7 February 2013

‘Borgen’ and British politics

White Doors or Open Doors (Strandgade 30), 1905
Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916)
 ... awaiting Kasper and Katrine
Until early 2011, when the British thought at all about Denmark, it was probably in association with Hamlet (Prince of), Carlsberg, Lurpak, Bang and Olufsen, Kierkegaard, Hammershøi (left) or other things according to taste, but not television dramas. Then BBC4 started showing the first series of DR’s (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) The Killing (Forbrydelsen – The Crime) which developed a cult following stimulated by opinion-forming chattering-class comment in the media. Its attraction was probably as much the fashionable Scandinavian noir setting as the central character, a jumper-wearing woman cop, Sarah Lund (Sophie Grabøl). After all, Cagney & Lacey started over 30 years ago and Helen Mirren began playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect in 1991. But The Killing certainly caught on, the third and probably final series ending its BBC4 run in December 2012 with an audience of over a million. David Cameron, we have been told, is a devotee of the series in box sets. As he told the House magazine in January during a rather sycophantic interview:
THE HOUSE: What was your favourite Christmas present from Sam?  
PM: She did give me the Killing III, that was our luxury at Christmas. So that’s it, we’ve done it. We had a decent time at home. We did a bit of back-to-back [viewing of episodes]. We cheated, she gave it to me before Christmas, so we opened it early.
Encouraged by the success of The Killing, BBC4 started showing the first series of DR’s Borgen in January 2012. This political drama (to paraphrase The Archers, an everyday story of coalition folk or contemporary drama in a political setting) mostly takes place in Copenhagen's Christiansborg Palace  which houses the Danish Parliament and Prime Minister's Office and is known to Danes as “Borgen”, (castle). The central character again is female, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), Denmark’s first woman Prime Minister and leader of the governing coalition. Among a large cast, the other main parts are Nyborg’s spin doctor, Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk), and his girlfriend Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), a TV news journalist. Although not achieving quite the ratings popularity of The Killing, Borgen has probably been even more of a hit with the UK commentariat – at least up until the recent end of the second series (2 Feb 2013). One of the few sceptical voices has been that of Rachel Cooke in the New Statesman. A third, and again probably final, series is currently being shown in Denmark and no doubt will appear on BBC4 in due course.

But where there’s politics, there’s politics. On 30 January, The Times (£) second section, Times 2, appeared with Alastair Campbell and Sidse Babett Knudsen on its cover (left), with a report by Campbell, Has Borgen got a new spin doctor? Nej!, of his visit to Copenhagen to meet Babbett and Asbæk. He took a particular shine to the latter:
Pilou Asbæk has certainly learnt a thing or two about spin doctoring. He bows on meeting, and within a minute has said he is “honoured” and “thrilled”, that he only agreed to the interview because it was with me, enjoyed researching my “amazing” life, and asks if I mind that he sees me and a US Republican — Karl Rove — as the top exponents of what he calls our “art”. You may be surprised to know I took an instant liking to him.
And later:
Pilou admits that one of the by- products — lessons — of the series is that he has started to speak differently. “Always talk in headlines — then people remember you,” he suggests. The conversation is peppered with his perfectly formed soundbites. “You cannot create chemistry. It is a gift between actors.” … And then, reaching what I suggest to him is Mensa level spin capacity: “I am answering that question by not answering it.” Happily he has learnt to respect the art of communication and see through the clouds of media cynicism. “People see Kasper as a dark lord and I don’t accept it. Guys who do that kind of job are mothers and wives, husbands and fathers . . .”  
“Tell me about it . . .”
Campbell had explained earlier that:
Everyone seems to watch it [Borgen], including the real Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a personal friend who I saw for dinner the night before meeting Sidse and Pilou.
Thorning-Schmidt is, of course, Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-law, and readers of Campbell’s diaries will be aware of the closeness of his family and the Kinnocks.

Sidse and Pilou must be busy people. On 4 February, the Scotsman’s Rory Reynolds reported, Borgen’s Filmhouse finale wows Edinburgh:
… the phenomenal success of Borgen reached the streets of Scotland yesterday, … Hundreds of devotees -– including Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, along with other MSPs – gathered at the Filmhouse for the special screening of the final two episodes.  
… Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays fictional Danish prime minister Birgitte Nyborg, travelled to Edinburgh yesterday … And arch spin doctor Kasper Juul – a shadowy figure modelled on Alastair Campbell – could not have fixed it better himself when Knudsen arrived to meet fans dressed head-to-toe in red and black tartan.  
… “Why do we like it?” Ms Sturgeon asked the audience. “Maybe it gives us a glimpse of the country we could be.” She said she found herself in an unusual role for a politician. “I was interviewing her for Scottish television. The only thing I managed to get her to reveal is that there is to be a Scottish love interest in the next series.” Nyborg will fall for architect Jeremy Welsh in the next series, played by Monarch of the Glen star Alastair Mackenzie.  
Mrs Sturgeon said Borgen was often realistic. “It’s a drama but with an authentic twist. As a politician I can relate to it.”  
… Fans were interested in Knudsen’s views on Holyrood and the referendum next year. They also sought her take on her considerably popularity among politicians here, such as Alison Johnstone, the Green MSP, who was also spotted in the audience. However, she managed to both charm her audience and avoid the question on several occasions, except to say that she was “a little bit stunned” at the admiration.
Any apparent alignment of Borgen with Labour (pace the Staggers) and Scottish Nationalist politics, was not given substance by Adam Price, a Dane of English descent, who is producer and co-writer of the series.  In a recent Guardian interview he emphasised the feminist aspect of the series, which is universal, and not politics. But perhaps it’s not surprising that the House interview went:
THE HOUSE: Are you into Borgen?  
PM: No! God, no. It’s just whether Morgen Shmorgen is Health Minister or is Education Minister..it’s too much like work.
Nor that in The Times (£) on 6 February Alice Thomson should be telling us:
Few of the Cabinet watch Borgen, the TV drama about a fictional Danish prime minister. Samantha Cameron has banned it from Downing Street — it’s just too close for comfort with its plot revolving around a divorce and an unhappy daughter.
The date of the Scottish Referendum is not yet finalised, but will be in the autumn of 2014, so not so long after the showing of Borgen III, another glimpse of the country Scotland could be – unless the BBC decide to bring it forward.


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