This week I was on BBC iPlayer watching the first three episodes of Borgen, series 2, currently aired on BBC4, this having missed the first series, despite an urgent recommendation from a friend to watch it. Now I see why. The personal points of identification are so strong. Well, no, I never got to be prime minister, but otherwise the scenes of a single mother of two juggling work and domesticity, made all the more complicated by the behind-the-scenes politicking of male colleagues, makes for compelling viewing as far as I’m concerned. Curiously, I found myself somewhat obsessing over whether Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) was in danger of jeopardising her position by not working long enough hours: with time and emotion frequently spent on home matters (including the distress of divorcing the husband she still loves and wants to be with), where does she find enough time to run the country? Or maybe I’m just jealous of a single mum’s working week that allows for leaving the office early, getting home to light candles and doing a bit of home cooking (though hand-on-heart, home cooking wouldn’t be on my list even with time – a glance round my kitchen scattered with academic books and papers, rather than recipe books, says it all.)

I do though very much appreciate the way in which the episodes I’ve watched thus far don’t depict Birgitte in an emotional meltdown that threatens her professional life, as per the concern Gerry aired in her blog on female detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol) in The Killing series. (An aside: an additional viewing pleasure between these series is noting the crossovers between the Danish casts – such excellent performers it’s a delight to see them (re)-appearing in different roles.) Indeed, the first episode of Borgen, ‘89,000 children’, is exemplary in its handling of keeping emotions in check, both with regard to Birgitte’s personal life and the larger, political picture of war, as Denmark’s governing body, that has pledged to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, revises that position in the light of the need to maintain a military presence in the interests of furthering civil order and human rights. Battling her way to that resolution on the home front in Denmark, Birgitte has to manage the call for withdrawal after casualties to Danish troops, versus the dawning recognition that to do so would cause further chaos and atrocities in Afghanistan. There’s a beautiful scene in which a female representative from an NGO puts the Afghanistan case to Birgitte. Speaking woman-to-woman, opening Birgitte’s wallet and taking out the cards it contains, the Afghan woman picks these up, one by one, to remark on their signification of democratic freedoms – a bank card to access funds, or a licence to drive. These serve as a reminder of the rights she gained as a woman in Afghanistan prior to the atrocities, in contrast to the women’s and children’s lives now at risk. This, along with a storyline involving the death of a young soldier and his grieving father’s response to the ‘senseless’ war, is difficult to negotiate without a descent into pure sentimentality, and all due credit to writer (Adam Price) and director (Jannik Johansen) for getting this just about right.

Equally, Birgitte’s political struggle to do what’s right is paralleled by young, reporter Katrine’s (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) attempts to stand-up to her tabloid boss, resisting his demands for primeministerial mud-raking. In contrast to the ways in which Borgen depicts power-hungry, male politicos backstabbing colleagues in the interests of self-promotion, Katrine comes out in female solidarity, not just with Birgitte, but also her older colleague Hanna Holme (Benedikte Hansen), helping to keep private Hanna’s emotional, alcohol-fuelled breakdown in episode 2.

Ultimately, there are significant feminist viewing pleasures to be had in the story-line strands of cross-generational female solidarity, the attachment of the women characters to questions of social and political justice, and, it has to be said, the delight in seeing the boys’ Machiavellian politicking thwarted. As episode 3 ends with Katrine getting back into bed with her former lover, Kasper Juul (Birgitte’s spin doctor), and episode 4 headlines Birgitte’s struggle on the domestic front threatening to impact on her professional life, I may be in for a letdown. But as things currently stand, I’m hooked, and definitely going back to series 1.

3 thoughts on “Borgen

  1. I must be one of the only people in Denmark who hasn’t seen Borgen yet but the following article was posted in the weekend edition of Denmark’s most progressive daily, Information. (Apologies for the quick translation).

    “The Denmark we export

    ‘Borgen’ is not a story about life in Denmark in the 10s, but a utopia of an upper class that neither stands in the way nor takes wealth from the wealthy.

    Dagbladet Information – Weekend
    By Rune Lykkeberg

    19 January 2013

    Something is wrong in Denmark, and this time it’s so bad that she must return. It is not only Denmark with urban professionals and smiling people we see in the TV series Borgen on Danish Radio [Danish public television]. No, we also go behind the large picture windows in luxury apartments. Denmark is beautiful but something is so ugly and so bad that the former prime minister returns to politics.

    Otherwise, she lives the good life in the global fast lane. Birgitte Nyborg, as she is called, is what the American political scientist Samuel Huntington called a ‘Davos person’. We see her eat sushi on a hotel terrace in an Asian city with flashing lights and intense traffic. She speaks English, for she has an English boyfriend, who is an architect. It goes without saying that both of them are successful. Her English is dazzling, but she speaks Danish when she calls home and says goodnight to her children in Denmark.

    After an election defeat, she left politics and found a new career. But when she hears about a bill in Denmark which violates basic human rights, she can not stay out longer. She is indignant.

