Danish maestro who is making a killing in Britain
Director Birger Larsen explains to Gerard Gilbert how he plans to bring Nordic grit to his first BBC crime series
Tuesday 24 July 2012
A bleak cityscape at night, set to a pulsating musical score. In the corner of the screen, the words "Day 1" appear before we cut to a murder scene. It could be an archetypal outtake from the hit Danish drama Forbrydelsen, or The Killing, except that the city is Nottingham and this is a BBC drama with a British cast.
The director of this BBC2 production, which is simply called Murder (another nod to The Killing), is, however, Danish – and he helmed several episodes of the Copenhagen crime drama that gave Sarah Lund to the world. Birger Larsen has also directed episodes of the Swedish Wallander – but Murder is his British debut, and he's the latest practitioner of the Nordic crime wave to land on these shores, following Sarah Lund star Sofie Grabol's cameo in Absolutely Fabulous last Christmas, and The Killing/Borgen actor Soren Malling's rather more substantial role as a chain-smoking Latvian police officer in a recent episode of BBC1's Wallander.
"I can say without exaggeration that it was the best script I have seen since The Killing," says the 51-year-old director, on a flying visit to London. "I was attracted to the fact that it's written in such a way that the actors talk directly to camera. It feels original and intimate. You see it through their eyes."
Indeed, the style of Murder is far more original than its rather blunt title. A young woman lies dead in a Nottingham flat. Her terrified sister, Coleen (Karla Crome from Hit & Miss), is barricaded in the bathroom. A young man, ex-squaddie Stefan (Joe Dempsie from Skins) in a blood-stained shirt, is pulled over for speeding. It's 2am and the three of them only met at noon. What happened in those fatal hours?
Our suspicions zigzag wildly as we follow the investigation and succeeding court case through the straight-to-camera testimonies of Coleen, Stefan, the investigating officer (played by Robert Pugh) and Coleen's lawyer (an almost Bill Nighy-like turn from Stephen Dillane), the monologues interspaced with footage filmed on CCTV cameras and mobile phones.
It's a novel way of storytelling that graduates from being slightly off-putting – like a bad night at the fringe theatre, and not at all what we expect from a crime drama – to being utterly compelling.
Writer Robert Jones came up with the device from attending murder trials at the Old Bailey. "When I saw people giving their testimony, it struck me how convincing people were when they were being questioned in their defence and how guilty they were when being questioned by the prosecution," he says. "It seemed an interesting way to tell a story, simply by having the protagonists give their version of events. The elusive quality of truth is what's fascinating in that situation."
Jones reveals that he chose Nottingham for its higher than average murder rate. "It felt like it needed to be in a real place," he says. "We wanted to hear the accent and feel the place."
Language proved no barrier to Larsen, the pronunciation of the word "café" as "caff" being the only time he struggled. In fact, he claims that there were hardly any cultural differences between making TV drama in England and in Denmark. "Except the wonderful thing in England is that you work for 11 hours, in Denmark you only work for eight hours."
And the international cross-fertilisation of crime drama flows in both directions, he adds. "Prime Suspect kicked off a lot of wonderful things in Denmark. I know that The Killing was hugely inspired by it".
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