Partly Political Broadcasts

Jack Kibble-White on political dramas

First published April 2003

Amongst the successes of programmes such as Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Spooks, The Gathering Storm and Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon, 2002 saw something of a mini-resurgence in a dramatic genre that has in the past produced some of the most acclaimed television dramas of all time. Between them The West Wing, The Falklands Play, Jeffery Archer: The Truth and The Project represented the diversity of writing that can be found within the collection of television productions labelled “political dramas”.

There has been a steady trickle of such works on British television over the last 15 or so years. As we shall see, political dramas appeal equally to writers seeking to examine injustices as they do to those simply seeking a platform on which to explore particular character-types. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at some of the more memorable examples of British political drama over the last decade and a half and attempt to identify how the genre has been used to tell a different types of stories.

A Very British Coup (1988) began life as a novel written by lifelong Labour supporter and editor of left wing magazine Tribune, Chris Mullin. The original idea was formulated on a train journey back from the 1980 Labour Party conference. At that time it seemed that there was a real possibility that Tony Benn might become the leader of the Labour Party. Mullin began to hypothesise with his fellow passengers what might happen if Benn actually became elected Labour Party leader, and then Prime Minister. The resulting “what if” discussion led Mullin to write A Very British Coup. The novel examined whether or not the Americans would allow a truly left wing government to remain in power in the United Kingdom. Mullin’s hypothesis was that this would not be tolerated, and that the Americans would seek to destabilise the government, using the British establishment to force them out.

A number of television companies expressed an interest in bringing A Very British Coup to the small screen. For a time it appeared that Granada Television were going to produce a version for ITV. But it was to Parallax Pictures and Skreba Films who eventually turned the novel into a three part series for Channel 4. Screened in 1988, A Very British Coup proved to be a highly effective and memorable television drama, highly regarded at the time and still well remembered today (the series was voted 66th best television programme of all time in a recent BFI industry poll). The series’ success can be attributed to a number of factors, not least Ray McAnally’s stunning performance as the newly elected Prime Minister Harry Perkins, and Mick Jackson’s confident and ambitious direction. However, the script too deserves special mention.

Mullin is on record as claiming absolute satisfaction with Plater’s script, suggesting that the television version is even superior to his original novel. Such an unusually generous response is even more surprising when one considers that Plater changed the ending of A Very British Coup quite significantly (at the end of the novel it is clear that Harry Perkins has been removed from power, yet in the television series the conclusion is more ambiguous suggesting that Perkins has succeeded in creating a mandate for even more open government).

Clearly, the quality of Plater’s writing is a significant factor in fulfilling Mullin’s expectations, yet there is a case to be made that the relative political alignment between novelist and scriptwriter enabled a transition from page to screen that, whilst not a completely faithful reproduction, captured the underlying hypothesis and values that informed the original text. The script’s eloquent evocation of Mullin’s original message and consistency with the novelist’s original themes proved to be at the core of the series’ profound success.

In contrast, Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards demonstrates that political discord between scriptwriter and novelist can sometimes work in favour of the finished product.

Like Chris Mullin before him, Dobbs played an active role in politics during and after the period that House of Cards (and its two sequels) were written. Indeed, by the time that Dobbs came to write House of Cards he had been close to the centre of British political power for over 10 years, working closely with Norman Tebbit in particular, on the Conservative Party’s 1987 General Election campaign.

Conversely, at the time scriptwriter Andrew Davies was best known for his iconoclastic, and decidedly non-paternalistic BBC2 drama series A Very Peculiar Practice (1986 – 1988). That series’ liberal agenda and rampant distrust of institution and authority seemed to conflict in every way with the Conservative Party – and Michael Dobbs’ own – political beliefs. Consequently, it came as little surprise that Davies’ 1990 adaptation of House of Cards was very different from Dobbs’ original novel.

Like Plater before him, Davies changed the plot of his source material such that the central figure remained unbeaten. Yet whilst Plater’s adaptation of A Very British Coup still “felt” entirely faithful to Mullin’s original novel, the television version of House of Cards was entirely different to Dobbs’ version. Davies had turned a novel that explored one individual’s (Francis Urquhart) lust for power into a satire on the Machiavellian machinations of the Tory Party (complete with Shakespearian asides to the audience). In the process Davies subverted the novel’s crucial central relationship between Urquhart (played superbly by Ian Richardson) and reporter Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker) creating a bizarre emotional dependency between the two. This extra dimension added an additional thematic sub text to Dobbs’ original work, encouraging the viewer to recognise within Urquhart’s treatment, and eventual disposal of Storin similarities to how our politicians treat us.

