky Atlantic in the UK and France’s Canal+. Season one aired in 2013 and season two, called The Tunnel 2: Sabotage, is now on air in Britain.
Having screened The Bridge before it became an international hit and inspired by the idea of exploring Anglo-French relations, Kudos picked up the format for adaptation. But once the show did become a global success, the creative team was wary of leaning too much on the original.
“It was such a good show, it was pointless trying to imitate it. It would have been very uncreative and that’s not how we make programmes,” says Kudos exec producer Manda Levin. “We tried to take the concept and the compass points of the story but, within that, we felt we had to find our own way with it.
“These days with British crime drama, whatever you make, you’re constantly told you’re aping Scandi noir. I find that really frustrating because it’s a lazy way of grouping stories that are visceral, dark and melancholy and saying they’re all borrowing from the same source. Britain’s always had a tradition of making bleak but spiky and interesting crime drama. I didn’t feel that was what we were trying to do. We wanted to make it very French in its own way and very British with the humour.”
The use of language was also important for The Tunnel’s creative team, with Levin asserting that the days of actors speaking English in “funny accents” are long gone.
“Sky Atlantic and Canal+ are ambitious art house channels that you would hope have an audience that’s happy to deal with subtitles,” she says. “For me, those scenes in which the characters are slipping into French and English are the best parts. We always try to say The Tunnel was the first fundamentally bilingual series in the UK. It definitely felt pioneering when we started, although now international drama has become so accessible to audiences, it’s nice to see many more subtitles on mainstream channels than there used to be. There’s been a real shift in what drama commissioners are prepared to commission and what audiences are prepared to watch.”
Following the success of The Bridge, which has run to three seasons with the possibility of a fourth to come, Filmlance’s Blomgren says he has been approached about other series with a cross-border dynamic: “But in so many cases you feel it’s just a construction to finance the production, and that’s not the right way to do it. One border is enough. Once you bring in too many characters from too many nations, you can’t dig deep into characters because you have too many and it’s a very difficult game.”
However, one series that did bring together characters from a number of different nations is The Team, a pan-European crime drama that unites a team of police officers who fight crime throughout the continent.
Created by Peter Thorsboe and Mai Brostrøm (The Eagle, Modus), the series is shot in original languages with a cast headed by Lars Mikkelsen, Jasmin Great and Veerle Baetens. It is produced by Network Movie for ZDF in association with DR and distributed by ZDF Enterprises.
Wolfgang Feind, head of series and international coproductions at ZDF, says the idea for The Team was born out of a desire to follow up The Eagle, in which an Icelandic protagonist pursues criminals across Europe.
“The unique selling point is that The Team is a truly European series in which an organic cast investigates real cases and scours all of Europe to snare the criminals,” he says. “What also makes the programme unique is the use of multiple languages – the immersion in original languages, whether Flemish, Danish, German or European English, is what keeps the investigators connected to one another.”
Although having characters speak in their native language added to the authenticity of the series, Feind says it was not without its challenges. “The implementation of different languages was easy; the challenge for the production consisted rather of the how, when and where our protagonists encounter one another,” he reveals.
“We believe there is a trend to break down all linguistic barriers. Young people today want to watch TV series in their original version. Dubbing stopped convincing them long ago. And let’s face it – it is the reality of our lives that language changes. We mix English and German into ‘Denglish.’ We borrow words from other languages, we make up new terms. We’re creating world-spanning communication in the digital age with all these new forms of language.”
Another Sky-Canal+ coproduction to use multiple languages is The Last Panthers, starring Samantha Morton, John Hurt, Tahar Rahim and Goran Bogdan. The six-part series, produced by Warp Films and Haut et Court, tells a fictional story based on the notorious real-life Pink Panther jewel thieves. It opens with a daring heist before delving into the dark heart of a Europe ruled by a shadowy alliance of gangsters and bankers.
With the action taking place across the UK, France and Serbia, the script called for characters to speak in the corresponding languages. And writer Jack Thorne says this process was not simply about translating his scripts – he also sought a better understanding of the countries in which the action was set.
