Monday 28 January 2013

Why the British can’t do Borgen

Last week, Nick Thornsby posed an interesting question on Liberal Democrat Voice: “Where is the British Borgen?” (echoing the “Where is the British West Wing?” questions we used to hear).

Meanwhile, James Graham asked a related question on his blog – “Borgen: how realistic is it?” – but ended up tackling Nick Thornsby’s question.

Borgen, as you probably know if you’re the sort of person who reads political blogs, is a Danish TV drama series set in the world of Danish politics. The second series is currently being broadcast in the UK on BBC4. It is well-written, well-acted and realistic without lapsing into documentary style.

Borgen’s strength is the blending of the political and the personal. The characters are rounded and shown as fallible human beings, wrestling with both the competing demands of their political and personal lives and the competing demands of their ideals and realpolitik.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their human failings, the characters retain our sympathy and, with one or two exceptions, are a good advertisement for the virtues of public service. Politics is not viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, though – far from it. It is shown as a messy business, which chews up people and spits them out. But the characters are mostly decent people struggling to do their best, and in that sense Borgen is a positive depiction of politics.

So where is the British Borgen? Before we go any further, we need a sense of proportion. Borgen’s UK audience is about 800,000. For a drama series about politics, broadcast on BBC4 in the original Danish with English subtitles, that’s pretty good going. But it’s not the sort of audience to give Simon Cowell sleepless nights. A British Borgen, no matter how good, would probably have limited appeal even if it starred Tess Daly and Keith Lemon.

We then need to ask whether the question of a British Borgen is a fair one. Some have claimed that there already are many British Borgens. In the past decade, we’ve had The Amazing Mrs Pritchard and Party Animals. Both series took a view of politics comparable to Borgen but both were ratings failures and are largely forgotten. Then there are series such as Edge of Darkness, GBH, House of Cards, Our Friends in the North and State of Play – all top-notch TV dramas but all were about political corruption or interference in politics by the military or security services. None had anything positive to say about politics.

For a true view of how the British merge politics and entertainment, one has to look instead at comedy – the sitcoms Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister, The New Statesman and The Thick of It, and the panel games Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week. In isolation, each of these shows is quality entertainment, but together they promote a thoroughly cynical view of politics. In fact, they are more than cynical; they are nihilistic, suggesting that the whole business of politics is risible and that no one in public life is trustworthy or competent. The problem isn’t that these programmes satirise individual politicians or specific types of behaviour but that they imply the whole enterprise is doomed.

Antony Jay, co-writer of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, admitted in an interview that he had a political agenda. He was an advocate of public choice theory, which holds that politicians and civil servants are motivated primarily by self-interest. Subsequent writers were probably not so high-minded but simply out for cheap laughs.

An anti-political attitude now prevails but where does it come from? It is tempting to blame the recent behaviour of corrupt politicians, but corruption is as old as the hills. The parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009/10 and the cash-for-questions affair of the 1990s were tame by historical standards and served only to reinforce existing popular attitudes.

Perhaps, then, the cause is Britain’s cynical culture? It is the most commonly cited reason for anti-political attitudes. While Britain has long been noted for its ironic humour, the other side of that coin is a corrosive cynicism. But that didn’t stop Britain making political TV dramas such as Bill Brand as late as the mid-1970s.

The key cultural change seems to have occurred during the 1970s, when cynicism became much more powerful. I strongly suspect it was when the culture of ‘cool’ moved from the counter-culture to the mainstream (a trend fully explored in the excellent book Cool Rules).

Precisely what is ‘cool’ changes continually, but a constant thread is an attitude of ironic detachment. Since ‘cool’ is about cynicism rather than doing anything positive, it follows that concepts such as a sense of public duty or caring passionately about a cause must be stigmatised as ‘uncool’. As these concepts are vital to political action, politics can never be ‘cool’.

We should also not forget that, in Britain, the TV industry, including most of the commissioning editors and TV critics, is based in London. Here, the culture of ‘cool’ is more intense, particularly in the incestuous world of the media. Imagine proposing an uncynical drama series about politics to a TV executive inhabiting that world. You would be on the receiving end of the most supercilious sneer in Hoxton.

The ‘uncool’ concepts of a sense of public duty and of caring passionately about a cause are central to Borgen. Despite this, Borgen was still shown on British TV, partly on the strength of the Danish detective series The Killing and also because Borgen is foreign and subtitled, so an art house aesthetic kicks in. This would have overcome any qualms about a positive depiction of politics, which ordinarily would have offended cool rules.

This culture isn’t going to change any time soon so, for now, we will have to carry on outsourcing serious political drama to foreign TV companies. At home, meanwhile, we will continue amusing ourselves to death.

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