House of Cards made an immediate impact, and somewhat appropriately (considering its Shakespearian overtones) succeeded in introducing a new phrase into common parlance (“You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment!”) That House of Cards was broadcast during the 1990 Tory leadership election was entirely down to good fortune. However, the contrast between the fictional events of Davies’ script and the actual proceedings unfolding in Downing Street accentuated Davies’ satirical subtext, ensuring that House of Cards was seen as a drama wholly unsympathetic towards the Conservative Party (in direct contrast to Dobbs’ own personal viewpoint).

Two sequels were to follow, beginning in 1993 with To Play the King. This highly controversial drama pitted Urquhart (by now Prime Minister) against a liberal monarch (played with slight a inflection of Prince Charles by Michael Kitchen). The trilogy was then concluded in 1995 with the transmission of The Final Cut. Again, Davies was to make a number of changes to Dobbs’ original plot. In this case, the scriptwriter’s decision to begin the drama with the funeral of Margaret Thatcher provoked the novelist to withdraw his name from the adaptation. Such an act though, achieved little except providing the series’ satirical content with a perverse kind of validation.

During the period in which the House of Cards trilogy was broadcast, television brought us three other major drama serials that addressed political issues. Broadcast in 1991, Alan Bleasdale’s epic GBH does not conform to the notion of political drama that we are exploring here (in that the story’s focus is not with parliamentary politics), and in truth cannot really be described as an out-and-out political drama. Yet the series does address political issues that would later form the basis of the 2002 political drama The Project; namely how traditional Labour party supporters struggle to redefine their beliefs in the face of ideological revision.

The political element of GBH is neatly encapsulated in an early exchange in which the two main characters – Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay), the leader of the local Labour council clashes with Jim Nelson (Michael Palin), a Labour supporter and teacher who refuses to join a strike that Murray has organised. Murray appeals to Nelson as one socialist to another, yet in doing so only succeeds in provoking the teacher’s ire: “Don’t ever use that word to me. Don’t ever, ever claim that what you’re doing, Murray, has anything at all to do with socialism,” rages Nelson. GBH‘s political message is that political extremism, in whatever form it takes undermines individuals and seeks to propagate merely for its own ends. “The further left you go, the more right-wing you become” proclaims Nelson in the series’ final episode.

Politics too, plays a part in the BBC1 drama series Between the Lines (1992 – 1994). Series creator JC Wilsher had written numerous episodes of The Bill (1983 – present) before heading to the BBC to create his own series. The Bill had tackled police corruption on a number of occasions, however, Wilsher constructed an entire series that addressed the issue, and in the process created a politically complex and enthralling piece of work.

Like GBH, Between the Lines was not a true political drama, yet many of the issues it addressed within the context of investigations into “bent coppers” seemed to be analogous to the reported activities of some politicians (illicit affairs and allegations of cash inducements). Although political figures would form the basis for some of the series’ episodes, it was via the central question of institutional corruption that Wilsher (and the series’ other writers) were able to explore the kinds of issues of public accountability that dogged government throughout the 1990s.

Rather more pointed was Channel 4′s The Politician’s Wife (1995) which examined – head on – one of the most highly publicised political issues of the decade, namely, adultery within a political marriage. Writer Paula Milne had cut her teeth on the BBC drama series Angels (1976 – 1983) and Juliet Bravo (1980 – 1985) and in 1984, wrote a drama about a middle-aged woman’s ambition to become a saloon car racer (BBC1′s Driving Ambition). In many ways The Politician’s Wife with its emphasis on Flora Matlock (played by Juliet Stevenson) and her struggle against the patriarchal political system seems most informed by that earlier series.

The Politician’s Wife resonated with viewers, curious as to why “wronged” wives of philandering politicians so consistently supported their errant husbands. Matlock’s husband Duncan; Tory Minister for The Family (and played by Trevor Eve) was portrayed with no redeeming features at all. “A callous father, an unconcerned constituency worker, a climber extraordinaire, a smug speechifier – Duncan sets a new standard for easy to hate” comments journalist Claire Bickley. Such an obviously amoral characterisation, whilst predictably provoking the ire of the Conservative Party, was required, not in pursuance of a party political agenda on the part of Milne, but to ensure that the audience understood Flora’s total isolation. “Except for us, Flora’s absolutely alone in her plight,” observes Bickley.

Milne’s target in The Politician’s Wife does not seem to be the Conservative Party, or indeed party politicians in general. Rather the plot device of a political, sexual scandal allows her to study institutionalised power, and specifically, the extreme lengths the establishment will go to in order to protect itself from scandal or ruination.

