Opinion | Britain’s fetish for Denmark, explained

We Brits have developed something of an obsession with Denmark. The start, perhaps, was the broadcasting of season one of ‘The Killing’, which was first shown on the BBC in January last year.

The series was a huge (and a surprise) success: despite not being shown on either of the BBC’s flagship channels, it averaged 500,000 viewers an episode – higher than the US drama ‘Mad Men’ when it premiered on the same network. By the time the second series was broadcast, in November 2011, ‘The Killing’ was regularly attracting more than a million viewers. 

Television programmes like ‘The Killing’ and, more recently, ‘Borgen’ – the political thriller that has provided the BBC with another huge ratings success – may have been what first caught our attention; but our focus on Denmark quickly moved far beyond an appreciation for high-quality television dramas.


Soon after ‘The Killing’ was first shown on television, for example, The Guardian ran a feature under the headline ‘Danmark – hvor det sker’ in which commentators listed the various things that made Denmark ‘the place to be’. This included a flourishing film scene, the “New Nordic culinary movement” fronted by the “deeply photogenic” Danish chef René Redzepi, the “functional, well-crafted, minimalist glory” of Danish design, and the brilliance of Danish fashion, symbolised by the kinds of knitwear sported by Sarah Lund of ‘The Killing’.


Then, later that year, the same paper ran a glossy-magazine feature that encouraged readers to move to the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen, a place that has the same “cool” that Danes apparently “exude from their pores”.


When earlier this month The Guardian ran yet another feature on Denmark, this time by a British expat on the “blissful” nature of life in Copenhagen, a columnist on these pages wondered if the paper was “in cahoots with [the] tourism organisation Visit Copenhagen”. 


At times, the focus on Denmark in Britain has almost bordered on fetishism. So what explains it? Part of the answer is cultural and specifically the fact that the key cultural influences on the UK have historically tended to emanate from the US. Since the 1960s, US cultural imports have saturated the British marketplace, meaning that although American television dramas such as ‘24’ and ‘Homeland’ are highly popular – just like Hollywood blockbuster movies – they do not now provoke the same fascination with the US as they once did, primarily because the US has become so familiar to British audiences.


Denmark, by contrast, is almost exotic. It is geographically near, but appears culturally far away, and is not tarnished with any of the deep-rooted, negative stereotypes that the British commonly reserve for the Germans or the French. Because of this, it is easy for the British to paint an imaginary picture of what life in Denmark is like, often based not on personal experience but rather on the images of Denmark seen in fictional television dramas. 


In ‘The Killing’, for example, if Sarah Lund’s jumpers were not to your tastes, one reviewer pointed out you could always marvel at the “cool apartments and beautiful streets” of Copenhagen. During ‘Borgen’, rather than thinking about David Cameron and the British government, you could instead drool, as one Guardian reviewer did, over the “ambitious, brilliant, confident [and] beautiful” Birgitte Nyborg, the fictional Danish Prime minister who has “a lovely home life, a sexy fella” and “rides a bicycle not because of a photo call, but because she rides a bicycle”.


Indeed, there is a political dimension to the growing attention Denmark is receiving in Britain. Following the election of a right-wing coalition in May 2010, there has been widespread disillusionment amongst those on the left about the chances of a left-of-centre, social democratic government being elected during times of austerity. The election of Helle Thorning-Schmidt in October last year – who bares more than a passing resemblance to Nyborg and who, the British press regularly point out, is the daughter-in-law of the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock – seemed to show that it could be done.


Thorning-Schmidt’s election demonstrated to us Brits, whether accurately or not, that Denmark’s fabled welfare state – which, it is regularly pointed out, includes state-funded higher education for all, a generous pension scheme and even ‘maternity hotels’ for mothers and babies – is all happily funded by the taxpayer. In the context of the perceived failure of the ‘New Labour’ project in Britain, and the ongoing struggles of Ed Miliband, the current Labour leader, it all seems a million miles away. As well as providing cultural intrigue, then, Denmark also offers a beacon of political hope for those on the left in Britain.  


The point of a fetish is that the projection of an idealised conception of something else provides a way of hiding away from one’s own insecurities. It is no coincidence that the newspaper that has focused on Denmark the most over the last 18 months has been The Guardian, a left-leaning paper that came out in support of the Liberal Democrats before the 2010 general election, only to see them form one of the most right-wing governments in recent memory. 


For many in Britain, then, Denmark – whether represented in ‘The Killing’, ‘Borgen’ or the latest newspaper article – offers glimpses of what an alternative future might look like. As one columnist (in The Guardian, where else?) put it – only, you sense, half jokingly – “Denmark is obviously a better place; let’s all move there.” Denmark had better watch out – we Brits are on our way. 


Follow the author on Twitter @KConnellWriter.