by Soraya Kishtwari / 18 Oct 2012
BBC/Des Willie. iStockphoto/Palto
This was the opening disclaimer that kicked off On Expenses, the hour-long BBC4 drama which depicted journalist Heather Brooke’s lengthy battle to expose MPs’ excesses through the Freedom of Information Act. You couldn’t make it up. In fact, when it comes to British political dramas, it seems you really can’t. Recently, former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith wrote an article for Progress, the New Labour pressure group, with the headline: ‘A British Borgen, please’.
It was a call to arms on behalf of the political classes for dramatists to end the depiction of politicians as “either venal, idiotic or evil, or any combination” in favour of the “decent, capable and hard-working” individuals that they are.
“Let’s not be cowed by the satirists, the media comment or the fictional portrayals into accepting the denigration of democratic politicians,” she wrote.
Smith pointed to Danish-made Borgen and the hugely successful US series The West Wing as two examples that have managed to strike the right balance.
“It [Borgen] is reminiscent of The West Wing in that it portrays a political leader struggling with the choices required of a position of political power, experiencing the impact of that on family and other relationships, sometimes falling short, but essentially showing politics to be the honourable profession that I believe it to be.”
When I catch up with Smith, she suggests that a failure to do this is “at best depressing, at worst damaging to our democratic process”. However, she accepts that there are a number of other factors which also damage the reputation of the Westminster village (the Punch and Judy theatrics of PMQs, for example).
Smith’s former cabinet colleague Caroline Flint, now the shadow energy and climate change secretary, agrees.
“I wouldn’t think that a drama about politics that was, somehow, a cheerleader would work, and it’s not something that I personally would want to see. But I do think the nuances get missed; politicians aren’t all bad people,” she says.
“They do have goals and they do have visions, and I think that’s worthy of dramatic interpretation.”
The Amazing Mrs Pritchard was a 2006 BBC mini-drama, starring Jane Horrocks as a supermarket manager-turned-independent politician who defies the odds to become prime minister. It is a rare depiction in which the main political character is defined by her integrity.
Sally Wainwright wrote the series as a response to the homogeneous nature of real-life politicians. “During the last election,” she explains, “I found that I didn’t really want to vote for anybody because they all seemed as bad as each other. I thought it would be great fun to write an epic story with a central character who was prepared to stand up and point this out. Mrs Pritchard is bold enough – some may say daft enough – to stand for Parliament on the assumption that she can do just as badly as any of them, but that at least she’ll be honest.”
For Flint, however, Mrs Pritchard is more a cop-out than honest: “The problem is on one level it is a get-out-of-jail-free card for writers. ‘We won’t deal with hearty politics – it is too dirty, too messy – so we’ll come up with a different construct: someone who’s independent’.”
Dr Matthew Ashton, a lecturer in politics and media at Nottingham Trent University, believes overly positive portrayals of politicians “rarely work”. He may have a point: Mrs Pritchard pulled in just 3.5 million viewers in its sixth and final episode. “The suggestion there,” Ashton believes, “is that in order to be genuinely good, you cannot possibly be part of the system.”
His explanation for the dearth of modern British political dramas is two-fold. On the one hand, politicians have been largely discredited by the expenses scandal. “We are cynical and fed up with politicians. We don’t want them as heroes – or anti-heroes, for that matter.”
On the other, when real-life politics offers you colourful characters like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, why bother with fiction? Over the last few years, we’ve had tales of fratricide, moats and duck houses, neighbours at war, secret gay partners, inappropriate friendships and cash for honours/access scandals. “You couldn’t make it up, so anything you see on TV now would pale in comparison”, says Ashton.
In dramas such as State of Play, the heroes are the journalists. In the six-part serial, the dogged efforts by reporters at The Herald newspaper to link two apparently unconnected deaths to a series of dubious contracts involving lobbyists and high-ranking government officials is a modern-day morality tale of corporate greed.
However, the image of the ‘honest journo’ is now tarnished by the phone-hacking revelations, culminating in the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. The Hour, which aired last year, sidesteps this dilemma by transferring the drama to a television newsroom and swapping the present day for the 1950s.
It implies that if you want to find a hero, or even an anti-hero, “you have to go back to the past”, says Dr Ashton. This is where we find House of Cards, written by Margaret Thatcher’s former chief of staff Lord Michael Dobbs, who says it portrayed “the end of an era”.
Francis Urquhart, the Conservative chief whip, was the consummate anti-hero, driven by power, greed and ambition, who would stop at nothing, not even murder, to realise his aims. “What people want in drama is someone who knows what they want, irrespective of how they go about achieving this,” says Lord Dobbs.
He is convinced that this is essentially what voters also want of their leaders: somebody with vision.
Lord Dobbs believes House of Cards, Borgen, and The West Wing are successful for the same reason: “The secret of political drama is not politics. In Borgen, we don’t understand Danish politics – we don’t need to. What we see are politicians, real people, set against the most wonderful, colourful, pressurised and overheated background. It’s a personal drama. House of Cards wasn’t about left-wing or right-wing politics, it was about people.”
