Call it soap opera or historical realism, the television series ‘Matador’ is nothing less than a national institution. Winding up its fifth airing this evening, the series has held generations of Danes glued to their TV screens since it was first aired on public broadcaster DR in 1978.
Simply – and, for the most part, objectively – ‘Matador’ (which takes its name from the Danish word for ‘tycoon’) details the lives of two families: the upwardly mobile Skjern family and the old money Varnæs family, during the years 1929 to 1947, tracking ordinary Danish lives through both the Great Depression and the Second World War in the fictional setting of Korsbæk.
As much a part of the series as any of its characters, Korsbæk is both fictional and tantalisingly familiar. The town’s name has been argued to be simply an amalgamation of the two Zealand towns, Korsør and Holbæk. However, series writer and creator, Lise Nørgaard, grew up in another Zealand market town, Roskilde, whose local newspaper Roskilde Avis claimed the title of ‘the real Korsbæk’ for the town in September.
Born in 1917, Nørgaard was the daughter of a Roskilde grocer and blended many of her own childhood memories into the beloved ‘Matador’ scripts. In 1949, Nørgaard was hired as columnist for daily newspaper Politiken to write about household and women’s topics, and her approachable, humorous voice was one that appealed to many.
Proud of its local girl made good, the city inaugurated a bronzed statue of a life-sized Lise Nørgaard sitting on a bench on its walking street, Algade, in 2010, just a few metres from Roskilde’s historic Hotel Prindsen. The 93-year-old Nørgaard was on hand for the sculpture’s unveiling. Close by, Jane Onø’s store Korsbæk Butikken works the marketing angle, with all manner of knick knacks to be found for those nostalgic for an old-fashioned shop.
‘Matador’ was not filmed in any of these towns, however, but in the affluent suburbs north of Copenhagen. The palatial, 11-room, lakeside mansion where ‘Matador’mogul Mads Skjern ruled over his family with an iron will, was put up for sale in the town of Holte in 2009. Despite its obvious celebrity value, however, the mansion failed to attract buyers, eventually forcing its sellers to lower its price by almost 9 million kroner to a ‘mere’ 21.7 million kroner before being bought by the former head of pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, Mads Øvlisen, in 2011.
Coincidentally, another of the programme’s filming locations – the Skjern clothing store – in the town of Nærum, came up for sale in 2012. Although its price tag is a more modest 2 million kroner, it remains on the market.
First and best
‘Matador’ is the most popular Danish TV series in the nation’s history, beating edgy crime dramas like ‘Forbrydelsen’ (‘The Killing’) by a landslide. DR tried to recreate its success in 2004 with the 22-episode series ‘Krøniken’ (‘Better Times’), which spanned the period immediately after ‘Matador’, from the 1950s to the 1970s. Although immensely popular in its first season, after time, ‘Krøniken’ has failed to gain the classic status of ‘Matador’.
According to Mette Burgdorf, the author of a study comparing the two series, what distinguishes the two dramas is the tone – ‘Krøniken’ tends much more towards melodrama and emotional scenes, whilst ‘Matador’ concentrates more on a kind of social realism or historical recreation of the times.
It is this impartial social realism that – while not as fashionable with today’s emerging screenwriters – has proved to be the secret to the success of ‘Matador’. The series has a universal appeal. With its beloved characters – not only the families vying for power in the provincial town, but also the servants and tradespeople who are a part of their lives – ‘Matador’ records provincial life across the social spectrum. From those who grew up in the peripheries of Jutland to those raised on the lowlands of Lolland, Korsbæk and its denizens are reassuringly familiar, a nostalgic look back at a life in the provinces in simpler times.
Factfile | Mad about ‘Matador’
‘Matador’ first ran from 1978 to 1992 and totalled just 24 episodes. It is currently enjoying its fifth running on national Danish television.
The most apopular episode of ‘Matador’ was shown on May 26, 1985, attracting 3.6 million viewers out of a possible 5 million inhabitants – equivalent to 72 percent of the population.
‘Matador’ has been screened in over 20 countries worldwide, with fans in Norway, Sweden, Germany and even Australia.