Camilla Hammerich, producer of DR Fiktion at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, has recently released an insightful tome charting the accomplishments of the award-winning political drama series Borgen (2010-2013).
The Borgen Experience: Creating TV Drama the Danish Way examines the extraordinary success of the show, which garnered Sidse Babett Knudsen with an International Emmy nomination and the series winning an International Prize at BAFTA. The series quickly gained global notoriety from Stephen King citing Borgen in his top ten series to watch in 2012. While Hillary Clinton notably told the New York Post: “I’ve just discovered this incredible series about a woman elected prime minister in Denmark, which is very realistic.” Even David Cameron made national news after giving his political parties the ultimatum of a live television seven-party debate, influenced by his love of Borgen, along with Nick Clegg.
Join us as we delve deeper into the production and international impact of Borgen.
Photograph by Anne Mie Dreves
Can you tell us a bit about your book The Borgen Experience – what is it about and why has it been released now? Even though the series ended over two years ago there is a longevity to the Borgen legacy.
Camilla Hammerich: First, it was six years of Borgen, then another 2 years writing the book and I am now working on something new. The Borgen Experience is my personal account of those six years from a producer’s point-of-view and I wrote it for two reasons. The first being that it documents my career in charge of the production; being a producer with financial and artistic responsibility. Six years is quite a long time. During that time we had 445 days of shooting. That’s a lot! And we shot 2000 scenes. That’s true because it’s 30 hours of fiction so you need 2000 scenes! It is no different than any other drama series. I was so exhausted; it was like being on a roller-coaster joyride making Borgen. However, I did not have time to reflect on this as everything was happening all of the time: shooting, editing, press, and so on. So I decided to write a book where I didn’t have to spend time with anyone other than myself and my computer! So that was, basically, a kind of therapy for me.
CH: On the other hand, the second reason I wrote the book was because Borgen came after The Killing (2007-2012) and, as you know, The Killing was a huge success outside Denmark. Therefore, the success of The Killing paved the way for us. We were on the same roller-coaster. People from all over the world travelled to Denmark, journalists especially, and asked, “How can a tiny country like Denmark of six million people make drama series that gain so much attention around the world?” Borgen has been sold to more than 80 countries; to South America, South Korea, Mongolia, and many more. What is the secret behind the success? I thought if I can make an account of the process maybe I can reveal some of the secrets of the success behind Danish drama series. I believe that the secrets are to be found in the process.
The success of the series completely mimics the momentum of the show and the whirlwind production process you have described. One might also say Borgen is not art that imitated life but, rather art that became imitated by life. From 2011-2015 – a year after the first season was made – the first female Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, was elected into office. What were the reactions to this?
CH: Before Helle Thorning-Schmidt was elected as Prime Minister we visited her because she was the leader of one of the largest political parties: the Social Democrats. We talked to her about what it was like being a top female politician. Later, when she became Prime Minister and Borgen was airing, I read that she watched the show in interviews. I know that at a certain point she distanced herself from the character of Birgitte Nyborg because she was constantly being compared to her. Birgitte Nyborg is not especially Helle Thorning-Schmidt but it has been a strange sense of ‘art imitating life’ and life imitating art imitating real-life! I think this has had a positive impact on both versions of the Danish Prime Minister while existing at the same time.
It must have been a very uncanny experience for this co-existence to occur at the same time.
CH: We had a press conference for the second season close to ‘Borgen’, Christiansborg the morning after the election. Helle Thorning-Schmidt had become Prime Minister and all of the journalists attending the press conference were saying, “We have our first female Prime Minister in Denmark!” As Sidse Babett Knudsen also attended the conference it felt like reality and fiction merged together. It was really strange! Then we had so many experiences when we aired an episode and the narrative really happened. For instance, when Helle Thorning-Schmidt announced her new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Villy Søvndal, he has a bad grasp of Danish-English! He was mocked for his English in the press. It was really terrible how he was satirised all over the internet. When that happened we aired episode thirteen of Borgen. In that episode, Birgitte Nyborg’s Foreign Minister, Bjørn Marrot (Flemming Sørensen), was also mocked for his English in the press! People questioned, “Are the writers psychic?” Audiences thought we wrote those episodes two or three weeks beforehand, whereas we had shot those episodes a year ago. They had been written two years prior to that. It was so weird. It’s just that life tends to repeat itself; there have been other Foreign Ministers in Denmark with a bad grasp of the English language so, I guess, the inspiration came from others, you could say!
