Riding the Danish drama storm
For a small nation, Denmark knows how to pack a punch. It makes great lager, gave the world LEGO and even managed to win the UEFA European Football Championships back in 1992. In addition to all this it is now producing some of the most compelling and intriguing TV drama series in the world.
It wasn’t always that way, says Adam Price, the creator of Borgen, an acclaimed political drama that first aired on public broadcaster DR. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, Danish TV drama was really terrible. It had no audience at all. So DR sent a fact-finding mission to the US to see how it was done.
“They made a quite deliberate decision to improve TV storytelling and came up with a model that works for the Danish market. That model is what has made the difference to Danish drama output.”
Distilled down to its basics, there are three core elements, says Price. “It begins with the one-vision dogma – the idea that one writer’s vision is central to the process. But this is supported by the idea of the deadly duo – a producer and writer working in partnership throughout the process. And finally there is an insistence on the concept of the double story. It’s not enough just to have a good plot, shows need to tell us something about what it means to be a citizen in contemporary Western society.”
Once these elements are in place, a high level of trust is ceded to the creative. “You aren’t put through some kind of entrance exam on every episode,” says Price. “If your show doesn’t get an audience, you might not be hired again. But as long as you are working diligently on your show, you are trusted. The result is that you get shows that are not just consensus ideas.”
Price broke into the business when this new model was in its formative years: “There were no formal writing courses available in film schools back then. But I come from a family of theatre writers and directors that dates back two centuries. I was working in theatre when I was given the opportunity to work on a show called Taxa (Taxi). I learned my trade there and then progressed onto a romantic comedy called Nikolai and Julie. From there I was given the opportunity to create Borgen.”
Around this time, the international market started to get interested in Danish shows. So Price decided to set up his own indie production company alongside Soren Sveistrup (creator of DR’s The Killing) and Meta Louise Foldager (A Royal Affair). “We launched a company called SAM, with backing from StudioCanal,” he says. “The idea is that we continue to work on ideas for the Danish market but also build a slate of shows that are more targeted towards international audiences.”
He is, for example, working on another high-profile piece for DR called Rides Upon the Storm. Centred on a Protestant priest, “it’s a show that uses personal faith as the motivation of the action. I’ve always been interested in and puzzled by religion. It has had such a terrifying impact on the politics of the world in the last 15 years that I wanted to make a show that tries to understand it. I’ve always found that things that puzzle you can serve as the topic of compelling stories. For me, it is about satisfying a kind of scientific or journalistic curiosity.”
In Price’s opinion, Denmark makes a good backdrop for such a story “because we are all born as members of the church and pay taxes for it – unless we choose to leave, which more people are now doing. So this show looks at traditional Christian beliefs, the new younger elements and the arrival of Islam.”
Rides Upon the Storm is moving rapidly towards production, with transmission planned for 2017. With two series (20 episodes) already ordered, it’s going to take up a lot of Price’s time. But at the same time, SAM has developed a large development slate of around 25 ideas – with some in English. One project Price hopes will get off the ground is a political series for the BBC. “That’s something that predates SAM,” he explains, “an idea I developed with Michael Dobbs.”
In terms of approach, Price says: “Writers come to us with ideas and we use our experience to advise them on the next step. Soren and I have been round the block a few times so we think we can help them get their projects off the ground.”
This is not so different to the model DR has perfected. “In the same way I was trained up, others have followed,” says Price. “The creator (Jeppe Gjervig Gram) of DR’s latest series, financial crime story Follow the Money, was a writer on Borgen.”
Running a company at the same time as writing a TV series may seem like a lot of work, but Price has no problem with that. “There’s an old saying I like: ‘If you want something done, go to a busy man.’” Maybe that philosophy explains why the Danes are among the world’s perennial overachievers.