“The difficult thing was understanding that there are very big cultural differences in how things operate in different countries,” he says. “The French legal system is one of the most complicated systems I’ve ever come across. I was constantly trying to work out who does what in different situations, why certain people can do certain things, and also trying to make that translatable.
“There were other differences to take on board – spending time in Serbia and understanding what Serbian nationalism means and where it comes from. That was a very alien concept to me as a British person but it’s a very different country with a very different history to ours. It’s a country that’s been invaded by every empire that’s ever existed and has had to fight for its identity, so it has a very different sense of itself.”
One multilingual show that moves away from the ‘neighbour’ dynamic of The Bridge and The Tunnel is Jour Polaire (aka Midnight Sun), which sees a French policeman sent to Sweden to investigate the death of a French citizen.
The series’ roots can be found in the partnership between former Atlantique Productions exec Patrick Nebout and Nice Drama’s Henrik Jansson-Schweizer, who developed the plot together more than four years ago. But it was only when writers Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein came on board that it gained traction and was subsequently commissioned by SVT and France’s Canal+.
“You’ve seen a lot of Scandi-German coproductions but you’ve never seen Scandi-French coproductions,” Nebout says. “We felt the timing was right; we knew Canal+ was looking for something to do with Scandinavia. We approached Canal+ and SVT with the idea and both reacted positively from the beginning.”
The mixture of languages used in the series was also important to Nebout, who wanted to keep the series “organic.”
“We have a French cop in Sweden. She should be speaking English when she interacts with the Swedes but when the Swedes talk to each other, they should definitely speak their own language. And when our French cop is reporting back to Paris, she should do that in French,” he explains. “That came to us very naturally. We didn’t want to do something completely in English, because that wasn’t part of the story.
“There’s also a fourth language in the series, Sami. Because of the show’s setting in the far north of Sweden, there are many indigenous Sami characters and they speak their language. It felt very natural. Måns wanted to tell a story about Europe today and we felt it echoed well to have these different languages.”
Jour Polaire also features Arabic, taking the number of languages to five.
The script began in Swedish, before it was translated into English and then French. But why did the producers not want to film it entirely in English, as Atlantique had done previously with Borgia – the papal drama set in Italy?
“It made sense to do Borgia in English because it was a very specific and confined environment with characters that were all in the same culture and universe,” explains Nebout, who left Atlantique to launch his own production company Dramacorp. “When Atlantique did Transporter, that was in English because it was targeted at the English-language market. It’s very international storytelling – it’s an action series.
“A couple of years ago, English was a must if you wanted to enable global export. But at the same time we can see tolerance for subtitled shows is growing all over the place – in France, the UK. And it seems it’s coming to the US, where SundanceTV and other channels are starting to air foreign-language shows.”
If there’s one programme that built its production schedule around the use of multiple languages, it’s Welsh drama Y Gwyll (aka Hinterland, pictured top). The crime series, which has been renewed for a third season, airs in a Welsh-only format on commissioning broadcaster S4C.
But to maximise the opportunity for distribution sales, it was filmed back-to-back in English as well, to create an English-only version and also a bilingual edition. BBC Wales aired the bilingual version, which was also picked up by BBC4.
Gwawr Martha Lloyd, S4C’s drama commissioner, says there were two reasons for producing multiple versions of the same series. First, S4C wanted as many people as possible to be able to watch it, and second, bringing coproducers on board meant a bigger budget that could accommodate higher production values.
“It sounds simpler than it is,” she admits. “It’s quite testing for everybody involved, especially the actors because they have to learn double the words and their performance can vary depending on what language they’re speaking so it’s not literally exactly the same. How you would express yourself in Welsh is quite different to how you would in English. But in production terms, Hinterland isn’t heavy on dialogue, so some things they don’t have to film twice, like scenery or chase sequences.”
But what of the process of combining Welsh and English into a single format? Lloyd says the production team first decided which characters would only speak one language.
“A lot of characters live in remote rural areas so it was easy to believe they’d all speak Welsh together in the BBC Wales/BBC4 version,” she says. “They explored what was credible, what contributed to this mythical feeling that’s created when you’re in this setting. The protagonist is from London so had to speak English. And his colleagues speak Welsh to each other but change when he walks into the room. They had to figure all of that out and also which of the locals would speak Welsh to each other or English.”
