By Eric EllisDecember 7, 2012
It’s Denmark’s ‘The West Wing’: the TV series ‘Borgen’ has done for politics what Nordic-Noir has done for screen police and thriller lit.
ADAM PRICE well remembers the moment one of modern television’s most celebrated series was conceived.
It was October 24, 2007 and the polymath Price — he’s a celebrity chef as well as an accomplished Danish scriptwriter — was working out in his Copenhagen gym. As he sweated, the gym TV flashed the news that Denmark’s 5.5 million people would soon be heading to the polls.
“I was standing next to a big muscular tattooed guy who I didn’t know, the two of us just watching the news,” Price recalls.
“And this big guy just looked at the prime minister making this important announcement about our nation, our future, and he uttered for me the now-famous words, ‘Fuck, count me out!’”
Five years and a global TV sensation later, Price still shakes his head, partly in disbelief and partly with disappointment. “We were almost the same age, we had grown up with these amazing events — the toppling of the Berlin Wall, Mandela’s release and the end of apartheid, Tiananmen Square — of people risking their lives for freedom, for democracy, and yet he was so disengaged from the process.
“We’d had democracy for 160 years in this very little, privileged country, and we don’t even bother to participate in it anymore. Why is it that way?” Price asks.
And within him, at that affecting instant, an entertainment phenomenon was born. It’s called Borgen — Danish for castle, the Danes’ vernacular term for their parliament that sits in Copenhagen’s Christiansborg Palace.
On the surface, Borgen sounds very much like an acquired taste, even for wonks; it’s an elongated series about the sausage-making of modern policy in a pleasant faraway land that has made an art form of consensus politics and national restraint. And with subtitles, too, for foreigners. Where could the drama possibly be in all that?
But Price, who’s descended from an English family that emigrated to Denmark in the 18th century, could hardly have foreseen that five years on from his gym date, his involved “little show” would be enthusiastically embraced around the world. Borgen’s absorbing twists and turns have become appointment viewing in living rooms across five continents — an intelligent antidote to this era of short attention spans, instant information gratification and junk TV.
If The West Wing portrayed the idealised, progressive White House America had lost, Borgen depicts a political culture Denmark didn’t yet have. Borgen’s charismatic Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, becomes an accidental leader when her ‘Moderate Party’ unexpectedly emerges through the ruck to win an election because voters reject the rancid leaders at the polls.
As the series tracks Nyborg’s political career as PM, it takes a leaf from DR’s other international triumph, the police drama Forbrydelsen, or The Killing, in which Denmark’s dull winters are as much a feature as detective Sarah Lund’s brooding obsessions. Borgen’s characters are often darkly drawn, complex and as grey as a Copenhagen December. Where Sorkin’s goodies-and-baddies characters dramatically explode; Price’s intriguingly unravel their untidy dilemmas.
Price has often written the series from his kitchen table, and at all hours as inspiration arrives. It’s also where The Global Mail meets him, because today he is at home, nursing his four-year-old son who’s stricken with chicken pox — that’s what multi-tasking, 40-something Danish husbands do.
With its cats, kids and computers, the Price kitchen is quintessentially Danish; effortlessly modern, homey and warm. The Danes have a word for this much-craved domesticity — hygge — which they’ve refined into a cultural emblem.
Price emailed the final Borgen episode script from his MacBook to the producers at DR. “That’s it,” says the writer on the completion of his campaign to inspire the political interest of the populace. “There won’t be another series.” He is now exploring opportunities in British drama in the wake of the Borgen obsession ignited there.
Where The West Wing sprang from the entertainment first rib of Sorkin’s 1995 feature The American President, Price was more civic-minded in developing Borgen.
Denmark’s spate of successful police series, such as his own Anna Pihl, and the well-watched The Killing, had the effect of attracting to the nation’s security service more candidates of a higher calibre. That got him thinking; if that could happen for policing, why not for politics? These shows had made policing cerebral. Could he, Price, make over the reputation of politics, given the decidedly arid personality of then PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had won that fateful 2007 election. (Rasmussen is now NATO’s secretary-general in Brussels.)
Deploying a laser smile, Borgen’s PM Birgitte, played by acclaimed Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, would be the anti-Rasmussen. Price even gave his female PM a subtly aspirational name. The character’s family name is Nyborg, a common surname in Denmark but one also construed as telegraphing an end of era in Danish politics. Ny means new in Danish and borg is castle, that vernacular term for parliament. Did Birgitte Nyborg embody the new politics Price and his team at DR wanted for Denmark?
“My primary longing as a writer is to touch and move my audience,” insists Price, pausing before the inevitable but. “But I don’t want to move them party-politically, but in a way so they get more interested in politics.”
Price says he was a big fan of The West Wing and “almost everything Sorkin does because he’s a great writer and he loves dialogue. I am also very much in love with dialogue.
“I’m a Danish writer and we have a different way of communicating our message,” he says. “I like big speeches, but I also like to puncture them at the same time, to bash all the correct opinions also because that makes the world more edible and actual.
