If the devil is six, then god is SEVEN… 1984, 9/11. Numbers are important. They become substantive signifiers. 1864, perhaps not. That is unless you are a Danish nationalist who will never let the past slide into history. This was the year that an arriviste empire slid back down the greasy pole of imperial hierarchy. The empire of Denmark became the small (5.6m) kingdom of castles, Carlsberg and Copenhagen that we now associate with the dark world of suspicion and intrigue, crime drama, or that other dark world of suspicion and intrigue, constitutional monarchy. Losing half of its territory, it shrunk into a period of self-reflection and introspection.
It is a pivotal year that is both retrospective and progressive. The pessimists see it as a moment of decline, the optimists as the beginning of something altogether new; an end for some is a start for others. Denmark is now a forgotten empire that reached north into Norway, west into North America via Greenland, east into swathes of Sweden and south into the German-speaking regions of Southern Schleswig and Holstein. This was critical. The new trend of nationalism had taken root across Europe. Denmark claimed the states. Unifying Germany, under the Prussian, Otto Von Bismarck, could only say no to this territorial dispute. Cue war, enter stage right. Austria and Germany versus Little Denmark in a game of Risk. There was only one winner.
Feels somewhat like a history lesson already? Well, it is not even episode one and the historical context is requiring a Wikipedia page or a BBC Bitesize revision summary. Oh no, what is this? Intellectual costume drama. Whatever next, social realism in Downton Abbey? Denmark is not famed for its costume drama. Unless you count wooly jumpers or slick smart suits as period pieces. With the end of The Killing and Borgen, both are sadly consigned to the box sets. Nor is Denmark famed for its flagrant cash splash. Perhaps on state welfare, yes, but the equivalent of £10m of public money on a historical drama, never. The cold lends an image of frosty austerity, but not in the warm, fertile fields of the modern day Danish export of ‘cult’ television. A veritable red herring one might say…
Quantitive televisual easing, please, say the Danish state broadcaster, DR. Pouring money where there was once quality is always a risky business. Borrowing familiar faces, such as Borgen’s Statsminister, Sidse Babett Knudsen, her spin doctor, Pilou Asbaek and TV editor, Søren Malling, 1864 is a recycling of all our favourites in unfamiliar guises. Lars Mikkelsen, Sherlock’s evil magnate Magnusson, is reduced from Cotswolds mansion to Folk museum working exhibit. All war wounds and agony, he limps around like a peasant. Which is good, because he plays a war-wearied peasant, back from the front. So the simile becomes facsimile. Bringing books to educate the serfs and swords to educate the soldiers, he is paradigmatic of progress. A country bumpkin with a brain, still prey to the excesses of landlordism in the sexier appeal of Asbaek’s baron, Didrich. Both characters return from the war as DIFFERENT MEN.
Capitals for a reason. Where there once was nuance, there now seems tendentious tedium. Grey, the palette in which ‘scandi-noir’ thrived, is replaced by the bright lights of blacker black and whiter white. Asbaek’s bears the scars of war, rankling deep and painful; the classic brave face on a shivering wreck, a train crash waiting to happen. Meanwhile, Mikkelsen’s Jensen returns to a loving wife and a lovely, pastoral idyll of a life. The children have grown, the times changed, but the clock of the seasons ticks on as winters wane and harvests hover. He looks set to fade in one last hurrah of setting sun, whilst the fields breathe life into his youngsters, Peter and Laust. Alongside the enigmatic fairy, Inge, played by an astonishing Fanny Bornedal, they represent a love triangle, the prism through which a rainbow of light will colour our perceptions of hope, hopelessness and war.
But first we must cash in those bonds and liquidate our assets. In a capital splurge of costumes and culture, there is the small matter of spending £21m on eight episodes. The production duties are noticeably high; 1864 opens on a splurge of orchestra and slow motion that hearkens back to Hanks and HBO’s Band of Brothers. Spielberg effects are sure to appear in later episodes, but here the pace is more contemplative than explosive. The pistols ornamental, the battle over books rather than land. The slower pace allows an element of whimsy to creep into the story. But this moves into a narcissistic nostalgia that feels placed and overproduced, lacking the natural dynamism with which Danish television won hearts and minds. Forgoing simplicity for a threefold narrative, the series seeks the raw impact of Faulks’ Birdsong, an intergenerational synthesis around a vital moment of collective history, but falls flat in the brazen attempt to be overtly relevant. No one watches period drama for scathing social realism; it is the pursuit of escapism that drives the likes of Downton’s titanic audience shares.
At an estimated £1m per episode, Downton is less expensive than 1864. But let us remember that the available audience in Denmark is a tenth the size, and ITV is not dependent upon state subsidy. The lucrative American market is another factor, although Hillary recently declared Borgen her favourite TV show, much to a stateside sigh of apathy. So perhaps Denmark’s state empire of television could still invade the transatlantic markets of prosperity. A land familiar with cash splurges – while Band of Brothers’ bedmate, The Pacific, set HBO back $200m, other HBO series feature enormous budgets of their own. Per episode expenditure is unrivalled; look at the likes of Rome ($9m), Game of Thrones ($6m), Boardwalk Empire ($5m), over an at least thirteen episode run, they blast 1864 out of the water. Now it seems time for Bismarck to blast the Danes out of the water.
What 1864, like Denmark, does not lack, is ambition and that is something that should be lauded in itself. As broadcasters increasingly play it safe, re-commissioning and regurgitating successful platforms, 1864 and DR have dared to be different: a didactic chronicle of collective history with an all-star cast. Originality and that oft-scoffed ‘novelty’ are two rarities we should celebrate. Thanks to the big state model of Danish democracy, we have a novel TV novella.