This month’s Conversation took place at the Danish Embassy in London and welcomes two titans of small-screen drama. They come together from different nations, different political systems and – very possibly – different political persuasions to work on a brand new political drama.
Seemingly incongruously, Adam Price is a successful TV chef as well as having worked as head of drama at Danish national broadcaster dr2. His creation Borgen hit Danish screens in 2010 and has become a byword for high-quality television drama that is as exciting as it is thought-provoking.
Michael Dobbs served as Margaret Thatcher’s chief of staff in the Conservative party’s golden days of the 1980s before writing House of Cards, first aired on the bbc in 1990. Online distributor Netflix adapted it, showing all 13 episodes of its first series together online in February 2013, embracing the shift in global viewing habits. It has now released the second series.
The Dobbs/Price drama series (currently being “shaken and rewritten” and as-yet unnamed) will be set in Westminster, most likely have a strong female lead character and, according to Price “will be a British thing; there is no Danish money”. Not surprisingly, Dobbs hopes that “maybe they’ll buy it”.
Adam Price: Things have changed so much in the world of TV. When I was head of drama at dr2 [Denmark’s second state channel], I asked my European counterparts at a TV conference if they wanted to collaborate on some scripts and everyone just shrugged and asked what Denmark could possibly bring to the table. I’m glad to say things have changed. Due to the success of Borgen I was asked if I wanted to meet you and I jumped at the chance. I loved the first bbc version of House of Cards when I was a kid and now here we are collaborating on a show. I feel like I’ve been accepted into the land of the giants; so Michael – how does it feel to be a TV giant?
Michael Dobbs: Well, it’s an exciting time creatively and in TV terms there’s a huge change going on out there. We don’t know where it’s going to end; in fact it’s only just started. We’re in a position where House of Cards on Netflix is being used as a tool to create a revolution in television. Viewers want the TV they want when they want it, not when a broadcaster condescends to let them have it. It changes how people watch it and also how you and I write it.
AP: Yes, the structure is very different from writing “old-fashioned” commercial TV.
MD: With House of Cards we put every episode out at the same time. So in terms of writing we don’t need those extraordinary climaxes at the end of each episode which can put you in a straitjacket. You can write TV like a book with a beginning, a middle and an end. Netflix has gambled hundreds of millions of dollars on creating this revolution. When all our original 13 hours were released at the touch of a button people were left scratching their heads. Since then Netflix’s share price has gone up 300 per cent and subscribers have risen from 30 million to 40 million and are increasingly international. You and I are trying to create things when the whole world of television is changing.
AP: It’s interesting to discuss whether the creative process, the writing, remains the same across the different platforms. It is and isn’t the same. When you meet American writers who work for the big networks, they write to accommodate at least three long commercial breaks; they write act climaxes before every commercial to keep their viewers. Personally, I lose track of the drama with these long adverts. Talking about our project, which we’d like to be on the commercial-free bbc, you could say we’re writing in what you might call the traditional way.
MD: And there’s a great freedom to it.
AP: Let’s talk about the world in which our show will be based. As an outsider I look at British politics in a very different way and that clashes with the reality of your political world and the British class system. That system is changing but seems still very powerful.
MD: Well, I simply say as Lord Dobbs – there is no class system!
AP: There you have it! Danish society is homogenous and seems very different to what you have here in Britain. The scandals that have happened in British life in the last 10 years have rather inspired us. How could we ignore the News of the World story? Or corruption in the police? The too-close relations between the press and political life? Although that’s the case in Denmark, too, and was one of the inspirations for Borgen.
MD: It’s a good time to be setting a drama here: in less than six months Scotland might have walked away from the UK, we’re talking about allowing people a vote as to whether they want to remain in the EU, we have all sorts of financial crises and London is changing vastly and rapidly. These extraordinary cranes, new buildings, new money coming in from abroad with new rules, new customs – a lack of rules as well – and the continuing problem of people not being able to afford living in London, being squeezed out all the time.
AP: It is very dramatic.
MD: It is. All of this is a fabulously rich creative broth to generate drama. And the drama at the same time can help bring home the consequences of that and get people to understand what’s going on. Of course the first job of all drama is to be entertaining but we might also be able to help raise people’s perspectives as to what’s going on and to draw their own conclusions. I’ve never asked you why you started working on Borgen; may I ask you that question?
