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Stephen Timms


Arrow Films, DVD; Certificate 15; 580mins

The second season of Borgen, the latest highbrow Scandinavian drama on BBC4, has been released on DVD, under the 'Nordic Noir' label. Danish prime minster Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, tries to navigate her coalition through choppy political waters, keeping her allies on side, her enemies in check, and her family intact.

Denmark is different to Britain. In one scene, a bicycling party leader hails the prime minister as she passes in her limousine, in order to conduct an intense, on-street party negotiation. You wouldn't see that in Whitehall. Coalition governments are the norm in Denmark. In a two tier system of constituency based proportional representation, parties with more than 2% of votes cast gain representation. Far right and far left groups give rise to some fairly inflammatory characters in Borgen, the title drawn from the name of the Danish Parliament. Power is based on temporary alliances and negotiations.

Coalition parties in this series don't find themselves in the predicament of the Liberal Democrats, voting for policies they solemnly pledged to oppose. But, while depicting the kind of struggle that will mark any political endeavour, the series does remind us of the merits of the alternative to coalition - of a party elected on a clear programme published before the election, and with a majority large enough to implement it.

In the first season, Nyborg, leader of the Moderate Party, succeeded in forming a coalition with Labour (elbowing out the former Labour leader), Greens and left wing radicals. In this series the wheels start to come off this alliance. Nyborg tries to deliver on her election promises of lasting reform. She knows that durable legislation requires broad, cross-party support.  She has to negotiate pragmatically, and sometimes ruthlessly.

We watch Nyborg juggle family life and political ambitions. She just about manages to stay on top of the politics. Another character, journalist Katrine Fønsmark, played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, similarly has to manage her career ambitions, principles and the possibility of having children. The drama is refreshing in featuring competent and successful women leading in the workplace, and exploring the effects on their lives.

The drama derives from the tough human reality behind a smooth political operation - the interplay of political power and negotiation with personal struggle.  Political advisors have a key role.  Their interaction with the press contributes to a gripping storyline. The central conundrum is that retaining political power entails compromise, and therefore the erosion of the ideals which motivated the pursuit of power in the first place.

To achieve a deal with the right on the environment, Nyborg makes concessions to business lobbyists. She thinks she has reached the best compromise she can, so she sanctions a personal smear to pressure the Greens' leader into supporting her bill. The tactic doesn't work. Nyborg is left vulnerable to the political ambitions of her Labour coalition partners. (Inexplicably, Labour leaders are consistently portrayed in an unfavourable light.) But she gets her bill passed, and turns the tables on scheming opponents by calling a snap election.

Nyborg becomes an accomplished and successful Prime Minister, but struggles as a wife and mother. In the first season, her husband left her. They divorced, and he has a new girlfriend. In this second series, their teenage daughter, Laura, suffers a nervous breakdown. The ousted former Labour leader from the first series is now a bitter tabloid editor. To brand Nyborg a hypocrite, he splashes on his front page a photograph of Laura taken with a telephoto lens at the expensive private sanatorium where she is supposed to be getting peace and therapy.

The series doesn't address the motivations for the politics. Constituents don't feature at all; their representatives don't seem to meet them. Voters are referred to frequently, but only via opinion poll results: 'It's 50-50, but we have an edge of 0.2 percentage points'. The politicians appear strangely distant from the people whose wellbeing they are presumably attempting to promote. Outside their families, their world comprises other politicians, shifting alliances and troublesome journalists. Unlike, apparently, the first series, we don't get much sense of ambition to make the world better. And that's a pity, because, in real politics, you do.

But it's gripping personal drama. Nyborg tries to fulfil her career ambitions, stay true to her political principles and protect her children. She doesn't succeed in everything, but she mostly keeps a step ahead of her political opponents. And she never disappoints her viewers.