Did you look to fictionally comment on breaking news or current affairs within the scripts and did you want to use the show to deliver a political ideology? Images of fast-paced discussions between the writers and producers, just like with Torben Friis and the TV1 team, to decide upon each episode storyline come to mind.
CH: Our creator and head writer, Adam Price, has always been very politics. He wanted to make a political series about the first female Prime Minister of Denmark over four years before Helle Thorning-Schmidt was elected. We also had two young co-writers and a researcher who were equally interested in politics. Every time the writers had an idea the researcher found experts on the topic, statistics, books, and magazines. Then the writers would develop the series based on the research material and mix it up into fiction. They had been watching a lot of news stories and a lot of current affairs. We all have! I’m still a ‘news-oholic’.
Borgen has become an international sensation. Why do you think it has become so popular from being regarded as an ‘obscure Danish drama’? For international fans will The Borgen Experience also help promote an awareness of the Danish political landscape and explain to fans who do not necessarily fully comprehend it, due to cultural differences?
CH: That’s what I have been trying to answer in my book. It came as a surprise to all of us. Although Danish drama series have actually had international success before The Killing. We know that crime shows can travel outside of Denmark but that a political series could do so well was a big surprise to all of us. As The Killing became such as success on BBC Four, they were interested in acquiring Borgen as well. We have asked everyone we have met why they find Borgen so interesting. We were afraid they would not understand all of the Danish political technicalities. But the audiences do not care so much about the politics; what they see in Borgen, from what I’ve heard, is a portrait of the Danish society. They are witnessing a society where a top politician can cycle to work without bodyguards. It’s a society that has come a long way with gender politics and equality. I think, for a lot of people outside of Denmark, the show is like a portrait of society looking into the future. It’s like a dream model for a modern society. Also, Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, is a very interesting protagonist and people identify with her. Birgitte is a strong woman but she is vulnerable at the same time. Viewers are both fascinated by her and can relate to her.
What is so great and iconic about Nordic drama is its signature to showcase a heroine at the centre of the story, just like Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen. Also, the contemporary themes which Borgen reflects as we follow Birgitte from the Moderate Party to forming the New Democrats. Her name says it all: “Ny”, meaning new and “borg” denoting fortress or castle, just as the definition of ‘Borgen’ is. The series is very forward-thinking and modern in its approach.
CH: I still don’t get why the show is so popular and is being sold to Mongolia, Ukraine or Russia! I think it’s good that the Danish democracy can travel outside of Denmark. In Denmark, we have a lot of debates and good ratings but it was seen as problematic as well. Outside Denmark people really like Borgen but inside Denmark, it has been a little different. The ratings showed that 1/4 of the population watched Borgen, however decision makers and journalists said it wasn’t a credible portrait of the media industry or how parliament works. We have had a lot of criticisms about Borgen but that was part of the desired outcome as well. We were happy that it created some kind of debate, but we did not get great reviews every week. That would be a lie.
It is quite interesting to see how the media is represented because, with TV1 and especially with the tabloid Ekspres, are viewed in quite a negative and shallow light. They want to get the best ratings which add a realistic motivation to their actions.
CH: It has because Adam Price and I have worked in television for big broadcasters throughout all of our lives, almost! I think it is a very credible portrait of the media business. Every broadcaster around the world is interested in quality but beyond quality, they are interested in ratings. That is the most important thing at a TV station so I think it is like reality.
Due to Borgen’s international popularity, how has this influenced the show? The series includes a greater exposure to the English language from season two, with Birgitte’s peacekeeping summit between North and South Kharun. This leads onto season three with Birgitte’s romance with Jeremy Welsh. Was this intentional to appeal to UK and US audiences, due to a pessimism for subtitled dramas?
CH: Not with the second season. This had already been filmed before the show became popular. There were more English-language scenes because we wanted to create more foreign policy episodes. The Prime Minister does travel. To simulate realism, we wanted to do this as it is part of the Prime Minister’s job. This was also because Sidse Babett Knudsen speaks very good English. She is also very good at French and other languages. When an actor is good at something we use it in the script. In the third season, Birgitte has an English boyfriend and that was after Borgen began to travel. I wouldn’t say it was because we wanted to make the show more international. The reason was we didn’t want to make Birgitte reunite with her divorced husband Philip (Mikael Birkkjær). Then we asked the question, “How would the Prime Minister find a new boyfriend?” It is hard to find in your own country! It would be easier beyond the borders. That was the main reason but, as we knew people were watching our show in English-speaking countries, maybe we did take it into consideration. However, our target audience has always been the Danish viewers.
