The Trial of Tony Blair

Monday, January 15, 2007 by

Here is a true story. A friend of mine stood against Tony Blair as a prospective parliamentary Labour candidate in the early 1980s. He quit in the final round, because Tony was, in his judgement “better looking” and more “electable”. My friend, now a mental health professional, also judged him to be “mad as fuck”.

Here is another true story. Alistair Beaton’s The Trial of Tony Blair is one of the most dizzyingly brilliant TV dramas of the last decade. Not just a story – it’s fact. This was superb, as clinical and precise as Arthur Schnabel playing Beethoven or Phil Taylor throwing darts.

The tasty storylines that made up Beaton’s work were purely imaginary. It’s 2010 and Hillary Clinton’s in the Oval Office; Gordon Brown’s in No 10, and wins a hairsbreadth majority over a hastily-sketched, Footlights-revue caricature of David Cameron (too much bikes, hip hop etc). Circumstances conspire, with the slow-march rat-tat-tat of a military funeral, to send Tony to The Hague and judgement (Blair’s conversion to Catholicism plays a heavy role throughout). Brown (Peter Mullan, brilliant voicing but in terms of looks might as well be Janet rather than Gordon Brown) is maneouvred into sending Blair (Robert Lindsay) for trail concerning war crimes in Iraq. Actually, no trial proceedings are shown, merely the prisoner Blair’s flight leaving Heathrow for The Hague, after which credits roll.

Improbable? No less so than the deranged cats-cradle of narratives polluting the now ex-PM’s head, a helter-skelter of the spin-doctor platitudes, moral delusion and cant that, in the end, tragically make up the man himself, something unforgivingly exposed by Beaton. “I think you’re beginning to lose touch with reality.” Blair tells his wife (played with just a little too much sympathy by the glacially efficient Phoebe Nicholls). From which point on one knows Blair will self-destruct, and he duly does, in royally entertaining fashion.

From the get-go, Robert Lindsay’s Blair (Lindsay is still visibly Wolfie Smith, but at least he has the voice and the tics, including the shiver-inducing psychotic’s trick of smiles in all the wrong places and the suggestion of what may be bipolarity in our great teacher) is a man quite clearly bonkers even before reality surges in so lethally on mind and body. Like all self-regarding students who never grew up, Blair wanted to play Hamlet. Lindsay knows it. He plays Blair as the guitar-shop axeman dreaming of being Hendrix or Blackmore but doomed to be umpteenth-best; a sad and lonely comedown instead of a truly tragic one, the vision and the legacy gone, a nuance Beaton captures beautifully.

But Beaton doesn’t even give Blair the dignity of a Lear as his downfall inexorably unfolds. Mad, wronged Lear raged against the dying of the light on his hind legs; Blair isn’t even this, he’s made to skulk. There’s much gorgeously-sketched bullshit spoken about “the legacy” of which Blair’s paid yea-sayers and toadies can barely conceal their contempt. Yes, there’s stuff about God. Lots of it. In a scene worth viewing 50 years from now, Blair’s publisher tentatively says there’s too much about God, and he promptly `nixes his multimillion pound memoir advance with a mind-bogglingly bizarre tirade against atheists and liberals. There are rather-well-handled dream sequences of dead Iraqi kids and shot-up squaddies; the soundtrack makes ironic reference back to the Britpop of ’97′s Cool Britannia.

There are also undertones of leitmotifs yet to come – Gordon Brown’s baritone paranoia is a subtext for a new TV drama that you know is just waiting to happen when he gets No 10′s keys. The sequence where Blair is genetically fingerprinted upon his arrest prior to extradition is maybe one of the most excruciatingly ironic pieces of TV drama this writer has ever seen. Yeah, Mike Leigh included, since you ask.

Little, if anything is overdone or bludgeoned home. This grown-up, civilised drama doesn’t shout, save for the broadbrushed silliness when TB almost runs over a comedy Arab in his 4×4. The Messianic bent in Blair is maybe slightly overstretched – although when Lindsay says, “Britain? I’ve done Britain” it sounds spine-chillingly authentic. There is also a moment when Blair Learishly castigates the incompetents that surround him. This seems a little too close to Hitler’s table talk for comfort. Blair is not Hitler, but he increasingly resembles Herbert Lom’s tragi-comic portrayal of Dreyfus, the boss of the surété that Inspector Clouseau drives beyond reason.

Yes, there are loose ends – that Blair would end up in a cell is implausible (as Cherie tells him, with cruel irony, he can afford good lawyers). And yes, Nicholls’s Cherie and Mullan’s Brown are awkward. Because both are seen to inhabit a world of reason and Cherie’s friendship with Carole Caplin among others suggests that this is maybe wishful thinking. This, however, means Blair’s folly is so much more starkly repointed. Anyone who listens to any Blair speech cannot fail to doubt that now.

TV rarely does drama like this. Nothing of The Trial of Tony Blair, or very little, in terms of script or visual language, is reduced to soap opera convention, yet is nonetheless compelling. This is a feat in itself, and given its visual satisfactions, the drama sets 2007 a serious challenge for a better slice of TV. True story – truer than WMD, anyway.

Yes, true. No word of a lie. Remember that, Tony? Hello, Tony? Tony?


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