Borgen to the rescue – why we’ve never needed Birgitte Nyborg more
Plus a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Friday 10 June 2022 By Matt d’Ancona
When the definitive history of modern prestige television is finally written, Borgen deserves to be celebrated alongside such undisputed classics as The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad.
For three seasons, global audiences were unexpectedly enthralled by the minutiae of Danish party politics and the fortunes of Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) as she rose to become Denmark’s first female prime minister, formed her own party and balanced the demands of round-the-clock government with the everyday challenges of family life.
The third, and apparently final season, produced by the Danish public service broadcaster, DR, concluded in 2013. Now, series creator Adam Price has brought the show back to our screens – with the amended title Borgen: Power & Glory – courtesy of Netflix.
And not a moment too soon. As British politics descends into infantile bedlam, it is both soothing and exciting to spend time with on-screen politicians who, for all their Machiavellian manoeuvrings and wiles, are undoubtedly adults, aware that there is such a thing as a moral compass and that, when they break the rules, it matters.
While the revived series does not make a big deal of its nine-year hiatus with long-winded passages of exposition, the mood is undoubtedly darker and the shadows longer, as Nyborg – serving in a coalition headed by Labour Party leader Signe Kragh (Johanne Louise Schmidt) – wrestles with a serious crisis of political survival and of conscience.
After a major oil strike in Disko Bay in western Greenland, there is an immediate tension between Denmark’s declared commitment to action on climate change and the prospect of billions of dollars flowing into the public coffers. There is the additional question of Greenland’s yearning for independence – which an oil strike of this magnitude might well subsidise.
Even as Birgitte is trying to work out how high a price she is willing to pay for her own political survival, she is quarrelling with her son, who has moved back in and is involved in unlawful direct action for animal rights. She is perimenopausal and has to change her shirt three times a day. She frets that she is a 53-year-old divorcee who works 19 hours a day and has nothing else to look forward to. As she herself notes, if she is not a frontline politician: “Who the hell am I?”
This is not so much a plea for pity – as is often pointed out to her, she chose the life – as the honest expression of a personal identity crisis. And because this candour, messiness and indecision is replicated in other characters, Borgen is much more than a gripping political drama; though it is certainly that.
Imperfect people, doing their best to run a government. Are they moral paragons? Far from it. Would they have let Christiansborg Palace, the seat of Danish government, become the scene of riotous, regular parties during lockdown? Definitely not. Welcome back, Birgitte.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Sherwood (BBC One; iPlayer)
James Graham returns with a six-part series that is much more than the police detective tale it initially appears to be. Set in Graham’s native Nottinghamshire, Sherwood portrays a village torn apart by two killings, which resurrect old enmities rooted in the 1980s and the loathing of the National Union of Miners (NUM), who carried on striking in 1984-5 and those who joined the breakaway Union of Democratic Miners (UDM) and went back to work. It also tackles the queasy subject of ‘spycops’, now being investigated in real life by the Mitting inquiry. If you thought implacable divisiveness began in this country with Brexit, think again. Unmissable.
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out Of Auschwitz To Tell The World – Jonathan Freedland (John Murray)
It is intrinsic to the sheer scale and unique evil of the Holocaust that – thanks to the dedication of those who grasp the absolute necessity of collective memory – it continues to yield new or neglected stories 77 years after the liberation of the camps. One such personal history is told in this extraordinary book by Jonathan Freedland: the escape from Auschwitz in 1944 of Rudolf Vrba, who was born Walter Rosenberg in the west of Slovakia in 1924. Along with his companion, Fred Wetzler, Vrba got out by careful observation of every detail of the procedures, rules and systems according to which this industrialised death zone was run. In particular, he grasped that the initial SS cordon would last for 72 hours and that he and Wetzler would have to lay low for three days before fleeing the outer camp. Vrba’s testimony helped – after an unconscionable delay – to halt Jewish deportations from Hungary, saving at least 200,000 lives. He also testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. But he felt, quite rightly, that the world did not listen hard enough or act upon what he had to say about the hell-on-earth from which he had escaped. His name ought to inspire shame as well as reverence. Thanks to Freedland’s immaculate research and beautiful writing, Vrba now has the memorial he has long deserved.
Big Time – Angel Olsen
You know the old joke. What do you get if you play country music backwards? You get your house back, your wife back, your dog back… Angel Olsen has never shied away from the aching heart and tearful strains of, say, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison or Patsy Cline, and Big Time, the Missouri singer-songwriter’s sixth studio album, co-produced by Jonathan Wilson, has its fair share of lush melancholy. But it is also underpinned by a fragile yet discernible optimism, after a tumultuous period in Olsen’s life during which she came out as gay and lost both her parents. The opening track, ‘All the Good Times’, establishes the theme of hard-earned self-esteem: ‘I can’t say that I’m sorry when I don’t feel so wrong anymore,’ she sings. But there is a sense of overriding contentment and delighted intimacy. As she says to her partner, who’s in the next room, in the wonderful closing track, ‘Chasing the Sun’: ‘I’m just writing to say that I can’t find my clothes. If you’re looking for something to do.’
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner