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Life’s like that

February 4, 2013

I was one of the lucky 900 or so who managed to get tickets for the Edinburgh Filmhouse’s screening of the finale of Series 2 of the Danish television hit “Borgen’.

The event created quite a stooshie, with two showings added to the original one off, so that the show’s star Sidse Babbett Knudsen, who must have thought she’d have a fairly enjoyable weekend in the capital ended up doing a treble shift plus any number of media interviews – including one for STV by Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

No point in being coy: I love the show, and the unlikely and unexpected opportunity to see one of the stars in the flesh was the cause of great excitement in the household – partly because the two hour showing every Saturday night is one of the points of the week when we all gather before the telly in familial accord!

The agitation in the Filmhouse audience was palpable. The show has a mixed age audience, but whilst the younger element were preserving their cool and tweeting furiously, those of us at the more mature end of the demographic were bouncing with anticipation, and chattering away like starstruck teenagers – maybe we just don’t care anymore!!!

Ian Haydn Smith, editor of the International Film Guide, was no less able to conceal his delight at introducing Knudsen, largely, he said, because he ‘fancied the prime minister’. That was, perhaps, too much information, though, as it turned out, even divested of the trappings of Statsminister Nyborg, the Danish actress, resplendent in a tartan trouser suit, made for an impressive and beguiling guest.
The first question put to her at the Sunday 11 o’clock showing concerned Scottish Independence – the feasibility of a country similar in size to Denmark regaining its independence. She sidestepped this potential minefield adroitly, whilst admitting that a marketing tour (the Boxset awaits!) doesn’t usually involve fielding political questions.

The remaining questions, however, were still more socially than celebrity based: the effect of her portrayal of Birgitte Nyborg on women and in particular politicians in Denmark; the ability of a state funded tv station to produce such high quality drama; her own political insights after being involved in the series.

Fittingly, I suppose, given that her character leads a pragmatically based coalition, her answers were considered and balanced. She’s clearly a thoughtful actor whose dramatic range at home spans various genres and moods.

One question, which still has me reflecting, asked if it was possible to write popular political drama like Borgen and The West Wing based on a right wing, rather than neo Liberal, ‘left of centre’, characters such as Nyborg or Bartlett. Her view that it was easier to portray as sympathetic politicians who ‘cared about people’ perhaps gave away the only impression of her own political views. She was similarly guarded about the final series, currently on screen in Denmark, saying only that, as originally it was not part of the project, it has taken the opportunity to be slightly different in style and to show familiar characters in different situations. You could hear the anticipatory intake of breath!

Perhaps even more interesting than the programme itself has been the amount of column inches devoted, not just to it, but to its followers, in the weekend press.

Some of it has been favourable: Lesley Riddoch pointing out that, if it encourages ‘new men’ to out themselves in support of the travails suffered by Birgitte, Katrine and Hannah, then it’s doing a good job.

A few have suggested that, like the West Wing, if it suggests any positives about the political world, then it can only offset the almost terminal cynicism created by the actions of some politicians and media coverage of their misdemeanours.

However, a lot of the writing class have really been quite sneery about those who announce their devotion to the programme. Ewan McColm mocked Nicola Sturgeon’s fandom – and that of many Nats, reminding us ‘It’s only a tv programme’; Kevin McKenna, recently darling of the cybernats for seeming to switch from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ in the referendum, painted a cynical portrait of the average Borgen fan: ‘Gilet, Aran sweater, walk in the park, and bottle of Cloudy Bay to hand’ was his summary. Was his suggestion that ‘folk like that’ should neither have tv enthusiasms nor evince any political views!

There has been much comment on the internet to the effect “Oh the Nats love it!”, as this was bad news about Borgen, or, indeed bad news about the Nats. From this point of view, Nicola Sturgeon, being pictured with Sidse, was an outrageous piece of political opportunism – which was a bit rich coming from supporters of the party who brought us ‘Cool Britannia”.

Actually, this mocking approach to what is, after all, merely people showing enthusiasm for what is a decent piece of programme making, says more about media commentators than it does about Borgen.

