Monday, January 09, 2012

Borgen: Something Rotten In The State of Denmark

Having effectively redone Prime Suspect as The Killing, those crazy Danes are at it again. This time, they've taken the aesthetics of the best TV show in the history of the world (well, that doesn't have the words 'Doctor' and 'Who' in the title, anyway) The West Wing, to quite brilliant effect. The cosiest and least accurate description imaginable of Borgen, which began its ten-episode run on BBC4 on Saturday night, would be 'it's a drama centred on Danish coalition politics.' That's a bit like saying The Killing 'is about the troubles of a family-owned Copenhagen furniture removal company.' Or that Sherlock is about a sandwich shop in Baker Street. Borgen's title means, literally, 'castle' or 'fortress', it's the Danes' slang term for their parliament. In Saturday's opening episode we saw a classy tale of political power-play which opens with a quote from Machiavelli's The Prince. Borgen begins its tale three days before a general election in which a nice, sensible Danish centrist party seems to be falling - as usual - the victim to deal-making between the left and right-wing politicians. It's a tale of mainstream parties making uneasy (often unpleasant) coalitions with smaller, more extremist groups. In fact, the series has a bit of everything. It's about making (and breaking) alliances, shafting people, loving them and hating them. Often simultaneously. And, at its heart is a politician, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (played by the outstanding Sidse Babett Knudsen). Birgitte is Borgen's fulcrum; the leader of small party who, through a series of unexpected incidents either side of a general election and covering the opening two episodes, is on the cusp of becoming Denmark's first female Prime Minister. A woman who rides a bike to work and who, seemingly, has a terrific home life with a nice, supportive intelligent lecturer husband and two young kids. She's kind-of normal. She isn't tormented by inner demons and she leaves the office at a decent time to see her children and her husband, Philip (played by Mikael Birkkjær, Strange in The Killing II). But, Birgitte is also clever and ambitious, a heroine struck from the same mould as The Killing's Sarah Lund. Borgen, in fact, has much in common with The Killing - and not just the fact that both series are made by Danish broadcaster DR. It's a proper mature grown-up drama featuring people you think might possibly exist somewhere in the world. Borgen is a political conspiracy thriller. There's no murder, but there's a significant death in the opening episode and the discovery of a compromising document which brings down a Prime Minister. The plot involved lots of The West Wing-style pedaconference 'corridor acting', with spin doctors striding alongside politicians, murmuring cynical advice into their ears and breaking off only to bark into their mobile phones. It's about the jaded politics of compromise verses the politics of idealism and how, even in an imperfect world, the latter isn't - automatically - squashed by the former. The other main actors are Pilou Asbæk as troubled spin doctor Kasper Juhl and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as ambitious, if troubled, news anchor Katrine Fønsmark. There were some early scenes set in London to help us feel at home. The incumbent PM's troubled (and impressively bilingual when swearing) wife has splurged eight grand at a Mulberry shop in the West End, which later proves to be pivotal to the plot. Another character dies in bed next to his illicit lover at a dramatically inappropriate moment. Borgen is funny, too, and saucy – the relationship between Birgitte and her husband feels like a real, sturdy marriage full of in-jokes (like the scene in episode one where Birgitte tries and fails to fit into a too-tight skirt as Philip throws in amused comments about the size of her arse from the sidelines). Following the enormous success of The Killing, the Danish detective series that made subtitles an essential part of Saturday nights on the sofa, BBC4 is once more looking to Copenhagen with Borgen. Fans of The Killing will certainly notice similarities between the two programmes: both of Lund's deceased sidekicks - Birkkjær and Søren Malling have roles, as does Pilou Asbæk who also appeared in a minor role in The Killing. There are also stylish Scandinavian interiors, Machiavellian political shenanigans and a focus on determined women operating in largely male worlds. Lars Knutzon is terrific as Birgitte's wise old political adviser Bent Sejrø (effectively the Toby or Leo role if we want to take The West Wing similarities to logical extremes). But, the unrelenting rain and gloom of The Killing are occasionally nudged out in favour of glimpses of some Scandinavian sunshine in Borgen. Would-be Prime Minister Birgitte appears nobly decent and practical, and there is not a bungling nasty police officer in view. Although there are plenty of nasty, bungling politicians. There's Laugesen, the slippery Labour leader with racist views and few worries about back-tracking on deals; Hesselboe the harassed Liberal Prime Minister who parades his ill wife on TV so she can excuse his stupidity; Hoxenhaven who botches his own party coup; Amir the Green who appears to be possibly the most insincere man ever born. It comes to a pretty pass when the most appealing among the lot of them - Birgitte herself and Bent aside - is Svend Age Saltum from the extreme right-wing Freedom Party with his sensible shoes and hateful anti-immigration rhetoric. At least he gives Nyborg some decent advice that she can act upon in the best scene in the second episode. In Borgen, apart from Nyborg, strong female characters include Brigitte Hjort Sorensen as Katrine, an ambitious television journalist given the job of conducting the eve-of-poll interviews with the party leaders, while Katrine's boss, the formidable Hanne, is played by the veteran actress Benedikte Hansen. The drama also comes with over-ambitious spin doctors, questing journalists and its own mini expenses scandal. Borgen proved a huge hit in Denmark where it began in September 2010 – a year before the country did, in fact, elect its first female Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. 'I think there's probably quite a lot of similarities [between Danish and British drama],' said Sue Deeks, head of programme acquisitions for the BBC. 'DR is a public service broadcaster, as is the BBC, and I think they probably have quite a lot of qualities in common.' There is more Danish drama to come: this spring, BBC4 will broadcast The Bridge, a Danish-Swedish co-production about a body found on the bridge that connects the two countries. Lund or Wallander will, sadly, not be investigating. Borgen's political plot also marks something of a departure for BBC4, which has established itself as a home for European crime drama fans. 'Detective fiction and drama has a very wide popularity and I'm sure that fact helped bring people to Spiral, Wallander and The Killing and built up the audience for foreign language drama,' said Deeks. It has also paved the way for subtitled programming on other channels, with FX and Sky Arts airing European imports last autumn. 'It does seem that broadcasters have seen how successful The Killing has been and have obviously thought that they would mine the same seam. But we think the more foreign language drama on British television the better,' said Deeks.

