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Musings on Borgen, strong women, the gap in the UK TV market, and Maradona

Posted on 2 February 2013 | 9:02am

The outpouring of jealousy at my meeting ‘Birgitte’ from Borgen was not quite on a par with that inspired by my ‘never talk about it’ football playing with Diego Maradona. It was there nonetheless, from the ‘jammy bastard’ tweets to the observation from Andrew Neil that he ‘never knew Danish could be so hypnotic.’

So to cut to the chase re the most asked question about Birgitte (aka Sidse Babett Knudsen) since I got back from Copenhagen – is she hot? – yes, unequivocally, and very nice, thoughtful and intelligent too. Nice too, and very thoughtful and intelligent, was Pilou Asbaek who plays spin doctor Kasper Juul.

As people analyze why a subtitled drama about a small country’s politics has become such a global hit, I think he got closest to the best understanding when he said that Danish TV, with The Killing and Borgen, has put women in positions normally dominated by men. The other factor, which also explains the success of The West Wing, is the broadly positive posture towards politics. I suspect if a British film maker tried to sell a positive story about politics to a UK broadcaster, they would not get past the most junior commissioning editor. Yet whether it is Borgen or Lincoln, the desire for that positive story about public life is there.

We can rejoice that Britain has produced great TV like Spitting Image, Rory Bremner, Yes Prime Minister, the Thick of It, and all the other stuff that shows politicians and their teams as venal or stupid. But the success of Borgen perhaps shows a desire for another angle.

Oh, and by the way, Sidse’s sporting hero is Diego Maradona. She couldn’t believe I played with him, and yet never talked about it. Her all time hero is Stevie Wonder. And she gatecrashed the 200th anniversary party for the Eiffel Tower by pretending she was his niece. When the doorman raised doubts she said ‘you’re only saying that because I am not blind.’ She got in. Not much she can teach Kasper.

Series 2 ends on BBC4 tonight. Denmark is well through series 3 now. I know what happens in both. Stay tuned. From the real PM to the taxi driver who took me to the airport, they all said it gets even better.

The Times piece is below. Photos from the session are here

Pilou Asbaek has certainly learned a thing or two about spin doctoring. He bows on meeting, and within a minute has said he is ‘honoured’ and ‘thrilled,’ only agreed to the interview because it was with me, enjoyed researching my ‘amazing’ life, and asks if I mind that he sees me and a  US Republican – Karl Rove – as the top exponents of what he calls our ‘art’. You may be surprised to know I took an instant liking to him.

Pilou who, you ask? If I say Kasper Juul, perhaps it begins to make sense. If I add that an instantly recognisable bundle of smiles and energy then joins us, and I try to contain my excitement at meeting ‘Birgitte Nyborg’, you may guess we are talking about the TV sensation that is Borgen.

Birgitte is perhaps the most popular politician in the world right now, which as her real life alter ego Sidse Babett Knudsen admits, is much easier when you are dealing with scripts you can control rather than events that you can’t.

We meet in a Copenhagen hotel, Pilou arriving on foot, Sidse by bike, the limos and the bodyguards and the power suits of the fictional world long gone. They filmed the last episode of the final series in December, but are still basking in Borgen’s success. With Britain nearing the end of series 2, Danes are half way through series 3 and you do not have to be here long to find out what is happening. Everyone seems to watch it, including the real Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a personal friend who I saw for dinner the night before meeting Sidse and Pilou.

‘It’s great for Denmark that we had first The Killing, now Borgen, and both with strong women as the lead characters,’ she says ‘and it is good for politics that Borgen doesn’t just do the easy cynical thing but shows politics as human brings trying to do their best according to what they believe.’ It is a point echoed by Sidse. ‘The longer it went on the more I liked Birgitte. At times I was struggling to work out her political identity but as the story developed I realized she was a real heroine because she was fighting for things she believed in. She loves the job, loves the country, does not get offended by different views, loves democracy.’

