It seemed improbable enough when a Danish killing spree caught global telly by the throat, but Danish politics? Borgen had coalition agreements so complex that we probably wouldn’t follow them if they happened in Westminster in real life. It had a name that only meant something to the most avid junkies of the Danish legislature. It had a career-woman heroine played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, an actress who made her name in improvised Danish art-house comedy. Naturally it had subtitles. In other words, it had precisely none of the ingredients of a hit.
And yet, from the first episode, as the character Birgitte Nyborg wrestles with her conscience, arm-wrestles her opponents, thigh-wrestles with her gorgeous, big-eared husband and emerges triumphant, as prime minister, gulping air like an Olympic seal, the world was hooked. And if that came as a surprise to us, it was even more of a surprise to Sidse Babett Knudsen herself.
When she spoke to me from Copenhagen, to publicise the second series, having just finished shooting the third and final, she said, “I’m getting used to the idea that it’s been so well received, but I haven’t become any wiser about why. It’s a beautiful part. To me, it was quite unique and I don’t think we’ve had anything like it in Denmark. But abroad, you’ve probably had equivalent shows.” I can’t immediately think of any equivalent British shows – it’s not exactly Yes, Minister, and it’s in a different universe to The Thick of It. But I imagine maybe West Wing is a forerunner? “We were all inspired by West Wing, but what we had to get used to from the beginning was that it wasn’t West Wing. The actors thought it would be just politics but it was much more private and human.”
That is a very noticeable feature of the drama – I don’t think I’m setting off too many spoiler klaxons when I say that Borgen never gets into the intestines of the legislative process, the way West Wing does. I thought it was deft and quite beautiful, that the memorable bit of political process – Denmark’s relationship with Greenland, Nyborg’s complex feelings about the more hardcore of her feminist allies – all lingered because of the real human lives you could see behind the process, rather than the process itself.
The pinnacle of this is the relationship between Nyborg and her husband, which is like a romance in reverse. They start off in this idyllic Scandinavian marriage, where they negotiate all their household chores really maturely and shag like teenagers, then slowly her job upsets what turns out to have been the quite fragile balance of their egos. All the while, of course, Nyborg’s maternal anxieties – it being hard to run a country and keep tabs on your children’s homework at the same time – underscore the action like the soundtrack of an anxiety dream.
Of the eternal, “can she have it all?” debate, Knudsen says simply: “I don’t feel that it’s because of her gender, I never thought it was a woman thing. I think it’s about arranging the priorities between public and private. We had a story in real life with the then male prime minister taking leave because of his daughter [Poul Nyrup Rasmussen’s daughter committed suicide seven months after he became PM in 1993; he didn’t step down but did take leave] – it was the source of a big public debate. Do we want that kind of prime minister? Isn’t that a bit weak, a bit emotional, don’t we want him to be more professional? Do we want him to be a real person? So in the first series, it was all about how much power had cost her, not as a woman, but cost her personally. In the second series, this theme continues, how much can you be in power and stay yourself?”
Knudsen has spent three years, now, immersing herself in what it must be like, to have this conflict between your professional and your personal identity. But she doesn’t let that bleed into her personal life: “I don’t really talk about my family, but my situation is totally different [we do know she’s unmarried and has an eight-year-old son]. I’m just an actress, so I can leave my work when I leave the set, I don’t get strange calls in the middle of the night and I don’t have tons of responsibility. I wouldn’t choose a life like Birgitte Nyborg’s. All I could do was just imagine how it must be.”
Naturally, the programme has gone down a storm, not just among regular viewers, but among the political class in Denmark. “I know at some point, it was quite cool for politicians to like the show. I remember a politician on the right wing saying he loved it, and thinking one of the characters was him. I think it’s the human face, but also, because it’s a drama, she is our hero. Politicians are heroes. And it’s nice to be represented a hero.”
The admiration goes both ways, too, as Knudsen makes the point that, the more she researched what life was like in “the Castle” (that’s what they call their parliament; the literal translation of Borgen), the more she was impressed by their dedication, and passion for what they did.
Nevertheless, both the actress and the production as a whole have been careful not to get too enmeshed with real life. “All the journalists here are crazy about us doing double interviews, and being on the same panel. It’s just not healthy I think, mixing the real world and the fictional world. We’ve made that choice, and she’s made that choice, to keep it separate.”
As much as they maintain an elegant distance, I can’t help wondering whether it’s pure coincidence that Denmark elected their first female Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, six months after Borgen first aired.
In terms of where this sudden energy and excellence in Danish television came from, it’s partly attributable to a surge in ambition from DR (the equivalent of the BBC), which has nurtured new talent and pushed boundaries (they also made The Killing). Piv Bernth, who produced The Killing, ascribes much of the energy to the legacy of Dogme, Denmark’s cinematic new wave, pioneered in the 1990s by Lars von Trier. In a recent interview, Bernth said it “opened up people’s eyes to Denmark. And we opened up to the world. We started to look at ourselves as less local and more international. We became more curious and ambitious.”
Knudsen agrees, “Something definitely happened in the middle of the 90s. I didn’t do Trier then but I was in lots of films we did in parallel with Dogme, respecting most of its principles. There was something going on, a really big change in the way of acting, creating stories. And suddenly people came to the cinema, to see Danish films. They hadn’t for 20 years.”
The cinema-goers of the 90s are, of course, the very people who now fall like vultures upon a quality box set, and feel like crying with joy when a new season of Borgen is announced. Knudsen is as susceptible to box-set obsession as anybody else, despite spending most of her time making them: “It’s a bit bulimic, I eat hours and hours of it and then it’s finished.”
To return to Nyborg – even though I know it’s make believe, I have to lodge my outrage that the PM and her husband split up at the end of the first series, without anything like enough provocation. “I had a problem with it as well, the time limit it seemed very short. In series two, I sort of needed that question to be answered – and I think it comes up a little bit why it was so quick.”
Look forward, then, to the end of a mystery… or at the very least, more carefully-detonated fireworks from a stunning actress.
Borgen starts on Saturday at 9:00pm on BBC4