Lesley Riddoch: Borgen doesn’t imitate Scottish life

A Danish drama popular here throws into high relief the huge gap between the two countries, writes Lesley Riddoch

A Danish drama popular here throws into high relief the huge gap between the two countries, writes Lesley Riddoch

Borgen continues to mystify many British men. Why on earth are nearly a million (mostly women) wasting Saturday nights watching a subtitled chunk of complex Danish politics charting the fictional trials and tribulations of Birgitte Nyborg – an idealistic socialist-green who unexpectedly becomes Denmark’s first female prime minister?

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Viewing figures for the first instalment of series two aren’t yet available – but Saturday’s night’s audience is bound to be up on the 629,000 who watched the start of the first series this time last year. That inaugural Borgen in turn eclipsed the debut episode of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s first UK offering, The Killing, whose regular audience was 1.8 million by the final BBC4 double-bill at Christmas. The Danish-Swedish co-production The Bridge also netted a million viewers in April 2012. It seems we can’t get enough of the quirky, blood-thirsty Danes.

But Borgen? There are no murders (or meaty male co-leads) ã la Bridge nor grimy street scenes ã la Killing. There are traumas over divorce, children and (occasionally) jackets, but very little dispatch-box grand-standing or corruption-based cliff-hangers. So why has this apparently lightweight series got hard-as-nails Scottish politicos Nicola Sturgeon and Margaret Curran glued to the TV every Saturday night till the series ends – and happy to proclaim the fact publicly on Twitter?

If Borgen is The Killing without killing, it’s also Sex in the City without sex, The West Wing without Americans and Xena: Warrior Princess without martial arts (or micro-minis). So what has it got?

According to shadow energy minister Caroline Flint: “Borgen is our bellwether: she holds the line; she makes moral choices. She is tough and ambitious but honest; a million miles from the strident, feminist, over-ambitious woman, and other media shorthands used to demean women in UK public life.”

Ah, but not in Scottish public life, I hear the optimists cry. Nyborg would surely be at home north of the Border where Labour and Tory leaders, the Green co-convener and Alex Salmond’s anointed heir are all female. She’d be familiar with the latitude and population size and the wheeler-dealing over votes and coalitions. Surely feminist, consensual, northern Scotland could hardly be more Borgen?

But there’s the rub. Sadly, Holyrood could no more replicate the plot of this Europe-wide hit than BBC Scotland could have produced it. Borgen is not just the story of one beleaguered woman, lonely and isolated at the top of a macho political heap. The series brims with multi-dimensional, persistent, believable and fallible female characters, like Katrine, the ambitious young TV journalist and her boss, the formidable Hanne.

Just as the Swedish Wallander works because understatement and teamwork are real aspects of Swedish culture, and the British Wallander is unwatchable because these admirable qualities are essentially foreign (witness the machismo, overstatement and violence of the BBC’s new Ripper Street), Borgen revolves around believable women because Danish public life revolves around women.

You could make many relevant comparisons between Danish and Scottish life – here are just two. Childcare costs for a month are around £1,400 for two toddlers full-time in Edinburgh and £500 in Copenhagen (despite a stronger Danish currency). Thus, more women in Denmark work – 74.4 per cent in 2010 against 65 per cent in Britain. (Figures for men are 79 per cent and 76 per cent respectively.)

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The British welfare model puts family support into tax credits, while the Danes put almost the same amount into childcare subsidy instead, to much greater social and economic effect.

A British think-tank, the Resolution Foundation, has calculated that the crippling cost of childcare here means a million women are “missing” from the UK workforce. Could an independent Scotland change this? Ms Sturgeon has named four men to devise a Scottish welfare system, yet Denmark already has what Scotland needs – a strategy consciously aimed at gender equality.

Danish professor Jon Kvist has put it succinctly: “Without high levels of female employment, there’s not enough tax income to fund the Danish welfairytale.”

The makers of Borgen (The Bridge and The Killing) use real equality as the springboard for a range of characters, behaviours, dialogues and settings Britain’s unequal society cannot convincingly invent. They also tackle subjects deemed too hot to handle or too boring to touch – like the childhood abuse of Birgitte’s spin doctor or the stultifying process of picking a new EU commissioner – and breathe new life into both.

The confident handing of difficult plot-lines takes Borgen viewers to a new reality – beyond both weary generalisation and idealistic projection. Birgitte’s husband Phillip begins as a patient, talented but increasingly frustrated house-husband and finally files for divorce.

One UK commentator observed: “If I had a husband like Phillip, I’d be out the door at 5pm prompt – every night.” Agreed. But even in an ideal world where powerful, attractive and capable men actually take on childcare (amazingly enough, that’s a real world for many Danish couples) things still go wrong. Egos still appear. Marital stress remains. Promises aren’t kept. Good intentions aren’t realised. And women in leadership roles still can’t have it all.

That perhaps is the real fascination of Borgen for Scotland’s female politicians. It doesn’t suggest women are incapable of wielding power well or differently. It simply observes there will probably be a high personal price to pay. That’s unfair but probably true. Borgen tells it like it is.

Literally. A year after Borgen was first broadcast in Denmark, the young, engaging mother of two and leader of the Social Democrats, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, actually did become the country’s first female prime minister. Her husband is Stephen Kinnock, son of former Labour leader Neil and European Parliament member Glenys Kinnock. Mr Kinnock commutes weekly to Davos where he works as a director of the World Economic Forum – an arrangement which caught the attention of Danish tax authorities in 2010 and resulted in a minor scandal over tax evasion.

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All of this happened just as Borgen screened the reluctant resignation of Birgitte’s husband Phillip from a much coveted new directorship in case it looked like a conflict of interest for his statsminister wife.

You couldn’t make it up – because you don’t have to. In Denmark – as in Scotland – life has imitated art and vice-versa. Borgen works because across the North Sea, Borgen is basically real. In Scotland, progressive men and women can still only watch ... and dream.