The outpouring of jealousy at my meeting ‘Birgitte’ from Borgen was not quite on a par with that inspired by my ‘never talk about it’ football playing with Diego Maradona. It was there nonetheless, from the ‘jammy bastard’ tweets to the observation from Andrew Neil that he ‘never knew Danish could be so hypnotic.’
So to cut to the chase re the most asked question about Birgitte (aka Sidse Babett Knudsen) since I got back from Copenhagen – is she hot? – yes, unequivocally, and very nice, thoughtful and intelligent too. Nice too, and very thoughtful and intelligent, was Pilou Asbaek who plays spin doctor Kasper Juul.
As people analyze why a subtitled drama about a small country’s politics has become such a global hit, I think he got closest to the best understanding when he said that Danish TV, with The Killing and Borgen, has put women in positions normally dominated by men. The other factor, which also explains the success of The West Wing, is the broadly positive posture towards politics. I suspect if a British film maker tried to sell a positive story about politics to a UK broadcaster, they would not get past the most junior commissioning editor. Yet whether it is Borgen or Lincoln, the desire for that positive story about public life is there.
We can rejoice that Britain has produced great TV like Spitting Image, Rory Bremner, Yes Prime Minister, the Thick of It, and all the other stuff that shows politicians and their teams as venal or stupid. But the success of Borgen perhaps shows a desire for another angle.
Oh, and by the way, Sidse’s sporting hero is Diego Maradona. She couldn’t believe I played with him, and yet never talked about it. Her all time hero is Stevie Wonder. And she gatecrashed the 200th anniversary party for the Eiffel Tower by pretending she was his niece. When the doorman raised doubts she said ‘you’re only saying that because I am not blind.’ She got in. Not much she can teach Kasper.
Series 2 ends on BBC4 tonight. Denmark is well through series 3 now. I know what happens in both. Stay tuned. From the real PM to the taxi driver who took me to the airport, they all said it gets even better.
The Times piece is below. Photos from the session are here
Pilou Asbaek has certainly learned a thing or two about spin doctoring. He bows on meeting, and within a minute has said he is ‘honoured’ and ‘thrilled,’ only agreed to the interview because it was with me, enjoyed researching my ‘amazing’ life, and asks if I mind that he sees me and a US Republican – Karl Rove – as the top exponents of what he calls our ‘art’. You may be surprised to know I took an instant liking to him.
Pilou who, you ask? If I say Kasper Juul, perhaps it begins to make sense. If I add that an instantly recognisable bundle of smiles and energy then joins us, and I try to contain my excitement at meeting ‘Birgitte Nyborg’, you may guess we are talking about the TV sensation that is Borgen.
Birgitte is perhaps the most popular politician in the world right now, which as her real life alter ego Sidse Babett Knudsen admits, is much easier when you are dealing with scripts you can control rather than events that you can’t.
We meet in a Copenhagen hotel, Pilou arriving on foot, Sidse by bike, the limos and the bodyguards and the power suits of the fictional world long gone. They filmed the last episode of the final series in December, but are still basking in Borgen’s success. With Britain nearing the end of series 2, Danes are half way through series 3 and you do not have to be here long to find out what is happening. Everyone seems to watch it, including the real Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a personal friend who I saw for dinner the night before meeting Sidse and Pilou.
‘It’s great for Denmark that we had first The Killing, now Borgen, and both with strong women as the lead characters,’ she says ‘and it is good for politics that Borgen doesn’t just do the easy cynical thing but shows politics as human brings trying to do their best according to what they believe.’ It is a point echoed by Sidse. ‘The longer it went on the more I liked Birgitte. At times I was struggling to work out her political identity but as the story developed I realized she was a real heroine because she was fighting for things she believed in. She loves the job, loves the country, does not get offended by different views, loves democracy.’
That the real and the fictitious Prime Ministers have never met is partly as a result of a decision taken by Sidse. ‘I don’t look at gender closely. I was playing the Prime Minister, not a female Prime Minister. I was worried I would start to copy Helle so I took an active decision not to look at her. You have to remember it is drama. These are people in a story. Too much research could damage the scripts. I wanted to honour the scripts.’
It is when she lists ‘the room’ and ‘the car’ among her key relationships that you are reminded she is an actor above all else. But surely there is an added responsibility, I ask, because you have the chance to impact on the reputation of politics for good or bad? ‘That is not my job. I feel responsibility with every part I play, whether it is this or a love story.’ Pilou adds: ‘The more we let people take their own choice or meaning, the more people we influence. If we say “this is what it means”, we narrow it down.’
Both say they learned a lot. ‘I was naïve about the media,’ says Sidse. ‘I thought the media was there as a witness, not as a player, but it’s not so.’ Pilou’s takeout was that politics is much more difficult than people imagine it to be – right again – that the ‘taxi driver view that “I could sort it out” shows a lack of respect’ – right again – and that ‘there is no black and white in politics, it is not a perfect square.’
He wonders if Birgitte Nyborg is popular because people see the human side of her more than they do of real leaders, and here it is Sidse who comes to the aid of the political class. ‘It should be about what they are as politicians. Who cares what Bill Clinton did in his private life?’ Pilou goes straight back on message. ‘Everyone makes mistakes but in politics you are not allowed to. Yet to fail is human and what counts is how you bounce back. It is like we expect them to be superhuman.’
‘Morally superhuman,’ adds Sidse, who is keen to deny having made comments critical of Helle’s husband, Stephen Kinnock. ‘I just didn’t say them.’
