Does the success of Borgen mean we are ready for a political drama set in Westminster?

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As the second series of Borgen finally returned to top form (Saturday 20 January, Episodes 5 & 6), two UK political commentators have asked whether there is a gap in the market for a pro politics UK TV drama. In other words: Could a British Borgen be successful?

The question was raised by Alastair Campbell and Tim Montgomerie on Twitter last week. Montgomerie also queried why recent fictional representation of British politics was limited to satires like The thick of it. (see the exchange below)

Two questions then, with one that follows from the other: Does the success of Borgen mean that we want to watch a political drama set in Westminster? And can we bear to watch fictional representations of British politics without having something to laugh at.

To get to an answer we need to look at how BBC4 viewers came to be watching Danish language political drama on a Saturday night prime time slot. It’s a journey whose origins lie firmly in Euro crime dramas, specifically in Scandi crime. The journey includes:

Wallander. In his various TV guises (Rolf Lassgård, Krister Henriksson, and even the English language version with Kenneth Branagh), the Swedish crime dramas set the bar for all Scandi dramas that followed.

Spiral. Intertwined with screenings of the Wallander series, the hard-boiled French series extended the viewing slot into Euro crime. Tough crime drama that also took us into the complex world of the French legal system

The Killing. This is the master link in the progression towards Borgen. Series one made the perfect cutover from Scandi crime to Scandi drama by including long scenes with the victims parents. And it located a Danish politician, Troels Hartmann, at the centre of the plot, a critical step for the success of Borgen.

Sebastian Bergman. A return to Scandi crime, touching base with the time slots origins.

The Bridge. Double Scandi everything in this brilliant Danish/Swedish crime drama.

Borgen is an incremental step along this road from Scandi crime. It’s a Scandi drama that happens to be about politics, an outlier that we accept because of what has come before it in that slot. We are not watching Borgen because of its political setting, but in spite of it.

The proof was in the first four episodes of the second series, when Borgen seemed to lose its way. The focus was on the Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg, and her apparent mission to politically execute all of her existing allies. She lost her way, and somehow, by dwelling on the politics, so did Borgen. Fortunately, this was put right last week, particularly in episode 6, with a powerful focus on troubled spin doctor Kasper Juul and his relationship with reporter Katrine Fønsmark.

So, returning to the original question: Could a British Borgen, a political drama set in Westminster, work? I don’t think so, for the following reasons:

1. Borgen is an outlier, but one that we accept, because it’s a progression from Scandi crime. We recognise the mileu, and many of the actors are familiar to us from appearances in other Scandi crime series. We like it despite the politics, not because of them.

2. Subtitling is hugely important to the allure of programs like this. Take it away, then imagine Borgen’s Prime Minister in a Westminster setting for a moment. It’s less appealing, and it’s scarily like watching BBC or Sky News.

3. The setting lends a distance to the drama. We know so little about the Danish political system, and the myriad minor parties. This helps us to be comfortable watching a drama with politics at it’s core. Perhaps the only chance a UK political drama would have, is to base it in the political world of the European Union, a place so remote from the average viewer that we would be willing to accept anything that happens.

4. British politics is too raw, polarised, and self-interested to work as a Borgen-like drama. Which party would you choose as the party of power? A loaded question that would dictate the story lines and polarise the audience. Maybe we could focus on a coalition instead? But that’s loaded too. And what about focusing on the leader of a minor party? Plenty of scope there for a drama about compromising one’s principles. But hardly something that a Saturday night audience are ready to tune into.