Sunday, January 15, 2012

Borgen: Incriminating Photographs

'Two days ago, I had a budget. Now I'm negotiating with two crazed independents about a motorway!'

As noted last week, if there's one drama that BBC4's new Danish import resembles above other, ostensibly similar, conceits (State of Play, House of Cards, Yes, Prime Minister, Commander-In-ChiefAll The President's Men, The Candidate) it's Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. It's a story about the schism between the jaded, often depressing politics of compromise versus the partisan politics of idealism. And how, even in a vastly imperfect world, the latter is not, automatically, crushed by the former. Because, as Josiah Barlet once wisely said on the notion that politics should ever be reduced to something that any old voter can understand: 'Every once in a while, there's a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren't very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that's way too big for ten words.' And, so to Borgen. Beautiful, refreshingly nuanced, impressively realistic Borgan, with its practicality and its quiet resolve. It has, if you've been reading a newspaper which doesn't feature big tits on page three this week, 'taken the country by storm.' Of course, it hasn't. Not even close, really. What it has done is become every Gruniad reader's wet dream, a safe liberal fantasy about a nice country being led by someone vaguely sensible. Like that could ever happen. To read many of the reviews the series has been getting in the broadsheets over the last couple of weeks, you'd think it is currently the most watched programme on British TV. So, just to throw a small spanner into the works, a thought. Saturday night's first of two episodes of Borgan on BBC4, matched last week's overnight audience, and had just over six hundred thousand punters watching. Which is great for BBC4, don't get me wrong, but it's approximately an eighth of the number of viewers that the only place on TV in which prostitutes gain regular employment (apart from Channel Five, of course) Take Me Out, was watched by. The Only Way Is Essex gets twice as many weekly viewers as Borgen. A necessary counterpoint to make just before this blogger starts getting carried away - like the Gruniad and the Indi and even, God help us, the Scum Mail - with what is, quite possibly, one of the best two or three bits of drama being produced anywhere in the world right now. And one which, this week, included what might be yer actual Keith Telly Topping's favourite line of dialogue from any TV show for at least the last five years: 'Stick to the script, we don't say "bollocking" on this channel!' You don't get that on Eternal Law.
In The Art Of The Possible, after only a couple of months as Prime Minister, Birgitte has negotiated her first complex finance bill. But just before the final ratification, two members of her fragile parliamentary coalition withdraw their support leaving her majority on a knife-edge. Ousted would-be Labour leader Michael Laugesen is in a new position as an influential tabloid newspaper editor and is out to make life as difficult as possible for Birgitte, who lets her family down on more than one occasion at home because of the impending crisis. Meanwhile, her former spin doctor, Kasper finds a new job as a political analyst (which, of course, he's brilliant at) and his ex-girlfriend Katrine is still extremely vulnerable as she experiences yet another shock, pregnancy with her dead lover's baby. 'This is Denmark, not Italy,' says a minor character at one point in this absorbing look at the difficulties in keeping a coalition together in the face of self-interest, political point-scoring, greed and agenda. It's an episode in which Birgitte openly discusses using blackmail (mild, perhaps, but still effective arm-twisting) to achieve a positive outcome. Borgen is really all about the women in its drama. This week we saw a few specific acknowledgements of Birgitte's gender: Her insistence that the story for her first one hundred days as PM not be celebrated with a family photo opportunity, for instance. She also reprimands the country's security committee for acting like 'a gentleman's club' and one of their number's muttered reply of: 'Yes, mummy' once she has left the room was especially hilarious. When grizzled old Hanna turns up at Katrine's flat – 'Who is it?' 'The woman you got sacked for drinking!' - the acting between Benedikte Hansen and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen is outstanding. Hanna gets most of the two episode's best lines, in fact. Her look of pure disgust as she spits at her former editor Torben (Søren Malling) was brilliant. 'It's amazing Friis. I had no idea they made your kind without any balls.' If the opening episode was all about shades of grey in getting things done ('we may be in a minority tomorrow, we're way past the point of fair play' Birgitte tells Bent Sejrø) and about playing the game even if you don't, necessary, want to ('I thought you were a cynical bastard' Philip tells the recently re-hired Kasper after he's written Birgitte's brilliant 'let's work together' speech to the nation. 'Oh, I am,' says Kapser, honestly. 'But your wife pays me a fortune to write this emotional crap!') then the second is about realpolitik. And it's summed up in one line: 'We're historically reticent to apologise when it comes to Greenland.'