Lloyd points to BBC1’s The Missing as another good example of a drama using multiple languages. The show, about a man’s search for his missing son, mixed English and French, as the pair are on holiday in France when the child vanishes.
“They used language very cleverly because sometimes they used subtitles when the characters spoke French, but when they wanted the father (played by James Nesbitt) out of the conversation and to make him frustrated that he didn’t know what was going on, they didn’t use subtitles. That was really clever because it made viewers feel like he felt.
“It was really exciting because it added another dimension that you wouldn’t have had if it was all in the same language.”
S4C is now developing a number of new multi-language dramas that Lloyd says reflect the nature of language in Wales. “I feel a desire to do something that’s multilingual. I’ve enjoyed multilingual dramas over the last few years and we’re in a position where we can do this because of the nature of language in our country. It’s definitely an ambition to get one of those away but we’ll have to see which one or how many.”
While this may be a relatively new path in certain territories, Israeli dramas commonly use multiple languages. Distributor Keshet International’s slate includes several examples, most notably espionage thrillers False Flag (Hebrew and English) and MICE (Russian and Hebrew), plus Arab Labor (Arabic and Hebrew), a comedy-drama that explores the Arab-Jewish cultural divide.
“It has to come naturally from the story,” says Karni Ziv, head of drama for Keshet Media Group. “If either part of the story or the way the character lives is based on a foreign language or culture, it has to be part of it. MICE is about Russian immigrants who live in Israel, so they speak Russian to each other. The most important thing is it reflects real life and Israel’s melting-pot society.”
The use of different languages means Keshet dramas are also finding audiences abroad. “Audiences now are more open to stories from different territories,” Ziv says. “Five or six years ago, language was something that made a difference. Nowadays, you don’t really hear the language. When we discovered very good television from Scandinavia, I ignored the language. I don’t really hear it, as I’m so focused on the story and characters. We are more open now to hearing different languages if it’s part of a brilliant story.”
Midnight Sun’s Nebout notes a common plot device threading these series together – a leading character in a strange place, which puts their language at odds with their location. “The easy thing with these shows is you have a fish out of water so you have a good argument to decide you’re going to shoot in different languages,” he says. “As you can see with The Tunnel and The Bridge, more and more shows are using a mixture of languages. For Europe it makes sense.”
It’s a sign of both broadcasters’ and audiences’ openness to subtitles that multi-language dramas are now commonplace – and that can only encourage an increasingly global production sector to introduce viewers to more diverse and unfamiliar stories in the future.
The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt brings Scandi style to the streets of London in crime drama Marcella. DQ meets the cast and crew.
On a bright and sunny day in central London, light pours into the Serious Crime Unit office.
Ten floors above a bustling Tube station, the room is filled with banks of desks, each one covered with its own computer and piles of paper. Police officers who glance up from their monitors can enjoy unimpeded views of the capital through the panoramic windows.
But there’s work to do. On one side of the room, two whiteboards are covered with photographs and information relating to a group of murder victims. Images taken from the blood-stained crime scenes leave little to the imagination.
Welcome to the world of Marcella, an eight-part drama currently airing on ITV that marks The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt’s first foray into English-language series.
Anna Friel stars as the eponymous detective who returns to the Metropolitan Police’s Murder Squad when her husband (played by Nicholas Pinnock) suddenly leaves her.
Eleven years after she gave up her fast-tracked police career to marry and start a family, she throws herself back into her work and, after a spate of murders, finds herself on the case of a serial killer that first struck in 2005.
The cast also includes Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael, plus Ian Puleston-Davies, Nina Susanna, Ray Panthaki, Jamie Bamber, Sinead Cusack, Patrick Baladi and Harry Lloyd.
Produced by Buccaneer Media, Marcella is executive produced by co-creators Rosenfeldt and Nicola Larder alongside Tony Wood. Cineflix Rights is distributing the series internationally and has secured a deal with Netflix that will see the series air worldwide on the SVoD platform.
As a big fan of The Bridge (aka Bron/Broen), Friel says she was excited to join a “unique” production that isn’t simply a remake of an existing Scandinavian drama. “It was changing the mould and the shape by taking a Scandi writer, putting him in England and letting him give his take on London,” she tells DQ during a break from filming at the fictional police station.
