While working as political correspondent for ITV News, the Danish series Borgen became essential viewing for almost anybody involved in British Parliament. From MPs to us lobby hacks, everyone was glued to this political drama. In particular, we were all obsessed with the fictional prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg.
So you might understand the excitement this journalist felt when she realised that she would finally get the opportunity to interview Sidse Babett Knudsen, the Danish actress who plays the PM. I am pleased to report that Knudsen is not only engaging and funny but also patient. She kindly agreed to something that secured international headlines for real Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt – a ‘selfie’.
I met Knudsen at the press launch of the new television drama, 1864, which begins on Sunday on DR1 and will be broadcast in the UK next year. It’s the most expensive Danish TV series ever made and has already caused some controversy over its interpretation of the second Schleswig War between Denmark, Prussia and Austria. Danish historians have attacked it for what they claim are historical inaccuracies including the idea that ‘mad nationalistic Danish politicians’ were responsible for the war.
Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Johanna L. Heiberg, the ‘Grand Lady’ of Danish theatre.  She admits that although a strong nationalist, the real Heiberg was completely different from the character she portrays. Once you’ve seen Knudsen in this role, you wouldn’t want it any other way. “She is much more of a monster in the series which was so pleasurable to play – just to be a witch,” she tells me, smiling.
Despite the politics involved, Knudsen admits it’s a world apart from Birgitte Nyborg.
“The great thing about playing Birgitte was that her stature and position was so strong that it allowed me to show a lot of vulnerability, weakness and mistakes. I could really explore a wide range of expression and we really got to know that character. This [1864] is much more stereotypical and [Heiberg] has much more of a function.”
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That function, demanded by director Ole Bornedal, is that she must constantly play a role. In one scene we see Knudsen on stage as Lady Macbeth. In another she’s climbing on top of the Chairman of the Danish Council of Ministers (played by Nicholas Bro), as she demands he re-find his political conviction. Everything about her shrieks drama.
“I haven’t done any period drama before,” Knudsen admits to me. “I’ve always wanted to, but we don’t have a big tradition of either period or historical drama in Denmark. This is definitely more theatrical than what we are used to.”
So following on from the success of Borgen, how does she think 1864 will go down abroad?
“I have no idea,” she admits. “It is very different and it’s made for Danish people, like the other series were. We are just very grateful that people like them. But I feel likes this is very new for Denmark and we don’t have the tradition or the money to make big productions.”
And somewhat nervously she adds: “I just want the Danes to like it.”
Photo: Per Arnesen/Miso Film
Some detractors are questioning 1864’s historical accuracy. Photo: Per Arnesen/Miso Film
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Another familiar face from both Borgen, and The Killing is Søren Malling, who in 1864 plays an old soldier called Johan. He’s under no illusions as to why he thinks Danish drama is so successful.
“We have the guts to tell unpolished stories and we are not afraid to look at the dark side. People can identify and see themselves in a lot of the Danish TV shows,” he says.
As for 1864 Malling says: “This story is also about identity – not just a person’s identity but an entire country’s. Because we went from being a European superpower – or we thought we were – and we lost big time.”
While the politicians and leaders appear gung-ho in this drama, Malling’s character shows restraint. Perhaps that’s why he can be so philosophical about the effect the war had on Denmark.
“It made us start thinking in another way and has led to what we have today, such as our welfare system. We protect people from the big world out there and that’s a good thing,” Malling says.
… or for Jantelov?
Lars Mikkelsen, another actor in 1864 who is also known for his roles in both Borgen and The Killing, takes Malling’s idea further.  He believes that the war has resulted in a dichotomy for Danes.  On the one hand they still believe they’re ultimately the best. On the other Mikkelsen thinks this is where the idea of Jantelov began to develop  – that no Dane is better than another.
“There’s a saying here in Denmark,” he tells me. “Don’t fly any higher than your wings can carry you.”
He points to the success of Danish TV drama: “We celebrate them more out of the country than we do in it. There’s a tendency not to be able to see that success here in Denmark.”
No wonder then that the actors are nervous about how 1864 will be received. But while some historians may be unimpressed, it’s the public that matters. And on Sunday those involved in this epic drama will be praying that they can win over their own country before marching on abroad.