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Borgen: It's spoiling for a killing

Is anyone genuinely gripped by Borgen?


Why do people go on about Borgen and how great it is? Are they genuinely gripped by it? Or are they, as I suspect, deceived by its subtitles and the occasional glimpse of a Poul Henningsen artichoke lamp into admiring something that would have them laughing scornfully if it were in English?

Surely it’s the latter, for by any measure Borgen is very poor indeed: badly written, sentimental, clichéd and above all absolutely devoid of any sense of drama. Yes, it’s lovely that a TV series exists in which a woman gets to be prime minister. But are we really so desperate for our fantasies of equality to be played out on screen that we will suspend our disbelief to the point where we don’t titter when a politician changes their entire Afghanistan policy on the basis of one mushy conversation with the father of a dead soldier?

But I’m running away with myself. This is the second series of Borgen and the story so far is that Statsminister Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is doing quite well at keeping her Moderates-led coalition government together but rather less well at married life; her husband, Philip Christensen (Mikael Birkkjær), has left her and is now waiting for her to sign their divorce papers. Meanwhile, Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), the super ambitious and super principled political journalist, has left her TV station, TV1, and moved to a tabloid newspaper, Ekspres, where she is working alongside her old colleague, Hanne Holm (Benedikte Hansen), and the ex-leader of the opposition, Michael Laugesen (Peter Mygind), who is now its editor.

Finally, there is Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbaek), Brigitte’s spin doctor and Katrine’s exboyfriend. He has a new girlfriend, who wants him to move in. His Walter Mitty tendencies, however, continue unabated. He still hasn’t told anyone the truth about his father, who abused him.

As synopses go, this sounds quite good, doesn’t it? But don’t be fooled. Episode two (BBC4 screens a pair a week) was taken up almost entirely with an exciting storyline about who Birgitte would choose to be Denmark’s new EU commissioner. Should she send an experienced Moderate, such as her bearded deputy, Bent Sejro (Lars Knutzon)? Or should she despatch one of her enemies? After all, as Kasper puts it, “in Brussels, no one can hear you scream”. (Eat your heart out, Malcolm Tucker; this is what passes for wit in Borgen.) Man, I was really on the edge of my seat, let me tell you. I wonder what next week will bring. A recycling plotline? Maybe Katrine will discover that Birgitte – who appears to do absolutely everything herself, even rushing home to make dinner when her children demand a home-cooked meal – has been putting glass into her paper bin and vice versa. What a headline that would make.

Katrine needs a scoop badly. Her evil tabloid boss is straight out of central casting: Kelvin Mackenzie-meets-Mads Mikkelsen. Then again, you can’t blame him for being annoyed. She’s like no other 21st-century reporter I’ve ever seen. It’s a notebook for her, not a laptop, and she writes all her stories v-e-r-y-s-l-o-w-l-y, late at night, even if they’re for the following day’s paper. She’s also, for someone who’s supposed to be ambitious, weirdly obsessed with her spinster status (she is only 31). Naturally, her older colleague, Hanne, who’s seen it all, is a recovering alcoholic who has a pathetically dysfunctional relationship with her daughter. I mean, isn’t this what all ex-Paris correspondents with ovaries are like? Jeez. The people who delight in Borgen’s feminism really do need to think a bit harder.

We’re still no closer to finding out why Philip left Birgitte. In the last series, he got a bit fed-up when his wife’s big new job meant that he couldn’t take some pathetic little job – and the next thing you know, he was out the door. This is a pity, because he is very sexy (Mikael Birkkjær, you will recall, was Sarah Lund’s partner in the second series of The Killing; Borgen has four ex-stars of The Killing when I last counted, which, for the British viewer, has an unintentionally comic effect at times). And the one thing Borgen needs is sex. Or death. At an Ekspres editorial meeting, a reporter mentioned an escaped convict. Ooh, I thought: turn the lights off and let’s have a bit of that. But, no dice. We were soon back to Katrine, who was going to . . . a press conference at which it might, or might not, be revealed who Birgitte was sending to Brussels. Dear God. If this is how the middle classes are spending their Saturday nights, the economic pinch is much, much worse than I thought.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis