Review: A Very British Coup DVD

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 2 September 2011 in Diary
The film adaptation of Chris Mullin's political novel, re-released on DVD, is little more than 'conspiracy theory soft-porn for lefties', Sadie Smith finds

An honest writer always admits their prejudices, and in the interests of full disclosure I do so here. From the moment I took delivery of the A Very British Coup, I am afraid I was eyeing the DVD with suspicion. As a rule of thumb, I tend to find that any film or series whose blurb talks extensively about the dread hand of the CIA and the unseen evil “Establishment” bringing down a plucky, unspotted-by-sin hero, is best avoided, unless said feature stars Harrison Ford demanding his family back.

I am afraid to say that A Very British Coup more than confirmed my worst fears that it is nothing more than chick-lit for nostalgic left-wingers who chalk up the period of 1997-2010 as biggest betrayal of Labour principles since Ramsay MacDonald thought, “Sod it, what could possibly go wrong?”

The basic premise is as follows: Harry Perkins, a sort of Wedgy Benn grown in Sheffield, is elected Labour prime minister in a landslide result as on the basis of his universally popular manifesto commitments of unilateral nuclear disarmament, the removal of American military bases from British soil, open government, and the breaking up of newspaper monopolies.

Once installed in Downing Street our Hal, a third generation steel-worker and a bluff, good honest working lad, thumbs his nose at the “Establishment” in the time honoured fashion that warms the cockles of lefties’ hearts, by announcing his plan for absolute openness and daily press conferences, because, as Harry never tires of telling us, this is what “the people” want. Of course it is. It’s 1982, the Berlin Wall’s still firmly in place, and several million are unemployed - what else would the electorate choose to unite behind, other than a burning desire for the reform of media legislation and a reversal of Anglo-American foreign policy?

Anyway, back to the plot. This is not, of course the way that The Establishment rolls, and immediately the security services are on the case, digging the dirt on his Cabinet and working with their colleagues in the CIA to undermine the shining beacon of democracy that is Harry Perkins. The CIA are more than happy to assist, not least because the President is in on the plot as well. Naturally. Tim McInnerny is at his sinister best as the bag-carrier to Sir Percy Browne (Alan MacNaughton), the head of MI5 and aristocratic bad-guy, both of whom provide some redemption from the creaky dialogue with some genuinely great lines. The Devil always does have the best gags, eh? 

Perkins, keenly aware of the enemies both without and within, appoints Frederick Thompson (Keith Allen) as his press secretary and general fixer. He has a Girlfriend of Convenient Exposition, whose task in proceedings is to be posh, thus allowing Thompson to rail against the principles of hereditary wealth in the appropriately working-class accent, and to conveniently overhear Establishment plotting at the family mansion and report back to a suitably ungrateful Thompson.  

Thus, the scene is set, and the body count starts to rack up, both literally and politically.

There are many problems with A Very British Coup. The first is that Harry Perkins is bloody annoying. I doubt this was the author’s intention, but there are only so many witty one-liners at the expense of the Establishment that one can hear before you stop cheering on the people’s champion and begin wishing to goodness that this one-dimensional smug git would get off the screen.

The second problem is indicative of a wider malaise within the left in general and the Labour Party in particular; namely, the notion that a “proper” Labour administration is purer than pure and led by a similarly spotless prime minister. All difficulties Perkins finds himself in are never down to crap policy or incompetence. No, they are all discovered to be plots orchestrated by the CIA, MI5, a media king-pin or a combination thereof, which are then thwarted by thepPrime minister’s northern common sense and straight fighting.

Real, proper Labour governments do not make mistakes or bad decisions, and never have to compromise on their principles, is the message here, which dovetails neatly with the party’s real-life predilection for calling “betrayal” whenever its leaders are forced to operate within real politics and the real world.

Don’t get me wrong. In the loosest sense, A Very British Coup has a point. Much in life depends on what school you went to, who your parents are, how much money you have or whether you’re sleeping with someone who has the required credentials – and that’s just the modern day Labour Party. But this is no more than conspiracy theory soft-porn for lefties which scales heights of ridiculousness only hitherto realised by the writers of Hollyoaks.

The genius of The House of Cards is that it got you rooting for the bad guy. Sadly, the failure of A Very British Coup is that it unintentionally achieves the same end. 

The film adapatation of Chris Mullin's novel 'A Very British Coup' is released on DVD on 19 September. Find out more and pre-order it here

Tags: A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin, DVD review, Labour Party

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