Welcome to the Statsminister’s office
Considering the amount of drama that surrounds real-life politics, it’s perhaps surprising that there have been so few TV political dramas. But Borgen, the fictional tale of a Danish politician and those around her, has caught the attention of viewers around the globe. In the UK, transmissions on the digital channel BBC FOUR attracted up to a million viewers: not bad for a country where TV with subtitles is a niche pursuit. My Twitter feed brings regular excitement from fans in Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the US and elsewhere. Clearly this programme is something special.
At its heart, Borgen is about three people: two idealistic women and the cynical man who inhabits both their worlds. Boil it down further, and the first two series of the programme could be described as the fall and rise of Birgitte Nyborg: a woman who wins power and loses everything important, and then remembers who she is.
Birgitte has captured the heart of so many people, but some of the resulting coverage may have surprised anyone from Denmark, or, indeed, anyone who had watched more than the first few episodes. Witness the swooning over the idea of a female leader (hello? The most powerful politician in Europe is a woman), and the many online remarks on the loveliness of a prime minister who smiles and wears cardigans and cycles to work. But in series 1, the smiles get fewer and fewer, the suits get sharper and less comfortable, and to my recollection we don’t see Birgitte on a bicycle once she becomes PM. It took me until recently to realise that this is precisely the point: the series’ producers deliberately show us Birgitte when she remains idealistic and untainted by office. It is that portrayal, of someone who is not a standard politician, that draws us into the series, and makes Birgitte’s transition to polished political operator so compelling and so much harder to bear. In contrast, TV journalist Katrine Fønsmark remains true to her principles and shows the different price that is paid for doing so.
But that, perhaps, is to get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning…
Quote: A prince should have no other aim or thought than war and its organisation and discipline – Machiavelli
Three days before the Danish election, the opposition coalition seems likely to win, though it’s by no means definite. Defending PM Lars Hesselboe is in London for discussions with financial backers. He uses his government credit card to buy his wife a £8,000 Mulberry bag. Opposition and Labour leader Michael Laugesen gives an explosive TV interview on asylum seekers, but when Moderate leader Birgitte Nyborg hears that he is backtracking on a coalition pledge, she pulls her party out of the coalition.
TV1 reporter Katrine has been seeing Hesselboe’s adviser, but he dies suddenly. She can’t be seen to be involved with this man, and calls Kasper (her ex and Birgitte’s adviser) to deal with matters – during which he finds the evidence of the Mulberry purchase. He offers a blackmail idea to Birgitte – who declines. Laugesen and Birgitte discuss whether the coalition can be revived – it can’t – but Kasper has better luck hawking the stolen papers to Laugesen.
Kasper has written a ‘tactical’ speech for Birgitte to deliver at a live TV debate, but to his shock she delivers a ‘conviction’ speech – anti-spin, pro-’authenticity’: ‘All of us here have become ever so professional…’ It’s rapturously received, but then Laugesen drops the fraud bombshell, Hesselboe walks out and the debate ends chaotically. Realising that Kasper must be Laugesen’s source, Birgitte sacks him. Both major parties are affected in a voter backlash. Will Birgitte now reach out for a larger prize?
Here we go round the Mulberry bag
It’s common practice for a TV opening episode to set the scene pretty quickly, to introduce the characters and their context and get them doing something. There’s a delicate balance to strike between explanation, introduction, emotion, interest and over-complication. In an electrifying opening five minutes full of activity, symbolism and just the right amount of exposition, Borgen gives us a twist to the formula: a prequel to the main action. Sure, the spin doctors are spinning and the news guys are ‘doing the news’, as they would say on The Newsroom; but the Danish prime minister is, during the episode, a man called Hesselboe and not the woman that almost any viewer who has read a description of the show will have been expecting. We know who will become Statsminister, so we had better be entertained on the way.
The introduction to Borgen poses three questions. Who is Birgitte Nyborg? How does she seize power? What does it mean that she does so? And what happens to her – and the people she loves – as a result? In order to answer these questions we need to meet Birgitte slightly before she does take power. Fact is, when the show commences, it isn’t clear that she is a likely Statsminister, and she certainly isn’t a front-runner for the position. We will need to see how her rivals self-destruct, or show she outmanoeuvres them.
We are told that princes (i.e. successful politicians) should think about war, and that election-winning is like chess, but we kick off with a make-up brush and the inference that politics is about things not being quite what they seem: an idea reinforced by the emergence of the spin doctor from the darkness while muttering about how the EU is boring. Chess is a game of high strategy, but right now we’re in the world of low tactics as the Labour-led opposition coalition implodes when its leader tries to outflank the right on immigration without consulting his partner parties.
We’re given just enough information to understand what’s going on, with no superfluous subtitles. We know who Hesselboe and Laugesen are because they’ve been shown on the TV news; we don’t know who the possibly drunk or drugged woman is but we don’t need to know yet – so we aren’t told. And we see current PM Lars Hesselboe doing some kind of deal with foreigners and being important together with someone who is probably the brains of the outfit, who may be on the pills but who also shuts his boss’s laptop and gets him to concentrate.
