Borgen and Hygge
At a certain age, apparently, it’s well known that women give up on trying to beautify their bodies and get to work on improving their houses instead. No longer is it Vogue and Grazia cluttering the coffee table, but Living Etc and Elle Decor, laid out in a tidy fan. No longer does one venture out in body-con dresses, but nests instead at home, in an animal-look onesie, snuggled on the sofa with this or that box set. All that effort that used to go on fretting about one’s outfit has to go somewhere. So is it the quality of the writing that’s the best thing about Danish television at the moment, or is it the interior design?
I wrote here about the utopian symbolism – as I saw it – of all those beautiful, glowing and planetary Danish light-fittings in The Killing, my previous box-set project. And I’ve been delighted to see all the classics – the Artichoke, the Enigma, the Henningsen PH4 – out in force in my new favourite, Borgen, the second run of which begins this evening on BBC4. This is the one in which Birgitte Nyborg, the middle-aged and middle-class leader of the exceedingly middle-of-the-road 'Moderate Party', unexpectedly finds herself the first female prime minister of Denmark. The stirring credit sequence shows her bounding off her bike from her domestic life and into the public sphere, leaving her kids behind in her elegant house with her handsome husband to stride the corridors of the Folketinget, smiling her captivatingly crinkle-nostrilled smile. 'It’s a chess game, if you like,' the veteran correspondent Hanne Holm says about Danish electoral politics at the beginning of the first episode. Certainly one of the programme’s many pleasures is second-guessing Nyborg on her increasingly raptor-like calculations as she fires people and forms various weird-looking and fragile coalitions.
'It is hard,' the Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley writes in his recently published How to be Danish, 'to continue this discussion . . . without mentioning the very Danish concept of hygge. Pronounced roughly "hoo-guh", hygge does not have a direct equivalent in English. It refers to the warm state of relaxation in which Danes find themselves when they’re sitting round a fire with friends.' But Kingsley continues: 'It is often loosely translated as “cosiness”, but this seems too broad and yet too specific a translation. When I first arrived in Denmark, I was surprised to hear many people describe all sorts of things as "cosy". My bike was cosy, their table was cosy, and so too was a walk through Vesterbro.' Cosy is the new cool.
I love just about everything about Borgen even more than I used to love everything about The Killing. But I especially love the constant low-level wince of discomfort round Nyborg in her working clothes, the way she always seems to be bursting out of her tight skirts and buttoned blouses. The problem isn't her body. She looks absolutely fine in her leisurewear and, in early episodes at least, is forever wriggling out of her horrid tights to have sex with her lovely husband. The problem is with the clothes, their lack of hospitality, especially when compared to hygging out at home. A similar awkwardness seems to be suffered by the marvellous Katrine Fonsmark – aka 'Nyborg’s nemesis', the 'stunningly beautiful and brutally ambitious television reporter' (in the words of the Daily Mail) – who is constantly interrupting her brave and brilliant journalistic investigations to punish her strong-looking late-twenties body in spinning classes at the gym. As with Nyborg, her clothes sit oddly on her, though in a different way. Her top half blends in perfectly, but her bottom half looks peculiar, sticking out in flared skirts and baggy boots and, more than once, an appallingly ballooning pair of royal-blue harem pants.
'It’s a terrible contradiction,' Bent Serjo, the (male, older) Moderate Party sage, says to Nyborg in a later episode, when her home life has started going pear-shaped. 'In Parliament we fight for the modern family, where both parents work. But for an MP’s marriage to work, the spouse has to stay at home.' Is this then why the show’s designers seem to have, literally and physically, split their women stars in two? The impression is heightened by the way the show Fonsmark presents on (the fictional) TV1 has her not sitting at a glass-topped table, as she would at the BBC, but standing at a chest-high podium, like the ones you rest your drinks on in All Bar One, with the person she is interviewing leaning on the other side.
So is this a Borgen thing or a Danish thing, I asked Kingsley, and whichever, what is it supposed to be all about? Kingsley said that he’d often asked himself exactly this question, but that although it’s true that journalists mostly stand up on Danish news programmes, it isn’t universal – when he did interviews on television for his book, he did them sitting down. A bit later, Kingsley emailed to say he’d heard back from a friend at DR, the real-life Danish national TV station, who sent this fantastic link to a media-discussion show, in which participants are discussing this very thing.
There aren’t any subtitles, but the gist, Kingsley says, is that standing debates on television '(a) rip-off US presidential debates; (b) recreate the punch-up-style atmosphere of a boxing ring; (c) evoke, conversely, the tension of a standoff in a Western; and (d) bring the excitement of an X-factor performance to a political discussion'. Though the fact that the presenters are (a) cute, (b) speaking Danish and (c) pointing at various hygge-looking chairs and tables is enough for me.