Pilou admits that one of the by products – lessons – of the series is that he has started to speak differently. ‘Always talk in headlines – then people remember you,’ he suggests. The conversation is peppered with his perfectly formed soundbites. ‘You cannot create chemistry. It is a gift between actors.’ ‘They keep on trying the kill The Killing, but The Killing lives on.’ ‘The more you want fiction to look real, the more fictional it will be. The more fictional you want fiction to be, the more real it will feel.’ ‘For me there was a day before Borgen and a day after.’ ‘You need a big picture to put over a small story.’ And then, reaching what I suggest to him is Mensa level spin capacity ‘I am answering that question by not answering it.’
Happily he has learned to respect the art of communication and see through the clouds of media cynicism. ‘People see Kasper as a dark lord and I don’t accept it. Guys who do that kind of job are mothers and wives, husbands and fathers …’
‘Tell me about it …’
‘I love Kasper. I love his ambition, his loyalty, his always being on the ball. And the people who don’t like him, it is because he is good at his job.’
But what about the inappropriate relationships with journalists? Sidse lets out a loud throaty laugh when I say someone tweeted last week ‘it must be great living in a country with only six journalists’ and laughs again when I say to Pilou ‘and you had an affair with most of them.’
‘Hey, it happens.’
‘It’s like me in Number 10 having an affair with the political editor of the BBC! Not appropriate at all.’
‘It’s a story,’ he reminds me. ‘But actually there was a situation like this in Denmark, a spin doctor and TV anchor and now they are together and have kids. So it does happen.’
Borgen’s success has taken them by surprise. ‘When I got the part, they were talking about maybe selling to Sweden,’ says Sidse. ‘It’s 57 countries or something,’ adds Pilou. When I tell them that Helle gave French President Francois Hollande a box set, and his partner Valerie Trierweiler tweeted when they were watching it, she says ‘wow, that’skind of amazing.’
Comparisons have been made with the West Wing but she says ‘sometimes people zap away from the West Wing because the political detail is complicated. For me the political arena is what really matters in Borgen and the family story is there as the oil to keep it moving, keep the viewer engaged with the story, but the political drama is the key.’
Pilou is clear that the success of The Killing and Borgen is down to putting female leads in traditional male parts. ‘For a hundred years it has been about the guys. But think about it – if the family’s at home Sunday night 8pm, man, wife, two kids, who’s in charge? The woman. And they want to see women in lead roles. I like that.’
‘It does reflect society,’ adds Sidse. ‘I have been an actress a long time and played a lot of leads. But I can remember back in the 90s when they were making film posters and the main picture had to be a man. The assumption was that men wanted to watch men, and women wanted to watch men. Yet look at my “husband” Philip and how much he can get from a relatively small part. It shows if you put women as the lead, there are new opportunities for men too. But The Killing was the first, then Borgen. This is still pretty exotic for us too. ‘
The family pressures are central to Borgen but Sidse, 44, who has an eight year old son, and Pilou, 30, whose first daughter was born on New Year’s Eve, do not believe either that Birgitte ‘neglected’ her children or that the strains are special in politics. As to whether she ‘puts power before children,’ he says ‘you need to watch the last two episodes of series 2.’
Borgen certainly captures a lot of the pace, energy, ambition, teamwork, rivalries and ups and downs of the political world. But when I say that Birgitte’s affair with her driver struck me as being ‘unrealistic, and dare I say out of character?’ I can tell instantly that she agrees. ‘I am not going to be disloyal,’ she says. ‘We discussed that a lot, made a few changes, but …’ and in the hanging ‘but’ and the shoulder shrug her agreement is even clearer. Later she adds ‘maybe a Spanish speaking NGO type of guy would have been better,’ and laughs again.
Likewise Pilou felt that sometimes his character’s back story as an abused child was overdone. ‘I suppose they were trying to give people a reason to say to themselves why Kasper was evil but I didn’t find him evil at all.’
‘Was it ever thought an affair between you two might have been more credible after the marriage broke up?’ I ask.
‘That would have been inappropriate,’ says Pilou.
‘Bit rich coming from you,’ I suggest.
‘I think it might have been more realistic,’ says Sidse, ‘but actually the way we played the parts we always had a bit of distance. It was more bigger sister/younger brother.’
Pilou puts his hand on my shoulder and says ‘when Birgitte was having real problems at home I put my hand there as a way of showing support and she touched my hand briefly. That was the most personal gesture between us in two years. It was very much that she was the boss and I was working for her. Have you noticed how she never opens a door? We worked that out as a way of constantly establishing the nature of the relationship. I spent time with a few real spin doctors in Danish politics, like a fly on the wall. It was awesome. One had worked for the same guy for eight years and they were clearly a team. I asked him how close they were and he said “well I have never been to her home.” We built that kind of distance into our on screen relationship.’
So will there really not be a fourth series? ‘I don’t think so,’ says Sidse. ‘Never say never, but I doubt it.’ ‘Mmmm, never say never,’ echoes the spin doctor.
Meanwhile Pilou has starred in an award-winning film about Somali pirates, A Hijacking, in which his co-star is Soren Malling (Torben Friis in Borgen, Sarah Lund’s sidekick Meyer in The Killing.) Sidse has been playing a comedy role as a lesbian sexually harassing her staff, and both of them are expected to have parts in Danish TV’s next big series, a drama set in the 19th century. ‘We are a small country. So we don’t have as many actors as countries like Britain, but we do have a lot of good actors,’ says Sidse.
She also confides that she would love to work in English. No surprise there. Perhaps more surprising is the role of her dreams. ‘Hamlet. I would love to play Hamlet.’ One great Dane playing another, I suggest. But she is serious. I promised to put the word out. Now I have. Clearly, Kasper’s not the only spin doctor in the room, and nor am I.