Danish state television takes on the knotty subject of an obscure war that almost prompted a constitutional crisis in Britain

For all those still foxed by the Schleswig-Holstein question, help is finally at hand from an unlikely source

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The Independent Culture

It is the bane of countless history students and has even left dignitaries such as Lord Palmerstone scratching his head.

But for all those still foxed by the Schleswig-Holstein question, help is finally at hand from an unlikely source: Danish state television.

Fresh from global hits such as Borgen and The Killing, DR, the saviour of highbrow Saturday night TV, is turning its hand to an even more knotty subject: an obscure war that ultimately triggered German unification and nearly prompted a constitutional crisis in Britain.

The eight-part drama, entitled 1864, will tell the story of the complicated battle between the Danish and German powers for control over the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, which were then under Denmark’s control.

Scandi telly fans will be pleased to hear that the series, which is the most expensive in Danish TV history with a £21m budget, will unite many familiar faces, from Borgen’s fictional prime minister, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Sophie Graabol, who is better known as The Killing’s top cop Sarah Lund. Other ubiquitous Danish actors including Soren Malling and Pilou Asbaek also have parts.

Filming the drama, which is based on the best-selling books Slagtebaenk Dybbol and Dommedag Als by the Danish historian Tom Buk-Swienty, started in April in Prague, and will continue over the summer in Denmark.

Two British actors, James Fox and Barbara Flynn, will also play “significant roles”, according to Peter Bose, the series’ producer and head of Miso Film, which is one of DR’s partners on the show.

Bose stopped short of promising that the series would answer the infamous Schleswig-Holstein question - namely who had the right to rule over the two territories - but said he hoped the drama “would help all the people who have heard of this battle understand what happened”.

That will be of no comfort to the long deceased Lord Palmerstone, the then British prime minister, who said of the battle’s complexities: “Only three people... have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business...the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German Professor, who has gone mad, and I who have forgotten all about it.” But it should comfort Year 9 students, who study the subject for GCSE history, should they feel up to tackling the show’s subtitles.

The war shaped Denmark’s modern-day identity; defeat ending its dream of being a big European power. “Denmark lost almost half its land and had to redefine itself. It wasn’t sure it could survive as a country,” Buk-Swienty said.

Bose hopes the series will enthral British viewers as much as Danish ones, pointing out that the affair gripped Britain at the time. Reports in the British press reveal that public support was firmly behind Denmark, with Parliament poised to intervene, until Queen Victoria, an arch Germanophile whose daughter, Victoria, was the Prussian Crown Princess, intervened. 

“It was a huge story in the British papers about David against Goliath. Brits loved that the Danes were the underdogs, so they rooted for the Danes,” said Buk-Swienty, adding that one of his main characters was a British foreign correspondent.

Putting the skirmish into context, he said: “The Schleswig-Holstein Question was important because it was (Otto von) Bismarck’s first war. He tested his new, modern army against Denmark. Victory ultimately gave him the power to unify Germany, so Schleswig-Holstein starts a whole chapter of events that really alters the power balance in Europe.”

If the thought of all that political wrangling on top of contending with impenetrable Danish has erstwhile Scandi telly aficionados reaching for the Neurofen, then worry not because Bose, who was the executive producer on the Swedish hit Wallander, promises 1864 is more of a love story than a war drama. “The themes of love and war are not local, but travel, unfortunately.” He said the drama hinged on the same “great characters” that have made Danish television shows about mundane subjects like coalition politics a global phenomenon, captivating audiences from Argentina to Japan.

The only downside is that is isn’t expected to air until 2014, the 150th anniversary of the conflict, so it’s back to the revision notes for students until then.