In praise of political dramas (even the rubbish ones)
I love political dramas. I mean, I really love political dramas.
Although there are some gems out there, I really like the slightly ropey ones too. It’s Monday and I’m actually working on something infinitely more boring for this esteemed organ of record, so I thought I’d take time out to explain how the Great And Not-So-Great Political drama is put together and thereby giving you some insight into how I spend my Sundays.
“As established earlier in the plot” devices are harder to beat than the famous, “Previously on the West Wing ...” beginning, which is followed by impossibly smart people striding around running the country, having existential crises about their personal lives, and managing not to look like a crumpled heap come 6pm. “Previously in Boss Towers ...” would, for most of us, involve images of him dropping his iPhone down the loo again then guiltily trying to persuade us that it had been stolen, us bag-carriers trying to prise out of him where he’d left his car this time, and hour long conversations with members of the public who seem to be under the impression that their human rights are impinged by the fact that a family of Asian heritage has moved in next door. Still, a bit of tinkering and our friends in the drama department manage to change that to: “Boss’ car interfered with by political opponents and phone hacked, whilst political aide debates the finer issues of racial discrimination policy whilst looking noble, with uplifting music playing in the background.”
Now, to characters. Anything more subtle than “goodies” and “baddies” is going to cause problems amongst the viewers who either want a starry-eyed morally unimpeachable hero like Jed Bartlet in the West Wing or Harry Perkins in A Very British Coup, or a down-and-dirty political Machiavelli like Francis Urquhart in House of Cards, or simply a smarmy type who’s bending one in his fruity aide (of which more later), like James Northcote MP in Party Animals.
Staff-wise, you can be a bit more creative, I’ve found, but there are staples, especially when it comes to female staff. The fruity aide (never bag-carrier. We’re all “aides” or “chiefs of staff” in political dramas) can serve a number of functions. One strand of feminist theory suggests that the role of women is to be a mirror for their men, reflecting back an image of him how he wishes to be. And nowhere is this more in evidence than in your political drama scenario. So, your options are Miss On-Message who is basically the sum of her boss’ views on everything in a short skirt and high heels. You’ll see her striding around, being independent, and generally eliciting admiring looks. Will almost certainly be having an affair with her boss who, being both male and an MP, will view sleeping with what is basically a female version of himself as no more reprehensible than onanism.
Next you need the Aide of Exposition (think Donna from the West Wing) who has the job of explaining the back-story of any complicated policy. “So,” the Aide of Exposition will say, “I’m not clear on Presentation Bills. How are different from Early Day Motions or Private Member’s Bills?” allowing her more senior and, invariably, male colleague to explain it to her in words of one syllable in order that she and the audience understands.
Others, I won’t go into in detail but are reasonably self-explanatory. There is Madam No-Morals (Kirsty from Party Animals or Jennifer in A Politician’s Wife) wants to get on in politics and will sleep with every chino-wearing special advisor in south west London in order to achieve unspecified advancement. Mrs Boss will spend most of her time in the Plot Cupboard, unless called upon to look teary when it comes out that her husband has been bending one in the fruity aide or, if your Boss is a “goody”, appearing happily married in order to emphasise the entire “goodiness” of her husband (hellooooo, Mrs President Bartlet).
Male aides are more subtly written than their cut-out-and-keep female counterparts – damn you, The Patriarchy! - so I’m going to send a shout out to my favourites: Stamper (assistant chief whip to Urquhart in House of Cards) is a brilliant mix of duplicity, faux-outraged morality, and smarminess. There’s Toby from the West Wing, whose understated cynicism never fails to delight. Finally, Mark Hollister from The Politician’s Wife (after House of Cards, my favourite UK political drama) as the advisor who’s finally had enough of his bullying, philandering boss and does a good line in barely contained malevolent rage.
The public are presented as citizens who are bafflingly concerned with the Big Ishoos of the day. For BBC dramas, this is usually a howling concern with the legal basis for the Iraq war, the importance of community diversity, and other sundry philosophical conundrums. The phrases, “I need my drains fixing” or “What about the potholes on the High Street?” have never, to my knowledge, made it onto the small screen.
And lastly, the press. Remember that most dramas are written by those already in the meedja, so you’re going to get a highly idealised version of how the Fourth Estate prefer to see themselves. Obviously any tangential mention of the some of the questions that have recently troubled Lord Leveson, or shots of journos rooting through bins in order to sniff used condoms, are notable by their absence. Instead you get Bill Nighy as Cameron Foster at his quirky best in State of Play and lots of pub based discussions about the importance of a free press in a modern democracy.
Mash this one up, mix a by-election in there somewhere and make sure you have plenty of sizzling sex scenes, lots of shots of people marching around, newshounds who are the press equivalent of the A-Team, and voila!