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Borgen-mania: What to do with Our Saturday Nights Now?

Birgitte dealing with another crisis

Last week Edinburgh was gripped by Borgen-mania as the Danish political drama took the Scottish capital (and my home city) by storm. The Filmhouse announced a 2 hour showing of the last two episodes – with an actual appearance of Sidse Babett Knudsen, the actress who plays the fictional Danish prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg. It sold out in minutes, proving so popular that they ended up cancelling their other showings to present a whole day of Borgen, back-to-back. Sidse turned up dressed head-to-toe in a red tartan trouser suit to be greeted by an adoring crowd, an audience packed full of politicians and a hand-shake and photo opportunity with the Deputy First Minister, SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon.

Birgitte Nyborg is a national heroine and it’s obvious what the appeal might be for those politicians who attended, and for  the SNP in particular right now in their bid to convince Scotland they can go it alone. With a population of over 5 million (to Scotland’s 7 million) Borgen puts across an appealing vision of a small country punching well above its weight on the world stage. It offers an image of decent people with values making a difference, without the might of the larger nations. And has an appealing human character at its heart.

It is possibly wise at this point to remind everyone at this point, including all those giddy people at the Borgen Filmhouse showings, that Borgen is not actually real. And, as with any TV drama, much of it is completely farfetched – particularly in relation to international politics. But people don’t seem to seem to care too much about that. Perhaps because Borgen is as much about personalities as it is about politics. Is this Borgen-mania? Or Birgitte-mania?

She may head up a country of only 5 million, but a few wise words and noble speeches from Birgitte and she is able to bring warring African leaders together to the negotiating table – sorting out China’s selling weapons to one side overnight and achieving peace in 48 hours flat. Ah, Birgitte! Is there nothing she can’t achieve? The woman who holds together a jossling coalition of bickering parties, with only an inexperienced spin doctor and a power-bun the size of her head to help. The woman who can  charm the press one minute and kick down a bathroom door in the most immobilising-looking tight skirt and heels the next. Not to mention her fabulous taste in interior decor. As the Scotsman on Sunday remarked, “We might approve of Birgitte’s ­humanity, but we also like her sofa”.

The Guardian, who first discovered Britain’s love of all things Scandinavian drama with surprise hit, The Killing – has set up a blog chronicling each Borgen episode as it goes along and  is inundated with comments from adoring viewers about their heroine – the women discussing whether she should take her husband back and whether she looks good in scarves (consensus – yes); the men locking antlers about whether her flawless French or flawless English is sexier. Has a fictional politician ever been so loved?

Surrounded by a superb cast of supporting characters – Kasper Juul , the canny but troubled spin doctor – a womaniser still in love with his ex, who betrays Brigitte badly in the first series, but now seems to be discovering his moral core after driving a few skeletons in his childhood closet. The girl-power journalistic double-act, Katrina and Hanne. Bent Sejrø, Brigitte’s mentor, an older avuncular figure, wise and good, who represents Birgitte’s value-system, where she has come from and everything she has gone into politics for. Power and compromise and vanity leads her to slightly lose her way across the Series One..but by the end of Series Two she is coming back to her old friends (and value systems). There are other political figures: Amir Diwan, the Green politician, and Anne Sophie Lindenkrone – the young feminist Solidarity leader on the far left for whom Birgitte herself was a mentor. These two seem, at times, to represent idealistic positions, or parts of Birgitte herself. Through the series, we see her turning her back on some people, letting down others.  But these characters don’t go away, and can circle about, coming in and out of focus and influence in quite interesting ways. . Then there are the requisite pantomime baddies – the far-right leader, Svend Åge Saltum, who manages to be so ridiculously repulsive as to be comedic – and her ex-rival,  former-Labour-Leader-turned-tabloid-editor,  Michael Laugesen, bitter about his own political demise and out to denigrate Birgitte and her family at every turn.

One of the most appealing things about Birgitte is that she is not perfect. And she makes mistakes.  And sometimes she acts less than well or downright badly – such as her bad treatment of Amir, in a misjudged attempt to get him to support her bill. She is not too brilliant at noticing things going wrong at home, either. Over Series One we see her marriage slowly unravel as she starts to loosen the strong grip she’s been keeping on many of her ideals in the face of the grimy dealmaking of politics. She and her husband, Philip, are a modern  partnership with a very modern attitude to sharing in terms of career and domestic duties. Philip – obviously a good father adored by their children – has put his career on hold whilst she pursues her ambitions. The deal has a 5 year limit on it. But when his wife is suddenly catapulted into prime ministership, everything changes.  Philip, a businessman, is also ambitious and highly sought after. We see the compromises he is forced to make as the husband of such a public political figure. When he gets a job, it ends up compromised by his position as spouse of the prime minister and Birgitte forces him to give it up.