Carrying the series as the title character, who Friel admits is in almost every scene, might have led to the actor feeling under pressure – but she says she hasn’t had time to stop and take stock during the intense shoot.
“For 13 hours a day I’m thinking like Marcella, so it’s made me a bit depressed at certain times because there’s quite a lot on her shoulders,” she explains, “but it’s only a certain time in your life, and my daughter Gracie always pulls me out of that because I go home and I’m mummy and that’s real life.”
Discussing her character, Friel continues: “I love watching strong female leads but I also like the human side, that we’re all delicate and fractured. Most cops are mavericks in what they do but they’re also human. Marcella’s incredibly fractured. We all use a bit of our own life to make it true and believable, but I’m really sane compared with Marcella.”
Friel was well placed to star in a drama from a Swedish writer, having previously worked in Scandinavia on Norwegian historical drama The Heavy Water War (aka Kampen om tungtvannet or The Saboteurs).
“That was one of the biggest things that drew me to this – they had a work ethic I’d never seen before,” she recalls. “It was very tight and really well thought out; very concentrated and focused. I liked that a lot.”
American Odyssey and Pushing Daisies star Friel was the “first and only choice” to play Marcella, according to executive producer Larder, who created the character before seeking out Rosenfeldt to bring her story to life.
“I’d worked with her before and I knew she gives a lot of herself to her roles,” Larder says. “She’s a method actor and I knew I wanted someone to lay themselves bare in the process. Marcella is very raw and very visceral and I wanted someone brave like Anna to go there. She does that pretty much every day.”
Larder – who was a development executive on the first season of The Tunnel, the Anglo-French adaptation of The Bridge – describes Marcella as “amazingly complicated,” a detective who failed to detect the collapse of her marriage and is now headlong in an emotional spin while trying to catch a serial killer.
“I like the idea of a mistrustful central female protagonist whose actions the audience should always understand, if not like,” she adds. “That’s real life – it’s not always black and white. We can be great people who sometimes act irrationally, unsympathetically or selfishly. Marcella has a reality to her. She’s not defined by being a detective or a mother, she’s defined by both – she’s just not been able to do both simultaneously.
“There are big question marks over Marcella’s character and what she’s capable of from the beginning. We run with that and we enjoy it.”
From the slow-boiled character studies of Broadchurch to the harsh Icelandic setting of Fortitude, every new crime drama in the UK in recent years seemingly can’t escape being described as a British take on the immensely popular Nordic noir genre.
But Marcella goes one further, taking Rosenfeldt and placing him in a London-set show designed for a British audience. “We are not imitating Scandinavian noir, we are taking a Scandinavian writer out of his comfort zone and setting him free,” Larder insists. “But we’re aware of our audience. We need to deliver for a British audience that loves character.
“At its heart, Marcella is an emotionally guided thriller and all Tony and I do is support Hans’s vision. When you’ve got a whole load of brilliant, clever and emotional British actors on top of his Swedish words, you get this beautiful creative fusion.”
Having written three seasons of The Bridge – a fourth (and possibly final) is under discussion – Rosenfeldt says he was keen to put Swedish detective Saga Norén (played by Sofia Helin) to one side and work with a new central character. “I’ve been writing Saga for so long so it was fun for me to do something else. I know Saga so well – it’s nice to meet someone new,” he explains.
For his first English-language series, Rosenfeldt wrote the first three episodes in Swedish before they were translated into English. For episodes four, five and six, he gave notes in English, before writing the last two in English with the help of a script editor.
But, as Friel found out when she read the finished articles, the writer enjoys giving actors room to contribute to their own character’s development beyond what’s on the page. “It’s quite intimidating following Saga because she’s such a great character,” she says. “I wanted to know how much of Saga was written on the page and how much it was (Helin) who brought it to the script. (Rosenfeldt) said it was a blend of both and there are gaps for me to inhabit her. That was a bit scary.”
Rosenfeldt explains: “When you read my scripts, it might seem like there’s not much in them, but that’s how I write. I don’t like writing stage directions, I don’t write emotions and I try to keep away from exposition, in terms of both plot and emotion. So it’s quite a strict script, which gives the actors a lot of room. When they’re really good, like Sofia and Anna, they do miracles with it.”