Jonas Gutierrez scored a stoppage-time winner as yer actual Keith Telly Topping's beloved (though, still unsellable) Magpies came from behind to dump Premier League strugglers Blackburn Vindaloos out of the FA Cup. The Argentine played a one-two with Leon Best and lofted a delicate finish over goalkeeper Mark Bunn. Blackburn had weathered an early storm before taking the lead against the run of play through David Goodwillie's close-range finish following a corner. A wonderful individual goal by Hatem Ben Arfa made it 1-1 before Gutierrez snatched the victory. The winner arrived in the fifth minute of added-time but was just reward for a dominant second-half performance by the Magpies. Ben Arfa's magical goal - the France international beat several Blackburn players before firing past Bunn - sparked a late onslaught and the hosts had already missed several chances before Gutierrez's late intervention. The defeat inflicts further misery on Blackburn boss Steve Kean, whose team are rooted to the bottom of the league. In fact, Blackburn could easily have fallen behind inside the first ten minutes as Bunn was forced into saves by Best and Gutierrez. Ben Arfa then teed up Yohan Cabaye, but the French international midfielder fluffed his effort. Blackburn responded with a spell of pressure and Ruben Rochina had a left-footed shot saved by Tim Krul in the twentieth minute. The opening goal came after thirty five minutes when Grant Hanley's header from a Morten Gamst Pedersen corner was saved by Krul and Goodwillie prodded home the loose ball. Newcastle brought on Shola Ameobi early in the second-half and the big striker was soon into the thick of the action when Cabaye pounced on Henley's loose pass to play him in, but he lifted his shot high and wide. But the home side were back in the game twenty minutes from time when Ben Arfa slalomed around several yellow shirts and fired an unstoppable left-footed shot into the roof of the net. The Magpies pushed for a winner which almost arrived when Mike Williamson headed a Ryan Taylor corner against the bar. And Williamson was denied once again seven minutes from time when Bunn clawed out his flicked header on the line. But with seconds left Gutierrez exchanged passes with Best before clipping the ball past Bunn to send Newcastle into the fourth round.

For today's Keith Telly Topping's 33 of the Day a little glacial central European classic. From a band from New Mexico named after the capital of the Lebanon.


DanielH said...

Why so critical. I am not a leftie as the BBC seems to be. Yet I like the programme. Hey, I also want to fly to Greenland in a small jet, meet the Inuit, and do the right thing for them. It is a great show! We feel almost Danish by watching it. I love the prime minister and all of the characters in Borgen!

Russ said...

What is the significance of the longcase clock in Borgen? It looks to be in one of the cabinet rooms in the parliament building and appears in a number of shots. It has no dial or mechanism and all you can see is an empty case.

Anonymous said...

The reason for naming the series Borgen is because the Danish Parliament is located at Christianborg Palace and "Borgen" is Christians"borg" in short/slang.

Anonymous said...

This show got the best acting i have seen in a long, long time. The script is not the best but perfectly fine, but what stands out for me is that every character looks so real. Well done the director and cast.