Like the Danes, Brits like their political drama dark and brooding
A generation of political geeks are in thrall to Borgen. When Sidse Babett Knudsen, the actor who plays Moderate party prime minister Birgitte Nyborg, came to London, she was feted like a Hollywood A-lister. Alastair Campbell interviewed her for the cover of the Sunday Times magazine. When Labour leader Ed Miliband went on a Scandinavian tour during parliamentary recess, it was dubbed the ‘Borgen tour’. On his itinerary was the real Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who, as well as being the role model for Nyborg, is also the first woman prime minister in Denmark, and Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-law.
If you were to draw a Venn diagram of readers of Progress and watchers of Borgen, the middle section covering both would be pretty big. If you are one of the few who belongs to the former, but not the latter, section, then you are missing out on a pacey drama set against the backdrop of the Christiansborg Palace, home to the Danish parliament, supreme court and office of the prime minister.
The nickname of this centre of power is ‘the castle’: Borgen in Danish. Here, the leader of the Moderates, a reasonably ordinary wife and mother, unexpectedly becomes prime minister thanks to tortuous coalition mathematics. She attempts to run a progressive government alongside the Greens, radicals and the Labour party (who are portrayed as conniving bullies). She runs up against the left with her refusal to pull troops out of Afghanistan and her attempts to modernise the welfare state. She disappoints the Greens by caving in to big business over carbon reduction.
But the main casualties are not her policies and principles, but the people around her. There is definitely something rotten in the state of Denmark. There are eight deaths in Hamlet, ranging from drowning, to stabbing, to poisoning. In Borgen, the body count is less pronounced, but the damage no less severe.
Nyborg’s own marriage fails, and her daughter ends up in a psychiatric institution. Her trusted adviser, Bent Sejrø, suffers cardiac arrest. Labour leader Bjørn Marrot is deposed in a party coup. The leader of the coup, Troels Höxenhaven, is photographed by a tabloid receiving fellatio from a rent boy, and kills himself. The Green party leader, Amir Dwian, resigns after vicious briefing against him by Nyborg’s spin doctor, Kasper Juul. Juul, it turns out, suffered years of abuse at the hands of his father. Nyborg herself is psychologically hurt by the sacrifices she has made, the damage she has caused, and the heavy burdens of office. Series two, the latest to be shown on British TV, ends with Nyborg calling a general election to seek some release from her demons.
It is great drama, to be sure. But is Borgen really the best advertisement for political life? The leitmotif is that power corrupts. The decent instincts of the protagonists are thwarted, perverted and twisted into the mere pursuit of office. The fourth estate is shown in all its sulphurous majesty. The beaten leader of the Labour party, Michael Laugesen, reinvents himself as the editor of Ekspres, a morality-free tabloid newspaper, preferring to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Former prime minister Lars Hesselboe is played by actor Søren Spanning. As befits a stalwart of the Danish royal theatre, he plays the role as a Mephistopheles figure, plotting behind the scenes to destroy his enemies.
Less obvious, but equally corrupting, are the influences of big business corporations and US foreign policy. Knudsen studied method acting in New York, and it shows. When Nyborg negotiates with the Americans, she switches to flawless English, giving the subtitlers a moment’s rest.
The lesson of Borgen is that politics sends you mad or to the mortuary, that there is little point trying to make things better, because there are dark forces that will block you, and that the price of ambition is paid by the ones you love. It is a long way from the idealism of Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Kevin Kline’s portrayal of Dave, or even The Campaign, in which nice-but-dim Zach Galifianakis triumphs over slick Will Ferrell. The Americans have cornered the market in feelgood political drama. Future historians will not really believe that the final series of The West Wing, in which ethnic minority Democrat Matt Santos wins the presidency against the odds, was produced two years before Barack Obama did it in real life.
The original BBC House of Cards, now remade by Kevin Spacey, had a British chief whip committing two murders to get to the top. The Thick Of It portrays the politicians as vain, shallow and beset with neuroses. Nicola Murray, you will recall, cannot use lifts or place a wreath at the Cenotaph without looking like an idiot. A Very British Coup ends with the sound of helicopter rotors and a blacked-out screen, suggesting a military takeover.
The Danes, like the Brits, like their political drama to be brooding, black and cold as ice. Maybe it is our northern European weather, and our long dark winters.
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