The equivalent back-room guy for the Moderates may skulk in the shadows (note the contrast with Birgitte’s bright lighting), dismiss the EU’s voter mojo, and talk cockily about what will and won’t happen later, while his boss can’t even interest the make-up woman in taking her autograph. But Birgitte’s matter-of-fact response to the snub shows that she isn’t there for fun. And when in the TV interview, Birgitte is presented with Laugesen’s agreement-breaking comments, her spin doctor is reduced to banging on the glass impotently as she calmly declares she will have no truck with this new development. Given such a pacy start to the show, it’s perhaps appropriate that the Moderates’ adviser looks a little like Dawson’s Creek’s Pacey. Let’s hope that, just like the Creek-dwellers, we’re all better people by the end of the show. But in the meantime, Birgitte’s breaking ranks in the centre-left alliance, much to Pacey’s distress and the news editor’s disgust, and we haven’t even had the opening credits.
When the credits roll they tell us a couple of things. First, Pacey is not Joshua Jackson but the Danish actor Pilou Asbaek. Who knew? Second, Birgitte is confirmed as the future Statsminister – and Pacey/Pilou will be a main character (though whether he will work with Birgitte is unclear).
The defending PM is not in control of events. The collapse of the opposition coalition gives him a stronger position – for about 20 seconds. He has to leave his mystery meeting in humiliation as his wife has lost it at Mulberry. Mrs Hesselboe swears with gusto but regards her husband’s business appointment as secondary to her immediate accessory requirements. To calm her down he needs to buy an £8,000 bag – but has only his government credit card with which to make the purchase. Back in Copenhagen, his assistant will have to put things right. In the meantime, they reckon that the Moderates will now reach out to the right wing Liberals.
Lo and behold, up pops the Moderates’ spin doctor, Kasper, and the two fixers go head to head. And in a series of inter-twining scenes, we are introduced to the three main characters – Birgitte, Kasper and Katrine.
Kasper’s confident, but with the Moderates under fire, is he really as good as he thinks he is? Labour and the Freedom Party don’t seem to have an adviser equivalent to Kasper and Ole Dahl. Perhaps the point is that the Moderates are idealistic but modern? Either way, it seems that Kasper wants to be Ole Dahl when he grows up, but while Dahl lives the Liberal man has the better car, more influence in his party and he has the girl – Kasper’s ex. Kasper’s presented as a serial flirt so it isn’t clear how serious things were with Katrine: serious enough for him to be her first call once Ole is dead. But his first response is jealous – ‘How long have you been seeing him?’ And we have already seen Kasper assure Katrine that he’ll put in a good word on her behalf, just a couple of minutes later assure Birgitte that Katrine won’t interview the Moderate leader again – and then follow through with a phone call to Katrine’s boss. In her panic, has she put her trust in the wrong man?
Birgitte’s answer to that same question is to fire Kasper for the botched blackmail attempt – an attempt that raises further questions. First, Kasper must know that Laugesen is unreliable, but a free bar is enough to fall for the Labour leader’s men-of-the-world routine. Yet we also see that Kasper has a limit: he could easily have played dumb when Birgitte asked him how Laugesen got the receipt – or told a plausible lie which, let’s face it, would have been a lesser crime than going through the papers of his ex-girlfriend’s dead lover. I couldn’t work out whether Birgitte’s looking at Hesselboe or Kasper as Laugesen waves the papers in the debate. Either way, Kasper’s alone on election night and drives up to his old stamping ground to reminisce and regret.
Kasper’s outside, but inside is Katrine, who has lost her lover and got her professional big break without being allowed a pause to breathe. Heaven knows how she is holding herself together, but she manages to do so almost to the end of the episode, by when she has successfully kicked off the debate with a smutty comment and kept her place in the media scrum on election results night.
And there is Birgitte, who grows in credibility as the episode goes on. She’s unfazed about causing a commotion. Our eyebrows are raised when she is going to knock off work early – until we find out that she works 16 hours a day, and it’s Saturday. Her home life is clearly cosy and comfortable and her relationship is warm and happy. She discusses political tactics with her husband; he in turn is happy to advise and support, beaming with pride at her oratory – and at her ability to turn down Laugesen’s offer of cabinet posts.
Despite Kasper’s strategies, the Moderates campaign has not been a particular success, and it’s the knowledge that this is perhaps her final fling that enables Birgitte to be bolder: in a couple of days she might be finished as a party leader and preparing to swap domestic roles with Philip for five years. She won’t blackmail Hesselboe – his wife is widely known to be unhappy – and declines a ‘tactical’ speech by Kasper.
Instead, she delivers something that is candid, intimate, self-deprecating, idealistic and yet practical. (It was vague, too, but the real-life voters would have had more details on her policies.) The speech works because it contrasts with the party clichés that have just been uttered by the others – and it’s the last speech that the audience hear before Laugesen blows the debate right open. Birgitte’s manifesto says, in effect, that the Danes should be more open with each other, accept multi-culturalism, tackle inequality, and work in a post-socialist, post-liberal, post-‘solidarity’ world. It’s a warm centre-left speech, with criticisms of the ruling Liberal party and the far right. And we know its immediate impact, for Make-up Mum wants an autograph after all – and because supposedly neutral anchor Katrine says, ‘Top that!’ to the next debater.
