Nothing like a Dane: New thriller Borgen centres on a trailblazing female politician

Move over, Sarah Lund, says Gerard Gilbert
  • @GerardVGilbert

Who, just 12 months ago, would have predicted that some of us would have become so familiar with Denmark's pool of top actors? That's not to patronise Denmark in any way – it's just that for obvious linguistic reasons, we haven't as a nation been terribly conversant with the Danish acting community. However, the first two series of The Killing have introduced us to many of their leading lights – not only, of course, to Sofie Grabol, who is now an unlikely household name in Britain (well, in the 500,000 households that regularly tune in to the Copenhagen-set thriller), but also to a wide range of new faces who had hitherto been the preserve of Danish viewers or those with a special interest in Scandinavian film and television.

I realised just how au fait I was becoming with Denmark's thespian stock when previewing Borgen, a new political thriller from the same network, DR, that made The Killing, only to discover the actors who played Lund's ex-police partners, Soren Malling and Mikael Birkkjaer, in new roles. Malling, Jan Meyer in the first series, here plays a television news director, while Birkkjaer, Lund's partner, Ulrik Strange, in The Killing II, is now the husband of Borgen's central protagonist, a moderate politician who wins a surprise election victory to become the first female prime minister of Denmark.

But Borgen revolves around Birgitte Nyborg – this year's Sarah Lund. Despite her busy political career, Nyborg (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen), tries to spend as much time with her family as possible and worries that she looks too fat in a new dress. So far, so unlike Lund, who I think I only ever once saw in a dress – at her mother's wedding in The Killing II. However, Nyborg does share a dogged integrity with the heroine of The Killing that is going to make for some compelling television over the next five weeks (BBC4 is again showing its Danish drama in two-hour double-bills).

Opening with a quote from Machiavelli's The Prince, Borgen (meaning castle or fortress, and the Danish term for their parliament) begins its story three days before a general election in which Nyborg's centrist party seems to be falling victim to deal-making between the left and right-wing politicians. It's a tale of mainstream parties making uneasy alliances with smaller, more extremist groups – a tale that will be familiar to fans of The Killing, both series of which were as much political thriller as police procedural.

Nyborg and Lund are very different creatures in many ways – socially, emotionally and probably politically (we have no idea, of course, about Lund's political leanings, if any). But the women do share one important characteristic – their sex. Both The Killing and Borgen brim with strong female characters that, if nothing else, export the impression that Danish society is a lot more equal than most.

In The Killing, Ann Eleonora Jorgensen delivered one of the most sustained and convincing portrayals of grief that I can remember seeing as Pernille Birk Larsen, the victim's mother, while the iron hand inside the velvet glove of Copenhagen politician Troels Hartmann was provided by his political adviser and lover Rie Skovgaard (Marie Askehave), the character who was one of my prime suspects for most of the 20 episodes.

And in The Killing II we had Lotte Andersen as Ruth Hedeby, Brix's superior; Stine Praetorius as Louise Raben, a colonel's daughter and wife of the fugitive soldier Jens; and Charlotte Guldberg as Karina Munk Jorgensen, the justice ministry civil servant who always managed to turn up evidence at vital moments in the story.

In Borgen, apart from Nyborg, strong female characters include Brigitte Hjort Sorensen as Katrine, an ambitious television journalist given the job of conducting the eve-of-poll interviews with the party leaders, while Katrine's boss, the formidable Hanne, is played by the veteran actress Benedikte Hansen, who was (you've guessed it) in The Killing II.

But if Borgen belongs to anybody it's to Sidse Babett Knudsen, the 43-year-old actress born in the same year as Sofie Grabol – and like Grabol, moving fluidly between theatre, film and television in her native Denmark. She was deeply involved in experimental theatre until 1997, when an improvised comedy, Let's Get Lost, propelled her into the mainstream, one critic describing her as having a "special ability to capture the modern woman's uncertainty and strength".

She makes an appealing presence, and Knudsen will be with us for some time: a second series of Borgen has recently finished airing in Denmark, and a third is due to start filming in Copenhagen this spring.

Meanwhile NBC is busy developing an American remake with the Friday Night Lights executive producer, David Hudgins, on writing duties, and co-production by BBC Worldwide. The idea is for it to be a successor to The West Wing. But those who prefer their Nordic TV drama in its pure state should also look out for The Bridge, a 10-part Danish/Swedish co-production in which the corpse of a murder victim is found halfway across the Oresund Bridge, which links Copenhagen with Malmo in Sweden. This bridge also featured briefly in The Killing II – and there is a programme to be made (for BBC4, natch) that illustrates all the connections that are unfolding during our increasing exposure to Danish television.

Did you know, for example, that Mikael Birkkjaer – Lund's near-lover and nemesis in The Killing II – co-starred with Sofie Grabol in the 2004 film Aftermath, in which they played a young married couple dealing with the death of their only daughter? Or that Adam Price, who created Borgen, was also one of the writers on Nikolaj og Julie, a sort of Danish Cold Feet that starred... Sofie Grabol?

These connections are probably no more than you'd find on British TV, but they are somehow more charming. Expect any day soon a Mastermind contestant to be answering specialist questions on Danish television drama of the 21st century. Here's a sample question for interested Dane-heads: In The Killing what did the apartment used by Troels Hartmann have to do with the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen? I still haven't worked that one out.

'Borgen' starts on Saturday at 9pm on BBC4