“I wanted to do something that wasn’t based on blue lights and dead bodies everywhere,” says Price. “Denmark had won three International Emmys in the police genre — Unit One, The Eagle and The Protector — and I wanted to do something different, something based on the power of an argument, on big ideas, about people who wanted to change the world.
“I wanted to move the audience in a way that will make them even a little more interested in politics — that was our big goal.”
It worked. Borgen’s second season peaked at 1.52 million viewers, an extraordinary number in a nation of just 5.5 million, around 20 per cent of whom are under 16. Only The Killing has out-rated Borgen, its final episode on November 25 attracting 65 per cent of Danish viewers, according to DR.
Critics sometimes gather Borgen and The Killing under a catch-all Nordic noir genre, also throwing in Henning Mankell’s Wallander, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and the work of genre pioneers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö from Sweden, Norway’s Jo Nesbo, and Arnaldur Indriðason of Iceland.
But the DR programs’ arrival in Denmark is part of a wider flowering of cultural life, not as evident elsewhere in Scandinavia. It was led in the mid-1990s by a challenging cinematic revival called Dogme that coalesced in part around Denmark’s National Film School. Led by directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Dogme was a strict return to compelling no-frills storytelling, eschewing special effects and technology. Overnight, a film genre was born: dialogue-driven stories in the climate of an interior land that stays dark for large tracts of the year.
Denmark has long ranked as one of the world’s most equal societies, near the top of just about every human-development index that matters — health, longevity, gender, standard of living, services, infrastructure, the near absence of corruption — albeit with the impost of very high tax rates.
It’s a social contract Danes seem more than willing to accept, but now it comes with a bonus — that it’s hip to be Dansk. A nice, comfortable but outwardly rather dull nation seems to have blossomed overnight, inspiring Danes to make some of the world's more stimulating films (Vinterberg’s Celebration, Von Trier’s pioneering The Idiots), must-see television (Anna Pihl, The Killing, Taxa), stunning architecture (Henning Larsen’s Opera House and Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s Black Diamond at the Royal Library), and superb food (NOMA, a portmanteau of Danish for Nordic and food, declared the world’s best restaurant the past three years by British magazine Restaurant, which is regarded as the industry measure).
WHEN DR announced to Danes in March 2009 that it would produce a political series called Borgen, Denmark’s extreme right-wing Danish People’s Party (DPP) was quick to jump into print to condemn it.
Writing in Politiken, Denmark’s leading broadsheet newspaper, DPP stalwart Søren Espersen decided he knew already what Borgen would be about, long before the first episode had been wrapped or even written.
Espersen had a robust spray at the “red hirelings” of DR’s “red master” Ingolf Gabold, DR’s long-time and widely celebrated head of drama who had green-lighted Borgen.
Gabold, Espersen wrote, was determined to manipulate Danish history by twisting the process of government itself. Borgen would surely be an expensive vanity project in which the right is portrayed as “power-mad, corrupt and without social responsibility, as insensitive climate deniers and racists”. The liberal left would be the “the opposite… fighting stubbornly and honestly… with sensitivity, love and often their lives”.
These heroic left-wing politicians, Espersen wrote, will be protected by burly bodyguards against the evil right, whereas Denmark’s reality, he claimed, was that it was the leaders of the right who required protection for expressing the — disturbing, as the DPP see it — reality of multi-cultural, politically correct Denmark.
Espersen saw portrayed in Danish living rooms a pretty young Muslim female MP of the left who insisted on wearing the hijab in parliament while claiming bogus fealty to Denmark. Another white female politician would be a right-wing “calculating, cold witch… a nepotistic and corrupt populist… a cynic constantly finding ways to make the lives of immigrants so unbearable as possible”.
Espersen anticipated plot devices such as “an incorruptible party chairman struggling for a new government, a better environment, affectionate tolerance for strangers and a world without war”. He also foresaw a “tortured, former Guantanamo prisoner who now spends time creating dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims” and “a black preacher who thunders against Islam — and also beats his grandchildren”.
Borgen came to offer nothing of the kind, its plots richer and more complex and sometimes more mundane, too, than the obvious scenarios Espersen had prophesied. The evil party leader — depicted by much-loved ‘nice guy’ actor Peter Mygind — sprang from the left. About as malevolent as it got in the portrayal of the right — and this plot could just as easily have been ascribed to the left — was a gentle corruption scandal that ushered in the moderate Nyborg as PM.
Islam was largely absent; Borgen is mostly white and Christian, but then so is Denmark. The media is depicted as cynical and ruthless, conflicted and even buyable, rather than as idealistic. Civil servants are portrayed as dopey, noxious, loyal and calculating. And as for security breaches, the magnetic PM seductively deploys her winning smile on her driver as she rebounds from a separation with an unremarkable husband.
Espersen’s fears that Borgen would be expensive were also unfounded — the series paid for itself in unanticipated foreign sales.
