Where is the British Borgen?

Alastair Campbell asked an interesting (if not altogether original) question on Twitter this morning:

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.

BorgenIt 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.

west_wing_1527547cIf 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.

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17 Comments

  • BBC4 had the impressive “Party Animals” a couple of years back (starring the then-unknown Matt “Doctor Who” Smith”), and there was “The Amazing Mrs Pritchard” with Jane Horrocks as the idealistic leader of a party swept to power who found out that politics was about compromise.

    So it’s not as if Britain doesn’t do pro-political dramas. Just not as the same time as other nations do them.

  • Liberal Neil 20th Jan '13 - 2:37pm

    House of Cards, State of Play, GBH, Our Friends In The North, Edge of Darkness – all top quality political dramas – and at least two of which have been remade in the US.

  • David Boothroyd 20th Jan '13 - 2:54pm

    House of Cards – about a murdering manipulative politician
    State of Play – about serious political corruption
    GBH – about the security service intervening in politics
    Our Friends in the North – also about serious political corruption
    Edge of Darkness – about a military conspiracy

    Which of those is ‘pro-politics’ then?

  • Liberal Neil, all those dramas are about corruption or Machiavellian self-interest, therefore relentlessly negative towards politics.

  • Paul Holmes 20th Jan '13 - 4:29pm

    I was absolutely gripped all the way through 2 hours of Borgen last night (and I hate subtitles normally) and likewise last week and all the first series. Sadly (some might think) I found the politics even more interesting than the also very good personal story lines. Apart from excellent script/casting etc I like it because it shows the real, mostly decent and sincere people, involved in the reality of politics as opposed to the almost entirely corrupt and/or incompetent characters that usually populate those British depictions of politics that are not just played entirely for comedy.

    Even the ‘opposition’ (including the Liberals!) in Borgen are largely shown as sincere politicians in the light of their own beliefs and policies rather than as entirely corrupt, venal, incompetents. And do you know – over 9 years in Parliament that is how I found most MP’s at Westminster. However much I disagreed with many of them. The same for 12 years experience in Council Chambers too.

    Could anyone make a series like this based on British politics and get any sort of decent audience or avoid a rubbishing from a vitriolic press? Of Liberal Neil’s list the only one approaching Borgen (ie not murder, security service plots or black comedy) was Our Friends in The North. That however was based not around a premise of ordinary everyday politicians at work but of disillusionment with (real) rank corruption loosely based on T Dan Smith and Poulson.

  • mike cobley 20th Jan '13 - 7:21pm

    The lack of authentic British TV drama on politics is actually a cultural blind spot, largely due to the arbiters of what gets made being keen not to rock the boat. Indeed, this very lack could itself be the subject of TV drama, when you think about it. And only Alistair Campbell could refer to a crippling cultural blind spot as a ‘gap in the market’.

  • Paul Holmes “I was absolutely gripped all the way through 2 hours of Borgen last night (and I hate subtitles normally) and likewise last week and all the first series”.

    So were we !!! Best thing on TV at the moment!!!

  • There was Trollope’s Pallisers back in 1974. I remember a Tory MP protesting because the General Election coincided with an episode that had a Liberal victory

  • David Wilkinson 21st Jan '13 - 8:19am

    Paul Holmes don’t like subtiltles , then don’t lose your hearing you be glad of the subtitles. Sadly ITV and C 5 are allowed to get away with a pitful amount of subtitles on their programmes.

    Could one of our caring MP’s take an interest.

    I think the scripts and the acting in Borgen is brillant and that it also shows that pretend Danish politicians are nearly corrupt as our real MP’s if doupt just read what MP’s of all parties claimed on their expenses and they have the cheek to call benefits claimants.

    That’s why British TV programmes show corruption,
    It’s funny that AC moans about the lack pro politics programmes, he must a memory problem about his involvement in British politics

  • Alistair Campbell has written both fiction and non-fiction (the latter very well) and has experience of politics at the sharp end.

    Suggest he takes his own advice, if all this isn’t an elaborate trail for doing just that. But he was right.

  • I think Thick of It is generally quite sympathetic to politicians and far more “realistic” than the West Wing, which you admit yourself is not intended as a true reflection of politics. As the ToI as gone on it has become less subtle and the politicians more 2D but Hugh Abbot in Series 1 is portrayed as hard-working and well-meaning. Jim Hacker is also generally painted in a positive light in Yes Minister. Not surprised Campbell isn’t a fan given the anti-villian is so clearly based on him!!

    As for the West Wing I think its effect on British politics has been quite nauseating – too many MPs think they’re Josaih Bartlett (despite not having a Nobel Prize) and you see too many young men in suits who think they’re Sam Seabourne(despite not having half the intellect).

  • Suspect it’s because the public is so utterly hacked off with politicians that no TV company will commission such a thing.

  • Liberal Neil 21st Jan '13 - 5:38pm

    David & Duncan – I took the main point of the article to be about the lack of good quality political drama and his point about a positive representation of politics being a secondary point.

    Saying that both Borgen and The West Wing show plenty of politicians in a negative light and the dramas I mentioned include many positive role models.

  • Alex Harvey 22nd Jan '13 - 7:47pm

    Libby Local: The Series?

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