It’s Those Damned Danes Again

Politics is great drama, as Borgen, a fine Danish series, shows. So why do British scriptwriters ignore it?

Screen TV
Liberal realist: Sidse Babett Knudsen as Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in "Borgen"

It is a statement of the obvious to say that since the Ancient Greeks writers have known that the powerful are more dramatic than the rest of us. You do not need me to tell you that their decisions can improve or destroy individuals or nations; that what leaders do with power shows their character in the clearest light, and teaches the rest of us hard truths about human nature. Someone needs to tell the controllers of television, however. Their disdain for politics in part explains the collapse of British TV drama from world leader to also-ran.  

Media managers still commission excellent one-off drama-documentaries — Peter Morgan’s films about the Blair years, for instance. But drama series come from the classics, or the tired detective genre or feel-good scripts written by and for Middle England because editors lack the imaginative intelligence to see their society in the round.

The only way most of them can demonstrate the dramatic potential of power is to carry on commissioning work in the Chris Morris/Armando Iannucci style. Their furious absurdism has been hugely influential. Television and radio satirists and half the comic writers in the press are still ripping off monologues from On the Hour or The Thick of It. The jeering attacks were exhilarating at the turn of the century. They still can be in small portions, but they make for a stale diet.

For freshness, look at how writers of some of the best dramas of our time — The Wire, The Killing, The West Wing — knit politics into wider society. Politicians seem powerless to change ghettos in The Wire. The Killing dispenses with the assumption, so commonplace in British drama, that politics has nothing to do with policing, and shows detectives nervously responding to political instructions and calculating the dangers to their careers. Both resemble 19th-century novels in that they present sweeping pictures of Baltimore and Copenhagen. They are not “about” politics. But their writers know they cannot ignore how their cities are governed if they want to paint on a wide canvas. Their politicians may be craven or hubristic, frustrated idealists or temporising careerists, but they are never the gibbering caricatures of British TV. In The West Wing, indeed, they represent liberal Hollywood’s ideal government.

The first series of Borgen, which has just finished on BBC4, is a European West Wing. It creates dramatic tension over arguments about policy, but is darker and therefore more believable than America’s syrupy celebration of political virtue.

To the surprise of everyone, Birgitte Nyborg, the leader of the Moderate Party, becomes prime minister, when the haggling between parties after a PR election finishes. She has spoken to the public frankly in the final television debate between the leaders, and her sincerity ensures that the Moderates do better than expected. The series tracks her as the ingénue hardens into a tough political operator. It shows her marriage disintegrating as she forces her husband to look after the children at home and puts her career ahead of his. In the first episode she refuses to use dirty tricks against a rival. By the tenth she has struck a deal with her embittered husband. He can sleep with any woman he wants, as long as he is discreet. In return, he must appear on television and lie to the electorate by posing as her adoring, contented partner.

I admire Borgen because it says more than “power corrupts”. The viewer’s sympathy stays with Nyborg; her actions and motives remain comprehensible. And as with The West Wing, it reveals the spirit of the times.

Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 presidential election would not have surprised anyone who noticed the popularity of The West Wing among American liberals. Obama — cool and witty, able to deliver an inspirational speech one minute and folksy asides the next — would have had a starring role in the Bartlett White House. Clinton — lumpy, badly dressed and appealing more to the white working class than the university-educated middle class — would have been a minor character. US liberals’ subsequent disillusion with Obama shows that they have woken from a land of make-believe, in which they thought that all it would take to fix America’s problems was for their dream candidate to become president.

Borgen reveals the yearnings of north Europeans just as well. They want a leader who is tough and resourceful, but also compassionate and just. Modern voters are not so different from peasants who prayed for a good tsar, or tenants who wanted landlords to prove they were true gentlemen by displaying noblesse oblige. The War on Terror looms large — a welcome contrast with the self-censorship of British television that could not acknowledge that real spies were fighting Islamists even in series after series of Spooks. Nyborg is both realistic and liberal when she confronts the post 9/11 world. She arrests a dissident to keep a pro-Western dictator happy, but ensures that the tyrant cannot send him to his prisons. She hushes up a scandal about the CIA using an airbase in the Danish colony of Greenland to transport prisoners to Guantánamo, but then ignores her subservient defence ministers and civil servants, and confronts the Americans in private. Although it is harder-edged than The West Wing, the dreams of rich-world liberals still determine the plot.

So, inadvertently, do their blind spots. Danish television made the first series of Borgen in early 2010. Yet the European Union does not figure in the script. Even in Denmark and Britain, which are outside the euro, even before the single currency pushed Europe into crisis, no real leader could pass a week without thinking about Brussels. The politicians in Borgen never mention it.

I’ve commented in Standpoint before about how artists and writers stopped being the canary in the coalmine in the first decade of the 21st century. Their old ability to sense weakness deserted them. In America and particularly Britain, the absence of dramas about a raging bull market heading for a crash was remarkable. On the continent, writers did not look at the EU and wonder if it could hold togther. They thought the status quo could last forever, and were as shocked as the politicians and journalists when it fell apart.

When I asked a Danish reporter why the writers of Borgen pretended that the EU did not exist, she cried, “But Europe’s boring!” Then she checked herself and added, “It’s not now, is it?”