Television: Danish politics, German war stories and Irish builders blowing the budget
‘Borgen’ returned, with the former prime minister making new starts amid familiar, nuanced themes
Political convictions: Sidse Babett Knudsen and Mikael Birkkjær in Borgen
There’s no goofing off on your phone while watching the brilliant Danish political drama Borgen (BBC Four, Saturday). It’s not just the subtitles, although if you miss one you could, unless your Danish extends beyond hej and tak, miss the whole point of a scene. (Really, we should be nearly fluent by now, there are so many standout Danish imports.) It’s that so much ground had to be made up in the first episode of the third series.
Two and half years had passed since Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the most fully realised female TV character in recent years, had been ousted as prime minister at the end of the last series. And, as the writers work on the basis that viewers don’t need everything spelled out, short, snappy scenes filled in the gaps and ended with Nyborg ditching her postpolitics career on the lucrative corporate-speaking circuit and setting up her own party. As the leader of a coalition government, her political convictions were tested and compromised in the last two series, so a new party should give her a blank whiteboard; symbolically, it was her first purchase for her shabby headquarters.
Her new press secretary, the TV journalist Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), has had a baby, and the stress-filled scenes in which she tries to juggle her career with motherhood, such as the superbly nuanced bickering between her and her own mother, echo Nyborg’s struggles in the first two series. This theme is well thought through in Borgen.
Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk), a one-time spin doctor and the baby’s father, now sports a foppish hairdo and presents what looks like the most boring politics programme on television. He and the station’s head of news stand around a podium and discuss the events of the week. It’s really just a clunky device for the writers to explain the political background. The head of news, meanwhile, is struggling with a new boss, a slick young chap imported from cable TV, who is urging more good-news stories and less of the downbeat economic and political stuff. Borgen has already done the impossible by making coalition politics tense and intriguing. It just might do the same for the public-service broadcasting debate.
There is one curiosity, though: the sleeker, more fashion-conscious Nyborg has acquired a British boyfriend. He’s an architect, and a bit dull, but the real problem is that he speaks English and so does Nyborg – perfectly and without an accent – when she is with him. It’s most disconcerting. If you were a cynic – and Borgen is about politics in a small country, so it does encourage it – you’d wonder whether it has to do with the success of the Danish drama in English-speaking countries, in the same way that Downton Abbey is rather fond of introducing random American characters to appeal to a US audience.
The slot that was recently home to Love/Hate has been filled with the easy-going makeover programme Room to Improve (RTÉ One, Sunday). It’s as if everyone needed to calm down with some chat about carpets and curtains after all that inner-city violence. Presented by the architect Dermot Bannon, it has a set trajectory: the clients have a dream, the builder grumbles about nice-guy Bannon, it goes over budget but no one minds, and at the end there’s a party in the new open-plan kitchen where everyone admires the giant windows.
It got lucky with its first subjects: Catherine Bennett, a mother from Mullingar, and her daughter, Sarah Jane, had personalities as big as their plans, and their banter sustained its new hour-long format.
The BBC and RTÉ bought Generation War (RTÉ Two, Sunday), and it’s not surprising: the German-made second World War drama was a huge and controversial hit at home. RTÉ is showing it first, though not on its main station, and it’s a fine, beautifully made epic. The original name of the German miniseries, Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers), must have been profoundly evocative – and provocative – for German viewers, because the intense, cinematic three-part series explores how Nazi ideology seeped into the thoughts and actions of ordinary citizens.
Set in 1941, it begins with five vivacious young friends preparing to go their separate ways as war demands, vowing to meet in Berlin at Christmas, by which time they expect hostilities to be over.
Heading for the eastern front are Wilhelm, a career officer who accepts the idea of the war but not his army’s escalating brutality to enemy civilians; his younger, more sensitive brother, Friedhelm; and Charlotte, a naive nurse who soon betrays a Jewish woman who is hiding in the hospital, in an ideology-fuelled act that takes even Charlotte by surprise.
Staying in Berlin are Greta, who dreams of becoming a singer, and her Jewish boyfriend, Viktor, who initially believes, like his father, that nothing will happen to them, as they are loyal Germans.
The only likeable character of the five, Viktor ends the first episode trying to escape to the US with papers that his girlfriend obtained from her lover, a vile SS colonel who promises to make her the next Marlene Dietrich.
The most shocking scenes were not the battles at the frozen eastern front; instead, it was the almost casual viciousness – a child being shot, soldiers fighting among themselves – carried out by people in uniform who used to be “ordinary Germans”, like the five friends.
What with a hospital administrator getting salary top-ups from the sweet shop, and postbailout anxiety, it was a good week to bring back Irish Pictorial Weekly, (RTÉ One, Thursday).
Returning characters include Barry Murphy’s hilarious turn as Angela Merkel: “Young people of Ireland, I own you,” she says, holding a white teddy much like the James Bond villain Blofeld and his cat. There are also the senior civil servants in their mad wigs – they love their wigs in Irish Pictorial Weekly – sniggering about their pension entitlements and making cavalier decisions before breaking open the booze. New characters include Michael Noonan as Alfred Hitchcock (Alan Shortt is unnervingly good), and quick fillers, such as the Late Late Show audience on tour. Once you’ve seen Gary Cooke as Imelda May in her ad for credit unions, complete with quiff and a slick of lipstick, it’s not easily forgotten.
It’s great fun: snappy comedy sketches mixed with quality satire that’s very funny at the time but slightly depressing to think about later – because they’ve hit the nail squarely on the head.