In One Hundred Days, Katrine Fønsmark gets the potential scoop of her life when an anonymous source contacts her - in very dramatic cloak-and-dagger fashion in the TV station's car park - with some important national security information. Photographs exist which appear to show a CIA rendition flight landing at an air base in Greenland. The pressure is on Nyborg to strangle the story at birth, but she decides to go her own way and let the story lead where it will. In the process, Katrine finds herself in some very intense situations and runs into problems with her boss whilst the Prime Minister has to face standard military secrecy, traditional arrogant Danish attitudes towards Greenland and American foreign policy games. It all ends, as you kind of expected it would, tragically. Birgitte, as a character made of one hundred per cent humanity, is nicely characterised during her meeting with Jens Enok, the likeable Greenland premier: in the course of five minutes Sidse Babett Knudsen manages to convey considerable charm, inflexibility, formidable strength, and yet is also receptive to criticism. On the plane home, she changes her policy at a whim, despite the inevitable consequences. Those traits together make for a particularly brilliant politician if not, necessarily, a perfect home life. One imagine that viewers will see an increasing slide away from her ideals as the series progresses. After all she's already got very close to lying on national television and, she's also failed to prevent the arrest of journalists. But, for the moment at least, she retains a relatively good balance between the idealist and the pragmatist. We've seen Birgitte grow from faltering would-be leader into a fearsome operator – one particularly enjoyed her tea-party where she wooed odious right-wing foe and would-be Michele Bachmann, Yvonne Kjær in a textbook manner of the charm offensive. But whilst Birgitte can quite clearly outsmart most of her political rivals (the majority of whom seem to be, genuinely, thick), whether inside or outside the coalition, she does seem to have something of a blind spot when it comes to her political advisers. Neils Erik, her permanent secretary, for example is a jolly slippery - Sir Humphrey - type customer: suddenly turning up with game-changing information for Kasper (not the Prime Minister) about so-called emergency landings. Later, in casual passing, he hints that special branch (or, someone) are about to 'take care of' the mole. Clearly, it's all part of the issue is political deniability. But we wonder if there's something more corrupt than that going on in the state of Denmark? (As a complete contrast, the viewer is rather drawn to the 'constantly on the verge of being fired' appointment secretary Sanne and her little genuflects when addressing Birgitte.) Then there was the whole malarkey with the handsome new spokesman, where Birgitte refused to listen to Bent's advice before finally sacking him and recalling Kasper Juhl - as she should have done straight away. Kasper, of course, was only too happy to pick up where he left off before the election schemingly like Mandelson. Which is either a particularly unsatisfactory bit of plotting or, more likely, it's a set up for some kind of potential conflict in future episodes. Kasper, meanwhile, is perhaps the most interesting character on-screen: full of bravado yet also vulnerable; desperate to be loved by Katrine but seemingly helpless to do anything about it and entirely cut off from his own family. (The flashbacks to Kasper and Katrine's relationship three years ago were done rather well and helped to tell a little story all of their own.) So, Borgen continues to impress with its depth and scope. A necessary reminder that great TV can come from the most unlikely of places.


johnni said...

The problem with British political dramas is you can always see the tongue in the cheek. I agree, this slow, overblown, perfect-world-possible Danish drama is as good as West Wing. Once Scotland has gone perhaps BBC could merge with Danish TV.

Berni Griffin said...

Am really liking all the European drama you are giving us. Could we on that basis have Engrenages back :).

I like Borgen simply because it shows Birgitte as human, not confident originally but very quickly learning and I am not sure whether I really trust Kasper so that keeps me interested. Katrine the anchorwoman is interesting too, but it's Hanne who is the shrewdest observer. Wonder who did send that email. I don't think it was Katrine.