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Borgen was supposed to be a failure — so why did it succeed?

"I didn’t want to tell a political story where all the politicians were shits, just devious bastards who were self-sufficient and only wanted power for the sake of power. I couldn’t write even ten episodes of that, because it would just be ... evil."

Borgen stars Sidse Babett Knudsen (far left) as Birgitte Nyborg
Room at the top: Borgen stars Sidse Babett Knudsen (far left) as Birgitte

Early in the commissioning process for his political drama Borgen, its creator, Adam Price, was told that this was one Scandinavian TV show that wasn’t going to “travel”. Although it is often lumped in with the crime thrillers The Killing and The Bridge as another example of the “Nordic noir” phenomenon that has dominated our small screens in the past few years, Borgen is actually something else – a story about politicians that isn’t worthy, trite or cynical. Even so, Price was reconciled to the idea that it was never going to be a global hit. “I mean, who would want to see a Danish show about coalition politics?”

Quite a lot of people, it turns out. Borgen has been sold to 75 countries around the world, and counts substantial numbers of real-life politicians among its fans. Appropriately enough, I meet Price for coffee right opposite the Palace of Westminster, well aware that many of its occupants will be tuning in religiously now that the third series has begun on BBC4.

What is it about this foreign-language drama about coalition politics that has us so in thrall? A lot of it has to do with the writing, it must be said. Borgen is fast-paced but not breathless, multilayered without being confusing. The dialogue is polished and witty. But Price also suggests that its popularity has something to do with its attitude towards the subject matter. At a time when we don’t like or trust our politicians much, Borgen presents a seductive alternative to outright cynicism.

 “I didn’t want to tell a political story where all the politicians were shits, just devious bastards who were self-sufficient and only wanted power for the sake of power,” he says. “I couldn’t write even ten episodes of that, because it would just be ... evil.

 “[The show] is populated by some shits but also some people that want to do good. Sometimes they do good in a bad way but at least their intentions were good. I think, even at its darkest, in Borgen there is always a flicker of hope.”

Indeed, at the start of this third and final series, the former prime minister Birgitte Nyborg has ostensibly abandoned politics for the glamour of the global stage, only to be sucked back in by what Price calls her “sparkle of idealism”.

There is hope, too, especially for a British audience, in Borgen’s central character being a woman. Our own political establishment is so starkly unequal (just 22.5 per cent of UK MPs are women, compared to 39 per cent in Denmark, which also has a female prime minister) that we revel in a fictional vision of how much better things could be.

The first series of Borgen was written by a team of three men but many of its most prominent characters – politicians, journalists, news directors – are women. They may suffer in the political intrigues, yet seeing these women working at the top of politics is thrilling in itself.

Price claims that the show remains unchanged by its surprise international success, and that he has tried not to listen “to all that beautiful noise of people getting interested in the thing that you are writing”.

The show has done its bit to bring about changes in politics, though. One storyline – about pig farming – from the third series led to accusations that Price was against government protection for the pork industry, and a motion in the real-life Danish parliament. It caused an uproar in Denmark. “My God, are you now getting inspiration from a fictional show?” he says, mimicking one of the critics of the motion in parliament.

Given the kind of pragmatic idealism it goes in for, though, I can’t help but wonder if a bit more Borgen in our politics would be such a bad thing.

The third and final series of “Borgen” is currently broadcast on BBC4 on Saturdays at 9pm. The box set will be released on 16 December.