Revealed: the real Borgen

How Denmark's answer to The West Wing has changed Danish politics

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Revealed: the real Borgen
Written By
Jack Seale

“When we started,” says Jeppe Gjervig Gram, one of Borgen's writers, “we met a lot of politicians. They said: ‘You’re going to do a show about my everyday reality? It’ll be so boring. This is Danish coalition politics, not The West Wing.’

“We said, we’re sure we can make drama out of it.”

Gjervig Gram and his colleagues were so, so right. Borgen – the story of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a leader of a minority party who surprisingly becomes prime minister, then struggles to keep her personal life and political ideology intact – is a major hit in Denmark and debuted to more than 600,000 people on BBC4 last month.

Borgen is remarkable not just for its qualities as a drama, though these are many. Its storylines are sharp and elegant, its characters human and rounded, its political comment faultlessly measured. Its portrayal of the Danish political and media elite is both recognisable and intriguingly alien.

Yet Borgen - shown in primetime on DR, the Danish equivalent of the BBC – is more than just entertaining and believable. Its first series aired in 2010 and imagined Birgitte Nyborg becoming the first female prime minister of Denmark, as the head of a coalition. In 2011, a real-life Danish general election resulted in Helle Thorning-Schmidt doing the same.


Sidse, they’re doing it for themselves

Had Borgen paved the way for a first female leader? Talk to the experts in Denmark, and they’re keen not to patronise the electorate with easy conclusions.

“Some argued that the series made it easier for Danish voters to anticipate Helle Thorning-Schmidt as the new PM,” says Thomas Larsen, political commentator at Danish broadsheet Berlingske. “I don’t think so. First, Danes are quite interested in politics – real political substance has priority. Second, for several years some extremely strong female party leaders have been active in Danish politics.” Larsen points out that Thorning-Schmidt’s political allies, who ensured she could become PM despite her party losing seats in the 2011 poll, are women.

Gjervig Gram says Nyborg is “inspired by a lot of contemporary female political leaders. Among those is Helle Thorning, but others too.” He humbly agrees with Larsen that the Danes didn’t need Borgen to tell them that a woman could be their leader. 

“The Danes have been ready for a female leader for quite a long time,” he says. “The right candidate just hadn’t shown up. In Denmark, there wouldn’t be a lot of voters who would prefer a man over a woman in office, I hope.”

OK, so the Danes are too smart to vote for a candidate because she's the same gender as someone off the telly. But Borgen was still stunningly accurate when it came to predicting the formation of a new government, toppling a conservative incumbent.

The political parties portrayed in Borgen are fictional, but they have recognisable real-life equivalents. On that basis, Borgen predicted exactly which parties would have ministers in Thorning-Schmidt’s cabinet. “With the election, we nailed it,” says Gjervig Gram. “Whenever we meet people or go to a party now, people say: 'You have the crystal ball! Tell us what will happen…'”

Borgen’s main dramatic licence is in placing Birgitte Nyborg in the wrong party. De Moderate (Radikal Venstre in the real world) producing a prime minister is a political miracle that makes for inspiring drama, but Thorning-Schmidt in fact leads the much bigger Socialdemokratiet, ie the real version of Labour, the party initially led on screen by arch villain Michael Laugesen.

“Birgitte is catapulted into office by coincidence,” Gjervig Gram admits. “Everything about the situation around her is just right. That might not happen in real life. But she’s honest, strong and intelligent. She could go far in the real world.”


Engaging with reality

Borgen influenced the electorate in a more valuable way than crudely telling it who to vote for. “We didn’t want to move the voters around from left to right or vice versa,” says Gjervig Gram. “We wanted to engage them in the political debate. Our goal was that people became interested in the democratic process.

“The University of Copenhagen did a study that said this happened. Viewers of Borgen weren’t moved to or from either wing or party, but they were more interested in politics than before they saw it. That made us quite proud, to say the least.”