When it comes to the personal relationships in the series arc, most seem doomed for failure, namely Birgitte and Phillip and Kasper and Katrine. We expect, or hope, for a loving reconciliation but it is never given when we enter into the third season. With these changes and a longer break between the previous two seasons, what was the audience feedback like?
CH: At first we had a ‘greenlight’ for twenty episodes so we had planned to make the first two seasons. Then came the success and then the broadcaster wanted another ten-episode season. Adam Price felt like he had already told the stories he wanted to tell from the Prime Minister’s office so he wanted to give the series a new angle. This is why he felt it would be more challenging for all of us to take Birgitte outside of politics. Yet, she is still a political animal so we had to think about what she could be doing instead. We had a lot of discussions, we were really busy and I tried to postpone it myself for a further six months. A season takes one year to film and a year before that to write it. In regards to Philip and Birgitte, it was deemed unrealistic and too romantic if they got back together. It was different with Kasper (Pilou Asbæk) and Katrine (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) as we wanted them to have many more scenes together. However, Pilou Asbæk did not want to have a big part in season three.
It was a significant change in the third season to foreground Søren Malling and relegate Pilou Asbæk to a supporting role.
CH: Now Pilou had become well-known internationally, he was working on other projects so we had to make his part very small. He had just been cast in The Borgias (2011–2013) so we had to create a situation where Katrine and Kasper could have fewer scenes together. I’ve heard that afterwards, Pilou regretted that decision. We had to have a new character and, seeing as though Katrine transformed into the new spin doctor or press advisor for Birgitte, we needed someone to represent the press. When Torben Friis (Søren Malling), TV1’s news editor, experiences a mid-life crisis and becomes threatened by the younger generation, this is actually a true depiction of what it can be like to work in broadcasting. We have seen so many incidences of this kind and Søren just acted himself into a bigger part.
Along with the changes to Torben and Kasper, the strong female stars were brought together. At first, this seemed strange as Birgitte and Katrine were leading the parallel narratives from the parliament angle and media angle, only to form an alliance.
CH: In the first two seasons they shared very little screen time. Both Sidse and Birgitte wanted to have more scenes together and I think it worked very well.
One of the most important questions to ask is how closely did the Danish parliament cooperate during filming? Was there any opposition or criticisms about government representations? Were you able to shoot on location easily?
CH: They did not cooperate very well! When we were developing and planning the series we really wanted to get permission to film inside ‘Borgen’. It is such a big, beautiful castle and they have so many big rooms with intricate details and furnishings. The castle is around 200-years-old. Nevertheless, they do not allow any “fiction” to be shot inside Christiansborg. We tried our hardest but we got rejected. We could only film outside. It actually became a political story because when we requested permission to the board, one of the right-wing decision makers who is a politician wrote a big article about it in the newspaper! This was 18-months before we even aired anything. He wrote, “Take care, they’re making another series about left-wing politics” and he did not want us inside. We were always accused of being left-wing biased. We built the Prime Minister’s office in the studio and we found some other locations that looked like Christiansborg but we were never on the inside.
It sounds like the real Svend Åge Saltum of the Freedom Party was working against you!
CH: Yes. But now you could say that Borgen is a great ambassador for Danish politics. Since DR is a public broadcaster with licensing fees, similar to the BBC. We have a board of politicians that decides everything here. They were so worried that we would show political bias so we had to balance things all of the time. If we had a left-wing plug in one episode, we had to have a right-wing plug in the next episode. We had a lot of attention from our bosses all the way up to the General Director of DR.
What are your own political views? Which party do you support?
CH: I don’t talk about my political views! I think I’m somewhere in the centre. Somewhere! Actually, I would vote for different parties at different elections. I’m not a one party person. I’m in the centre. I’m not on any of the sides.
Will there ever be a fourth season?
CH: There are absolutely no plans. At DR we don’t do a lot of seasons. Having three seasons is actually a lot. I have heard Adam Price and Sidse Babett Knudsen joking about a fourth season. In five to ten years, looking into the future where would Birgitte Nyborg be?
In ‘Borgen’, her “second home”.
CH: You can never say never.
Interview by Antony Smith