Emily Maitlis: Borgen’s real turn-on is a very human factor

The Newsnight presenter explains why she finds the Danish political drama such compulsive viewing

It’s Monday afternoon: the Welfare Bill is about to get defeated in the House of Lords; Vince Cable is in the Commons, proposing ways to curb executive pay. I’m on air listening to him. And a question that is utterly ridiculous suddenly pops into my head: I want to know what Birgitte Nyborg would do.


To paraphrase the great Woody Allen – it is life imitating television. But this time life has been way too slow because, I now recall, Borgen already covered the make up of the executive boardroom a whole WEEK ago. And when, later that afternoon, I’m interviewing someone from the Adam Smith Institute I have to stop myself from saying “Well, if I could just refer you to the proposals we’ve recently seen brought in by the Danish coalition government to great effect…” because I remember just in time those proposals were only brought in on a Saturday night TV programme and I could get locked up for saying that sort of thing out loud.

To put this in perspective, I never did this with The West Wing. When I saw President Bartlet I think I secretly knew he was Martin Sheen. And much as I enjoyed Josh’s riffs with CJ, I kind of knew that very few people actually talk that way. (At least, in my experience it is only those who have watched The West Wing).

So as Borgen draws to a close, I’m still trying to work out why it has got me so hooked. And when I post my experiences on Facebook there is a rush of traffic by similar-minded people who all, it seems, have to get Borgen off their chest. Admittedly, they are perhaps more representative of the Westminster Village than the public at large, but I’m starting to understand what draws us in.

No gloss

Some friends talk about the lack of vanity of the characters. Certainly, there are no famous actors (except – if you’re familiar with The Killing in which case, yes, dead detectives pop up everywhere). As a consequence, there is no soft-focus gloss. When the lead character – prime minister Birgitte – has a weight problem and is trying to juggle an increasingly miffed husband, and a son who has regressed to bed wetting with her attempts to govern the country then I’m on side from the beginning.

Then there is the obvious political parallel. I would vouch Scandinavian coalition politics had far less appeal before the days when we had our own two-party government. Now, every twist rings suspiciously true. I have not checked the viewing habits of the deputy PM recently, but I bet he nicks the really good ideas from Birgitte.

One week the show is dominated by the Danish equivalent of Rupert Murdoch, the next it’s about extraordinary rendition procedures of Guantanamo suspects. Is it any wonder the lines between fiction and reality become a little blurred?


But I can’t help thinking the real turn-on is a very human factor. We are invited to see the workings – the messiness, the frustration and the dissatisfaction of governing. There are moments that ring true: ideals just become deals. Moral high ground sinks into the quicksand of middle ground. Perhaps the most telling moment is when we see the PM confiding to her spin doctor in a cab that she never thought she’d be lying just 24 hours into the job.

And more even than political compromise, it is the story of what happens to family life: Mr and Mrs PM appear to have the best marriage in the world, but the cracks are starting to appear. Mr PM has been made to sell shares he nurtures, tolerate a father-in-law he doesn’t, and act as mother, father, housekeeper and confidante to compensate for his wife’s busy schedule.

It sounds simplistic, but perhaps – at root – that’s why we’re glued: we need to find out if a woman can have it all – and more importantly, for how long, exactly?

Emily Maitlis is a presenter on Newsnight on BBC2. The final two episodes of Borgen are on BBC4 on Saturday from 9.00pm


This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 24 January 2012