The great beyond - Issue 169 - Magazine | Monocle

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Are you tired of celebrity chat shows, with their rehearsed anecdotes, calculated self-deprecation and guests giving whatever product they are pushing that week the hard sell? Danish TV has the antidote. Det Sidste Ord (“The Last Word”) is a taboo-busting coup de télévision: an obituary programme in which an interview with the subject is filmed in total secrecy, with the footage then being held in the Royal Danish Library for editing and broadcast only after he or she has died.

“It’s a kind of silent uproar against the speed at which things are broadcast today,” Mikael Bertelsen, the show’s 56-year-old host and creator, tells monocle when we visit his office in central Copenhagen. “People have said that it’s old fashioned. To me, that’s a compliment. Nowadays everyone is broadcasting and everything is forgotten. I want to somehow protect the moment.”

Det Sidste Ord is filmed at an undisclosed location in Copenhagen. Hair and make-up people are banned from the studio; the show’s five cameramen aren’t given the audio. Meanwhile, the sound recordist is from overseas and doesn’t speak Danish. So far the first edit has been broadcast within two weeks of a subject’s death. The programme’s producers hope that a second version with additional material will be screened after 20 years.

“One evening I went to an event at the Royal Danish Libary, where actors were reading archival letters written by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen, Karen Blixen and Tove Ditlevsen,” says Bertelsen, recalling one of the inspirations for the show. “The head of the library had previously confronted me and said, ‘How come nothing that you produce on modern TV helps us to conserve the cultural heritage of living personalities?’”

Bertelsen had taped interviews with Danish-American pianist and comedian Victor Borge before he passed away in December 2000. The recordings were ultimately not used but the experience of speaking to a notable figure in “the autumn of his eventful and exciting life” stayed with him. Bertelsen switched his focus to running a publicly funded talk-radio station called Radio24syv. When the station was shut down in 2019 following pressure from right-wing politicians, it threw him into a personal crisis. “At the time, I felt a revulsion to anything related to the media,” he says. “But I was too old to become a tennis player. I thought, ‘Should I become a gardener?’” 

Luckily, he decided to develop his ideas for a long-form, late-in-life interview and took them to commercial channel tv2, which immediately said yes. “There comes a point when people have a discussion with themselves about the decisions that they have taken,” says Bertelsen. “It’s a vulnerable point.” Det Sidste Or d proved to be a success and its format has been sold to several overseas broadcasters.

An undisclosed number of episodes have already been recorded and six have been broadcast so far, featuring figures from fields ranging from popular entertainment to politics. Bertelsen will not reveal the identities of the other interviewees. A key aspect of Det Sidste Ord is that the questions are often posed to the guests in the past tense and third person. For example, “Who was so-and-so?” (“I never found out,” replied composer Bent Fabricious-Bjerre, whose episode became the first to be broadcast after he died in 2020, aged 96.) Or, “What’s the most important thing that so-and-so found out while they were alive?”


Several hours of footage are captured. It hasn’t been unknown for elderly guests to take a mid-interview nap. Editor Jacob Thuesen, who is usually based in Hollywood (he is now working on a film by Darren Aronofsky), cuts the conversation down to an hour.

“Instead of editing to exaggerate conflict as most TV does today, Jacob tones it down,” says Bertelsen. “We do almost the exact opposite of what’s conventionally done. Usually you try to chase secrets and get people to reveal things but I realised that I’m here to listen and be curious. And the things that you stop chasing tend to appear anyway. Because we edit it after all of the clichés have been written in the obituaries, we can come up with something that isn’t so obvious.”

Bertelsen, a father of three with one grandchild, has been making intelligently subversive radio and television for more than 30 years. His career started when, at the age of 20, he sent 100 ideas to the children’s radio department at national broadcaster Danmarks Radio. In the late 1990s he moved into TV with a chat show, a format that was out of fashion at the time; he has since made satire programmes and documentaries. His signature style – controlled, ironic, full of awkward pauses, with Bertelsen always dressed in a shirt and tie – is today a well-known brand.

“We do the exact opposite of what is conventionally done. Usually you try to chase secrets and get people to reveal things but I’m here to listen”

“I had no education and am an auto­didact,” he says of his early days in broadcasting. “I don’t know why I wasn’t thrown out during those first years because I would stutter and could barely say my own name.” But he was given time to fail and learn “at a pace that wouldn’t be allowed today”.

Another characteristic of Bertelsen’s on-screen style has been the sense that he never courts the audience’s approval and quite often aims to provoke. “I appreciate viewers’ complaints because they mean that people are engaged and excited about what you are broadcasting,” he says.

Currently he can also be seen on Danish television screens in another unusual chat-show format. In All Exclusive, he and comedian Casper Christensen invite a celebrity guest to a luxury villa in Portugal. Christensen conducts a daylong interview while Bertelsen listens in off-camera, intervening only occasionally to guide the conversation. “My job is basically to help Casper be more interested in the guests,” he says with a laugh.

Christensen’s ex-wife, actress Iben Hjejle, and former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt have been guests on the first series of All Exclusive – but who would be Bertelsen’s dream Det Sidste Ord guest? He considers this for a brief moment and says, “Donald Trump. But then again, maybe not. Haruki Murakami would be good. Let’s say Murakami.” The great Japanese novelist happened to visit Denmark this summer for a literary festival. Who knows? Perhaps the secret studio is already booked. 

Denmark’s finest
Danish television has become synonymous internationally with serious dramas such as Borgen and The Bridge, which have become successful because of, rather than in spite of, their Nordicness. (Coming soon to TV in the UK, Australia, the Netherlands and the US is prison drama Huset, starring The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl). Less well known are the Danish TV formats such as Det Sidste Ord that have been remade abroad.


Love Raft (2022): A dating show from national broadcasting company DR in which five couples build a raft and set sail down a river. Sold to Dutch and German TV, among others.


Married at First Sight (Gift ved første blik, 2013): DR’s audacious show in which singles get married at their first meeting has been one of its greatest international sales, with Australian, German, French, Dutch and US versions.


The Killing (Forbrydelsen, 2007): Following the global mania for Danish-made dramas in the 2000s, Fox Television Studios remade DR’s pioneering crime drama for the US market. There were also Turkish and Egyptian versions.


All Against 1 (Alle Mod Én, 2016): In Nordisk Film TV’s big Friday-night game show, one competitor takes on the nation, guessing the results of various spectacular experiments.

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