The Global Mail contacted Espersen for his take, three years later, on a series whose international success had become a source of national pride. Declining to comment, Espersen said he was “busy” and found our inquiries “impertinent”.
But had Espersen been playing the canny pol in 2009, and getting in a pre-emptive shot across DR’s bows, so his controversial party would not be demonised? After all, his former party leader, Pia Kjærsgaard, is the most divisive politician Denmark has produced in recent times, a kind of nativist prototype given to remarks like “the Koran teaches Muslims it is acceptable for them to lie and deceive, cheat and swindle as much as they like” and that a “multi-ethnic Denmark… would be a ‘people’s disaster’”.
A Kjærsgaard-esque character would have been an easy target for a show aimed at re-engaging Danes with moderate and meaningful politics. If Espersen’s intent was to nip such a portrayal in the bud, it may have had some effect, but it didn’t do the Danish right, in power for 10 years, much good.
In elections in September last year, Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s centre-left coalition swept the polls, and Thorning-Schmidt became Denmark’s first female prime minister. She isn’t a moderate — Thorning-Schmidt leads Denmark’s Social Democrats — but when she told Danes after her victory that “we have the opportunity to change Denmark — that opportunity must be seized” she might’ve been channelling Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg, in a case of life imitating art.
Price doubts Borgen would have been successful had the main protagonist been a man. “We have no shortage of accomplished women in this country, but here for the first time a woman was depicted as our prime minister, and people embraced that.” Most of the executives at DR responsible for Borgen and The Killing are female: they include head of drama and ex-Forbrydelsen producer Piv Bernth, head of fiction Nadia Kløvedal Reich, and Borgen’s chief producer Camilla Hammerich. DR’s director-general is prominent Danish lawyer Maria Rørbye Rønn.
Price diplomatically describes Espersen as a “very nice man” but snorts at his remarks. Still, he says, “DR felt it had to answer that criticism. We knew it was important to be very balanced and therefore we chose not to take any real party names. I made a rule in the writers’ room that we will not mention or depict actual political facts from recent Danish history within 25 to 30 years.” The closest Borgen comes to depicting the DPP extremists is via a corpulent minority party leader with a thick hillbilly-esque rural accent. Though the character is borderline cartoonish, Price says he wanted him to “always speak the truth even though it might be a truth we do not like”.
TRUTH IS, Price is not the only one to damn his generation for its lack of political engagement. He says they had been labelled as “the great consumers — good at investing in and consuming products and making big careers and not very much interested in revolutions.
“Yet great things have been part of my youth,” he argues. “In Denmark, this was part of our growing up and yet we didn’t want to revolutionise anything, we just wanted a bigger house than our parents.”
Denmark is a socially liberal country, a model of transparency in which it seems everything is open and up for debate. Everyone knows where Denmark’s first real female PM (who came into office after Borgen’s fictional Birgitte Nyborg) lives, but few much care.
Political leaders, and the royals, too, have discreet security but live at home and do their own shopping, washing and cooking. The Danish right wing might even be tagged as lefties in lesser democracies. This is the country in which the party that is literally called Left, Venstre, occupies the centre-right and whose most prominent recent leader, the ex-PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen, rose to power attacking Denmark’s famous welfare state, but while he was in power also approved gay marriage.
Is anything off limits in Borgen?
So far Islam has been only gently touched; Danish troops (in the series, and in reality) are in Afghanistan, and there’s the plot twist in which the Green Party, led by an integrated Muslim, joins Nyborg’s ruling coalition. But this seems almost denialist, in the land which spawned the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons controversy. And is Price ignoring that Islam is the biggest minority faith in Denmark, claiming almost four per cent of the population, a level that alarms many Danes? “Wait for the third series,” says the scriptwriter.
Another conspicuous absence from Borgen’s intrigues is the Danish royal family, Europe’s oldest continuous monarchy.
There’s a simple reason for that, says Price. “There isn’t really a discussion in Danish society about whether we should have the royals or not.”
He says they are “neutral subject matter” and therefore not (yet) the stuff of political thrillers.
“They are definitely not off limits, [but] they are not Fergie.”
One gets the impression that if the gamine Princess Mary were to transform herself into a duplicate of the indelicate Duchess of York, Price would be quick to notice. (In Borgen’s upcoming third season, Denmark’s near-absent republican movement gets a slight nudge when PM Nyborg’s Moderates decide to refuse to accept obligatory royal gongs for public service.)
Borgen ’s success abroad has astounded Price and his colleagues at DR. The series was written and produced for Danes. “We were told at the outset by management that this would not travel,” he says. “I mean, who would be interested in a show about, excuse me, Danish politics? The Swedes and the Norwegians might buy it out of politeness, as we do in Scandinavia, but that would be it.”
Now Borgen screens from South Korea to Estonia, with the American network NBC signed on to produce a re-make. “It is genuine astonishment on our part that the world has bought into this series.”