We should also make room for a brief mention here of Peter Flannery’s 1996 BBC2 drama series Our Friends in the North. Like, A Very British Coup and House of Cards, Our Friends in the North is an adaptation (of sorts), this time though, from the scriptwriter’s own 1982 stage play. The gestation period of the drama is legendary (taking 15 years to make it to our television screens). Influenced by the German drama Heimat, it was to become the most ambitious drama ever attempted by BBC2. Yet, Our Friends in the North does not really conform to political drama within the context we are exploring here. Flannery’s original script was an examination of corruption in the Labour Party, yet he was able to re-work and expand the scope of the original stage production, such that the television version of Our Friends in the North became instead of an out-and-out political drama, a social and political history of Britain.

In more recent times, British drama has tended to move away from overtly political issues. Perhaps influenced by the critical success of series like This Life (which ironically populated the transmission slot vacated by Our Friends in the North), recent dramas have become more character-based, focusing on our emotional, rather then political lives. Channel 4′s short-lived attempt at a political soap opera Annie’s Bar (1996) seemed to be an attempt to address this change, but failed to capture the public’s imagination and lasted only for one year.

That’s not to say there have been no political dramas in the intervening years. Jimmy McGovern’s “trilogy” of strong polemic dramas: Hillsborough (1996), Dockers (1999) and Sunday (2002), and Guy Hamilton’s satirical productions A Very Open Prison (1996), Crossing the Floor (1996), Lord of Misrule (1996), Mr White Goes to Westminster (1997) and Jeffery Archer: The Truth (2002), all attest to the fact that the political drama is still alive and kicking. However with the removal from power in 1997 of the Conservative Party, it seems that many writers have taken time to adjust to a new political target (indeed the Conservatives were still forming the basis of contemporary political dramas as late as 2000 and BBC2′s exploration of the Hamilton-Fayed case – Justice In Wonderland).

BBC1′s The Project (2002) is arguably the first significant British drama to examine New Labour’s rise to power. As such it was much anticipated and scrutinised by both political and media journalists, as well as members of the Labour party itself. Drawing upon three years of research and 120 interviews, scriptwriter Leigh Jackson purported to paint an authentic picture (including bin raking and falsifying press passes) of how Labour’s spin doctors secured victory for the party in the 1997 General Election.

Regardless, The Project failed to attain the critical praise achieved by many of its predecessors. The Daily Mail’s, Peter Paterson commented that “as a drama, The Project lacks the emotional, character-driven thrust we might have expected … the concentration is on deeds rather than motivation, conscience and personality.” Whereas A Very British Coup and House of Cards had contained central characters compelling enough to sustain the viewer’s interest, The Project seemed to struggle against an imbalance in the desire to provide an accurate account of Labour’s rise, and the need to engage the viewer in the drama via sympathetic or interesting characters. This failing is perhaps partly symptomatic of a British government that has realised there is little room for the eccentric, or colourful within modern politics. Regardless, The Project failed to attract either critical, or popular success, stalling in the ratings at 2.8 million viewers.

2002′s other most-talked about British political drama, fared equally poorly in terms of critical opinion but at least succeeded in attracting to the fledgling BBC4 its largest audience to date. Ian Curteis’ The Falklands Play has a gestation period that exceeds even Our Friends in the North. The controversy that surrounded the BBC’s decision not to broadcast it 16 years ago, (Bill Cotton and Michael Grade insisted the play was substandard, but Curteis claimed it had been banned for being too pro-government) meant that its eventual transmission would imbue upon the text connotations that were never meant to be there.

Most critical opinion though, concluded that if Cotton and Grade had indeed cancelled the play because it was substandard, they had been right to do so. The passing of time did the production few favours, with many of the characters portrayed on screen having long since passed on from public recognition. However the most consistent criticism levelled at The Falklands Play was that, like The Project, the author failed to develop any level of empathy between the audience and the characters.

It would seem then, that we are still waiting for the first political drama of the Blair government to truly capture the audience’s imagination. As we have seen there are many fine examples from the recent past of scriptwriters succeeding in this genre; be it the stirring liberal polemic of Alan Plater, the Machiavellian satire of Andrew Davies or the humanity of Paula Milne; the political drama remains a formidable vessel for telling stories both large and not so large in scale. Indeed, the American series The West Wing (2000 – present) with its fascinating interpretation of a “Clintonesque” Presidency, and focus on the day-to-day machinations of life in the White House, is paving the way for political drama in the 21st century. How long before a British alternative?