AP: Well, I’ve always been very interested in politics but my generation have always been regarded in Denmark as the consumer generation that let their parents do the revolution; we got big careers instead. But the drive for freedom was happening elsewhere in the world – Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall. One day in 2007 I was in my gym standing next to some big guy while on the TV Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced the election – what should be the heyday of democracy; what we’ve all fought for. And the guy next to me just said, “fuck, count me out”. And I just thought, well that’s interesting, here we are in one of the oldest democracies in the world and we don’t bother. I wonder if I can write something that can stir an interest in politics?
MD: Your story strikes a chord; mine is too ludicrous for words. I’ve never had a proper job, although I was the chief of staff of the Conservative party under Margaret Thatcher. I saw that great people aren’t comfortable people; they’re always busy changing the world. To be great you’ve got to be obsessed; you can’t be about being loved but about doing something and she was like that. During the 1987 campaign we had an almighty falling-out and I thought she was very unfair, and it made me feel very confused and very sore at the time. I went on holiday with a book that I thought was just awful and my wife at the time said, “stop being so bloody pompous, if you think you can do any better go and do it – if not shut up”. So I went down to the pool with a pad and a pencil and a bottle of wine and by the time I had finished the wine, all I had on the pad was “FU”. These initials became Francis Urquhart and later became Francis Underwood in the US series – and of course the initials stand for their characters.
AP: So you owe it all to your ex-wife and getting beaten up by Margaret Thatcher?
MD: Quite right! You know, at the end of the day political drama isn’t about politics. People love Borgen but they probably don’t remember the intricacies of the plots and the details of who did what to whom. They remember great characters. Drama is about characters first and foremost. Hamlet is a political drama but you don’t think of it like that. Westminster is a great backcloth because you see characters put under pressure, you see them tempted, exhausted, taking shortcuts – sometimes with good motives, but this is all wonderful stuff for drama.
AP: Well Michael, you’re in the House of Lords but for me it’s not really about taking from real life. The rule of political drama, if there is one, is that you do the drama first then add the politics. You need to sketch out the journey of your characters and then we put in the political stuff that makes it credible.
MD: I did wonder when I started writing if I’d lose all of my political friends but I had a misunderstanding about most politicians, which is that they love to be in show business. The only way of disappointing them was when they used to ask, “That guy Francis Urquhart – he was based on me wasn’t he?” I’d tell them no and they’d walk away utterly crestfallen. People do occasionally bring the stories to you, though – one very senior member of the House of Lords likes to shout out, “Dobbsy – got another one for you!” One august female peer, who carries all before like a warship in full sail once said, “I hear there’s a character in your new book that’s a lot like me.” I started to burble politely and she said, “It bloody well ought to be me because I’ve told everyone it is.”
AP: With Borgen, we were accused of causing a lot of things that later happened – one being paving the way for the first female Danish prime minister. Helle Thorning-Schmidt was chairman of the Social Democratic Party at the time we were writing the script; we’ve just been good at guessing things. We’ve also handled quite big political hot potatoes. We did an episode making the case for legalising prostitution in Denmark and a week later the Conservative party put up the same proposal in parliament.
MD: I still say it’s about the people not the politics. Recently, I saw a version of Julius Caesar set in modern day Africa and it worked wonderfully well. It gets you to think afresh about these stories and gets you to think of the underlying truths that span all sorts of systems. For the US version of House of Cards Kevin Spacey came from a worldwide tour of playing Richard III to the character of Francis Underwood. It makes you think we could do this in China, Russia, anywhere – it’s not the system, it’s the values of the characters. Previously, perhaps, Americans had liked soft political dramas like The West Wing; we created The West Wing for werewolves. AP: I’ve heard from Netflix writers that they have great artistic freedom. They’re trusted to write and the executives and producers don’t get involved, don’t all throw in their advice and expect changes, until it’s not the writer’s series anymore. In Europe, writers are all fighting with executives and it makes it so difficult to write.
MD: Between us, we don’t really discuss politics that much, do we? It’s very possible that we might disagree on things but as dramatists we’re aware – in creating this drama together – of not telling the viewer what to think; of allowing them to make up their minds after having been presented with both sides. We’re not into just banging the nail home.