Borgen

A programme that begins with a quote from Machiavelli, and is the next Danish drama to follow into the Saturday night BBC4’s timeslot after Forbrydelson, promised much. Borgen, which translates as “Government”, took us into a world where ideals matter, but are inevitably weighed down by requirements of retaining office.

Centred on the election and then the workings of a new coalition government, there is a very real topical interest to British audiences, but it is a different environment; Borgen presents a world where not only do politics matter, they are recognized for mattering, highlighted by a daily news programme at peak time (8.30pm), that leads with live interviews of cabinet ministers, notwithstanding the off silly season feel good story on the weather.

And its main face, the television presenter Katrine, is an investigative journalist about to turn 30 years old, whose values are tellingly indicated by the poster if ‘All The Presidents Men’ in her kitchen. Katrine is a major character throughout, with her determination to find and report the truth at the heart of government shaping her career and overriding her entanglements with spin doctors and spin instructors.

Also with strong principles is Birgitte Nyborg, the programme’s lead character and the ‘Statesman’, the term for Prime Minister many of us first became familiar with during the thrilling second season of Forbrydelson (The Killing II). Nyborg is clearly principled, but at times her character is portrayed as politically naïve, first for a leader of a political party and then as PM, but that is perhaps so the dialogue can paint the landscape to the audience of what would otherwise be pretty transparent political machinations.

As well as Nyborg’s occasional moments of innocence, there are also a few other micro elements that seem slightly less than credible, including either the PM-in-waiting or the wife of a serving PM appearing to have no security, the PM finding out that day’s front pages over the breakfast table, and the idea of slightly clumsy PA the PM can’t change – a story which seems to be designed be comedic, but actually shows harsh human collateral damage and the work of civil servants.

But the gripes are minor, and aside from the exception of sometimes needing the obvious spelt out to her by advisors, Nyborg’s character and position are particularly relevant to today’s British audience. She is constantly resilient to opinion polls that contradict her political beliefs while still being pragmatic when necessary, but most significantly of all she is firm in making sure she is not someone else’s patsy for the sake of power.

The ten episodes allow for a range of issues to be covered, including the conflict of vested interests and the requirement for more transparency at the heart of Government, the fear of a cynical media that can misrepresent decisions made in good faith, delegation, editorial independence, sexism (dealt with a short satire in a television interview), and of course very modern events: as latter seasons of both The West Wing and even The Sopranos were influenced by the aftermath of 9/11, Borgen, like the second season of The Killing, is effected by the handling of the war and terror, and the loss of liberties.

Also interesting for a British audience was Nyberg’s attempt mid-season to recruit talent from outside government to serve as a minister; it is a ploy that has been used occasionally in the last few years by British Prime Ministers, but becomes more appealing in this generation of mediocre ministers and average politicians.

Borgen gives air to the almost forgotten notion that discussing details about policies and ideals is refreshing. It is a reminder of the depth a long-running (over six episodes in a season) can bring. Before The Shadow Line, contemporary British drama has to go back to Holding On and This Life for a quality serial of modern day life, and back to Our Friends in the North and G.B.H. for dramas that properly got to grips with politics.

The second season, which will be shown on BBC4 in the winter, has the promise to explore further the strong characters, including the PM’s media advisor Kasper, whose backstory was portrayed with the clever use of flashbacks, and Philip, the troubled husband of the PM whose life has been boxed in because of a big job that is not his.

And of course there are more internal politics in the Government to be played out, in an Administration which now appears to have an increasing number of maneuvering forces. One of the translations we learnt in Borgen is that is ‘shit’ is pronounced ‘piss’. Going by John Major’s turn of phrase, Nyberg will have to deal with a number of bastards pissing/shitting on the inside as she continues to cling to power and change Denmark for the better.

MG

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