Borgen is Denmark’s answer to The West Wing and has been a huge hit among UK audiences, showing to more than 600,000 viewers on BBC4 earlier this year.
It centres on female political party leader Birgitte Nyborg, who is unexpectedly elected as Denmark’s prime minister. Other key characters include her spin doctor Kasper Juul and the ambitious TV presenter Katrine Fønsmark.
The show depicts the impact of the all-consuming job on Nyborg’s personal and political life. ‘The premise of the show is roughly "can you remain in power while still remaining yourself?",’ says Gram. ‘We wanted her to be a good politician, but to show the costs of doing that,’ he adds.
Society's expectations of women
One of these costs is the unravelling of her marriage and family life as she focuses on her career. The storyline sparks questions about society's expectations of women.
Gram says that during an interview, the wife of a Danish prime minister said she had to stay at home with her children because her husband worked a lot and stayed in the city most of the week.
But during research for the show, high-level female politicians told him this would not work in reverse. ‘They told me: "If I became the prime minister, it would be a huge problem. If I said I’m not sleeping at home with my family for half a week, I’d be labelled as a bad mother and it would reflect poorly on my ratings." Men and women are measured on different scales. It’s a very different reality.’
He adds: ‘Women were not part of professional life until 100 years ago. It’s only in the past 40 or 50 years that the top level has opened up to them. It takes some time for reality to change so it would be as easy for a woman as a man.’
Interestingly, after the first series aired in Denmark, the country elected its first female prime minister.
The role of the spin doctor
While researching the series, Gram and his colleagues spoke to politicians, civil servants, special advisers, spin doctors and the prime minister. He says the show has received a mainly positive reaction from the Danish public affairs community, but that some criticise it for not being completely realistic.
There are some meetings – for example when the prime minister meets senior politicians – where Juul would not be present. But he argues: ‘We chose for Kasper the situations that would be the most dramatic. It’s the rules of drama to show the peaks and depths of life, and not so much about the middle.’
Borgen is one of several successful TV shows coming out of Scandinavia, including Wallander, The Bridge and The Killing. ‘At the beginning my boss said Borgen would never travel outside of Scandinavia,’ he says. Now it is being shown in the US and the UK.
‘We owe The Killing a lot. I don’t think a political drama by itself would have made that slot. Everyone loves a well-made mystery – it attracts a big international audience,’ he says.
The next series is showing on the BBC in January 2013. ‘I don’t want to give any spoilers but I’m very pleased with the second series. There’s another level of depth to the characters and the plot. I am excited to see what the British audience will think,’ he says.
Gram was speaking at an event held by Welsh public affairs agency Deryn Consulting, in association with newsdirect wales.