In Denmark: Aired September 2014 on DR1
In the UK: Saturdays, 9pm, BBC Four. Starts 16th May
We’ve been waiting over a year and finally, here it comes: 1864, Denmark’s latest lavish historical drama about the Second Schleswig War, starring Those People You Like from other Danish shows (including Sidse Babett Knudsen and Lars Mikkelsen) as well as Barbara Flynn (The Beiderbecke Affair, A Very Peculiar Practice) as our very own Queen Victoria.
Heard of the Second Schleswig War, have you? No, me neither. It was a somewhat brief affair that took place in – surprise, surprise – 1864, so unsurprisingly for such an overlooked, short conflict, much of 1864 is actually lead-up and background to it. Indeed, the whole show has an odd framing device to explain everything and make it seem relevant: a bored modern day teenager on a school trip.
While we follow her and see how present day conflicts have affected her and robbed her of her brother, we first journey back to the 1850s, shortly after the first Schleswig War, which the Danes had won, emboldening them towards further action a few years later. There, we meet as children two future soldiers of the 1864 war, brothers Peter and Laust, as well as Inge, the girl of their dreams and future conflicts. We see what their lives are like – harsh schools full of pro-Danish, anti-Prussian propaganda, beatings by their dad (Mikkelsen) and, erm, experiments in masturbation and the collection of emissions (Ed: was that scene really necessary?) – again contrasted with the present day slacker-robber of the framing narrative.
We also visit Knudsen, a stage actress, who’s important in Danish society, and get to watch her to do breathing exercises and Macbeth. We also get to see what’s happening in Prussia with the Kaiser and Bismarck, all of which pleasingly enough is in German.
What we don’t get in the first episode is any actual conflict or the torrid love story between Inge and the two brothers, although slightly pretentious narrator Inge does provide us with a little introduction promising us all of this; the end of the first episode also gives us more hints of what’s to come later in the series.
Indeed, one might be forgiven for being as bored as the bored teenager, unless your idea of fun is either the general Danish cultural history lesson the show is intent on propagating through background detail or watching Mikkelsen occasionally ploughing fields with his top off. The first episode does end with some big shocks of sorts but nothing huge.
Oddly, things don’t change that much in episode two, with the first half remaining steadfastly in the protagonists’ childhoods, although as Inge points out at the beginning, a few dark clouds are set to appear very quickly. However, the second half moves us forward to adolescence, although not towards any real action.
If you were expecting 1864 to be an epic period war series, I’m afraid you’re going to be sorely disappointed for quite some time at least. Instead, consider this more as a period coming-of-age story that will eventually have a war as a backdrop, combined with a slightly less interesting modern-day story about a teenage down and out and her relationship with a blind old man in a wheelchair whom she quite fancies robbing but slowly befriends instead.
Clearly, like so much Scandinavian TV, this is something of a slow burn and if you want things to happen, you’ve picked the wrong genre. Indeed, despite having spent two hours watching this not get to the point, I still can’t tell you if it’s worth recommending. I probably won’t be tuning in for the next few episodes (BBC Four scheduling being what it is), but I might, which is more than I usually do with a lot of Scandi dramas, so clearly this is in the upper echelons.
But despite all the effort and money lavished on it, it’s still something that could do with an awful lot of pruning and it’s by no means something that’s going to be to all tastes, even if you are into Scandi dramas.