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4 December 2014

Greed, lust and great knitwear: The Legacy is a Danish drama that’s smarter than Borgen

Everyone is white, and everyone is rich – or about to be. Where’s the grit in that? But grit there is: it is stupid to assume that for a drama to be a hit, it must be filled with “people like us”.

By Rachel Cooke

The Legacy
Sky Arts 1

Why didn’t the BBC snap up the Danish drama The Legacy (Wednesdays, 10pm)? Did Sky outbid it, or did its executives take one look at the series’ irredeemably middle-class characters and run a mile? It’s not difficult to imagine some nervous BBC type watching the antics of Veronika Grønnegaard (Kirsten Olesen), the bohemian matriarch at its heart, and thinking: hasn’t Alan Yentob got this stuff covered in Arts? Yes, Grønnegaard, who is basically Tracey Emin with a pension and vastly more taste, conveniently dies at the end of the first episode. But even in her absence, the show is peopled with the kind of metropolitan pseuds one usually only comes across in tiny art-house cinemas: an avant-garde composer who looks just like Catweazle; a gallerist who speaks to waiters in roughly the same tone as David Mellor addresses cabbies; a spoiled hippie who’s building a dodgy eco resort in Thailand. Everyone is white, and everyone is rich – or about to be. Where’s the grit in that?

But grit there is: it is stupid and not a little patronising to assume that for a drama to be a hit, it must be filled with “people like us”. Emotions are universal, and in The Legacy they keep bursting out all over the place, like molehills on an immaculate lawn. Here are greed, envy, loss, lust and, above all, sibling rivalry. Grønnegaard’s children, however wealthy, privileged and articulate, are the victims both of her spite – her deathbed will is about to cause all kinds of trouble – and of their family being so very modern, by which I mean complicated (four children by three different fathers). Rather predictably, the series has already been compared to Hamlet and to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (Trine Dyrholm, who plays Veronika’s elder daughter, Gro, also starred in that film). But it’s also very much its own thing, singular and odd, as if the Turner Prize ceremony had suddenly morphed into a novel by Edward St Aubyn.

Episode two (3 December), like St Aubyn’s At Last, centred entirely on a funeral: Veronika’s, to which she was late, the undertaker’s satnav having failed en route to Grønnegaard, her vast house. Unbeknown to her three elder children, she has left this palace to her daughter Signe (Marie Bach Hansen), who until about five minutes ago believed her mother was someone else entirely. As a result, her face throughout was a picture of controlled amazement. So many new relatives, and all of them so very peculiar. Signe moves tentatively, as if there were a Ming vase hidden in her jeans – come to think of it, she does have a bomb in her pocket, given that she’s in possession of Veronika’s last will and testament.

The coffin was white, and thanks to Gro, became a kind of installation, winched into the house like one of her mother’s sculptures; two vast wings were then draped above it, as if she would literally ascend to heaven from the drawing room. Meanwhile, everyone else was in hell. Gro’s lover had unhelpfully brought his wife to the bash; her brother Frederick had stormed off, having discovered that his mother had done a Chapman brothers and defaced an oil painting of his grandfather; her mother’s lawyer had revealed that Veronika had failed to sign the crucial papers that would ensure the house would be placed in trust and become a gallery under Gro’s direction. Worst of all, there was her father (Catweazle): he performed Veronika’s favourite song: “Riddle-me-ree”! It was as if Lou Reed had decided to channel the Sixth Form Poet.

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I don’t discount the chic factor when it comes to The Legacy. Danish furnishings, sweaters, haircuts and jewellery are extremely attractive. And subtitles act as a distraction when there’s bad dialogue (I give you the plodding, cheesy Borgen, acclaimed by plenty who should have known better). Yet even taking these things into account, it looks to be an absorbing series. In coming weeks, allegiances will be built and broken, and many rattling skeletons exposed to the bright winter light of Veronika’s studio. Is Signe a latter-day Cordelia? Or is she in possession of sufficiently Goneril-like qualities to take on Gro? Either way, I’m in.