Why do we all like Borgen so much? Why has this Danish import captured such a large and dedicated following in a country that is notoriously resistant to subtitled drama?
Now in its third series, Borgen, for the benefit of those deprived souls who don’t know it, chronicles the rise of Birgitte Nyborg, charismatic leader of the small Moderate Party in the Danish parliament, to unexpected election as Prime Minister (Series 1); takes us through the trials of office and the Moderates’ increasingly messy and difficult compromises in office and the disintegration of Nyborg’s personal life (Series 2) before finding her out of office and out of Parliament, founding a new party determined to challenge the growing illiberalism of Danish politics (Series 3).
It’s a long way from realistic TV, and the dialogue is often didactic and clumsy (at least in translation) – but it’s compelling. Not just because of the way in which it weaves the political and personal themes together, not just because the principal character is a strong, empowered woman about as far from Margaret Thatcher as one could imagine, but because of its politics. Nyborg’s every utterance is based on a belief that the Danish people are fundamentally progressive; that her rational, liberal (in the best sense) brand of social democracy matches the natural instinct of her electors. Nyborg is an idealist who struggles with power but never loses that fundamental belief in right and wrong; and it’s powerfully seductive for leftish people in a political system that appears to be sliding into illiberalism. Some commentators have made the comparison with The West Wing but the politics are different; The West Wing, for all its liberal gloss and the apparent contrast between Jed Bartlett and the Presidency of George W Bush – not to mention some terrific scenes debunking the evangelical Right – had at its heart a deeply conservative ethos, a mourning for a lost republican tradition and a reverence for due process and constitutional propriety.
In the first season, in the final party leaders’ televised debate, Nyborg tears up her prepared script and delivers a personal manifesto about idealism, to the astonishment of the media, and leaving her spin doctor, Kasper Juul, in a state of exasperation.
It’s a shamelessly manipulative piece of TV and, yes, it’s simplistic. It’s certainly not a programme for government and the idea that a British politician could make such a personal speech and be swept into power seems astonishing; and we who live in Brighton know all too well, from bitter experience, where the election of a fringe party claiming to “do politics differently” can end. But ultimately on the left we are idealists; we love the idea that someone could abandon the script, speak personally and idealistically, and touch the hearts of the electorate. The difference between Left and Right is that not what we know about idealism, but what we wish we could achieve by it. Politics, Nyborg says in an early episode of the third series, is about dialogue; we on the left – and not just on the left – have lost that and want it back.
But, at a different level, again and again Borgen tackles issues that would be too hot to handle for a British TV drama and does so in an intelligent and subtle way. In the latest series the impetus for Nyborg’s return to politics is legislation to deport immigrants suspected of minor misdemeanours; the script talks of populist bills being rushed through Parliament, bad legislation without proper scrutiny; in Coalition Britain we know all about that. But in a later episode we see the leaders of the New Democrats, Nyborg’s new party, trying to find a spokesman for a TV programme and lapsing into easy racial stereotypes. It’s unsettling and nuanced. In a key sub-plot we see the new management at TV1, the news station that plays a central role in the drama, undermining its editorial independence not by outright political bias, but by seeking to present news as a form of sanitised light entertainment; a take that anyone who has ever watched BBC Breakfast will know the BBC would never be able to touch in a home-grown drama. Or, in the latest episode, themes of the adulteration of food by factory farming, and the conflicts inherent in the industrial production of meat, one of Denmark’s key exports. The issues are unflinchingly and clearly presented; nothing is easy. At its best Borgen is subtle, nuanced and unafraid to tackle difficult issues like immigration head-on; issues that only appear on British television in an imported, subtitled drama.
In one episode Torben Friis, the worldly Head of News at TV1, describes the Moderates as the small party of politically correct intellectuals. Perhaps that’s us, Borgen’s British fanbase – and perhaps it’s because Borgen is about our politics, how we would like ourselves to be, and because helps us believe (possibly with good cause) that there are more of us than we sometimes fear, that we love it so much.