The man behind the Coalition
“It’s like flirting: desperate isn’t sexy…” It’s May 2010 and Peter Mandelson is advising Gordon Brown on how to deal with the Lib Dems amid the wreckage of a hung parliament. As mischievous and calculating as ever, the Dark Lord is telling his old friend the Prime Minister to play hard to get with Nick Clegg in secret coalition talks.
Except that, of course, Mandelson is being played by actor Mark Gatiss and Brown is portrayed by Ian Grieve. And this is art imitating life, courtesy of new Channel 4 drama Coalition. It’s yet another superior piece of ‘faction’ from acclaimed playwright James Graham, the author of This House, Privacy and a forthcoming election-night TV play, The Vote.
Graham – who is just 32 but has already become one of our foremost political dramatists – specialises in meticulous research, a factor that has cemented his reputation among audiences inside as well as outside Westminster. Mandelson – along with George Osborne and Paddy Ashdown – was among the politicians who helped him get the details right for Coalition. So, it’s hard not to ask, was that line about ‘flirting’ actually uttered by the former Cabinet minister?
“I’m afraid I’m going to take credit for that myself,” Graham laughs. “That’s a James Graham, that particular line.” However, he adds that like much of the dialogue, it was “inspired by what people told me”. “You have to try and catch the essence of what people have said.”
Another Mandelson line in the drama – that Gordon should just ‘wing it’ in talks with Clegg – was more fiction than fact. “But that was…it was a way to describe the more relaxed attitude to preparing for those meetings, in comparison with the Tories.”
It was Graham’s This House, a fictionalised account of the Callaghan government, that put him firmly on the artistic map – and on MPs’ radar. Ministers and peers alike were full of praise for the National Theatre production. And with the prospect of another hung parliament this May, all the talk of a vote-by-vote minority administration propped up by nationalist MPs means we could be going back to the 1970s in more ways than one. Commons pacts – spoken, unspoken and broken – could result in a succession of late-night sittings and knife-edge votes last seen when many MPs weren’t even born.
As with the Callaghan era, Graham says it was the human drama prompted by the 2010 result that attracted him to write Coalition. He admits his first challenge was to turn “men sitting round a table discussing parliamentary process” into watchable television.
But the idea of party leaders “trying to claim power or hold on to power” was the big story he wanted to explore. “I found that incredible and Shakespearean in its scope,” he says. “And also the comedy, I guess. It’s a very British story; it’s farcical, people in power running around and traipsing through tunnels [there’s a scene where Brown has to secretly try to meet the other side]. There was something ludicrously human about the way in which those days played out.”
Coalition makes clear just how central a figure former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell had been during those hectic five days in May. Again, he provided invaluable research. “I really enjoyed meeting Gus O’Donnell, for his amazing recall of detail without any notes. He had it all in his head: the dates, the times, and how that narrative unfolded.”
“I know it’s a challenge, but what I try to do is get the public interested in the process, as well as the personalities and the politics. The process of how you go about getting two, three parties together, where you put them, what time you put them there; how you organise those meetings, what the protocol was; making sure it was constitutional, legal and ethical.”
He says he considered including former Bank of England governor Mervyn King, who is said to have also played a key role in warning the three political parties that the markets needed stability as soon as possible.
Some around Brown deeply resented unelected figures like O’Donnell and King calling the shots. Did he get that feeling too?
“That interpretation is out there from the Labour side certainly. It’s quite well known now that Sarah Brown refused to shake the hand of Gus as she left, and Gus confirmed that to me. I guess for the Labour guys it must have been an incredibly strange situation, because they’re based in 10 Downing Street with the civil service, knowing that they are the people who are facilitating talks with other parties that ultimately might lead to you being removed.”
Another key figure in Coalition proves to be George Osborne, whom the drama shows putting into action all the poker-playing skills of his youth. Again, his advice on the script was crucial. “He was very helpful… He took it very seriously, the stakes were very high and he took a lead role in forming the Coalition with David Cameron. And as became clear in those five, six, seven days, there was a huge preparedness weeks before the election – it was quite remarkable. I guess I was impressed by his clarity of thought and his candid discussion of those days.”
After the election results come through, David Cameron is at one point pictured throwing a baseball from one hand to another, pondering his fate. It’s a detail picked up from insiders involved at the time, one that underlines the Tory leader’s nervousness but also his casual style. “It’s those human, small details which I think add texture to the piece,” Graham says.
The drama also shows how Cameron told his wife Samantha as late as four days after the result that he was convinced he would not become Prime Minister. “On that Monday night, most people at the top of the Conservative party – including David Cameron – thought that was it, that there was just no way Labour would go, there was nothing to stop them…and then 24 hours later he was Prime Minister.”
A key point in the drama comes when the camera lingers on Cameron’s expression as he tells Tory backbenchers that Labour may have just offered the Lib Dems electoral reform without a referendum. Was that an attempt to show him lying to his own party? “It was such a crucial moment in the story I felt that we had to cover it. To be slightly fair to him, the way that he interprets it is that he thought it was true; he didn’t know it wasn’t true and he was convinced of that.
“What is clear is that he didn’t know it wasn’t true, but he confirmed it to his party and there were a lot of people in his party who really resent that moment; who believe they were not completely given an accurate painting of the picture.”
Graham is notably more sympathetic to all three party leaders than most dramatists have been over the years. Was that because he became close to his characters? “I think you always get close to the characters. You have to get inside their head and under their skin and understand why they make the choices they do.
“And also…there may be political playwrights who want to be more aggressive than I am, but I really believe strongly that the easiest thing to do is just to be incredibly cynical. But that makes for boring drama.
“So with all three of them I wanted to understand the pressures they were under, and the impossible situation they were placed in by the results of the election. And I just think that’s more interesting. So hopefully the audience – regardless of whether they agree with Clegg or furiously disagree with him about the choice that he made – think we have to ask that question: ‘Well, what would I have done?’
“And Clegg’s sort of brilliant as a vessel for that, because we forget he was this outsider…he wasn’t quite in the mainstream. He saw himself as a protestor, an activist rather than a politician, and I feel that the drama helps place anyone in that situation. ‘What on earth would we have done?’”
With House of Cards getting a US revamp and Veep proving that Brits can write for both sides of the pond, politics on the small screen is as popular as ever. But just what does he think is the main difference between American and British political dramas?
“There’s something about the American political system which allows for hope in a way that ours doesn’t,” Graham says. “With the two-term limit for an American president, there’s this automatic regeneration every eight years. And there’s something about that and how people can come from nowhere without any baggage.
“Whereas in the British political system, if you are leaving office then you’re thinking something has gone wrong and you’ve let people down, and people judge you to have failed. Even if you resign in the way that Wilson did or in the way that Blair did, it’s really because the numbers have turned against you.”
It’s a point that has become all the more relevant given David Cameron’s infamous admission this week that he would serve only two full terms and not a third. “I think there’s something about defeat and failure that’s in the DNA of our political system, and for some reason I think that gets reflected in our drama,” Graham concludes.
“So can there ever be a British West Wing, where we have a hero as Prime Minister? I don’t know. It’s difficult to see how people would accept that without cynicism… I’d love to try that.”
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The House magazine. You can read the full version here.
Coalition is screened on Saturday 28 March at 9pm on Channel 4