The Mail on Sunday
15th January 2012
By Emily Hill
The first episode opens with a quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince – a clear signal of the scheming and skulduggery that lie ahead.
There are scandals over expenses, teams of whispering spin doctors, a politician catapulted into the limelight by a successful televised debate and a country left in limbo as, behind closed doors, a coalition government is formed.
But this is not about David Cameron or Nick Clegg. It is the new Danish TV drama Borgen, and it has become an instant water-cooler hit, the talk of homes and offices across the land.
Borgen comes from the same Danish team that created the phenomenally successful detective drama The Killing.
As with that series, Borgen made its British debut on BBC4, has a huge following on the Corporation’s internet television service iPlayer, and will undoubtedly make a move to BBC2 before the end of the year.
Both shows share the same high production values and feature pithy scripts, strong female characters and chisel-jawed men.
Relationships between the sexes are fascinating, with a different dynamic to that seen in many British crime dramas.
For example, where Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennyson in Prime Suspect is a lone woman battling prejudice in a man’s world, Borgen has more female characters at the top of the tree.
And whether they work in TV or politics, they are not prepared to sacrifice glamour for the sake of ambition.
Take the main character Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, who is leader of the fictional Moderate Party and becomes the country’s first female prime minister.
Driven and opportunistic, she is also human and self-deprecating.
She enjoys wine and cheerfully admits to battling with her weight as she struggles to cram her voluptuous frame into a power suit.
Though conscious of her appearance, she is certainly not neurotic about her body, and enjoys flaunting it – at least if her frequently fruity exchanges with her husband are anything to go by.
Another key appeal of Borgen – especially for British audiences – lies in its tightly drawn depiction of coalition politics, of the instability and intrigue, and the reality of life under such a government.
Politicians and spin doctors here might well be watching with horror and fascination as fragile alliances and deals fall by the wayside.
Borgen means castle in Danish and is the nickname Danes use for their main parliament building.
The show first aired in Denmark in September 2010, a year before the country did, in fact, elect its first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She is married to Neil Kinnock’s son, Stephen.
Women make up nearly 40 per cent of the Danish parliament, compared with 20 per cent in the House of Commons but Knudsen, 43, a mother of one in real life, found her role model in Britain.
She said: ‘I was actually inspired by a documentary I saw about Tony Blair.
When he got together with George Bush and started to appear on a world stage, he became somehow a lot tighter. It was like he changed, physically.
Over the coming series, I think you will see that in Nyborg. She becomes tighter as a politician.’
The fictional Nyborg soon struck a chord with real voters. Knudsen said: ‘I get stopped in the street all the time now. People recognise me and speak to me as if I’m Prime Minister Nyborg, saying, “Oh, you were pretty mean on Saturday.” ’
There is still much debate as to why so many Britons are following Borgen and The Killing, which are both subtitled and set in a country where it always seems to rain.
Some put it down to the slick cinematic production, others are transfixed by the ‘sing-song’ Danish accent. Knudsen, however, believes it is because the series resemble British shows.
She said: ‘In Denmark we really love British drama. I was brought up with Upstairs, Downstairs. I saw all the British detective series.
‘I think in Danish shows such as Borgen there is a balance in the drama, where it seems realistic and recognisable without plunging into social realism. It is not po-faced drama – there is humour in it and it can also be thrilling.’
Prime Minister Nyborg’s nemesis is the stunningly beautiful and brutally ambitious television reporter Katrine Fonsmark, played by 30-year-old Birgitte Hjort Sorensen.
Fonsmark goes from dating one aide to sleeping with the prime minister’s spin doctor, who promises to leave his wife and children for her. They celebrate by making love at a hotel – but the following morning she finds him dead in bed.
Fonsmark, who fears she may be pregnant, has to carry on covering an election as though nothing has happened.
They are different settings and of different times, of course, but Fonsmark’s predicament is not unlike Lady Mary Crawley’s in Downton Abbey.
Sorensen says: ‘Over here, we are all addicted to Downton Abbey. My character, like Lady Mary, finds her lover dead in bed, which is rather shocking.’
Sorensen is an Anglophile who played Roxy Hart in the hit musical Chicago in the West End in 2008. She said: ‘I am a big fan of British actresses, especially Kate Winslet. Like Helen Mirren she can be both incredibly strong but equally vulnerable.’
She is delighted that a Danish drama set in distant, dark Copenhagen, could prove such a success in Britain. ‘I don’t think anyone would have imagined a Danish series would become popular in any other country because no one else speaks the language,’ she said.
However, success brings its own difficulties. There is a relatively small pool of Danish actors and competition for roles has become fierce as those who might once have settled for being famous domestically now see an opportunity for international renown.
Sorensen auditioned three times for her part while Knudsen came from a film and theatre background. She said: ‘I think every actor in Denmark went for the casting.’
