“The thing about good shows is knowing when to stop,” Alastair Mackenzie explains carefully. “You can keep on going with anything that’s successful – it’s so tempting to keep on milking a cash cow. But every story comes to an end and that’s when you have to stop, no matter how much fun you’re having.”
Mackenzie knows what he’s talking about – he’s been there at the death of two deeply loved shows: Monarch of the Glen and Borgen. Back in 2003 his decision to quit as Archie in Monarch, the BBC’s hugely popular, Highlands-set Sunday-night drama, effectively ended the show. It dragged on for a couple of series without him, but the viewers stayed away in droves. Now he’s playing Birgitte Nyborg’s high-flying British boyfriend in the final series of the Danish political drama. What is it with him and finales?
He seems a little surprised at the question. Since news of his casting leaked at the start of the year, he’s mainly been asked about kissing Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays the glamorous PM. In fact, Knudsen was reported to have revealed during the course of filming that Mackenzie is a “good kisser”. “People always talk about the kissing,” he gives a short laugh. “I’m not sure how to answer – it wasn’t unpleasant, let’s say that. I guess it’s because her character seemed unable to maintain a relationship alongside politics. Then I come along and we start having fun. They don’t show much sex in Borgen, but we do kiss quite a few times. We also have lunch, but no one asks me what it was like having lunch with Sidse…”
Borgen’s third and final series kicks off two years after Birgitte called a snap election to settle the messy plots and infighting surrounding her coalition government. We discover she lost, and now consults for large firms – including one with a Hong Kong office, where she meets and falls for divorced English architect Jeremy Welsh.
“They’ve both come out of marriages so they’re not faffing around like teenagers,” Mackenzie explains. “They are busy, ambitious people living chaotic international lives and don’t have time to have a full-on relationship. But what they have develops into something more, once she decides to re-enter politics.”
Mackenzie was already a fan of the show when he got called for the audition – a process he usually hates, but which Knudsen made easy. “We spent a good hour together just riffing, which was really liberating and appealing,” he recalls. “She’s an extraordinary actress: very playful, generous and funny. There was lots of backchat and having a laugh. I couldn’t speak a word of Danish – still can’t, which is shameful – but they all speak perfect English, which makes me feel slightly worse.”
Working on the show was even better than the audition. “I would arrive at the set and to get to my dressing room I’d walk through the parliament building set – down that long corridor – and I’d be surrounded by people I’d been watching,” he grins with excitement.
His part, most Danish newspapers assert, is based on Stephen Kinnock, son of the former Labour Party leader Neil and husband of the current Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Like Kinnock, Jeremy spends much of the time out of Denmark. Kinnock used to spend the week in Switzerland, where he was director of Europe and Central Asia for the World Economic Forum (which itself led to controversy over where he paid his taxes). “I don’t know if the similarities are accidental or deliberate,” Mackenzie says tactfully. “Stephen is a very good friend of a very good friend of mine. He [Kinnock] comes back and forth to London often and my friend has been trying to set up a dinner to introduce us, but so far it hasn’t worked out. It almost did recently so I could have regaled you with all the stories. From what I understand he’s perceived in quite an exotic way thanks to being British.”
Mackenzie, 43, appears to have been welcomed as equally exotic; when the series went out in Denmark, a friend called and told him he was the “toast of the town and I should get over and lap up the love, but I haven’t been able to do so,” he shrugs. “The big risk in Denmark was the episode when Brigitte introduced me to her children. I think that disappointed a lot of fans who hoped she’d get back with her husband. Spoiler alert: she doesn’t.”
Which brings us back to the ending. Isn’t it a shame to get such a juicy role just as the series ends? “I have enormous respect for the producers of Borgen,” Mackenzie says. “They could have gone on and on, but they knew the key storyline had been resolved. That’s what happened with Archie MacDonald in Monarch of the Glen. He reluctantly arrived from London at the beginning of series one to take over the bankrupt estate, decide which girl he was going to marry and to come to terms with his father. He did all three of those so there wasn’t anywhere else to go with it without being repetitive.”
Was that decision scary? “Yes,” he says quickly. “It’s terrifying. Not just the cash, the security. To voluntarily leave something that makes you fantastically happy, working with extraordinary people in an exceptionally beautiful part of the world is a very hard thing to do. I kept thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I didn’t want to go, but I knew it was a question of timing, really.”
Mackenzie’s Archie was a slightly flustered blend of Darcy and Daniel Radcliffe – thick black hair, flashing eyes, a little awkward and eager to please. Jeremy Welsh is cooler, calmer, his dark hair flecked with grey, but still a little careful. “I think that Birgitte and Jeremy are both fish out of water, which is something I seem to be able to play quite successfully. I don’t know why,” he gives a little smile. “They’re both searching for something they haven’t found yet. Jeremy is less unsure of himself, but he still hasn’t quite got everything sorted.”
Mackenzie himself does have everything sorted. He’s happily married to Susan Vidler (the pair met on a junkie movie produced by his brother, David) and they live in north London with their two children, 13-year-old Martha and nine-year-old Freddy. “I know, I know, I don’t look old enough,” he laughs. He’s been working pretty solidly since Monarch, including a turn in the Sky drama Dracula as a gentleman of dubious morality, while working with his brother on their production company Sigma Films, which coincidentally has a deal with Lars Von Trier’s Zeotrope Films.
“I don’t want to get too political,” he says cautiously. Sigma has a number of TV projects in development in the UK and he doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds. All the same, as a man who describes his decision to go into acting as “an act of rebellion” after an expensive education at a Scottish private school designed to create doctors and lawyers, he’s keen to make his point.
“They do things right over there,” he argues. “Filming Borgen was like doing television in this country ten years ago. Borgen was in development for six months – here that would take years and years. At the same time in the UK, now people are cutting corners a lot on productions. Over there, there’s a respect for the process. It’s a great city – beautiful people riding around on bicycles everywhere. I would happily live in Copenhagen if my wife would allow it. Actually, you better not put that in, I probably shouldn’t have said it.” It seems that sometimes the thing about giving a good interview is knowing when to stop.
Borgen is back on Saturday at 9:00pm on BBC4.