It’s late afternoon in Copenhagen and at the National Gallery of Denmark extras are milling about in evening dress. Actor Nicolas Bro (Thomas Buch in the second series of The Killing and Ditlev Gothard Monrad in 1864) finds his mark on a platform from which he is to address the guests – his character being a Richard Branson-type “hippy entrepreneur” and art collector by the name of Freddie Holst. In the new series of the popular Danish-Swedish crime thriller The Bridge, the joint Copenhagen-Malmo police unit investigate a link between Holst’s artworks and a series of grisly (naturally) murders.
“The theme in the new series is art and family,” Bro tells me later. Family, that is, in the modern sense, in its many forms. Beyond that he is understandably reticent, the actors having been given a long list of topics that they cannot discuss, most notably the plot. And to avoid this article becoming impossibly vague I am going to assume that readers are up to speed with Series 2 of The Bridge. So, spoiler alert ...
... in the finale to last season, Swedish detective Saga Noren – she of the leather trousers, flowing overcoat, 1970s Porsche and implied Asperger’s syndrome – made the devastating decision to report her Danish police partner (and perhaps her only friend) Martin Rohde for murder. The fact that Martin had killed Jens, the taunting slayer of Martin’s son, cut no ice with Saga, and he was duly arrested. Can Sofia Helin, the Swedish actress who plays Saga, shed any light on Saga’s decision to dob in Martin? Was it because he had been sticking his nose into her family history – discovering that Saga’s mother suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy and had tried to kill Saga’s sister?
“No it’s not because of that,” says Helin. “I think it’s because she’s so much ruled by rules. If she wouldn’t have turned him in, she could have lost her police licence. I ... she had to do it.”
And then there is the suggestion that Saga herself might have done something criminal in connection with her mother and her sister. “She did some things in her past that aren’t allowed,” confirms Helin. “And her life is to be a cop and if she can’t be a police officer any more she can’t live.”
Either way, Danish actor Kim Bodnia, who plays Martin, didn’t like the way that his character’s storyline was headed – all that sitting around in a prison cell presumably – and chose not to continue in the role. It was a decision that necessitated the rewriting of the first four episodes of the new series, and a swift reassessment of where the show, which had been built around Martin and Saga’s odd-couple relationship, was going. But Helin declares herself unperturbed by her co-star’s decision to exit.
“I was actually involved in the process so it wasn’t a shock at all,” she says. “I think it was good because his story kind of came to an end since I put him in jail, so the other alternative wasn’t very tempting – to try to get him out of jail in some strange way. So this was a more radical and interesting way to go.”
Two other recent Danish dramas, Borgen and The Killing, both went to only three series – a length pre-ordained by their maker, the Danish state broadcaster, DR. The Bridge, however, is an international co-production with several commercial partners, and the show sells to 157 countries – an almost Downton Abbey level of international distribution. That kind of success must be hard to forego.
“The final season?” echoes producer Bo Ehrhardt, when I ask him. “We don’t know. The challenges of making the changes when Kim decided not to continue has meant that we have worked under a lot of pressure. The challenge has been to finish this third season and we haven’t honestly begun to discuss a fourth season.” Would Bodnia be welcomed back if he decided that the storylines were again to his liking? “If we get a fourth season then he’s welcome,” says Ehrhardt.
In the meantime, Saga is to get a new Danish partner, whose identity will form a large part of the opening episode. Equally important to the new series, however, is the further unfolding of Saga’s own troubled backstory. “This season will be very tough for Saga, she has a lot to handle,” says Ehrhardt. “You could say that her past is coming back to haunt her.” Presumably “her past” means her mother, I ask Helin, who either doesn’t seem to have read the producers’ emails about not revealing too much, or doesn’t care. “Yeah ... her mother and that’s kind of a nightmare for Saga to meet. The only person in the world she’s scared of is her mother.”
Other backstories are also going to be explored – for example, that of Martin’s boss in Copenhagen, Lillian, played by Sarah Boberg – a character usually glimpsed having terse conversations in corridors and car parks. “Now you get to experience my character in more private situations,” says Boberg. Although she’s a close friend of Bodnia, she thinks his departure has strengthened the show. “It has a bit more edge,” she says. “They’ve created something new instead of repeating themselves or giving up.”
New characters in the third series include a right-wing blogger (played by Sonja Richter), while the story begins with the murder of the high-profile founder of the first gender-neutral kindergarten in Copenhagen. The idea of gender neutrality is more widespread in Sweden than in Denmark; the official dictionary of the Swedish language recently introduced the pronoun “hen” – a cross between “han” (he) and “hon” (she).
Much of The Bridge’s play on cultural differences between Swedes and Danes goes over British heads. “I would say they [Swedes] are more politically correct,” says Bro. “They’re a little uptight. On the other hand they maybe think we’re a bit childish. We have a sort of big brother, little brother thing.”
“The Swedish perception of Danes is that they are drinking and being too relaxed,” Helin counters. “And they think we are stiff and very boring.”
The Bridge has been remade as The Tunnel (Anglo-French differences on the line) and in America (relocated to the Mexican-US border), but the possibilities for international variations are almost endless. How about a timely exploration of the Union, in which the bodies of an SNP councillor and a Better Together activist are discovered roped together in the River Tweed? Just a thought. .
‘The Bridge’ returns to BBC Four in NovemberReuse content