    New Nordic-upper class

    Birgitte Nyborg is the series’ idealist, she is neither left-wing nor right-wing. Her sense of justice goes beyond the old ideological battle line, and she does not address anything as passé as economic redistribution. Of course, her original party was a responsible and decent centrist party called the Moderates, but they do not want her back, because they are due to become a compromised and indecent party. Therefore, she founds a party that will be the new decent centrist party for our times. The party will be called the New Democrats. The name promises, in other words, new and better people and a truly civilizing influence. Regardless of race, age and gender new volunteers and members get involved iun the part to make an idealistic difference, and even Nyborg recognises that it is probably because the party doesn’t really stand for anything. It promises new democracy and respect for human rights and nothing else, and it appeals to everybody.

    The series portrays a social hierarchy where the upper classes are not in conflict with each other but happily united. Professionals are not humanist critics of industry, and journalists are not opposed in principle to those who have the traditional power. On the contrary – everybody can swap places. The idealistic politician glides smoothly into a top position in the corporate world. Her former husband was a lecturer at CBS [Copenhagen Business School] before he moved on to his top position business, and her current boyfriend is self-employed architect who lectures at the university. Spin doctors become journalists, and journalists become spin doctors. They have different professions, but they seem to do the same.

    The funny thing is that they are pursuing the same goals, whether they work as special advisers, investigative journalists or business people: new democracy and human rights. They dream of a political culture that focuses only on substance and not on personal matters, and a press without gossip and intrigue. Their utopia is a world without tabloids, obscenity and bullying at school.

    You don’t see them read poetry or go to the theatre and you don’t hear them discuss aesthetic issues, but you can see from their homes, clothes and way they drink water that they have really good taste. Their lifestyle is aestheticised, but their attitude to life is not influenced by art. It’s not an aesthetic that demands recognition or exposes us to discomfort that they cultivate. It is an aesthetic that makes life beautiful and sumptuous.

    No social conflicts

    They represent a New Nordic-upper class. They meet in the elegant restuarants and in different press rooms, as friends and colleagues, and they are all well-dressed and well-trained. It is only the chairman of the right-wing populist Freedom Party, who is overweight and is badly dressed. So it’s easy to spot the opponent.

    The wealthy’s wealth is not a problem in Borgen, redistribution is not a theme, and the upper class is not upper class at the expense of others.

    This is a long way from the depiction of the New Nordic upper class to the their portrayal in TV drama from the 70s and 80s, where you could be sure that the company director was a bastard, and his children were neglected and abandoned. The feature film Zappa from 1983 is an example of a world where the rich only think about themselves, their careers and their property investments, whereas the jovial working class dad has an authentic relationships with his son, who he plays football with, and who he carries on shoulders when they walk down the street. Between these poles was a culturally homeless middle class, which is portrayed as petit bourgeois.

    But that kind of social conflict can’t be found in Borgen. There is instead the struggle for human rights for refugees and better conditions for the animals in Danish agriculture. The upper class is not oppressive, but civilizing. There are nasty speculators and evil bankers, but it is not their social position, which is the problem. It is their greed or a lack in their character.

    There is a critical conflict in Borgen between two different positions in the upper class: the new middle manager of journalistic workplace who wants to create a happy environment and good news, whilst the older editor wants to show the hard reality and uncover abuses of power. It is triviality versus professional pride, satisfying consumers versus democratic responsibility. The series favours the old editor and portrays the young manager as a cynic. Quality is better than quantity, we are led to understand. Civilization is better than the new manager’s popularity.

    The Denmark we export portrays a struggle for a better world. There is no mention of class conflict but rather human rights, tone and civilization. Lifestyles are broadly leftist or progressive with respect for minorities, recognition of women’s right to choose, and with room for ‘friendly’ divorces, while the economy is liberal and ‘responsible’.

    The sad thing is not that this is reality in Denmark but that it is an upper class utopian fantasy.”

    • Hi Steve- yes thanks for this- its raises a fascinating set of issues about how meaning of drama may change with socio-cultural context, that everybody is aware of but tends mainly to get discussed in theatre circles in relation to self-consciously ‘intercultural productions’. I have not seen Borgen either but I have watched The Killing and also The Bridge. In most articles I have seen about the popularity of Scandinavian shows in the UK the focus is always simply on their aesethetic qualities as television but there has been little comment about the impact of moving a show from one culture to another and what for example (in this cases people living in Denmark) might think about the image of their politics and culture being transmitted by them. This is also something that has also occurred to me writing this blog. I did a posting on a South African production of a play by Zakes Mda touring the UK and was amazed to note that this was accessed by (a small number of) people living in various countries in the South of Africa. I cannot help but wonder about their take, on my take of this play/production…

  2. With thanks for this view from Denmark. If, from a Danish perspective, Borgen is perceived as ‘an upper-class utopian fantasy, in contrast to social reality, seen from a British point of view, given the current state of political affairs – ‘Posh’ boys behaving badly, as described in our blog on Laura Wade’s drama – it’s a welcome export!

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