On Sofie Gråbøl, that jumper, and the dramatic similarities between The Killing and Downton Abbey. (Go with me on this.)

by Stephen Tall on November 19, 2011

The wonderful Sofie Gråbøl — Sarah Lund in Denmark’s tension-fuelled crime drama The Killing / Forbrydelsen, which returns tonight to its 9pm Saturday slot after too-long an absence — is interviewed in The Guardian. She is, inevitably, asked about that jumper:

Is the Danish press as obsessed as we are about the sweaters? (@Skinz)

Yes, isn’t it odd? They really are nice sweaters, but I don’t want to talk about the sweaters! I will tell you one thing, there was a feeling of failure for me, of defeat. When we did the first season, whenever I met people in the streets and they talked to me and when I said I was doing a second season of the killing it was all: “Are you going to wear the jumper?”

It was the only reaction I got! And I thought “Who cares about the fucking jumper, why don’t you ask me what are we going to do with the story or the character?” So when we were about to start the second series everybody agreed: “We are not going to give them the jumper.” Never give the audience what they want. I loved that jumper but I felt at times the jumper was wearing me. So I had this love/hate relationship to it.

You couldn’t put her in a shirt but we didn’t want her to wear that jumper. We got her a red jumper and to tell you the truth after halfway through, five episodes, I actually walked into the office of the producer saying: “I have to have my jumper back. I have tried and I need my jumper back.” So I got back but it was really a defeat. It was like a uniform…

By the way, do check out this clever little video, ‘The real reason for the success of The Killing’.

But what grabbed me most about Ms Gråbøl’s answers was this point:

Is a Danish/British sensibility that you or The Killing’s makers have been able to identify to explain the success of the programme’s success in the UK? (@waifandstray)

I have been thinking a lot about what it is – it has been successful in a lot of other countries but nowhere has it hit so strongly [as the UK]. But I have to be careful because I don’t know you [British people] that well but you have been communicating to me through films and TV for quite a bit now and you seem to me quite a self-oppressed people. I think we share that tradition of storytelling where everything is held back. We understand each other; we are part of the same tradition. I have seen so many British films and TV shows with that tradition of storytelling.

“Self-oppressed”: it’s a fair cop, guv’nor. She’s right that the secret to The Killing’s cult success is the way “everything is held back”.

On a different — more mainstream — level, that same tradition helped explain the success of Downton Abbey’s first series and why the second series didn’t work dramatically, as Viv Groskop’s review sharply notes:

Perversely, given that creator Julian Fellowes has tried to cram so much into this series, the story has lacked any real detail. Series one was at its best when it concentrated on minute plot points – a missing bottle of wine, a bitchy moment between two sisters, Mrs Patmore’s failing eyesight – and made us care about them. Because Downton has such a superb cast, this worked brilliantly: it was all about rivalry, betrayal, repressed sexuality, humiliation, passion, ambition. And all the action happened on the actors’ faces.

Crucially many of series one’s most perfect moments happened off-stage: the untimely death of Mr Pamuk (“Poor Kemal!”), the theft of the snuff box, O’Brien placing the soap next to the bath. What mattered was not the events themselves, but the characters’ reactions. Series one was seen exclusively in close-up. In series two we’ ve pulled too far away from the actors to care.

The best drama isn’t about what happens; it’s about how what happens affects the characters. Both The Killing and Downton’s first series recognised that, so fingers crossed for Forbrydelsen 2.