That the real and the fictitious Prime Ministers have never met is partly as a result of a decision taken by Sidse. ‘I don’t look at gender closely. I was playing the Prime Minister, not a female Prime Minister. I was worried I would start to copy Helle so I took an active decision not to look at her. You have to remember it is drama. These are people in a story. Too much research could damage the scripts. I wanted to honour the scripts.’

It is when she lists ‘the room’ and ‘the car’ among her key relationships that you are reminded she is an actor above all else. But surely there is an added responsibility, I ask, because you have the chance to impact on the reputation of politics for good or bad?  ‘That is not my job. I feel responsibility with every part I play, whether it is this or a love story.’ Pilou adds: ‘The more we let people take their own choice or meaning, the more people we influence. If we say “this is what it means”, we narrow it down.’

Both say they learned a lot. ‘I was naïve about the media,’ says Sidse. ‘I  thought the media was there as a witness, not as a player, but it’s not so.’ Pilou’s takeout was that politics is much more difficult than people imagine it to be – right again – that the ‘taxi driver view that “I could sort it out” shows a lack of respect’ – right again – and that ‘there is no black and white in politics, it is not a perfect square.’

He wonders if Birgitte Nyborg is popular because people see the human side of her more than they do of real leaders, and here it is Sidse who comes to the aid of the political class. ‘It should be about what they are as politicians. Who cares what Bill Clinton did in his private life?’ Pilou goes straight back on message. ‘Everyone makes mistakes but in politics you are not allowed to. Yet to fail is human and what counts is how you bounce back. It is like we expect them to be superhuman.’

‘Morally superhuman,’ adds Sidse, who is keen to deny having made comments critical of Helle’s husband, Stephen Kinnock. ‘I just didn’t say them.’

Pilou admits that one of the by products – lessons – of the series is that he has started to speak differently. ‘Always talk in headlines – then people remember you,’ he suggests. The conversation is peppered with his perfectly formed soundbites. ‘You cannot create chemistry. It is a gift between actors.’ ‘They keep on trying the kill The Killing, but The Killing lives on.’ ‘The more you want fiction to look real, the more fictional it will be. The more fictional you want fiction to be, the more real it will feel.’ ‘For me there was a day before Borgen and a day after.’ ‘You need a big picture to put over a small story.’  And then, reaching what I suggest to him is Mensa level spin capacity ‘I am answering that question by not answering it.’

Happily he has learned to respect the art of communication and see through the clouds of media cynicism. ‘People see Kasper as a dark lord and I don’t accept it. Guys who do that kind of job are mothers and wives, husbands and fathers …’

‘Tell me about it …’

‘I love Kasper. I love his ambition, his loyalty, his always being on the ball. And the people who don’t like him, it is because he is good at his job.’

But what about the inappropriate relationships with journalists? Sidse lets out a loud throaty laugh when I say someone tweeted last week ‘it must be great living in a country with only six journalists’ and laughs again when I say to Pilou ‘and you had an affair with most of them.’

‘Hey, it happens.’

‘It’s like me in Number 10 having an affair with the political editor of the BBC! Not appropriate at all.’

‘It’s a story,’ he reminds me. ‘But actually there was a situation like this in Denmark, a spin doctor and TV anchor and now they are together and have kids. So it does happen.’

Borgen’s success has taken them by surprise. ‘When I got the part, they were talking about maybe selling to Sweden,’ says Sidse. ‘It’s 57 countries or something,’ adds Pilou. When I tell them that Helle gave French President Francois Hollande a box set, and his partner Valerie Trierweiler tweeted when they were watching it, she says ‘wow, that’skind of amazing.’

Comparisons have been made with the West Wing but she says ‘sometimes people zap away from the West Wing because the political detail is complicated. For me the political arena is what really matters in Borgen and the family story is there as the oil to keep it moving, keep the viewer engaged with the story, but the political drama is the key.’

Pilou is clear that the success of The Killing and Borgen is down to putting female leads in traditional male parts. ‘For a hundred years it has been about the guys. But think about it – if the family’s at home Sunday night 8pm, man, wife, two kids, who’s in charge? The woman. And they want to see women in lead roles. I like that.’