Borgen’s authority stems from the dedication of its slightly wonk-ish writers. “An immense amount of research is done,” Gjervig Gram says. “We pitch every episode to the chief political editor here at DR to make sure we’re believable. Of course, we sometimes cut a corner. First and foremost, we write drama. But we have an obligation to portray the political system accurately. We say a lot about how it works. We don’t want to lie about that.

“A lot of analysts tried to pick the show to pieces and say: 'This isn’t true, that is an exaggeration',” Gram goes on. “But very quickly, reality started copying us. For example, the episode with the landings from Greenland ["rendition" flights transporting terror suspects on behalf of the CIA] – shortly after it aired there was a similar case in the media. So people started slowly to embrace Borgen and realise we weren’t exaggerating.”


A hard act to follow

Borgen’s authenticity provides the framework for its stories. But the heart and colour comes from Sidse Babett Knudsen’s embodiment of a politician whose charisma, fortitude and vulnerability make the viewer instinctively support her and her causes. 

For Helle Thorning-Schmidt, this could be more of a hindrance than a help. They’re both women and they’re both prime minister of Denmark. After that, the similarities soon run out.

“They are the same age,” Gjervig Gram observes, “and they both have a husband with a career of his own. They have two children who are about the same age. But there are major differences: Helle is from the Danish Labour party and is always judged on whether she is or isn’t representing the working class, because she’s quite posh. Birgitte’s problem is that she’s from an intellectually elitist party and she’s always on her moral high horse.”

Thomas Larsen does see one positive parallel between Nyborg and the real prime minister. “Helle Thorning-Schmidt is tough as a nail. She might not be the most experienced nor the most insightful politician in Denmark, but mentally she is extremely robust.”

Thorning-Schmidt’s career in government certainly isn’t an influence on Birgitte Nyborg: the real female PM wasn’t elected until two series of Borgen were in the can, and Sidse Babett Knudsen says that even then she was careful not to watch Thorning-Schmidt too closely. But the PM is known to be a regular viewer, even if she isn’t always pleased by what her screen alter ego says and does.

Perhaps that’s because the plucky, likeable, morally centred and, let’s face it, bewitchingly sexy Nyborg is showing Thorning-Schmidt up. A recent Danish newspaper editorial called for “More Nyborg, less Thorning-Schmidt”, listing various solecisms committed by the prime minister that Nyborg would never be guilty of, and lamenting that “we know more about Nyborg’s motivation than Thorning-Schmidt’s… there is something wrong with democracy when the fictional prime minister seems more real and energetic than the real [one].”

So could Thorning-Schmidt take some tips from Nyborg? “I’m not going to pretend I can teach Helle Thorning anything about being a PM!” laughs Gjervig Gram. “We had the luxury of creating our favourite politician in the writers’ room. I would vote for her, and the two other writers [Adam Price and Tobias Lindholm] would as well - we love her. But that’s the luxury of being a writer. She’s our heroine.”

Yet as Larsen points out: “Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s standing in the polls is miserable. I think a lot of Danes would like to know the real person behind the perfect appearance.”


The Nyborg fantasy

Still, it’s easy for Birgitte Nyborg. She’s not real. Does Borgen give her too easy a ride? As well as being the leader of a relatively small party whose journey to the seat of government is a Roy of the Rovers-style triumph, once she’s there her idealism remains when in reality, you suspect it might be quickly crushed.

“In the writing room, we like idealistic politicians!” says a gleeful Gram. “We didn’t want to write a political thriller where all the politicians were crooks and the journalists had to be the heroes. We wanted to believe in democracy.”

All this sounds like a certain American political drama – the one Borgen’s opening titles seem consciously to evoke, right down to the last shot of Sidse Babett Knudsen standing with her back to camera. “Oh, The West Wing is my favourite show,” says Gjervig Gram. “To me it’s up there with the big works of the last century. Seriously: it’s the Bible. It’s Shakespeare.”

But Gjervig Gram insists Borgen isn’t quite the liberal fantasy his beloved West Wing is often seen as. We’re back to that commitment to accuracy. “Borgen is written within the Nordic tradition of drama. The European tradition, perhaps. There’s a realism in Europe that’s not very Hollywood. So you can say it’s a very European kind of West Wing.”

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