TV review: Inside the Commons

Written by Paul Flynn on 3 February 2015 in Culture
Michael Cockerell’s fair-minded peek inside Parliament needn’t have worried the ‘berserkers'

The tribe of MPs is conditioned to expect all news to be bad. The balm of good news has arrived, but suspicions still fester. The BBC’s veteran broadcaster Michael Cockerell is not the Daily Telegraph. Even a couple of meetings with him and his crew months ago left me disarmed but with a heart-sinking fear that his four-part fly-on-the-wall revelations of Parliament would end badly. All the others had.

The revealed truth on the Royal Opera House crucified the institution. Jeremy Isaacs confessed he was naive to believe exposure would heal its damaged reputation. Had parliamentarians repeated the error? Public confidence had been pushed to rock bottom by the weekly bedlam of sprayed insults at Prime Minister’s Questions. It was driven subterranean by the thunderous hammer blows of the expenses scandal.

Cockerell had surprising news at the preview of the first episode of his four-part series. A small band of rightwing Conservative MPs, known as the ‘berserkers’ (no, I’ve never heard of them either) had plotted to sabotage the television documentary. Bill Wiggin was shown objecting to the presence of the cameras on safety grounds. Other MPs allegedly plotted an ‘accident’ in which an MP would fall backwards into a camera, providing a pretext to end the filming.

The berserkers probably worried in vain. This is Parliament in all its rich humanity, humour, idealism and serious intent. It’s a vivid, authentic portrayal of the warts and the glories. Two exceptionally engaging new MPs starred: Labour’s Sarah Champion and the Tory Charlotte Leslie nervously explored Parliament’s arcane rules and practices. Champion emotes after PMQs: “The behaviour in there is just disgusting, really embarrassing, juvenile! The offenders are men in their 50s.” Shocking!

Leslie says she went into politics because “I have always been angry. I feel like smashing brick walls down.” She was filmed smashing a punchbag in Parliament’s gym. She struggled through the terrifying ordeal of PMQ number one by repeatedly telling herself: “Don’t cock up.” She settled on a perilous portmanteau question encompassing a local football ground and the inevitable genuflexion to Tory loyalty of ‘the long-term economic plan’. It teetered on the edge of destruction with its length irritating opposition MPs, but she persisted and triumphed. Viewers will empathise with her victory over nerves and a lynch mob of bully boys.

Champion was determined to avoid “any badass stuff” in her brave attempt to change the law in her first parliamentary year. The cameras chronicled her hesitant, faltering parliamentary procedure education by tripwire. The clerks patiently and kindly guided her through the treacherous minefield. Building on her role as the supremo of a children’s hospice, she planned an improvement in child protection law. She wisely withdrew her clause at committee stage to have it restored by a sensible Government volte-face. Her sincerity, enthusiasm and determination are models for all novice MPs. 

The grand parliamentary event covered was the resignation of the Clerk and his metamorphosis into Lord Lisvane. The tear-jerking reaction to the rare Chamber applause from members is recorded with an intimacy beyond the reach of fixed cameras. Lord Lisvane’s headmasterly voice and authority guide through the labyrinth of ornate corridors, mysterious procedures and the surprising fragility of members’ emotions. He tempers common sense with respect for history, which he says is “our inspiration, not our jailer”.

There is a tangible sense of family in the Commons community. Egalitarianism is rampant in the affectionate fulsome tribute by grandee Nicholas Soames to Gladys Dickson, who reigns supreme in the Members’ Tea Room.

Cockerell spices the narrative with flashes of endearing humour and gossamer-light malice. The spaniels sniffing and searching the green leather seats have “eyes to the left, nose to the floor”. Andrew Percy, in an excess of transparency, revealed the letter from the Prime Minister to all Tory backbenchers suggesting oral questions that they could use to challenge him. Lots did. The audience at the Mechanics’ Institute preview jeered at the repeats of the mantra of ‘the Government’s long-term economic strategy’. Pray that exposure of this disreputable tedious ploy could hasten its demise.

Viewers will be intrigued by the grandeur and beauty of the buildings and appalled by their dereliction. Public opinion is being prepared for a massive restoration bill in the next parliament. To members, the beautifully photographed scenes are simultaneously fresh and familiar. Few have seen the inside of the great redundant chimney that now houses fibre-optic cables. The partly flooded basement underbelly of the Palace is a bewildering nightmare of cables, pipes and channels, the purpose of many of which is understood by no living person.

The berserkers’ hostility encompasses the BBC as the conveyors, if not the originators, of hostility to MPs. MPs are punch drunk with unrelieved abuse. Bad news is exaggerated and good news alchemised into shameful dross. Refusing to vote on our pay is reported as a greedy grab for an 11% pay rise. It will take a decade before we restore the public’s trust and confidence.

Cockerell has fought to create these programmes for the past six years. The innate conservatism of our institutions is formidable. One Commons committee was overruled this month after opposing the projection of an image of a ballot box onto Big Ben on National Voter Registration Day. Instead of members blocking Michael’s camera lens with their hands, they should have welcomed him as an advocate for the best of Parliament. If the other three programmes share the first’s charm, humour, authenticity and humanity, a start will have been made in winning back esteem. The truth is less dramatic than the fiction, but engagingly admirable.


Paul Flynn is Labour MP for Newport West. This article first appeared in The House magazine.

The first episode of Inside the Commons will be shown on BBC2 at 9pm tonight. 


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