Why the Scandinavian wave is a big splash in Britain

Britain has been bowled over by this region’s television programmes. Is the secret Nordic other worldliness or just good TV?

The DR political TV drama ‘Borgen’ triumphed at Britain’s BAFTAs last month, taking the award of best international series at the country’s most prestigious award show and providing the latest chapter of the extraordinary success-story that is being called the Scandinavian ‘wave’.

Just 12 months earlier, ‘The Killing’, another DR drama, also won a BAFTA. In spite of this, however, the success of ‘Borgen’ came as a surprise, not least to Camilla Hammerich and Piv Bernth, both producers at DR. Hammerich “never expected ‘Borgen’ to travel so well”, while Benth said it is “quite amazing that DR can win a BAFTA award two years in a row and that two series with subtitles can beat English language series”.


For Jacob Wendt Jensen, a film critic at Berlingske newspaper, the international success of ‘Borgen’ and ‘The Killing’ owes much to what he calls the “Nordic crime wave in books”. The worldwide success in the mid 2000s of authors like Sweden’s Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, Jensen argued, has made the “Nordic flavour à la mode” with overseas audiences.


Encouraged by this – as well as the success in Britain of other foreign-language dramas such as the French series ‘Spiral’ – in 2008 the BBC began showing the Swedish adaptations of Mankell’s ‘Wallander’, which was followed by ‘The Killing’ three years later. Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisitions at the BBC, recalled how what “had been a relatively small but very appreciative audience suddenly seemed to double overnight, and the audience has continued to grow for each successive drama”.


The Scandinavian wave does seem to have captivated British audiences in particular. Almost as soon as ‘Borgen’ was first shown on the BBC in January of this year, British internet forums buzzed with fans already smitten with Denmark’s latest offering. “Cor, them Danes [sic] can’t half make fascinating programmes,” one user exclaimed. “I still miss Lund; however Meyer being fit and well is a consolation,” another remarked. “Am going to make some cocoa while I recover my breath …”


Richard Klein, the controller of BBC Four, the channel on which ‘Wallander’, ‘The Killing’ and ‘Borgen’ were each aired, believes the central reason behind the allure of Scandinavian dramas is their “other-worldliness”. As Stuart Daniels, a viewer from the Birmingham area, puts it: “Scandinavia is relatively unknown to us Brits, so the context seems almost exotic.” Whereas, for Jacob Wendt Jensen, Danes “tend to take a woman prime minister or a woolly sweater for granted”, Daniels argues programmes like ‘Borgen’ offer British viewers a “picture of a ‘softer’ society than ours: more physical space with less traffic jams and litter; a more equal workplace … a quite different way to how we do things here”.


Alongside their ability to provide viewers with glimpses into alternative lifestyles, another important reason for the popularity of these programmes is the way in which they tend to deal with themes that are universal to audiences, no matter which language they are watching the subtitles in. 


Wallander, for example, struggles to balance the demands of his job with the needs of his only daughter, while Camilla Hammerich thinks ‘Borgen’ asks a “kind of universal question. The question we ask, in every scene and every episode and in every character, is ‘are you able to maintain power and at the same time maintain yourself?’”


Piv Bernth suggests the success that DR has enjoyed is partly the result of a conscious decision taken at the station to focus on creating high-quality, original drama. Bernth says that over “the last ten years [DR] has improved our way of developing the stories and the characters, and we work with the finest writers, directors and actors”, often giving them the space to be able to try innovative practices to keep audiences intrigued.


With ‘The Killing’, for example, its creator Søren Sveistrup used the almost unheard of technique in television production of writing the script only after the previous episode had been filmed, often in collaboration with the actors. In order to make ‘Borgen’ as realistic as possible, meanwhile, writer Adam Price recruited a prominent political journalist to whom ideas were pitched on an episode-by-episode basis. The journalist, Price recalled, would “sit there and listen to us, and he’d say what sounded realistic, how things would happen in real life, how a politician would say things”.


For Rob Buckley, a critic for the popular British TV blog ‘The Medium is Not Enough’, there is nothing “mystical about the success of Scandinavian TV in the UK – it’s about quality”. British television often focuses on remakes or cheap reality shows, and Buckley argues Scandinavian TV has been able to “fill that gap. The most successful shows such as ‘The Killing’, ‘Borgen’ and ‘Wallander’ have been well made, well acted and have had fundamentally strong scripts, with tight plotting, good characterisation and depth of emotion.” 


In the few instances where Scandinavian programmes have been of lower quality – the 2011 TV2 series ‘Those Who Kill’ (Den som dræber) might be one example – Buckley suggests “the shows have faced the same reaction as poorer UK shows: they’ve been ignored!”


A few blips aside, the Scandinavian success story is showing few signs of waning. DR’s latest offering, ‘The Bridge’, which explores the differences between Denmark and Sweden through the prism of a murder committed on the Øresund Bridge, which connects the two countries, attracted more than a million viewers each week in Britain. 


Meanwhile, the Norwegian author Jo Nesbo seems destined to follow a similar trajectory to Mankell and Larsson. His 2008 novel ‘Headhunters’ was made into a critically-acclaimed film last year, and there are plans to make his Harry Hole crime series into yet another Scandinavian television franchise. It seems that the Scandinavian wave will, for the time being at least, keep on rising.