‘It does reflect society,’ adds Sidse. ‘I have been an actress a long time and played a lot of leads. But I can remember back in the 90s when they were making film posters and the main picture had to be a man. The assumption was that men wanted to watch men, and women wanted to watch men. Yet look at my “husband” Philip and how much he can get from a relatively small part. It shows if you put women as the lead, there are new opportunities for men too. But The Killing was the first, then Borgen. This is still pretty exotic for us too. ‘

The family pressures are central to Borgen but Sidse, 44, who has an eight year old son, and Pilou, 30, whose first daughter was born on New Year’s Eve, do not believe either that Birgitte ‘neglected’ her children or that the strains are special in politics. As to whether she ‘puts power before children,’ he says ‘you need to watch the last two episodes of series 2.’

Borgen certainly captures a lot of the pace, energy, ambition, teamwork, rivalries and ups and downs of the political world. But when I say that Birgitte’s affair with her driver struck me as being ‘unrealistic, and dare I say out of character?’ I can tell instantly that she agrees. ‘I am not going to be disloyal,’ she says. ‘We discussed that a lot, made a few changes, but …’ and in the hanging ‘but’ and the shoulder shrug her agreement is even clearer. Later she adds ‘maybe a Spanish speaking NGO type of guy would have been better,’ and laughs again.

Likewise Pilou felt that sometimes his character’s back story as an abused child was overdone. ‘I suppose they were trying to give people a reason to say to themselves why Kasper was evil but I didn’t find him evil at all.’

‘Was it ever thought an affair between you two might have been more credible after the marriage broke up?’ I ask.

‘That would have been inappropriate,’ says Pilou.

‘Bit rich coming from you,’ I suggest.

‘I think it might have been more realistic,’ says Sidse, ‘but actually the way we played the parts we always had a bit of distance. It was more bigger sister/younger brother.’

Pilou puts his hand on my shoulder and says ‘when Birgitte was having real problems at home I put my hand there as a way of showing support and she touched my hand briefly. That was the most personal gesture between us in two years. It was very much that she was the boss and I was working for her. Have you noticed how she never opens a door? We worked that out as a way of constantly establishing the nature of the relationship. I spent time with a few real spin doctors in Danish politics, like a fly on the wall. It was awesome. One had worked for the same guy for eight years and they were clearly a team. I asked him how close they were and he said “well I have never been to her home.” We built that kind of distance into our on screen relationship.’

So will there really not be a fourth series? ‘I don’t think so,’ says Sidse. ‘Never say never, but I doubt it.’ ‘Mmmm, never say never,’ echoes the spin doctor.

Meanwhile Pilou has starred in an award-winning film about Somali pirates, A Hijacking, in which his co-star is Soren Malling (Torben Friis in Borgen, Sarah Lund’s sidekick Meyer in The Killing.) Sidse has been playing a comedy role as a lesbian sexually harassing her staff, and both of them are expected to have parts in Danish TV’s next big series, a drama set in the 19th century. ‘We are a small country. So we don’t have as many actors as countries like Britain, but we do have a lot of good actors,’ says Sidse.

She also confides that she would love to work in English. No surprise there. Perhaps more surprising is the role of her dreams. ‘Hamlet. I would love to play Hamlet.’ One great Dane playing another, I suggest. But she is serious. I promised to put the word out. Now I have. Clearly, Kasper’s not the only spin doctor in the room, and nor am I.

  • Interesting piece. I am not sure the reason for the success of The Killing and Borgen is down to a female lead. This is a fairly common scenario in UK and US storylines and has not necessarily led to international acclaim. I think the main reason for their success is that they are complex, well written dramas which, in the main, reflect the real world. As such they engage the intellect of the viewer; sadly, all too rare with British TV drama.

    Our broadcasters think we are dimmer than we actually are, evident not only in entertainment offerings but in the daily diet of superficial, simplistic and partial political coverage.

