A clue for RTÉ in Danish drama series
The uncannily true-to-life storyline of Danish political drama ‘Borgen’ is the talk of Denmark and the toast of international television, so why can’t RTÉ make a series with a similar impact in Ireland?
IT’S THE KIND of storyline familiar to fans of Borgen, the acclaimed Danish political drama series. The country’s first female prime minister faces controversy over the tax affairs of her husband, the son of a famous British politician, after details were leaked by a rival spin doctor. As the scandal grows, the gossip becomes more personal, with the Danish premier forced to publicly deny rumours that her husband is gay.
This story, however, does not involve Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, Borgen’s fictional political leader, but rather Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s real-life prime minister, and her husband, Stephen Kinnock, the son of former UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Life has apparently been imitating art in Denmark of late, to the point that Borgen’s screenwriter Jeppe Gjervig Gram has appeared on national news programmes to comment on the affair.
“It’s incredible,” says Gram, who appeared at the Mountains to Sea book festival in Dún Laoghaire earlier this month. “It’s almost too big a drama, almost too soapy. I think if we tried to write this story for the series, we would think it was too unbelievable.”
Nevertheless, that screenwriters are discussing political matters on the news is testament to the huge impact of Danish television drama in recent years.
“It’s actually quite hilarious,” says Nadia Kløvedal Reich, head of fiction at Danish state network DR. “When politicians here are trying to explain matters now, they make reference to Borgen.” It’s hard to imagine Fair City having the same cachet in Ireland.
Danish TV serials have been making waves internationally, too, creating a splash that belies the country’s small scale. Since crime series The Killing – or Forbrydelsen, to use its original title – was first screened in 2007, the Scandinavian nation’s reputation as a producer of gripping, multilayered tales for TV has soared. The Killing’s fiercely driven, chunky-jumper-wearing heroine Sarah Lund, played by Sofie Gråbøl, has become a cult figure over the course of two stunning seasons, screened last year on BBC4, while the show has undergone an American remake, albeit with mixed results.
In The Killing’s wake came Borgen, which followed the efforts of its prime ministerial protagonist (Sidse Babett Knudsen) to juggle her political struggles with her domestic life. Danish drama’s high standing was most recently underscored by The Bridge, a crime thriller co-produced by DR and Swedish network SVT, which played on the cultural differences between the two countries.
The success of these shows is all the more remarkable given the country’s size. Denmark has a population of only 5.5 million, yet the state network has established itself as a producer of long-form dramas that are consistently popular at home while appealing abroad. Does its example hold any lessons for Irish television? RTÉ, in particular, serves a comparably sized market of 4.5 million inhabitants, yet it has yet to produce a series with a comparable impact.
The Danes’ achievement has not happened by accident. The qualities that mark shows such as The Killing and Borgen have arisen from a long-term strategy to maximise DR’s resources while encouraging a culture of rigorous creativity among its writers.
“We have very strong values for the way we work together and how we develop stories,” says Reich. One of these values is a concept called One Vision, which places the writer as the lead figure in the production, with a small team working hard in the “creative room” to realise the main writer’s ideas, producing multiple drafts until the script is ready. This approach is the result of a process that began when executives from DR, which had previously made TV movies and short-run series, started to study American production techniques.
“Making a TV series is like a machine,” says Reich. “So 15 years ago there was this vision to take the best of the American way, where you a have showrunner, and put it with the tradition of telling genuine stories.”
At the same time, DR also mined the country’s emerging talent by setting up programmes at film schools to bring through promising writers. Gram, was recruited this way – “I was the odd guy at the film school who wanted to do TV” – before ending up as a scriptwriter for Borgen under its creator, Adam Price.
The approach, with its remit for original stories, has produced a string of domestic hits for DR. Attracting the home audience is the priority. “If I write an episode and it delivers less than a million viewers, it says in the contract that I could get fired,” says Gram. Luckily for him, Borgen attracted a 50 per cent audience share of 1.5 million viewers during its run.
The method is not without struggles, however. When Price originally pitched the idea for Borgen, DR’s senior management was nervous about making a drama about politics. But while the show spoke to local concerns, its arresting plots and strong characters have earned it an international fanbase.
“That was a huge surprise,” says Gram. “In the writers’ room, we were certain it would never travel.”
Such achievements have so far largely eluded Irish broadcasters, either at home or abroad. The most high-profile hit of recent times, RTÉ One’s Love/Hate, has been sold to territories such as Scotland and Australia and been optioned for a potential US remake, but the average Irish viewership for its second season was still only 530,000, a 31 per cent share, some way off its Danish peers.
Jane Gogan, head of drama at RTÉ, says there are obvious similarities between the two countries, but also points out differences, such as the prevailing media buzz about all Scandinavian crime fiction and the existence of a more established film industry in Denmark. She also says “they have more cultural confidence there”. With RTÉ’s autumn schedule containing no new home-produced fictional series – Love/Hate, Raw and Trivia all return – and TV3 only now dipping its toes into the genre with Deception, the situation looks unlikely to change soon.
But Gogan is also seeking to emulate the Danes by transforming RTÉ’s television drama strategy in the long term, “cultivating what we’re going to need in the future in terms of writers, directors, producers, all these skillsets”. New writers have been fast-tracked through Fair City and the online drama competition Storyland – which previously yielded the offbeat series Hardy Bucks – while production costs per hour have been brought down.
“This is a moment to be managed,” says Gogan about the financial crisis, which has hampered RTÉ’s output. “But we are very actively in development, so we’re ready to build when the moment allows.”
That said, it may well be some time before Irish series can match their Danish counterparts in global sweep and consistent quality. Gogan says Irish film courses are still focused on celluloid rather than television: “It’s slow to happen in Ireland and we really need to do it.” More practically, while the two network’s drama budgets are similar – RTÉ spent €25 million in 2011 while DR spends roughly €13.5 million on two annual flagship serials – much of Montrose’s efforts are absorbed by Fair City, while the Danes lack an equivalent soap opera.
But, so far at least, RTÉ has yet to display the kind of bold ambition its Scandinavian cousin showed in 2007, when it commissioned the first series of The Killing as a mammoth 20-episode run. “That was an audacious thing that they did,” Gogan says. “ It was a big investment for them and it paid off.”
Having spent the previous years creating an imaginatively fertile but rigorously run drama department, DR has been well placed to build on its successes. And this has encouraged even greater effort by Danish drama-makers.
“I think that of course it has a psychological effect,” says Gram. “We used to be proud of our drama, but we’re now really proud and want to live up to those expectations.”
Right now, RTÉ could do with a similar boost, while licence payers want more television stories that resonate with their experience. A good political drama might be an interesting place to start.