WHAT I KNEW about Denmark before I watched the TV series Borgen could have been written on half a page of one of my old school exercise books: pork, Lurpak butter, the Schleswig-Holstein question, the Danish king wearing the Star of David in World War Two, Hamlet in Elsinore, and the banning of Marmite. And Søren Kierkegaard, of course, spreading the gloom of existentialism through the streets of wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen.
After watching Borgen I am much better informed. I now know the following: The Prime Minister is called the “statsminister” (probably without a capital “S”, because they’re all terribly informal and equal). Danish sounds only vaguely like Swedish and sometimes like German. Patients and their visitors in hospitals seem to spend a great deal of their time in corridors – in buildings that look rather old and tatty. The Danes like their wine. The weather is as dull as it is here. Not so many of their doors open outward, as they do in Sweden. Also that it’s possible for a male child to suffer the pain of being sexually abused by his father and be christened “Kenneth”. Luckily, it’s possible to change “Kenneth” to the more acceptable “Kasper”, so it’s not all bad.
For those who haven’t seen Borgen, all I need say is that it is an enjoyable and painless piece of Danish personal drama in a politics-lite setting. If your Danish is as non-existent as mine, then the subtitles are more than sufficient to make you feel like a native speaker. Since it’s aimed at the modern European viewer and comes from the enlightened gulag of Scandinavia it ticks a number of boxes, the most important being that the main character, Birgitte Nyborg, is not only the Prime Minister of Denmark but a woman (and a bit of a cracker, at that).
So, after the staple drama of marital disharmony, domestic stress, mental illness, workplace chauvinism and childhood abuse you can chuck in women’s issues, homosexuality, immigration, the environment, the EU, oil companies and other evil corporations, and the overwhelming necessity to improve society by getting the state to take over everything.
That’s because Borgen is nothing if not relentlessly progressive and often cliche-ridden. For instance, you may be cynical enough to dismiss the idea that any journalists these days can possibly merit the description “investigative”, since most of their time is given over to rewriting press releases and stealing real news items from bloggers, but the Danes clearly believe the species is alive, hence the importance of Katrine and Hanne.
Katrine Fonsmark and Hanne Holm work in the media; Katrine is the young ‘un while Hanne plays her older, wiser but often drink-sodden mentor. Together they form a thoroughly modern female Bernstein-Woodward duo as journalists earnestly pursuing THE TRUTH (it has to be in capitals) about politicians and businessmen, whatever the personal cost. Bernstein and Woodward, digging up the facts on Watergate, which led to the resignation of Nixon, wrote a book about their investigations, All the President’s Men, which was subsequently made into a film starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. There’s a poster of the film on the back of Katrine’s door. Point made.
And you can always guarantee that when a big corporation turns up, the words “capitalist criminals” are being subliminally flashed on the screen. If they’re an oil company the flashing increases in speed and duration and is often accompanied by “murderers” and “environmental despoilers” as well. We get a bit of that in the two episodes where Nyborg decides to bring peace to two warring African nations who are fighting over an oil pipeline. Little Denmark punches above its weight, as Obama said (to every small nation he visited).
As for the regular characters themselves they tend to remain just this side of stereotype, except for my favourite, Svend Åge Saltum, who is the only one to talk about ordinary people and voice their fears about the wonderful green multikulti society everyone else is so keen to create. Unfortunately, because he’s the leader of the Freedom Party, which is basically conservative (and hence designated “right wing”), he’s presented in the most unflattering light. In fact, he’s a complete caricature: a rustic, gap-toothed, blustering demagogue who, though politically wily, stands for those values only old people espouse, and is therefore out of kilter with the smart young sophisticates of the modern world. The more derision they pour on him the more I like him.
The most odious character, however, is Laugesen, an ex-MP, ex-party leader and owner of the nasty Ekspres newspaper, whose face could be used forever as a template for sneering condescension, arrogance, and a vindictive sense of self-entitlement, all shot through with a quivering bitterness that could have been titrated from a decade of Gordon Brown’s bilious resentment. There’s not a trace of human warmth or compassion in him. He’s magnificent.
THERE’S ONE GROUP of people you don’t get to meet in Borgen: the people. Given the focus of the programme – ie the Danish equivalent of the Westminster bubble – that’s almost inevitable but it’s still telling. There’s an awful lot of pious mouthing about the Denmark “we” want to build; and how “we” want to cherish “our” welfare state, and “we” want to be working towards a “Common Future”, etc. In the realm of political-media doublespeak “we” means those in power; “we” as in “not you, the voters, because you’re too thick to understand”. Inadvertently, Borgen reflects the view that politicians and media have of the populace as mere bit players.
Nevertheless there are occasional lapses in the overbearing rightness of the narrative. Torben Friis, Katrine’s boss, asks her if she’s planning to get pregnant in the near future – you’d get locked up in Britain for doing that, so how they got away with it, I don’t know.
And I was appalled to see people smoking, including the director of the mental hospital to which the Prime Minister’s daughter has been sent to recover from her anxiety attacks. I can understand the Danes drinking large amounts of colossally expensive booze to escape the claustrophobic niceness of their society, but smoking? I thought that was banned, along with Marmite. Maybe they’re saving that for the next series.