What of her political opponents? Hesselboe comes out fighting but his relationship with his wife is affecting his ability to govern. Svend Åge Saltum, leader of the far right, is treated as half-clown, half-rogue. Laugesen, the most interesting character is charismatic but vile, cynically starting a rendition of an old socialist song that he loathes. He is open about his strategy to defend votes that could go to the far right; open too about his determination to be one of the Danish plutocracy; he relieves himself in public while smoking a Cuban cigar and is a serial groper. He looks like he’s having the time of his life, but his lack of discipline – you feel he might have done a deal with Birgitte if he hadn’t been so obnoxious about it – is part of the cause of his downfall. Where is his spin-doctor, to advise him that blackmail on live TV might not work? (You suspect that, even if that person existed, their advice would fall on deaf ears. Not that Birgitte takes Kasper’s advice either.)
The choreography of the party leaders’ arrivals sums them up well: Laugesen taking a hooligan’s stance; Hesselboe cornered with his wife; Svend Åge Saltum with a sharp one-liner; a motherly Birgitte taken by surprise by the media scrum. She has no soundbite to offer the reporters and is as much supported by Magnus as she supports him. Philip reminds her that this is a big moment. And then he takes the kids – this is her moment, not to be shared with him. A shame, as he misses out on some amazing inverted cake-stand lamps (look out for them when the balloons are released).
But Philip is still up when Birgitte returns home. We’ve seen on the TV screens that the Moderates are not the biggest party, but with huge gains ‘they’ have been impressed – ‘they’ want Birgitte as PM. She’s nervous but Philip smiles and it’s OK. It’s no cliffhanger, but a very satisfying and warm way to end this prequel/pilot.
The first family
Birgitte and Philip are a sharp contrast to the unhappy Hesselboes. We don’t know what Philip does for a living, though he jokes about being CEO of Microsoft. Go for it Philip! He knows exactly what to say to encourage Birgitte (and when to buy her a new suit), and she shows no signs of taking his support for granted. She works 16 hours a day but there doesn’t seem to be any arising pressure on the relationship.
Birgitte wears cosy cardigans and cycles to work wearing a very sensible helmet – her clothing matching the warmth and safety of her family. Many commentators on the show focused on Birgitte’s lack of pomp and formality, and her challenge to be ‘less professional’ by which we assume she means the focus on style not substance (she is hardly likely to suggest that government should be a shambles!) suggests that her premiership – when it happens – will be a sharp contrast to other administrations real and fictional (i.e. Hesselboe’s).
Katrine has a whirlwind of an introductory episode. We understand that she is a competent and confident reporter – an ambitious professional who is a cut above most of the other anchors at TV1. It’s possible to present her as morally ambiguous. She is, after all, involved with a married man, was previously involved with another spin doctor, and it’s assumed that she’s a snitch. That’s not a great start for a character.
On the other hand, she loses the man she loved – with whom she had ‘never been happier’ – literally being dragged away from his dead body, unable to grieve openly for their love was both hidden (from his family) and forbidden (professionally), avoiding her mum and having to react straight away to a massive professional opportunity. (It isn’t as though there’s any proof that Katrine is the source of the rumour about Hanne Holm, and my money’s on Ulrik as the Great Traditional Danish Snitcher. Torben may think he’s a great journalist but Ulrik has already shown himself to be more concerned about what Kasper will say than interested in a scoop.) Meanwhile Katrine has shown herself to at least have stamina!
Bent Sejrø, Brigitte’s mentor, watches proudly as she gives her speech. He provides her with energy after her win. And he knows everyone: Norgaard, Gjervig and Lindholm.
DR1’s editor Torben doesn’t seem at all pleased that TV1 have gained a major scoop by the coalition unravelling on his air – but high-fives colleagues after the ‘great TV’ from the debate. He loathes – and sacks – his one experienced journalist, Hanne and goes on air wearing a waistcoat but no jacket, which seems a bit odd. The use of a TV station works well for exposition, even if the stories they cover are by necessity more basic than they’d be in real life.
It looks like this show isn’t going to stint on the amazing lamps. Look out too for the scarf collections of Katrine and Hanne.
For British eyes, the unisex toilets at TV1 seem strange. And though there are plenty of examples of English words entering Danish, and vice versa, it’s particularly pleasing to see Laugesen wandering around offering everyone ‘Freebar’.
When Birgitte met Bartlet
The opening credits pay plenty of homage to The West Wing’s own opening credits – though they kind of give away who wins the election.
Maybe it’s because it’s just not the way we do things in the UK but…balloons!
The chant of ‘Four more years!’ has made it – in English – to Denmark.
Birgitte’s speech has a real ‘watch this’ quality that has everyone gathering round, rather like the scene at the end of Two Cathedrals.