  • Anonymous

    Danmark is certainly becoming an interesting country, what being surrounded in influence by Norway/Sweden/Germany and also Netherlands a bit. Also connections to Greenland and Iceland., Some interesting porn from there too, 1970’s blackmarket film super-8, Danish bacon too, if you get me.

    Never really watched these progs, but I used to watch that german detective in the late 1980’s brit telly on late night, but can’t remember his name, let’s look,

    That was easy – Derrick. Always enjoyed that.

  • Anonymous

    link to my previous comment, as I said, enjoyed it – was Columbo-plus,

  • Anonymous

    Thought for the day. Without strong newspapers like the News of the World, the Guardian, and the Mail, we would not have proof of what a scumbag Chris Huhne is, and this lying criminal would still be in power. (Not everyone can see through people like him, evidently, there are so many gullible people about.)
    Thats the way the likes of Campbell and Huhne like it, and thats why they want Leveson to neuter the press so they can carry on their hypocrisy undisturbed, like French politicians do.

  • Anonymous

    Read a brilliant demolition of Blair the other day. Now, I know he did a lot of good, but even people who are broadly fans of his, as I am on most major issues apart from the EU and his betrayal of the working class by bringing in foreign competition for their jobs and services, even we must be annoyed by a lot of his personality traits.
    Anyway, we know he wants to be a big beast in politics again, we know he wanted a higher profile in the US, we know he would love to the master puppeteer in charge of Cameron and Miliband, as a prelude to having a run at being president of Europe. We all know that the reason Clegg, Blair and Cameron are pro EU is because they are green with envy when they meet the likes of Barack Obama, and long for the day when they meet them not as the boss of some mid level economic and military power, but as equals, in charge of the United States of Europe.

    Blair is petrified at the thought of a referendum that might spoil that dream. Indeed if we were Richard the third I am sure he would love to see Cameron and co murdered in the tower. So the word is out that he wants a bigger profile in Britain. So he did what only Blair could do with a straight face! Did he come over here, go about meeting people, get involved with campaigns, write articles, do interviews, ie re-engage with Britain? No of course not! He hired a press officer! To try to make it look like he was doing all that! Typical Tony! Ya godda luv im!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, seems Gove has finally turned out as a total walking omniwotsit Alastair, as if we didn’t know already.

    And this will be interesting at the end of this month,

    Any idea when Labour are going to announce their candidate Alastair?

  • Anonymous

    Got to post this Alastair, Kraftwerk at the Tate Modern on the South Bank, near the wobbly bridge over the Thames, from the other night. Wished I was there. Always go to the Tate Modern whenever I am up in the smoke, to see what’s new there, Glilbert & George or not,

    And the beeb newstory about it, asking Liverpool’s OMD what they thought of it,

    Like them too, as well as the Sheffield stuff I posted before in past.

  • Anonymous

    There is a psychiatric condition that could describe CH – deranged.

    What is laws for the plebs is good for the gander, or something, reaguns.

  • Anonymous

    Blair is the Henry Seven to Camerons Dicky the Turd, reaguns. Blair sorted out Britland when it was seriously falling to pieces, but does he get his fair share of credit, as Henry Seven? NOOO.

    And EUites from eastern europe came to our country when new countries came into the EU, which was a fine thing I think, even with the consequences. We bump our gums about certain arab countries these days, but look how stable eastern Europe is these days, even when certain enlightened people said that the fall of the wall in ’89 would bring serious discontent, which didn’t happen, apart from the old Yugoslavian offshoot countries. That, yes, was a festering focus, but gladly it has sorted itself out in time.

  • Anonymous

    Just picked up that it looks like the hot favorite is John O’Farrell, of Spitting Image writing fame, and author, and does a bit of telly, and was candidate for Maidenhead in 2001. An activist for libraries too, if one can be called that for quiet serene libraries. Excellent experience in local education matters too.

    Good choice if so.

  • Anonymous

    My favorite vid of ladies on the wobbly bridge, in that smoke and others places near there, with an appropriate name, for me.

    Song for Joyce Vincent too, which has been noticed more, on and from Channel Four.

