Interview: Borgen producer Camilla Hammerich – 'The rise to power of a country’s first female prime minister is fundamentally a good story'
Series of events at the Festival of Politics inspired by the Danish political drama
When George W Bush was occupying the Oval Office hot seat, one opinion poll stated that Americans actually wished The West Wing’s Jed Bartlet was their president. More recently, Barack Obama was behind in similar ratings against 24’s David Palmer, Battlestar Galactica’s Laura Roslin as well as Martin Sheen’s ever-popular POTUS. Even House of Cards’ Frank Underwood outpaced Obama and this is the guy who pushed a journalist in front of a train, gassed a congressman in his own car and even snuffed the life out of a cuddly canine.
But few party leaders have enjoyed more popularity both within a show and out in the public realm than Birgitte Nyborg, the fictional figurehead of Danish drama, Borgen. The show ended its third and final series in 2013, but its reputation as both an accurate portrayal of the often messy machinations within the corridors of power and a solid human drama has kept it in the hearts of those who regularly feast on quality Scandic TV. The fact that the Festival of Politics is hosting an event (Borgen v The Rest of the World) with the show’s producer Camilla Hammerich as well as putting on a special screening of an episode indicates the enduring fascination of Borgen.
‘The rise to power of a country’s first female prime minister is fundamentally a good story,’ notes Hammerich when considering just what made Borgen such a hit. ‘It launches a range of dilemmas: a woman making her entrance in the centre of power and needing to work in an arena which has only ever seen a man in the lead is fascinating material. The dilemma between the busy work life and the dream of the perfect private life is a story many people can identify with.’
One of the key elements in making any drama a success is to have a central character viewers can believe in. Even someone as fundamentally monstrous as House of Cards’ Francis Underwood (whose character is based on Francis Urquhart from the original 90s British story) can still carry a lot of sympathy when the walls seem to be closing in on him. But a thoroughly decent human being such as Birgitte Nyborg is almost too easy to like.
‘It was important to the head-writer Adam Price to make Nyborg an idealistic politician who actually wanted to change society in a way she thought was right,’ states Hammerich. ‘His ambition was to make a series without corrupt politicians who are only working for their own benefit. Borgen was a tribute to democracy and Danish coalition politics. When Nyborg becomes prime minister, it turns out that it is very difficult to rule a country and that ideals can be hard to transform into real-life politics. Her personal integrity gets corrupted by power at times, but it was always important to us that the audience would understand her actions whether good or bad.’
Nabbing the role of Nyborg was a career-defining moment for Sidse Babett Knudsen and once she began studying for the part, a newfound respect for this most loathed of groups developed. ‘I think it was worth making a show which showed the human side of politicians and that they are human beings who are also trying to make a life,’ she told me during a trip to Edinburgh in 2013 while promoting the third series. ‘I kept hearing the phrase “political game”, but it’s not a game; the pawns are made of flesh and blood and I get a little offended when I chat to somebody and they define all politicians in one way. There’s an arrogance towards them of, “well, they put themselves out there so they have to take everything that comes their way”. I don’t think so; it’s a job about responsibility and it would do us all a favour if we all treated them differently.’
Politicians as regular human beings? It’ll never catch on. But do TV dramas really have a hope of maintaining interest and creating watchable yet credible stories when real life is throwing up the likes of Trump, Farage and Corbyn, the main players in their own occasionally fevered political plotlines?
Cultural commentator Stuart Cosgrove (also at the FoP for an event on TV’s technological future) is a fan of political dramas while knowing what brand of fictional politician he likes to see on screen. ‘One of the most obvious reasons they have been successful is that politics and drama both thrive on the concept of “intrigue” where characters engage in connivance and back-handed dealings. It’s a great stage for deceptions. But ultimately, I like a politician that can give you at least the hope of change albeit that the drama may drag them closer to the dark side. I prefer hope to cynicism so I’d always go for a Birgitte Nyborg over a Francis Urquhart.’
Camilla Hammerich appears as part of Borgen Versus the Rest of the World, 18 Aug, 7.30pm, £6 (£4) and introduces the screening of a Borgen episode, 18 Aug, 9pm (entrance available to the first 150 who purchase a ticket for Borgen Versus the Rest of the World); Stuart Cosgrove appears as part of Switch on to Future TV, 18 Aug, 4.45pm, £6 (£4). All events at the Scottish Parliament.