The new generation of must-see TV imports: after The Killing, Borgen and now The Bridge, will a new slate of foreign drama keep viewers riveted?


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The Independent Culture

So just who was “mother of three”, the master-mind behind the plot to create a deadly pandemic? And will Saga and Martin ever find happiness within a romantic relationship? If you know what I’m talking about then you might also be feeling understandably anxious as the second series of The Bridge draws to its conclusion with another blistering double-episode featuring the world’s least touchy-feely fictional detective (and that includes Sherlock), the Porsche-driving, leather-trousered Saga Noren (Sofia Helin).

BBC4 has created a blissful Saturday-night institution with its subtitled crime dramas, but all good things must come to end – and worryingly for fans of what has become known as Nordic noir, a whole cycle of iconic shows will draw to a close this Saturday night. The Killing and Borgen have both wrapped for good, and while negotiations, I am told, are still underway in Scandinavia about possibly making a third series of The Bridge, nothing has been sealed and signed, let alone delivered. If we are ever to meet Saga and Martin again, it won’t be for a very long time yet.

Disappointingly for some maybe, the Danish broadcaster DR, makers of The Killing and The Bridge, has turned its back on crime and is now getting into history – a 19th-century war between Denmark and Bismarck’s Prussia, to be precise, when Denmark lost the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein. The “Schleswig Holstein question” was the Palestinian conflict of the Victorian era, according to Misha Glenny in his Radio 4 series The Invention of Germany, and while the history behind 1864, as the drama is called, might seem obscure to British viewers, the loss of so much land is central to the Danish psyche. “Nobody else really knows about it except for us Danes, but it was very defining for our character”, says DR’s executive director, Morten Hesseldahl.

If the history behind 1864 might be unfamiliar to British viewers, its cast certainly won’t be. This includes Sidse Babett Knudsen, Pilou Asbaek and Soren Malling from Borgen (respectively prime minister Birgitte Nyborg, spin-doctor Kasper Juul and TV news editor Torben Friis), and 1864 begins screening in Denmark in September, and BBC4 will broadcast it shortly afterwards. Sadly however, BBC4 hasn’t purchased DR’s other new drama, The Legacy, which has been out-performing both The Killing and Borgen in its native Denmark since it began screening five weeks ago.

“We can’t buy everything”, says Sue Deeks, the pioneering head of BBC acquisitions, who began BBC4’s enlightened policy of screening subtitled drama when she bought the gritty French cop show Spiral in 2006. “We only have a certain budget and we’re trying to bring a great range, different genres, different countries.”

The Legacy looks at Denmark’s post-war cultural history through its tale of a dying artist of international repute called Veronika Gronnegaard (played by Kirsten Olesen). As the title suggests, the drama tells of the effect on her four very different children of the disposal of Veronika’s considerable wealth. “I had a meeting with an inheritance expert, who said ‘You don’t know your family until you inherit with them’, says Maya Ilsoe, the creator and head writer of The Legacy. ”The distribution of property: that’s a very concrete battlefield.”

The good news for viewers is that a British broadcaster is currently in talks to buy The Legacy, according to a DR spokesperson in Copenhagen. Obviously such negotiations are confidential, but it’s worth noting that both Channel 4 and Sky Arts have started dipping their toes in subtitled drama – the former with the brilliant French zombie drama, The Returned, while Sky Arts has screened the Italian procedural Romanzo Criminale, French cop show Braquo, the quirky Gallic drama Hard (about a housewife who inherits her late husband’s adult-film company) and the Spanish melodrama Grand Hotel.

In the meantime Channel 4 has purchased the edgy Norwegian thriller Mammon, which follows six days in the life of uncompromising journalist Peter Veras as he uncovers evidence of financial fraud involving Norway’s political and financial elite. It will screen on More4, while Hollywood studio Fox has already picked up the US rights to the series. “The Returned shows that a terrestrial channel will deal with subtitles if the show is good enough”, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt recently told Broadcast magazine. “It gave us confidence in buying foreign drama with a really compelling story and we will acquire more international shows if we find ones with a Channel 4 sensibility.”

Hunt claims that Channel 4 is not trying to compete with BBC4, but even if it was, it wouldn’t worry Sue Deeks. “We started doing this because we’re huge fans of foreign-language drama,” she says. “So the fact that there are more broadcasters showing them is only a good thing as far as we’re concerned.”

Indeed BBC4 may be experiencing competition from within, as BBC2 screens its first subtitled series in decades. Generation War is a Second World War drama following five young German friends from 1941 to 1945 and dubbed “a German Band of Brothers”. It sparked a national debate in Germany about ordinary people’s role in the conflict, and was described by Der Spiegel as “a turning point in German television”.

