Allan Massie: Housden’s Borgen episode worth following

The permanent secretary’s praise of Danish TV reveals more about himself than the quality of programming, writes Allan Massie

The permanent secretary’s praise of Danish TV reveals more about himself than the quality of programming, writes Allan Massie

Sir Peter Housden, the permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, is an Englishman, often accused by unionists of having gone native, and of promoting the SNP’s independence agenda.

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Indeed, the leaders of the Scottish Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have complained that he sees his role as the Scottish Government’s senior civil servant as political rather than purely administrative. Be that as it may, Sir Peter is happy to stick his head over the parapet, and comment on all sorts of things. He writes a weekly briefing, distributed to thousands of civil servants, in which he airs his views, sometimes on grave matters such as the behaviour of his neighbours’ cats. More recently, he has been musing on the virtues of the Danish political serial Borgen, shown on BBC4.

The programme is said to be Nicola Sturgeon’s favourite: no surprise there since it features a strong-minded – if emotionally vulnerable – female prime minister doing her difficult job to the best of her considerable ability. I daresay our equally able, if, one hopes, less emotionally confused, Deputy First Minister thinks “this could be me” – or even “this will be me some day”. She may also think that she could do the job better than Birgitte – they’re all on first name terms in Danish politics, on TV at least. She is probably right. One can’t imagine Ms Sturgeon getting plastered and engaging in a one-night stand with her driver.

Sir Peter “gulped” when watching the climax of the second series, which, he said, was handled “with great tenderness”. It seemed pretty average schmalz to me, but perhaps senior civil servants like Sir Peter are more easily moved than someone like myself, a veteran of a couple of lengthy stints as a TV critic.

However, he wasn’t concerned only to demonstrate his own sensibility. He had a serious comment to make. Watching Borgen made him “wonder how we in the UK, from a bigger pool of talent and presumably greater resources all round, manage not to emulate the standards of their public broadcaster DR.”

Well, that’s a good question, and I am ready to accept that Sir Peter knows much more about Danish TV than I do, though perhaps less than Sidse Babette Knudsen, who plays the prime minister in Borgen, and who has been quoted as saying that most Danish TV consists of “**** reality shows”.

Nevertheless, Sir Peter asked: “Is it the pernicious influence of managers and marketers here, driving in the middle of the road [as] epitomised by Silent Witness?

I don’t know,” he adds modestly, “but our dramas seem flatter and two-dimensional; the action rushed and soapy; the dialogue often trite.”

Here, I must admit, Sir Peter has the advantage of me. I assume that he speaks Danish fluently, and is able to appreciate the subtleties and quality of the dialogue in Borgen, unlike most of us who have to rely on the subtitles which, like most subtitles, are trite as can be.

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Far be it from me to defend the quality of our home-made dramas, but, enjoyable though Borgen is in a mildly relaxing way, the adjectives “flat”, “two-dimensional” and “soapy” could all be applied quite fairly to it. Most of the characters are straight from central casting: the wicked and unscrupulous newspaper boss; the racist and suitably ugly populist politician; the alky middle-aged female reporter and her protegee, the bright charming girl who is in love with the PM’s spin doctor; even Birgitte herself, with her troubled family life, teenage daughter suffering anxiety attacks, etc etc. Then some of the storylines were pure soap; for instance, the episode featuring the politician whose career is ruined and who is driven to kill himself, because the newspaper boss has hired a pretty rent-boy to expose his secret gay life.

Now I am quite happy to agree with Sir Peter that Borgen offers agreeable entertainment, just right for a weekend evening, and that most TV drama on either the BBC or ITV is not very good. But it is not that good. It’s in the same category as, to go back a bit, Michael Dobbs’s House of Cards, a frothy confection made richly enjoyable by the late Ian Richardson’s bravura performance as the chief whip, Francis Urquhart.

Political drama is difficult to do well because most political life is not very dramatic, and has to be sexed-up. Any mini-series based on the life and times of our SNP government would have to indulge in flights of fancy if the viewer wasn’t going to switch channels pretty quickly. We should actually be quite happy about this. Our scandals, since devolution, have been the smallest of small beer. You couldn’t grip your audience with the harrowing tale of a First Minister being ousted because he had not declared that he had sub-let part of his constituency office, or one about a party leader forced to resign because he had allegedly claimed improperly for a few taxi fares.

Even a storyline about a senior civil servant ignoring the requirement to be impartial might not make for compelling drama – and not only because it would strain belief. It’s true that a drama set in a big Scottish bank with a chief executive suffering from the vaulting ambition that overleaps itself and falls on the other side might go down well with viewers, if not with politicians who might have been inclined to applaud that ambition when the going seemed to be good. But we are still waiting for that mini-series to be made.

Actually I’m not sure just how good a judge of these things Sir Peter really is. He mentioned as an exception to the general mediocrity of British TV Julian Fellowes’ costume drama Downton Abbey, a piece of relaxing old tat, no more convincing than BBC Scotland’s masterpiece, Monarch of the Glen.

Nevertheless, we may all be glad to know that our top mandarin in Edinburgh was moved to gulping, possibly even to tears, by the “great tenderness” of that last episode of Borgen. It shows he is no Sir Humphrey, no scheming Macchiavellian, but a charmingly soft-hearted man.