Ed Vaizey, the Tory culture minister, looks back even further to locate his drama of choice: A Very British Coup, based on the 1982 novel by Chris Mullin, another pen-wielding politician. Harry Perkins is the newly elected Labour PM, who soon becomes the target of a US-backed Tory conspiracy to oust the socialists from power. Vaizey praises both A Very British Coup and House of Cards as “well-crafted, entertaining dramas”.
If Urquhart was loosely based on Shakespeare’s Richard III, Lord Dobbs says there was potential for a Macbeth-style drama inspired by former Labour PM Gordon Brown.
With the zeal of a literary God, he laments how “short-lived” the Brown era was, with all “the passion, the pain,” of the thane-turned-king, and then goes on to contrast our homegrown dramas with those across the Atlantic: “Hollywood and America seem to have a greater taste for decent politicians; the good guys.”
In The West Wing, Martin Sheen played charismatic President Josiah Bartlet, a cipher for the Hollywood ideal that the goodie always prevails. Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat foreign minister, is a self-confessed American political obsessive. “I love American politics... but,” he admits, “I’m probably the only politician who doesn’t watch The West Wing.
“There was a genuinely interesting drama in who Mitt Romney would choose as his running mate, and what that person’s speech would be like at the convention. Why have a Hollywood actor pretending to be a fictional Mitt Romney running mate, doing what an actor and scriptwriter imagine a politician does in those circumstances, when you can actually see a real person doing it for real?”
When it comes to British political dramas, Browne is disappointed by their lack of ambition. “By seeking to confirm the most cynical instincts that people may have, they find an audience.”
“But,” he adds, “that audience is not invited to consider, in a new way, the role politicians play in a democracy. It’s like an art gallery of reassuringly old classics; there’s a place for it, but artistically it’s not very interesting.”
Nevertheless, many Britons did enjoy The West Wing, although it’s difficult to conceive of a British equivalent because it’s not the sort of thing we would write, much less believe, of our own elected representatives.
“We have a wonderful tradition of kicking our politicians. And, speaking as one, occasionally we deserve a bit of a kicking,” says Lord Dobbs.
Ashton concurs that British dramas borrow from the “old theatrical tradition”, which is “very much about critiquing the system”, although he does not believe the notion that Americans only do sugar-coated political dramas.
The West Wing was a “one-off; that was very much made as a liberal fantasy reaction to President Bush”. He points out that America is also the home of the conspiracy theory, which provided the backdrop to science fiction drama The X-Files, in which the government was nearly always the enemy.
Looking to the future of British politics, Ashton is confident that, given time, the coalition will inspire a “whole slew of books and dramas”. Lord Dobbs agrees it is “very fertile ground”.
In the meantime, Westminster will have to make do with political satire The Thick of It, which Lord Dobbs describes as farce rather than drama.
This brings us back to Jacqui Smith’s original request. “Don’t get me wrong – I also love The Thick of It. There is often a chaotic and farcical side to government, which this gets to a tee,” she wrote.
But is it too much for her to ask for a more responsible portrayal that shows politicians’ beauty spots and not just their warts?
Armando Iannucci, the show’s creator, would argue this misses the point of what he has set out to do. At a special screening for parliamentary journalists of his new US political satire, Veep (HBO), he insisted that The Thick of It is a vehicle for lampooning the absurdly complex, bureaucratic world that is Westminster and Whitehall.
It’s not that politicians are inept, rather that the system is at fault. He admitted, however, that this did not apply to Malcolm Tucker, the coarsely-spoken Scottish director of communications, who is loosely based on the former Labour spin doctor.
Iannucci said in June: “The thing that disturbs me is Alastair Campbell’s premise that Malcolm Tucker should be admired; that worries me deeply, because Tucker is representative of all that is poisonous, dangerous and has caused so much disrespect of politicians in the last 15 years.”
Jon Plowman, executive producer of Olympics spoof documentary Twenty Twelve, said it was a case of life imitating art when a coach full of Australian delegates got lost en route to the Olympic Village last week. One reviewer writing for the Daily Telegraph noted that the comedy had “been funny because it’s true”.
Years earlier, speaking of another British satirical sitcom, Yes Minister, Margaret Thatcher told the same broadsheet that “its clearly-observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy”.
Moving to 2012 and the pressures of the modern 24-hour news cycle, with its rolling cameras and gaffe-sensitive microphones, has resulted in the blurring of the line between fact and fiction.
Lord Dobbs’ basic tenet for approaching political dramas is sound advice: “I’ve always said that political drama is very simple. Take reality and water it down to make it credible, because when they [the politicians] stray, they stray in such extravagant manners.”
Smith’s plea for a British Borgen is borne from a desire to rouse to arms a new generation of political contenders. It is her hope that a British version would do for politics what spy drama Spooks and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation did for secret agents and forensic investigators.
“Why can’t [British] politics have that?”
According to Lord Dobbs, with a little patience, maybe it can.