BBC4 itself has enough new subtitled drama on its hands, including a new series of the ever-popular Swedish detective drama Wallander, a period Italian crime drama, Inspector De Luca, set in Bologna during the Mussolini dictatorship, and Hostages, the original Israeli version of the American remake of the same name that is currently showing on Channel 4 (“It’s very different to the American version,” says Deeks, “it’s much more authentic and raw”). The channel has also bought Crimes of Passion, set in 1950s Sweden and based on the novels of Maria Lang, an author who’s often referred to as the Swedish Agatha Christie.

But first, and kicking off next Saturday in the wake of the departing The Bridge, is the Belgian conspiracy thriller Salamander. Nordic noir fans of the beautiful wintry skylines of Copenhagen and Malmo will have to acclimatise themselves to the warmer backdrop of Brussels in summer, as well as Flemish greetings in place of all that “Tak” and “Hej” from Denmark.

And viewers who have felt refreshed by the strong female leads in The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge may be disappointed that Salamander is a rather more masculine affair. “No strong women… just strong men”, says Deeks of a cast led by Filip Peeters as silver-fox chief inspector Paul Gerardi. The 12-part drama begins with a daring robbery at a private bank in the centre of Brussels, and spirals outwards as a conspiracy thriller involving the higher echelons of Belgian society. It’s another example of the foreign-language drama that engages with contemporary politics and society – a tendency that began as a very deliberate policy on the part of Danish state broadcaster DR. “Our dramas have to tell what we call a double story”, says Camilla Hammerich, executive producer of Borgen. “It could be about a crime or a family, but on top of that we have to tell something more about society and about ethics.”

But is there a finite store of quality foreign-language television drama waiting to be purchased? “There is a lot of good stuff out there”, says Deeks. “In fact, because subtitled drama has in the last two or three years become so popular worldwide there’s even more coming through now – people have seen the success of series like The Bridge and The Killing and so on, and it seems more of these ambitious pieces are being made.”

It’s a virtuous circle in other words, with national broadcasters now willing to make innovative dramas in the hope of being picked up by a global audience or – as was the case with The Killing, The Returned and The Bridge – being re-made in America.

This flowering, which bears certain similarities to the golden age of cable-television drama in America that began on HBO with The Sopranos and The Wire, has taken viewers to some unexpected corners of Europe. Y Gwyll, for example, is an acclaimed detective drama produced by S4C, the Welsh-language public broadcaster. Filmed in both Welsh and English (in which language it is known as Hinterland), the eight-hour series stars Welsh actor Richard Harrington as Aberystwyth detective DCI Tom Mathias. It has already screened in Wales, and BBC4 will be showing the English-language version later this year. DR in Denmark meanwhile, whose shows inspired Y Gwyll/Hinterland, has returned the compliment by buying the rights to the show to screen in Denmark.

It might have been braver for BBC4 to have shown Y Gwyll in Welsh, with English subtitles, but then, Deeks says, the show might not go out on Saturday night. Either way there is no denying the success of BBC4’s Saturday-night drama. “The audience figures [for BBC4 Saturday nights] have tripled over the last couple of years”, says Deeks. “More and more people are becoming aware that good drama is good drama whatever the language.”

The final two episodes of ‘The Bridge’ are on tonight at 9pm on BBC4; ‘Salamander’ begins on BBC4 on 8 February

Out of Europe, coming our way

Salamander (Belgian)

A raid on a safety-deposit box in the vaults of a dodgy private Brussels bank opens a can of worms involving members of the Belgian establishment in this gripping 12-part conspiracy thriller starring silver-maned Filip Peeters as maverick chief inspector Paul Gerardi.

1864 (Danish)

The state broadcaster which brought us The Killing and Borgen moves into lavish historical drama, with the traumatic war against Bismark’s Prussia that led to Denmark losing half its territory. Familiar faces include Mads Mikkelsen and Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen and Pilou Asbaek.

Crimes of Passion (Swedish)

Fifties Sweden is the setting for these murder mysteries based on the books of Maria Lang – aka “the Agatha Christie of Sweden”. Described as Mad Men meets The Killing, the protagonists are a husband-and-wife sleuths and their best friend, a Stockholm police inspector.

Inspector De Luca (Italian)

Based on the novels of Carlo Lucarelli and set in Bologna during the tumultuous years of Mussolini’s dictatorship, De Luca is an  investigator whose brutal honesty and uncompromising character may help him solve crimes, but combined with his love for women, also gets him into trouble…

Hostages (Israeli)

The Israeli original of Homeland was more  authentic and raw than the feted US remake,  and the same goes for the Hebrew-language template for CBS’s Hostages, about a surgeon whose family is kidnapped in order to make  her assassinate the country’s president  during routine surgery.

Mammon (Norwegian)

Described as an All the President’s Men-style thriller, Jon Oigarden plays a journalist  investigating financial fraud at a multinational who finds his own family is involved, ruining his career and family relations – and putting  his life at risk.