“I think I’m going to be sick with the schmaltz…. Hackneyed, clichéd, simplistic nonsense”
Every week, just as I am settling down for my double dose of Borgen, I am assailed by text opinions from friends with far better taste than me.
It is indeed hackneyed and clichéd, but I rather think that is the point. And anyway, it feeds a need in my liberal leftie political soul which no amount of real politics can do. Borgen – and before it, West Wing – reaches the parts of us that we crave in real politics but are never going to have fulfilled. Though West Wing had far better dialogue, characters and more complex storylines.
At the end of every episode, I sigh contentedly, my idealistic self sated, and murmur “if only”. And I’m not the only one. This weekend, Edinburgh will be going gaga at Borgen live. Pals and acquaintances are making a day of it, going along to meet the stars and watch live screenings. It’s the political anorak’s equivalent of a trip doon the watter. If I’d have been able to muster the childcare, I would have gone along for the ride. Just for the thrill of it and to wallow in its charm.
To dismiss Borgen as clichéd ignores that politics is one big, fat cliché these days. It is almost beyond parody: one of the reasons Armando Iannucci claims to have wound up the Thick of It is that it became too hard trying to find ever more outlandish plots that bore no resemblance to reality. The programme became an uncanny bellweather for real-time political fuck-ups and satirising political intrigue became increasingly redundant because the village was more than capable of writing these scripts for itself.
Idealistic crusading politician who resorts to the dark arts to save her stay in office? Tick. Good-looking, young, go-getting lefties vs old, male, pale and stale right wingers? Tick. Male politician who can’t keep his trousers up? Tick. Minister who gets uncomfortably close to arms trading companies? Tick. Over-ambitious politician with a dark secret in his closet and a penchant for risk-taking behaviour? Tick. Old vs New Labour? Tick. Attractive journalist having an affair with a succession of spin doctors? Tick. A claustrophobic political village where everyone knows everyone else and where some of their bodies are buried? Tick.
Yep, they are all there but isn’t it rather reassuring that these narratives, characters and are? It actually wouldn’t be art imitating life if they weren’t: these cliches and more abound in Scottish and UK politics.
Birgitte Nyborg, the PM character, is clearly a core part of the attraction of Borgen. We’ve only ever had Margaret Thatcher as female political leader to cast as a role model and most of us hope we won’t ever see her likes again. And the more we know about Thatcher as a mother and wife, the less frankly there is to like.
What Borgen shows are the struggles experienced by women like her, not just in Denmark but here too. Combining a high-powered or even just a demanding career with the humdrum and challenges of family life is not easy. Your work gets the best of you: managing to maintain a domestic equilibrium and feed the emotional and practical needs of your family become nigh impossible, as the current storyline about Nyborg’s daughter demonstrates. She might get to be Prime Minister but her marriage fails, her family goes into meltdown and she ends up shagging the chauffeur on the kitchen floor in a drink-addled seeking of solace and physical comfort. That might come across as cliché to some, but for many women it mirrors their own lives. No woman gets to have it all and if she tries, well, it all ends in tears, if not for her, then those around her.
There is something unashamedly feminist about Borgen which is no doubt why it has so many female cheerleaders. My favourite storyline so far is that of Sanne, the hapless private secretary who rather unexpectedly finds herself at the top of the civil service tree and hasn’t a clue what to do. But she recovers from a shaky start and proves herself useful to the Prime Minister in ways only a thoughtful, rounded human – who is not so obsessed with politics – could. It’s she who remembers to buy gifts for Borgen’s children on an extended trip to Greenland and who makes sure the children are entertained when left hanging about in the state offices.
But her card is marked by the chief of staff who does not like how she doesn’t fit his stuffy sense of what makes a good secretary or civil servant. He can’t lay a finger on her unconventional ways until she gets caught in a compromising clinch in the office with Kasper, the PM’s spin doctor. Kasper having rebuffed Sanne several times, exploits her crush on him to sate his own physical needs. Needless to say, Sanne loses her job and nothing at all is said to him. It might be hackneyed but it neatly echoes the experiences of many young women in similar positions. And the fact that the storyline was developed right across the first season, interwoven and largely hidden by the bigger episode plots, is admirable. Of all the characters, she is the one I felt for most.
Sanne makes a triumphant return in season two when Birgitte needs to be reminded of her earliest days in office. And therein lies another important message for women: not just that some lessons are worth the wait in the learning, but also that strong women need other decent, strong women around them to help them get on, women who understand that there is more to the role of Prime Minister than simply being Prime Minister. And there’s nothing simplistic nor nonsensical about that.