Danish political drama Borgen is not The Killing – but it is brilliant

It's also set in the here and now - which makes a change from all those period dramas, says Alison Graham


We are well into a new year and full to the brim with promise and girlish glee. A whole new television season stretches before us as we go forward into a future ringing with optimism and progressive thinking.


Or maybe not. I realise that first paragraph makes me sound like an over-keen drudge on a Soviet-era collective farm, but you’ve got to hope, haven’t you? You have to have faith that British television dramas, those great keystones of our national lives, will shift their gaze from the past to the present. It’s about time, isn’t it?

No it isn’t, apparently. After a Christmas viewing season packed with warm chestnuts of nostalgia (Downton Abbey, everything Dickens) surely we are looking down the barrel of 2012 to more unprecedented world tumult as despots quiver on thrones of sand and financial markets perform elaborate dances with our money. This is the modern world, as the Jam sang in my youth, and our dramas should reflect it.

But no, we have Call the Midwife instead. Set in 1957, it follows young midwives (see, it’s in the title) as they administer to the grubby poor of the East End of London. Yep, it’s EastEnders, but with afterbirth. Even Minty (Cliff Parisi) is in it. It’s the television equivalent of fingerless gloves and candles made of beef dripping.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Call the Midwife. It’s written by the splendid Heidi Thomas, who is for ever blessed for giving us Cranford. But it’s Holby, it’s Casualty, it’s everything we have ever seen before.

Come on, can’t one of our big mainstream channels try just a little bit harder than gorblimey-filthy-but-with-hearts-of-gold mums and urchins? Can’t we move forward just a teensy bit? Must we keep fetishising the past and its hardships? I know these are difficult times, but this whole taking-comfort-in-nostalgia thing is wearing pretty thin. You can have too much escapism.

We need to drag ourselves out of our torpor so, of course, we have to look to our good friends the Danes for help. Watch Borgen on Saturday BBC4. Go on, it’s brilliant. Sharp, modern, clever, it rings with NOW as opposed to THEN.

It’s about Danish coalition politics (don’t groan, please) and it has the most fantastic female lead character, party leader Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, who, after a tough election, is on the cusp of being made prime minister until Machiavelli intervenes.

It’s emphatically not The Killing, though it’s made by the same TV channel and stars both of detective Sarah Lund’s sidekicks (sexy Ulrik Strange, Mikael Birkkjaer, plays Birgitte’s supportive husband). But it has The Killing’s intelligence and lack of fear and it’s thrilling. Sinuous, slow-burning and thrilling.

I think, too, it has the best representation of a good marriage that I’ve ever seen in a television drama. And there is no big deal about Birgitte being a working mother – she just IS, that’s what she does and everyone accepts it without making a big flipping deal, which is what happens here in those godawful “busy mum gets chaotic kids ready for school at breakfast-time” scenes so beloved of British TV dramas with female leads.


Birgitte is ambitious but, again, this isn’t an issue, it doesn’t make her less of a woman or less of a wife or mother. I love her. You will too, I promise.