Remarkably, she had never appeared in a TV series before – and confessed how the US series The West Wing inspired her. ‘Shortly before I heard about Borgen, someone gave me the complete box set of The West Wing.
‘I watched every episode. The moment I was finished I was asked if I would do Borgen. By that point I was hooked on political drama.’
Judged by the ratings, it seems that when it comes to this kind of show, these days there is nothing like a Dane.
Seriously strong women – and not a cupcake in sight
By IAN HYLAND
In my TV review column in today’s Live magazine, I suggest that the only way the BBC could possibly salvage Sir David Jason’s disastrous slapstick sitcom The Royal Bodyguard would be to redub it in Danish, apply some English subtitles and then run it on BBC4 on Saturday nights instead.
I’m joking, of course. Even those drastic steps would not save Sir David now.
Nevertheless, you do have to marvel at BBC4’s Scandinavian Midas touch.
Class: Birgitte Sorensen as an ambitious television reporter in Borgen
Class: Birgitte Sorensen as an ambitious television reporter in Borgen
They have this happy knack of unearthing the best TV programmes that region has to offer and then turning them into huge critical and word-of-mouth hits over here.
It all began with Swedish crime drama Wallander, of which Kenneth Branagh was such a fan he made his own English-speaking version.
But the first real signs of a phenomenon came with the Bafta-winning success of The Killing, the cold and unwieldy Danish murder mystery which, alongside all the critical acclaim, received lavish praise for its dowdy yet stylish knitwear.
Jennifer Saunders even paid homage to it with a pullover dream sequence in Ab Fab’s Christmas special.
The Killing became such a crossover hit that people now speak of it in the same reverential tones usually reserved for another TV cult classic, Twin Peaks.
I actually have acquaintances whose devotion is so rabid they refuse to acknowledge the Danish hit in any other form than its original title, Forbrydelsen.
Obviously, I am about to begin the tricky process of distancing myself socially from such people, especially the ones who have suddenly started wearing chunky knitted roll-necks.
Mikael Birkkjaer and Sidse Babett Knudsen in the show
Phenomenon: Mikael Birkkjaer and Sidse Babett Knudsen in the show
Of course, after such a trailblazer it would have been a major surprise if Borgen, BBC4’s latest Scandinavian import, hadn’t hit the spot as well.
But this slick and sexy political thriller does more than satisfy a fad. The truth is it is possibly even more gripping and, worryingly, even more addictive than The Killing.
The highest praise I can offer is that I am already so desperate to watch the episodes that are still to be broadcast that I check the BBC’s press previews website on a daily basis to see if they have arrived yet.
On the face of it, I know that for most people the prospect of struggling through a dimly lit and subtitled political drama for two hours won’t seem like a rock ’n’ roll Saturday night.
But Borgen is almost as much of an escapist delight as our own Downton Abbey and, rather than tiring you out, the subtitles actually encourage you to focus on the action.
There is an eerie familiarity to the story. While Copenhagen couldn’t look as grubby as London if it tried – even the taxis appear spotlessly clean – the political climate in Borgen shares more than a few twists with our own.
There are coalitions, sex scandals, alcoholics, ruthlessly unethical spin doctors, a previously unknown candidate surging to the fore in a live TV debate, and a top politician using his office credit card to blow thousands on a Mulberry handbag for his wife (which kind of puts the few pounds Jacqui Smith’s husband spent on special-interest movies into perspective).
They even have an ageing, rotund and oafish parliamentary has-been who seems to spend most of his time attempting to be funny on whatever TV show is desperate enough to invite him on. (Morning, Lord Prescott.)
Obviously we have to draw the line at the idea of Borgen’s prominent news anchor conducting affairs with two of the foremost spin doctors. Well, unless Kay Burley, Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson wish belatedly to get something off their chests.
The other major achievement that sets Borgen apart from most homegrown dramas is that, like The Killing, it boasts strong female roles.
While British dramas offer us fortysomething wives and mothers opening their own cupcake or taxi businesses, Danish drama gives us a married mother of two who is running for prime minister.
If asked to name a British TV series that leans so heavily on a female lead, I’m willing to bet most people would still instinctively suggest Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect, which first hit our screens last century.
Moreover, if you asked me to name a British political thriller which could be said to be in the same class as Borgen, I would scrabble around for a while before falling back on a trusty old favourite – 2003’s State Of Play.
British TV is not entirely useless, of course. The BBC’s recent Dickens adaptations proved we still remake the classics better than any country in the world.
I’m also willing to bet any Danish version of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! wouldn’t be a patch on ours.
But it is perhaps worth noting that in the same week Borgen arrived on our screens, ITV1 launched its latest drama series, Eternal Law, which is all about a team of angels who have come down from heaven to practise law (alongside the devil!) in modern-day York.
Exactly. Even the finest subtitle-writer in the world would struggle to explain that one.