Don’t expect a British Borgen. UK audiences are too disillusioned with politics and TV commissioning militates against it. That was one of many conclusions from a wide-ranging discussion by a packed expert panel in front of a packed audience at Nordicana in Clerkenwell, London, today.
Ten or so years ago, the success of The West Wing made people in the UK and other countries wonder why we couldn’t have one of those either. In Denmark, Adam Price, disheartened by hearing a fellow citizen dismiss a general election campaign that was only twenty minutes old, decided to do something about it.
As Paula Milne puts it, there’s a difference between dramas about politicians and political dramas. The UK can do the latter, but relatively few people think that the former would be interesting. There needs to be a decent balance between procedure and human stories. And long-ish drama runs, essential for building audiences and for developing characters, are dependent on co-production money. Who really would have predicted that Borgen would have sold so well internationally?
Luckily, in DR, Price found a national broadcaster that felt that increasing interest in politics was a good thing to do in itself. Thus, as Price puts it, the story is really important but Borgen weaves positive notes about democracy throughout the show. Rather like the BBC in this country (though note that the Beeb has yet to do something similar), DR is slated by the right wing as being somewhat left of Trotsky. The right attacked Borgen a full year before it aired. Mind you, Politiken also slammed the show, until it researched its readers, found they loved it, and made a quick U-turn!
As a national broadcaster, DR had a number of procedures to go through to ensure balance. A scene in episode 16 showed a right wing leader with extremely ugly shoes and the issue went to the general manager for resolution. Yes, it was finally agreed, they could show the shoes.
For many viewers, the fact that Birgitte Nyborg is a woman (slightly predating a Danish woman PM) is refreshing, but for the panel it seemed less of an issue – yesterday’s issue, and it’s noted that The Killing also has a female lead. Price argues that a male PM would simply not have been as interesting. Men have always let their families down, and since they didn’t want a financially venal PM, this would be the way to go.
Some questions and answers followed. Attendees wanted to know (among other things) why the show’s team had not wanted to show Philip coping with Birgitte’s new status. The answer was that they had discussed it but ‘some men are idiots!’ More to the point, the show’s politicians are idealistic as politicians – but it would be stretching credibility to make their home life idealistic too.
And both Borgen and The West Wing show the heart of liberal politicians. Could there be a right wing drama showing a politician with a good heart? ‘Yes’, says Adam Price, ‘but I’m not going to write it!’
There were other occasions during a very full programme during the Nordicana convention to chat with Borgen’s actors but that didn’t stop Bent fans wanting to know his favourite bits. Everyone’s favourite deputy leader (sorry, Mr Clegg) took a pragmatic view: ‘When I was fired and when I was dying. Well written with a good director. Also, when I was in Africa, ‘cos we were in Africa!’
And that was it. Plenty of food for thought – but the sold-out audience could have kept the discussion going for a good few more hours. Such is the level of fandom for Nordic Noir and Borgen in the UK. My one unfulfilled fantasy was for Hanne Holm to rise majestically and dramatically towards the end, to ask a question that had already been asked. But that would also have been a bit weird. Let’s leave it there for now.
The panel was chaired by Mark Lawson and included Adam Price (creator and main writer, Borgen), Lars Knutzon (who plays Bent), Jeppe Gjervig Gram (writer of 14 episodes of Borgen), Ingolf Gabold (former head of TV drama at DR), Jesper Nielsen (director, Borgen), Lone Theils (London correspondent, Politiken), Paula Milne (writer, The Politician’s Husband), Kath Mattock (script editor, producer of Murder).