  • Anonymous

    Then there is always, ladies, just wear your chemistry, always – that is all life one asks,

  • Anonymous

    But of course, Alastair, Eastleigh only turned Lib Dem from donkey years of being true Tory when their Milligan was found dead in his bedroom wardrobe self auto-erotically asphixiated, with half an orange in his gob, back in ’94.

    Eastleigh does seem tainted, doesn’t it?

    Still, go for it O’Farrell – seems Eastleigh looks like they need someone to make them laugh, healthily.

  • Anonymous

    Announcement Tuesday by Labour Eastleigh HQ.

  • Anonymous

    …furthermore, Wikis page for coming up by election in near Soton airport, on the 28th coming,,_2013

    Well advise to check it every day or two, to hear what the latest gossip is.

  • Anonymous

    Then there is always the ladies meeting for a dance on Carnabywotsit Lane.Street, and the original for some of us lads, ladies, space shooting in kiddies mind then, back in 19’69. oh yes,

    and our bros that Lahndahn version, tings and so bro, and ummm, sorry forgot my dictionary : )

    ’69, Joe 90, get right down…
    More tea Vicar?

  • Anonymous

    bollocks it has dissappeared again! gunts!
    feck modern technology, good, but some bad.

  • Anonymous

    by the way Alastair, had all those young Carnarby Street fillies in my bed, at the same time, once, honest. Trouble is I was on the sofa dowstairs, after when they all dashed me, the bleeding ficklers.


  • Anonymous

    Trans Europe Express was quite good on their third night, or was it fourth? Second maybe.

    Couple of nights left there. Wonder who were the greedy buggers that went there everynight, not giving any of the rest of us to have a chance.

  • Anonymous

    you seem to reach places we can’t possibly reach, Mr Nice…

  • Anonymous

    Was told by my first primary school headmaster, Priory Street Primary School, Carmarthen, 1966-68, when he saw me and my mate turn up after Easter for school, instead of September, he said “who are these”, but he soon found out. This when I met him in the eighties in Carmarthen pub long retired.

    And he told me, I had a very rare mark down on my record, like a red mark, as gifted, but obtuse, even then at that young age, that get’s onto the then Gove sort of database of then. He only told me when he was slugged, after I helped on the way with whiskies. He said it was the first one since so and so in the early fifties, I forget his name, he said.

    But really I always knew it – sorts like me always do. He couldn’t believe at first I remembered him, until I told him who I was, older, and then he said “ah yes”.

    My mate Chris went to the top in the NHS admin with Thatcher, in all sorts of parts of the country, until his conscience got the better of him. He is back in Carmarthen now, last he told me, a couple of years ago.

    God, got to go and see Chris again, but whenever I see him, he wants to drag me up to Carmarthen Golf club for a round and a chat. Like a fecking parrot he is like that. Told him, I prefer a walk in the countryside without banging balls about, but the brainwashed tory golfer just does not get what I am saying to him. But I think he does, and it is friendly banter, between friends that kick with a different foot.

  • Anonymous

    Not going to say what Joe 90’s machine looks like at the end, when it opens, to allow Joe to enter the World, reinvented. I will leave that for you to artistically interpret, rubbing one’s chin… : )

  • Anonymous

    This is him, top left, photo taken in the back school yard a few years after I left, after when family decided to move back to the top of the Gwendraeth Valley, near the souce of the Gwendreath Fach and Fawr twin rivers to Kidwelly/Cydweli, joining as one just lower down to it’s castle there,

    Got two such photos from then – will have to scan them and post them one day for these sites that ask. Will get around to it one day.

    And by the way, the young lad next to him in the middle row could be Chris’ brother, Ian – there was only a year and a bit between them, and since that is 1974, could very well be Ian. He lives in the Stoke area these days, as a computer infrastructure wotsit whatever manager, last I heard. It is a photo of the top standard 4 then, since I regonise the teacher top right that took it, eleven year olds.

    School building is now a media HQ, BBC/S4C, last I heard, after being taken over by a bank for a while, for admin, as they do.

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