Bringing Denmark to living rooms around the world
In a world where people are tired of politics, a political drama based on the doings in the Danish parliament ought not to be a success. But according to one of its stars, actress Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, the success of ‘Borgen’ may have more to do with the series’s universal undertones, rather than its plotlines.
In the series, which began its third season on DR1 on Sunday, Sørensen, 30, stars as the journalist Katrine Fønsmark, whose determination to expose corruption and scandal in parliament is often complicated by her on/off relationship with the prime minister’s closest advisor.
The success of ‘Borgen’, named after a slang term for the Danish house of parliament, Sørensen reflected, was not something she had anticipated.
“It was a massive shock,” she told The Copenhagen Post over coffee. “Compared to the crime shows that DR has done before, nobody expected it to do so well.”
The success of ‘The Killing’, of course, was a major factor behind the appeal of ‘Borgen’ in countries like the UK, where the first season regularly attracted more than 700,000 viewers. For Sørensen, the success of ‘The Killing’ “paved the way”.
“It meant that all eyes were focused on Denmark, luckily for us.”
Viewers of both series might notice that there are some common themes in DR’s two most famous exports. And Sørensen suggests those themes might also explain their foreign appeal.
One similarity is the presence of strong female characters in both series. Just as ‘The Killing’ centred on the flawed police detective Sarah Lund, one of the ongoing storylines in ‘Borgen’ is the game of cat-and-mouse between Sørensen’s character and Birgitte Nyborg, the fictional prime minister played by Sidse Babett Knudsen.
Whereas Danish audiences have grown accustomed to such characters thanks to programmes like ‘Unit One’ (Rejseholdet), which first aired in Denmark in 2000, “in the UK, strong female characters are quite a big hit”, Sørensen argued.
“It’s more common in the UK for women to stay at home with the kids than it is in Denmark. A lot of women have taken to it as a sort of a role model.”
Another similarity between ‘The Killing’ and ‘Borgen’ is that both shows tap into the way in which the general public throughout Europe increasingly regard politicians with suspicion and distrust.
Sørensen reflected that although “politics in general is a very hot topic right now and more and more people are interested in how we govern”, in Denmark, as in many other countries, people are suffering from what Sørensen labels “political fatigue”.
Various political scandals and the economic crash are undoubtedly important factors behind people’s scepticism, but Sørensen suggested the role of the media may also be significant.
While researching her role in ‘Borgen’, Sørensen spent time in various Danish newsrooms and found that the media “tend to do very black and white stories” about politics, leaving little room for subtlety.
She hopes ‘Borgen’ might have “helped people to understand that there are also grey areas” in politics. One of the things Sørensen is most proud of about the series is the way it shows that politicians also work hard.
“It’s so easy when you’re on the outside to point a finger and say you’re not doing a very good job,” Sørensen said. “But it is actually a very tiring job to be a politician.”
‘Borgen’ has had a major influence on Sørensen’s career. Previously, she enjoyed a number of successful roles, including performing as Roxy Hart in two major stage productions of ‘Chicago’, one of which ran at the Cambridge Theatre in London. But it is ‘Borgen’, she says, that “made me a household name”, and results in her getting recognised in Denmark and when she travels around Europe.
“That’s the thing with TV,” she mused. “It gets into everybody’s living rooms.”
And while ‘Borgen’ has clearly impacted her own career, Sørensen speculates about whether it has also had a wider influence on Danish society. When Helle Thorning-Schmidt became Denmark’s first female prime minister in October 2011 – 12 months after ‘Borgen’ aired for the first time in Denmark – she seemed to have much in common with the fictional Birgitte Nyborg.
Perhaps ‘Borgen’ helped people to “get used to the idea of a female prime minister”, Sørensen suggested as she finished her coffee. “It’s not such a far-out thought.”