Writers Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram and actor Birgitte Hjort Sørensen made their names on Danish political drama Borgen. Michael Pickard finds out what they’ve been up to since and how the series shaped their careers.
When Borgen first aired in 2010, the idea that a television drama focusing on the complexities of Danish coalition politics might travel around the world must have seemed optimistic at best.
Even local pubcaster DR, which commissioned the show, wasn’t convinced it would have an international future. “The head of drama then, Ingolf Gabald, said from very early on, ‘Guys, don’t ever think this show will travel because it will not,’” remembers series creator Adam Price (pictured top centre with members of the Borgen cast). “It’s funny now. Of course, you can say in hindsight he missed that one because then it was sold to almost 100 countries.”
Gabold can be forgiven for his caution. But buoyed by the international success of Scandinavian exports such as Wallander, Forbrydelsen (The Killing), the Millennium film trilogy and Broen/Bron (The Bridge), Borgen was swept up in the wave of demand for series coming out of the region.
In the near-decade since Borgen made its debut, its stars – including Sidse Babett Knudsen (who played prime minister Birgitte Nyborg), Pilou Asbæk (her advisor Kasper Juul) and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (journalist Katrine Fønsmark) – and those behind the camera have gone on to make series that have kept Danish drama in the global spotlight.
Price most recently wrapped on another DR series, Herrens Veje (Ride Upon the Storm), a two-season, 20-episode drama about a family of priests who each choose their own path to a meaningful life. It stars Lars Mikkelsen and is produced by Sam Productions, with StudioCanal distributing.
“I really wanted to try to understand religion,” Price says. “Religion is one of the most important and essential topics to choose when we’re talking big drama, and it’s a source of worry for so many people. It’s almost as if the debate about religion itself has become radicalised. It’s as if there’s no limit to what we are able to say to each other. I really wanted us to discuss and debate religion because, if we talk about religion, we might not kill each other.”
The writer says that although he is a fan of Nordic noir, he was keen to ensure Borgen’s successor didn’t follow the path of a “dark, gritty crime story, typically with dead people in forests and lonely, socially awkward police officers who have to solve the cases.” Instead, Price decided to explore a new genre, Nordic magical realism, with a story about spirituality and faith. “It’s incredibly important not to keep moving along the same alleyways. Even the Brits are now producing Nordic noir and have been for several years. It’s not a speciality of the Nordic countries anymore,” he says.
Ride Upon the Storm launched in the UK on streaming platform Walter Presents in January this year, the same month that Greyzone, which stars Borgen alumna Sørensen, also debuted on the Channel 4-backed service.
The 10-part series, produced by Cosmo Films for TV2 and distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment, follows the events that lead up to a planned terror attack in Scandinavia, centring on brilliant drone engineer Victoria Rahbek (Sørensen), who is taken hostage.
Her captor is part of the terror cell planning the attack, with Victoria chosen so the group can acquire the components it needs from her company. Victoria must risk everything to steal the equipment while also working as a double agent for the police, who will do anything to prevent the attack.
“I could sense there was a high level of ambition from the people who created it,” the actor says of the show, which is written by Morten Dragster and Oskar Söderlund. “Greyzone is the term we have in Danish for ‘grey area’ – all the things that aren’t black and white, which is life. Often in fiction, there’s a given right or wrong because it reads well and you know who to root for, but in real life that’s hardly ever the case. So it really interested me that they wanted to dive into this complex world.
“It’s easy to write off terrorists as madmen or psychopaths. In our case, Victoria is forced to look behind the cold, brutal man she meets to try to understand how he became like this.”
At first, Greyzone appears to be a typical crime show or thriller, Sørensen says, before it reveals the internal psychological drama between Victoria and her captor, Iyad (Ardalan Esmaili). “It almost becomes like a play because we’re confined in this small space, her apartment. He intrudes into her world and then they have to live together in this odd way. All of the action takes place between them, at least in that part of the storyline.”
After her breakout role in Borgen, Sørensen landed parts in British dramas Marple and Midsomer Murders, starred in feature Pitch Perfect 2 and also appeared in HBO series Game of Thrones and Vinyl. What she enjoys about acting, she explains, is the opportunity to dive into different worlds, genres and characters, particularly when this gives her the chance to learn something new.
“I had a lot of great adventures abroad. The thing about working overseas is the budgets are usually bigger, so the toys are usually bigger – I would never get to do something like Game of Thrones in Denmark because we couldn’t afford it,” she continues. “It’s been so adventurous, but also, because it is a much bigger pond, I naturally become a smaller fish. I haven’t said I’ll never work abroad again, but there were a lot of days where I just sat on my own and I missed my family, so I made a conscious choice to move back home and be here and work here, and I’m really happy.
“Because Denmark is such a small country, it’s so familiar so it’s a very safe and comfortable way of working. Sometimes the sense of hierarchy is so strong in the UK and US, you feel like you’re just doing a job, whereas I feel more like part of the process in Denmark.”
One of Price’s Borgen co-writers, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, followed up the political drama with a series of his own creation, Bedrag (Follow the Money). The show, again for DR, explored the world of financial crime over three seasons, the last of which aired earlier this year and focused specifically on money laundering.
“After doing the second season, I felt we had spent so much time in expensive boardrooms and with CEOs that we’d told most of the stories I wanted to tell in that arena,” Gram says. “Piv Bernth, then head of DR drama [and Gabold’s successor], was very open to us pursuing a completely new direction. I came up with the idea of doing something about the laundering of drug money, which has always fascinated me as I live in a neighbourhood where there’s a lot of gang activity. I absolutely still love the first two seasons, but feeling completely free to change as much as we needed was a great starting point for fresh storytelling. DR is a place where they care a lot about the writer’s vision. They allowed us to do that even though it’s quite a big risk for the broadcaster.”