Birgitte is, to some extent, catapulted into Prime Ministership. She is ambitious, yes, but as leader of the relatively small “Moderates”, running the country was not what she had expected -not immediately anyway. The pressures of the job, the all-consuming nature of the endless cross-party negotiations and the punishing hours takes its toll. Philip feels neglected, sidelined and does not react well to being seen as just “the spouse”. Birgitte, head somewhat turned by her new power and influence, brings the Prime Minister home with her – and her husband resents it. The disintegration of a strong relationship is skilfully done in Borgen – bubbling in the background across the whole of Series One and, even after they split, simmering unresolved across Series Two. The best line for me is when Birgitte, trying to reconcile with Philip and persuade him to come back raises a hand with a stern, “let me finish!” as though in Prime Minister’s question time. Needless to say, her speech doesn’t have quite the desired effect.

Personal life aside, Borgen has run the gamut of political themes: exploring ideas of ideals versus consensus, negotiative politics, international relations, the problems of coalitions and the relationship of politics and the press whilst touching on subjects as diverse as Feminism, the environment, the private versus public health service, immigration, not to mention a big debate on whether or not to lower the age of criminal responsibility.

It may not go into these subjects in incredible depth, but it is refreshing to watch a drama that is not a hospital drama or police procedural or other crime mystery. And where else would you find a mainstream television drama prepared to devote an entire episode to the problem of persuading businesses to have female quotas for board-members?

But the big success of Borgen, like so many other Scandinavian dramas, is the number of strong and interesting female characters.  Not only do we have Birgitte, but there is  gutsy, slightly inexperienced but ambitious journalist, Katrine Fønsmark – full of political idealism one minute, and ruthlessly rifling through her boyfriend’s briefcase for secret papers the next. She takes no prisoners in her work or her private life, which is perhaps why the womanising Kasper Juul is unable to get her off his mind. Then, there is Hanne, the alcoholic political editor who is barely able to hold down a job, but who provides the cynical worldly voice of reason, wisdom and warning and who seems to provide a peculiar symbol of idealised press values. Something perhaps we all find particularly appealing in light of recent events in the UK.

If I have a criticism of Borgen it is that the second series has seen all the characters become uniformly too moral – all of them choosing the same time to reveal their inner moral core. Could this be anything to do with Denmark, between Series One and Two, finding itself with its own real female Prime Minister ? Or is it the huge international audience encouraging the writers to take a slightly safer, less troublesome path? For me, where the first series was excellent, the second is slightly more escapist. Birgitte’s faults, so subtly explored in series one, seem to have been too easily admitted to, overcome and regretted in Series Two. The ambiguous morality of some of the characters such as Kasper – which seemed to reflect a job of daily professional manipulating  – has been overtaken with a rather easy personal redemption and burning moral zeal. Katrine’s ruthless and selfish edge and her fierce determination in her job, that overrode other considerations and caused professional and personal complications in her life , seems to have been slightly too easily overtaken by new love, tacit support of anything-Birgitte and domestic thoughts of starting a family.

Despite a couple of mean moments, the trajectory of Borgen Series Two is definitely more on the soft and cuddly side than Series One. And there is a piece of me that thinks the series loses something by this. By concentrating too much on putting morally-intact characters in situations of external moral dilemma whilst keeping their innards intact, Series Two seems to have a smaller message than Series One, which showed us how such positions of power, of public influence, of opinion shaping can actually be dangerous to our inner selves and our inner values.

3 comments on “Borgen-mania: What to do with Our Saturday Nights Now?

  1. Jackie
    February 6, 2013

    This was a great review; full of humor, dissection and comparison. The show hasn’t come to the States yet, that I’m aware of, but I shall be looking for it. It sounds like something very different from the reality/competition shows that are taking over the TV here. A political drama would be very unusual in any case and this one sounds quite engaging.
    Favorite line from your review: “a power bun the size of her head” lol

  2. Rosy T
    February 7, 2013

    Great review, Rosy. My Saturday nights will certainly be bereft – though I do agree that series two – and especially that final episode, were just a wee bit too twee and tidy for me. Depressed teenagers who have been diagnosed as needing long-term therapy don’t just get miraculously ‘better’ after a month or two of skipping about in the sunshine with other (suspiciously healthy and happy-looking) depressives – and work-life balance and the pressures of being a woman in a male-designed world can’t just be resolved with a month off to mend bicycles and tidy the garden in between re-bonding with your kids.

    But all the way through, even in series one, I couldn’t help feeling that Borgen was just a bit sub-West Wing. It’s partly the format – far fewer episodes than Aaron Sorkin’s classic series, so that each one (apart from the recent double-header where it took Birgitte all of two hours to solve a civil war brewing in sub-Saharan Africa) tends to be about one area of policy, and be more or less tied up tidily by the end of the episode. I kept feeling, ah, this is the health care episode, or the Greenland episode, or the one about immigration. The West Wing was both more in-depth – issues would run for weeks and weeks, recurring and interweaving – and much more realistic and unflinching in terms of the muddiness of all the moral dilemmas. For me it remains the best TV drama of all time – which is what slightly spoils me for any other politics-based series. But Borgen has been a joy, nonetheless. I shall miss it, big-time.

  3. kirstyjane
    March 11, 2013

    I haven’t seen this, and don’t have the chance, but greatly enjoyed this review. I wonder if there’s a box set to be had…

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This entry was posted on February 6, 2013 by in Uncategorized.



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