Monday, 21 January 2013

Borgen, and Other Kinds of Stories.

Saturday night, I watched Borgen on BBC4. I can't even begin to describe how much I love Borgen. In case you haven't watched or don't get it: it's a TV series, in Danish, about a fictional Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg, her spin-doctor and his journalist girlfriend. A typical episode will kick off with Birgitte wondering who to dispatch to Brussels to be Danish representative in the EU. It sounds so tedious you think of turning off entirely. Then somehow, 50 minutes later, you're screaming, Noooooooo, Birgittte! at the TV, have spilt beer down the sofa, and are possibly blubbing hopelessly.

It is, as well as being exceedingly good, all exceedingly Scandinavian.

I was thinking about this the other night when I'd gone to the cinema. I was sitting in there, waiting for the movie, and the trailers came on. Normally I like this bit. Anyway, the trailers started. I can't even remember what they were for, just what I thought as they rolled away. 'An American story', I thought, and then the same thing, and then the same thing again. There was something with lots of explosions, a man wrongly accused of an air crash and a film about Lincoln. And I felt like I'd seen them all, already.

Now, to be clear, I have nothing against a story told by Americans, made by Americans, with Americans in it. What I mean is the type of narrative, the underlying story which drives the thing along.

Personally, as somebody who writes stories, I think that stories are massively important to people. They help people make sense of the world around them. They also influence people in fundamental ways, in teaching them what is important, their place in the universe, and how they should deal with people.

Man with Gun: So very 20th Century
Now, regardless of genre, there is one story that Hollywood loves telling, over and over again. Hollywood grew up and boomed as America did, in the first half of the 20th Century. For years, it made films about how a man strode out into wilderness, defeated evil and brought home the lady. It still does, in a way. In the classic American narrative, one man (be he a soldier, president or explorer) goes out, and through his courage, strength and moral righteousness, saves the day.

It's not like the Americans are the only country whose films mirror their national obsessions. British films are often about class, French films are often about sex. The most successful German films in recent years have been about moral redemption from dictatorship and political excess: the only South African film to have been internationally successful is a comedy about conflict between species. It's just that the Americans have a larger and better-funded film and TV industry than the rest of these countries, and that's why, often, you're watching an American narrative, with all this entails.

Tired-looking woman making compromises: so very 21st Century.
Birgitte Nyborg is not like an American hero. She is the head of a shaky coalition government that is permanently on the verge of falling apart. Borgen would different if it was an American series. Probably, there would be a terrorist threat to Denmark, and Birgitte Nyborg would save the nation, in some kind of dramatic way. In the actual series, Birgitte never saves Denmark from anything. She spends too much time in an office, wrangling and shouting at people. She doesn't even always succeed: in one episode she undermines an ally to make him more compliant, only to find he has resigned and tipped the entire government into crisis. Her personal life falls apart: her husband leaves her, and her daughter has panic attacks.

And yet, I think this is why people like her. She is, in the end, like us: she lives in an ordinary house and struggles, on a daily basis, to do the right thing in trying, contradictory circumstances. She isn't always terribly ethical, and she isn't always right or successful. But unlike many of the politicians in the real world, she does have one redeeming quality, which is that she does actually care. Also, she keeps on caring, and trying to sort it out, long past the point where most of us would have thrown in the towel. And for that, she is a hero, and you're left in no doubt of it.

The thing is, she is a hero of a different kind. She doesn't ever stride out into the desert, or do anything alone. She is part of a web of people, some helpful, some compliant, some absolutely mad or malign. And this, this web of interdependence, is the thing that you will never see in an American story. And it was as I was sitting there, in the cinema, that I thought of how very very bored I was of seeing that same old story, played out again and again.


  1. I love how she can tell someone she's sending them to political oblivion with a cute wrinkle of her nose, so even though she's ended your career you really can't hate her!

  2. I love the fact that after a hard day at the office, sorting out public health care in Denmark or wrangling a complicated peace deal in an African country, she still has to go home and deal with all the emotional and practical work of child-rearing. Somehow, this wouldn't quite happen to a male politician, would it?

    1. That husband needs a kick up the arse, if you ask me! Talk about bailing out at the first sign of difficulty.

  3. I think you're being a bit unfair on American films, comparing their worst with Scandinavia's best TV.

    Films like Casablanca, The Searchers (with John Wayne!), The Godfather, Citizen Kane - anything by Scorcese up to Casino - have complex leads doing difficult things.

    1. It's not a question of good vs bad. What I'm talking about is what a story communicates to people about how they think about society.