Reuniting with Rosenfeldt is Henrik Georgsson, one of three directors alongside Charles Martin and Andrew Woodhead. Georgsson, who steers episodes seven and eight of Marcella, has previously overseen 16 hours of The Bridge as well as episodes of Wallander.
“It’s also the first time for me working in English and sometimes it’s hard when you’re talking about dialogue and discussing things with actors,” Georgsson says of his experience on Marcella. “The crews are a little bit bigger but it’s great to be filming in London.”
The series has been filmed in three blocks, with each director given the freedom to bring their own style to their episodes. “Mine is a focused style,” Georgsson says. “I’m trying to find what’s essential in the scene. The second block had more of a moving camera. I like pictures with a lot of depth. Actors sometimes stand by a wall but we don’t like that because you can’t get depth, and lighting is harder to do well, so we prefer to have people in the middle of the room.”
The production team made a point of keeping the cast clueless about Marcella’s final act and the killer’s real identity. “We wanted all our characters to act in the moment,” Larder says of the “big, bold puzzle” drama. “That’s the spirit of the piece – they’re not necessarily thinking ahead. They only learnt about some of the key reveals of the series in the final weeks of shooting. It means they’re focusing on the scene and what the character actually knows, rather than pre-empting what they know in the future. It gives a real freshness and immediacy and it keeps people on their toes.”
There were also challenges for the production team, most notably in filming across London and finding the right location for the main police station.
“We’re lucky enough to be on the 10th floor of a tower block, which means incidentally we’re exploring the city through our shots,” Larder says. “Once we found that location, it felt like we could radiate out from that. But we’re competing in a very fruitful time for drama in TV and film in a city that is overrun with film units. It’s been a big challenge.”
Production designer Max Gottlieb continues: “One of the key things was the police station and what it means to the story, but you also have to take into account every other police show and every other police station. The key thing was actually showing London, so that’s why we chose this location. Being so high up, you’re always seeing London in the background and you’ve got great shots of Marcella looking down at life.
“Real police stations are usually some form of blue, but we wanted to do something warm to make it more to do with Marcella. We used a lot of wood and it’s quite a creamy colour to give it that warmth.”
While she’s hopeful Marcella will get a second season in 2017, Larder is now keen to bring more European writers to the UK.
“I feel like the idea is boss right now,” she says. “I found an incredible talent in Hans who wanted to put his fresh authorship into the most favoured genre, crime. I want to continue to build relationships with writers with European and international prowess and keep challenging the market to keep giving those authors a voice outside of their home territories. That’s what I want to be doing.”
It’s increasingly difficult these days to judge the success of a drama series. While ratings are still an important benchmark, a growing number of industry executives say you need to take into account a broader range of measures in order to judge the value of a particular show to a network or platform.
The most obvious form of alternative measurement is audience appreciation, which can be assessed through surveys and social media sweeps. But there is also a role for industry awards, which generally provide an insight into what commissioners, critics and creative peers think about a show’s performance.
There are a number of reasons why success at industry awards matters. The first is that it can help create buzz around a show, which is especially important in this era of on-demand viewing. Shows that win awards get noticed by the media and often see audience uplift as a result. Assuming the award was well deserved, this can help word of mouth build. In other words, award wins are like an unbiased marketing push or a review that feeds into the positive conversation around a show.
Award wins also have an impact on other stakeholders in the business. Once a show starts having success of this kind, it stands a chance of being picked up in distribution by foreign broadcasters. Actors, writers, directors and producers also take notice – and may decide to stay with a show if they are already in it, or join it if they are invited to do so. For a career advancement point of view, being attached to a critically acclaimed show can be as valuable as being attached to a ratings hit, which is one reason many top movie actors will find time in their schedule to do a feature film that is geared towards the Oscars. As more and more top talent is attracted to a show, it can then build momentum in ratings too.
Then there is the impact on the primary commissioning broadcaster. If they are looking just at their ratings charts, they may be inclined to cancel a show. But if they start to see positive reviews and awards success, this may give them the confidence to wait a little longer – and perhaps to commission season two, which may give the show the time it needs to break out.