That kind of freedom is rare in television, particularly from a free-to-air public broadcaster. Gram admits it was both refreshing and daunting, but with Follow the Money’s third run earning rave reviews, “DR’s wonderful gamble in the form of maximum trust in the writer luckily paid off, and the freedom of creativity has been a true pleasure,” he says.
“I’m very proud of the third season and the way we’ve done it, especially where we have been brave and taken risks and chances because that’s really what makes interesting series at the moment. There are so many series being made right now and it’s the ones that take risks that stand out. Of course, some won’t work, but that’s part of taking risks.”
Price remembers being afforded the same freedom when he, Gram and Tobias Lindholm were writing Borgen. Of course, at that time, there were no expectations placed on them, either in Denmark or internationally. “We had a great cast, we had a reasonably good budget and all the freedom in the world, which was amazing,” he says. “We could just write the show we really wanted to write. We could basically lean back and try to make the best show, in Danish terms, we could possibly make. That very local nerve in the show made it very global. That freedom meant so much to us.”
Borgen’s success has also launched many careers, he adds. “All of a sudden – and this was the case with Ride Upon the Storm – we could finance a Danish show with money from several European broadcasters because we were known names for them and they really wanted the next shows.
“Birgitte, Pilou (Game of Thrones) and Sidse (Westworld) have also had amazing international careers that began with the Borgen years. The freedom and lack of expectation at the time we were doing it was tremendously important.”
On Borgen, “it was the fact we always had so much fun,” Gram says. “We never argued. We could disagree on something but we would always look for something even better because we trusted each other’s instincts. That’s something I remember well. It was very playful and ambitious in the way we were searching for ideas.”
Sørensen was only two years out of drama school when she landed her part in Borgen, which she credits with making her a household name in Denmark and thus providing her ticket to working abroad.
“I’m immensely proud of it, I loved doing it. I feel like I got an extra education, not just working with cameras, which you don’t really learn in drama school, but also it was an introduction for me to take an interest in politics and the world, so I feel like I grew up on that show. It’s very dear to me.”
Price is now heading into production on his next series, Ragnarok, a six-part drama for Netflix. The Norwegian-language show unfolds in the fictional small town of Edda in the middle of the Norwegian countryside and is described as a modern-day coming-of-age drama rooted in Norse mythology.
“It is a story about climate change,” Price explains of the high-school set series. “We’re asking the question, ‘Is the world coming to an end?’ I have done politics, I have done religion – now we are coming to the end of the world.”
But it is something he learned on Borgen that Price keeps with him long after that show ended, and will prove particularly useful now he is working on a series that will roll out simultaneously in more than 190 countries worldwide.
“You have to write a story that means something to you,” he says. “You cannot have all kinds of thoughts about how someone will react to it in South America. You cannot let thoughts like that disturb you too much, because you will end up confused in your choices. You have to focus on your story. If I believe it and feel it and make other people feel it, then it stands a chance of working internationally as well.”
Let the Danes begin
Four new dramas hailing from Denmark were showcased during Berlinale’s Drama Series Days event in February. DQ rounds up the selection.
Når støvet har lagt sig (When the Dust Settles, pictured)
A terrorist attack at a Copenhagen restaurant is dramatised in terrifyingly vivid fashion in the latest drama from pubcaster DR, created by Dicte’s Ida Maria Rydén and Dorte W Høgh. Yet rather than dwell on the incident itself, the 10-part limited series is a character-driven piece that focuses on a group of people both before and after the attack and examines how their lives are interwoven. It is produced by Stinna Lassen (The Team) and DR Drama and is being sold internationally by DR Sales. When the Dust Settles is slated to air locally in January 2020.
Sygeplejeskolen (The New Nurses)
Following the success of the first season last autumn, The New Nurses is returning for a second six-part run, continuing the 1950s-set story about the first intake of male nurses in post-war Denmark. It is produced by SF Studios and Senia Dremstrup for TV 2, with REinvent Studios distributing.
Den Som Dræber – Fanget af Mørket (Darkness – Those Who Kill)
A reboot of 2011’s Those Who Kill, this eight-part serialised crime thriller asks not whodunnit but ‘whydunnit’ when a profiler is called in to help save two kidnapped girls from a murderer. Commissioned by Nordic streaming service Viaplay, it is produced by Miso Film and written by Ina Bruhn. Fremantle is handing worldwide sales.
The Rebels from No 69
Based on the true story of radicalised white youths who started riots when they were evicted from a shared house in Copenhagen, The Rebels from No 69 is described as a coming-of-age series that follows 20-year-old Camilla, who leaves her parents’ home under the pretence of living with her older brother but ends up moving into the house. When the council sells the property to a church, its inhabitants barricade themselves inside, leading the army to storm the premises. Currently in pre-production, it is produced by Made in Copenhagen for TV2 and distributed by REinvent Studios
tagged in: Adam Price, Ardalan Esmaili, Bedrag, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Borgen, Broen, Bron, Cosmo Films, Darkness – Those Who Kill, Den Som Dræber – Fanget af Mørket, Denmark, DR, Follow The Money, Forbrydelsen, Greyzone, Herrens Veje, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, Morten Dragster, Når støvet har lagt sig, Oskar Söderlund, Ride Upon The Storm, SAM Productions, Sidse Babett Knudsen, StudioCanal, Sygeplejeskolen, The Bridge, The New Nurses, The Rebels from No 69, TV2, Wallander, Walter Presents, When the Dust Settles