Alastair Campbell asked an interesting (if not altogether original) question on Twitter this morning:
Success of Borgen (currently trending) and West Wing (which I have not seen) a sign of gap in market for essentially pro politics TV?
— Alastair Campbell (@campbellclaret) January 20, 2013
As a massive fan of The West Wing, and an avid viewer of Borgen, it is a question I have also thought about. Britain is the world leader in political satire, yet we must be close to bottom of the league when it comes to political drama.
It is worth highlighting, I think, a difference between The West Wing and Borgen. The former is absolutely (and self-consciously) not a portrayal of what politics is, but what many think politics should be. The same is true of Aaron Sorkin’s other works, particularly The Newsroom.
And while Borgen is not a fly-on-the-wall documentary, it certainly shows both the gritty messiness of (in this case) continental-style coalitions and the toll that life in politics can take on individuals in a way that The West Wing only ever really hinted at.
In one sense it is rather surprising that no enterprising British broadcaster has yet had the foresight to try a British political drama having witnessed the success of these two shows. I suspect that the fear is that the audience would be limited to those interested, and perhaps involved, in politics in some way. And we all know how limited an audience that would be.
I think, though, that that fear is misplaced. The key point about dramas like these is that politics provides the backdrop on which interesting stories can be layered. In the case of The West Wing it is true that political intrigue and governmental wrangling was the main attraction, but in Borgen those aspects play second fiddle to the developing personal lives of the show’s main characters.
If British producers think it necessary, they can follow Borgen’s style and emphasise the personal. That would be fine by me as long as the politics is not only there as a background. What unites both Borgen and The West Wing is an attention to detail, and a political knowledge, that allows the programmes to appeal to politicos as well as those to whom that aspect is just a foundation.
It is sometimes suggested that the British are just too cynical to enjoy any attempt to portray politicians as anything other than self-interested partisan megalomaniacs. Again, I think that is profoundly wrong. Even if that is many people’s perception of politicians, surely the whole point about fiction is that it can change those perceptions? After all, those perceptions were themselves conditioned by the medium through which the majority of people know about politics: journalism. While we all want our journalists to be of the sceptical, power-questioning variety, the British lobby too often goes beyond this to cynicism and incredulity which then clouds much of the public’s opinion of politics.
The more I think about it, the more I think that Alastair Campbell is right in the sense that there is a gap in the market, not necessarily for “pro-politics” drama, but for realistic political drama. Just as The West Wing could only have been made in the US and Borgen is quintessential Scandinavia, we could, with a deft touch, impeccable knowledge and the right angle, have a successful British political TV drama to match them both.
* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.