All of which brings us to the C21 International Drama Awards, held this week at the C21 Drama Summit as part of Content London. Based on input from around 70 drama commissioners, the awards recognise the shows that are having a major impact on the global drama business – even if ratings aren’t the primary measure.
A big winner, for example, was Netflix’s Narcos, which looks at the rise and fall of Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar. While there is very little information about how scripted series perform on SVoD platforms like Netflix and Amazon, the show’s success at the C21 Drama Awards chimes with the feedback from critics and review platforms like IMDb. The series, from director Jose Padilha and US-based Gaumont International Television, won both the Editor’s Choice award and Best Male Performance, for Wagner Moura’s portrayal of Escobar.
Another star performer at the awards was Deutschland 83, which is distributed across the world by FremantleMedia International. This show secured gongs for Best Non-English-Language Drama and Best Casting. It was matched by The Bridge, from Filmlance International for Denmark’s DR and Sweden’s SVT. This much-loved show won both Best Returning Drama Series and Best Female Performance (Sofia Helin).
Other winners included Book of Negroes (Best Miniseries), Wolf Hall (Best English-Language Drama), Limitless (Best Fall Season Network Show) and How to Murder Your Wife (Best TV Movie). There was also recognition for Dixi Unchained (Best Digital Original) and Humans (Best Consumer Marketing Campaign). It will be interesting to see how this latest wave of recognition plays into the future of all these shows.
Away from the awards, Sony’s digital streaming service Crackle has ordered a second run of its original drama The Art of More, which stars Dennis Quaid. The 10-episode renewal comes just two weeks after its series debut on November 19. According to Crackle, the series has already achieved two million views, more than half of which have come from viewers new to Crackle.
Crackle is one of the few companies in the streaming space that provides any information on the performance of its shows – a commitment to transparency it says it will maintain going forward. In terms of what the two million figure means, it refers to anyone who starts viewing an episode of the show. It’s not a figure for how many people have watched the entire series, but for how many have started to watch an individual episode.
The renewal comes despite the fact that critics have not been that complimentary and the show is not rating very well on IMDb. Here’s a flavour of what some critics think. That said, Sony Pictures Television has already sold The Art of More to 25 territories, so is presumably feeling pretty upbeat about its long-term potential.
Next, an update on AMC’s new adventure show Into the Badlands. After a stellar start, the show saw an inevitable dip in episode two but recovered ground for episode three. With its overnight audience currently at around five million, it has to be classified as another hit for the US cablenet. There was further good news this week when Chinese online platform LeTV acquired Into the Badlands from distributor eOne. The show is due to air on AMC Global in 125 countries next year, while eOne has also sold it to Foxtel in Australia and Amazon in the UK.
The opening series of the show comprises six one-hour episodes, and star Daniel Wu believes it could run for a number of seasons. Speaking to Digital Spy, he predicted that, if the show is a success, it could run for five or six series. He also suggested a renewal (which now seems very likely) might see it expand to 10 episodes.
Finally, Amazon has secured exclusive streaming rights to the first season of Channel 4/AMC’s hit sci-fi drama Humans. The show will be available to Amazon Prime members in the UK, Germany, US and Japan from next spring – presumably just in time to spark interest in the second series. “Humans was one of this summer’s top new series and is exactly the type of smart, thought-provoking show that Prime members love,” said Brad Beale, VP of digital video content acquisition for Amazon.
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.”
As the third, ‘best yet’ season of international smash hit The Bridge approaches, Lars Blomgren of coproducer Filmlance explains why the Nordic drama has travelled so well, and reveals the other upcoming dramas on his firm’s slate.
On air in more than 150 countries and providing the inspiration for two international adaptations, it’s hard to deny the impact Nordic noir thriller The Bridge (aka Bron/Broen, pictured above) has had on television screens around the world.
So when the series’ executive producer says the forthcoming third season is the best yet, plenty of viewers are bound to get very excited.
The Swedish/Danish coproduction, created by Hans Rosenfeldt, saw detectives from both countries unite to solve a grisly murder after the discovery of a body on the Øresund Bridge, which connects the two nations.
Produced by Sweden’s Filmlance and Denmark’s Nimbus Film, it first aired on Denmark’s DR and SVT in Sweden in 2011, and its sequel followed in 2013.
This autumn, viewers can look forward to the third instalment. Plot details are a closely guarded secret, but Filmlance MD Lars Blomgren says there is plenty to be excited about.
“When I look at the third season of The Bridge, it’s just brilliant,” he says. “It’s the best season ever. In the first two seasons of The Bridge, you saw things from (Danish detective) Martin’s side. We changed it for the third season and had the focus on (Swedish cop) Saga.
“Sofia Helin (who plays Saga) is giving the performance of a lifetime. It’s one of the best performances I have ever seen.
“We have always tried to keep a balance between how complicated the case is and keeping the audience’s attention. The producers and writer Hans Rosenfeldt are a fantastic team.”
The international success of The Bridge led to two remakes – The Bridge on US cable network FX, which transplants the action to the US-Mexico border, and The Tunnel, a UK/French coproduction that centres on the Channel Tunnel.
The former was cancelled last year after two seasons, while The Tunnel is set to return for a second season – called The Tunnel: Debris – in early in 2016 on Sky Atlantic and Canal+.
Blomgren says the new run of The Tunnel “looks brilliant. I’m really happy and proud.” However, he is disappointed that the US remake didn’t get another season.
“One of the best things about the show was they made a late decision to switch the location of the story from the Canada-US border to the Mexico-US border,” he explains. “It took their show in a completely different direction to ours and it meant they didn’t really compete with us. It was one of the few shows in the US that was politically relevant. I think they were really close to picking up a third season.
“The Bridge is the perfect remake model. I’m not in favour of cross-border series because often there’s less depth to the story. But if you take two neighbours, you will always be in conflict and have close relationships. Wherever you put this, it could work. There’s room for a Hispanic version – the question is where you make it.”
With competition for scripted hits more fierce than ever, dramas are being seen as the way to build a brand. And the cheapest way to do this is with returning series. No wonder, then, that with four returning dramas on its slate in 2015, it’s been an “unprecedented” year at Filmlance.
As well as The Bridge, the Stockholm-based company is also back with Beck, its long-running TV movie franchise based on the detective novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
Filmlance is also producing season five of Morden i Sandhamn (aka Murder in Sandhamn), the TV4 crime drama based on the books by Viveca Sten and described as “Midsomer Murders on an archipelago,” as well as the latest instalment in the Arne Dahl series, another crime adaptation.
“It’s easier to get a second season than a new series on air,” says Blomgren. “All over the world, with binge-watching and changing consumer habits, it’s almost like the audience doesn’t want to commit to a new series unless there’s a second season.
“Follow-up seasons are becoming more important and it takes time to build a brand. If they’re good, you fall in love with the characters and want to hang out with them more. Currently, it’s so much more difficult to start from scratch and create a new universe. With The Bridge, it’s easier to talk about the reasons for changes in the new season than talk about something completely new. You can do major changes and still retain the same level of quality.”
Will there be a fourth season of The Bridge? “I think there’s going to be more,” Blomgren says. “If you look at the Scandinavian market, there’s a lot of talk about Scandi noir, but the most expensive stuff travels. I don’t think any broadcaster would say ‘we don’t want to do more than three seasons.’ As long as you can keep the same quality and keep the same passion, then I think it’s fine.”
One new series on the books at Filmlance is Spring Tide (aka Springfloden), which began production last month. Based on the opening novel in a new trilogy penned by Arne Dahl writers Rolf Börjlind and Cilla Börjlind, the first 10×45’ series will air on SVT in March 2016. The other titles, Den tredje rösten (The Third Voice) and Svart gryning (Black Dawn), will also be adapted for television, Blomgren says.
He adds: “80% of primetime television is local now – high-end drama that’s local. That’s the thing that travels too.
“It’s very difficult for new scripted projects to break out as it’s easier to order another season. Some countries also prefer to adapt. They see scripted formats as the same as entertainment formats.
“It’s a great time for drama. People are also opening up to subtitles. We have to be grateful to The Killing (aka Danish crime drama Forbrydelsen). Without it, there’s no The Bridge.”
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.”