My twitter feed and personal conversations suggest that Borgen is popular amongst Nationalists, but the more common thread amongst its fans is that they are interested, though not necessarily active, in politics. That might mean party politics or, more usually, refers to workplace and domestic politics – that basic element for television success: watching how other people balance their lives, and comparing it to our attempts. In Borgen, high stakes politics gives the necessary frantic background, just as murder and corruption did in the other two Danish hits “The Killing” and “The Bridge”, and in their French cousin “Spiral”. In a 60 minute drama, action and decisions need to be highlighted against a stark background – the decisions the star characters are forced to make become all the more compelling if they are matters of state security or life and death. Ultimately, though, these characters live their lives as we do, with decisions to be made every day that speak of our beliefs and our attitudes. Perhaps it’s the schadenfreude of knowing our relationship challenges, decisions on our children, or work dilemmas are at least not held up for public scrutiny in the way we see on the screen.

In the same way as some folk relax by watching far fetched action films, others enjoy over dramatized life crises: I suppose it depends whether you see yourself as a doer or a thinker.

The linking of Borgen’s popularity to the independence question, particularly by those who take a negative view of its popularity in Scotland, is actually a reflection of unionist thought.

Were Scotland already independent, an interest in drama from Scandinavia would not be seen as odd or in some way as ‘political’. A country of a similar size to Scotland, and sharing the north Atlantic circle, would be a natural source for such dramas – in much the same way as Ireland often looks to Scotland or the UK for creative similarities.

The fault comes through the ‘British’ prism through which unionists expect Scotland to view the world: the expectation of being ‘a world power’, ‘the loss of the BBC in an independent Scotland’; ‘the shared experiences of the world wars’. It is this diminishing of Scotland’s ability to look out on the world, including to England, from its own place, in its own way, that is the true ‘separation’ in the argument for independence.

I have news for those who promote ‘British culture’: it disnae work!

I moved to England as a 7 year old and therefore had 11 years of my education south of the Border. I loved living in England, especially in the north – it’s a great country – but ‘British culture’?

In eleven years of schooling, I never heard a single mention of:
Robert Burns
Any Scottish ruler apart from Robert the Bruce
Any Scottish geography apart from the Glasgow shipyards and Ben Nevis
Owen Glyndwr or the Welsh language – other than in jokes about Welsh TV programmes

Tune into University Challenge even now and marvel how the Oxbridge cognoscenti, well on their way to dazzling First Class degrees, have not the most basic knowledge of Scottish or Welsh geography or culture.

This is not a complaint. The education I received was fine and I remain proud of my school – but it taught the curriculum from an English angle, not a British one, so much so that, to gain any knowledge of Scottish history at all, I had to take it as a subject during my degree. It’s as well to pause and consider that many of today’s headlines in Scotland are concerned with the identification of the bones of an English king from the fifteenth century in Leicester. Had the bones of say, James IV, been identified at Hume or Roxburgh Castles, would such news have had the same prominence in London news bulletins? On the other hand, were Scotland and England independent countries, there might be a more equal chance of James receiving a similar news coverage in England as Richard has today in Scotland, albeit in ‘British Isles news’ rather than ‘Home news’.

Please be aware, again, that this is not a complaint, it is merely pointing out what happens when a small country is subsumed by a much larger one in terms of government and international identity.It is a small step from this to the ‘SCottish cringe’ – when to promote things Scottish is inevitably translated as being ‘anti-English’.

As Cameron’s joust with Farage is showing at present, post colonial Britain has always been too inclined to look in on itself and to view the world from a settled, rigid point of view. This is to the hindrance of development in all the nations of the British state, and also limits the real influence of these islands in other parts of the world.

Sidse Babett Knudsen was right not to be drawn on political questions about Scotland’s future yesterday – she’s an actress, not a politician. I doubt anyone who watches Borgen believes it’s an accurate portrayal of Danish political life – though it does raise issues worth thinking about in relation to politics and politicians, their motivation, and their connection with the world around them.

If a million viewers in the UK are prepared to devote their Saturday nights to such considerations, I think that’s a good thing. Maybe, in a small way, this programme fills some of the gap left by the shortage of positive and informed political reporting in the media.

Television is not a substitute for real life, but it can be a stimulus to thought and reflection. As a teacher, I watched the school based drama series ‘Hearts and Minds’ but gave up on ‘Waterloo Road’ after a couple of episodes.

Neither gave an accurate representation of school life, but I wasn’t looking for that, I was looking for an entertaining and engaging drama, not a documentary. In the same way, I enjoy the constantly churning relationships on Holby City, but I don’t expect my local hospital to be recognizable through the eyes of a soap opera.

Good, well written drama will out – irrespective of background or source.

That’s why people like Borgen.

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