Photo credit: BBC
Artillery Row

Are fictional politicians as interesting as the real thing?

Sir David Hare’s new BBC drama feels small-scale when we are surrounded by far more impressive real-life spectacles

“Oh good, another Sir David Hare drama for Sundays”, was not perhaps the most commonly heard utterance of 2020, but BBC One’s primetime slot that evening is nonetheless currently occupied by Hare’s new show, Roadkill.

Just as the corporation’s recent adaptation of David Nicholls’s novel Us was promoted with Nicholls as its auteur, so the publicity around Roadkill has revolved as much around its writer as it has around its cast, which includes Hugh Laurie as the smoothly amoral Conservative politician Peter Laurence and Helen McCrory, somehow channelling both Thatcher and Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth I as the PM.

The central scandals besetting Roadkill‘s protaganist feel deeply old hat and not especially shocking

Hare, whose variable career as a playwright has produced some of the best and worst drama of the past few decades, also tried his hand at contemporary issue-led television drama with Collateral a few years ago. Despite an excellent cast, it received mixed-to-poor reviews, many of which suggested that Hare was out of touch and recycling old tropes and ideas to diminishing effect. I noticed that one subplot, about the clergy, ended up with a scene more or less identical to his 1990 play Racing Demon, either ruefully suggesting that nothing has changed in nearly three decades or alternatively that Sir David’s confidence in his ability to speak truth to power remains stubbornly impervious to shifting trends in TV and drama.

After the opening episode of Roadkill, which has been much heralded (not least by Hare) as the first time that he has tackled a Conservative politician as the protagonist, there seems to be a similar problem here. Despite excellent performances by Laurie and McCrory and some cutting lines, the central scandals besetting the Laurence character, revolving around the possible existence of an unacknowledged illegitimate daughter and suggestions of financial impropriety, feel deeply old hat and not especially shocking, just as the script’s emphasis on privatisation seems like a relic of the Eighties and early Nineties: it is not a concern for contemporary Conservative politicians.

Likewise, although there is an attempt by Hare to make Laurence a Nigel Farage-esque populist, complete with phone-in radio show on a quasi-LBC programme and admirers stopping him for selfies in the street, Laurie’s portrayal of him, equal parts smarm and charisma, makes him feel much more like a Jeffrey Archer or Jonathan Aitken-esque figure, a throwback to the Major administration. The difference here is that this drama begins with him winning a libel case against a newspaper, rather than, as Aitken and Archer did, either losing altogether or subsequently being found guilty of perjury.

Hare’s claim that this is the first time that he has dealt with the Conservatives feels strained

The drama may well improve, but Hare’s claim that this is the first time that he has dealt with the Conservatives feels strained. Not only was his 1989 film Strapless (“a great deal of story, none of it spontaneous, all of it to be interpreted in social and political terms. Everything that happens has an almost arithmetical importance in the final equation that is the film” – The New York Times) an examination of the purported damage that the Thatcher era did to the NHS, but his film adaptation of Josephine Hart’s once-popular novel Damage revolved around the Thatcherite MP Stephen Fleming, a doctor-turned-politician whose career is destroyed by his obsessive passion for his son’s girlfriend. That the MP was played by Jeremy Irons, the go-to actor for tortured intellectuals with a dark side, indicated to the audience from the beginning that the character was morally dubious – if, of course, his status as a Conservative was not enough in that regard.

Yet for decades, we have been as interested in fictional representations of MPs and ministers as we have been in the real thing. From the light-hearted character of the hapless Jim Hacker in Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister to the rather tougher and more scabrous The Thick Of It, there has always been a market for comedic Conservative and Labour MPs in sitcoms, although it seems unlikely that actors would ever participate in a sketch with a contemporary prime minister today, as Yes Minister stars Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington did with Margaret Thatcher in 1984, especially as she wrote the dismally unfunny skit herself.

The actor Derek Fowlds, who played PPS Bernard Woolley, refused to participate on political grounds, indicating a principled distaste for Conservatism and the Right that many actors have continued to demonstrate subsequently. When Trevor Eve, for instance, played an especially vile and adulterous Tory minister in Paula Milne’s 1995 drama The Politician’s Wife, it was with a sleazy relish that all but winked at the audience, as if to say “look how much I’m enjoying playing this bastard, a million miles away from my own impeccably liberal beliefs”.

It is to Armando Iannucci’s credit that The Thick Of It was prepared to offer a rather more nuanced cast of characters. Although its most famous creation, the permanently and inventively profane Malcolm Tucker, was a director of communications rather than a frontline politician, MPs such as Rebecca Front’s Nicola Murray and a pre-disgrace Chris Langham’s Hugh Abbot were portrayed as hapless rather than venal, with whatever good intentions they displayed torn to shreds by the party machinery.

In America, politicians can be presented as noble figures without the instinctive cynicism that we regard them in Britain

With its Labour politicians clearly intended as a representation of the dying days of the Blair and Brown regimes, it is now fascinating to watch as the embodiment of a bygone era, just as Roger Allam’s smoothly likeable Tory MP Peter Mannion, permanently exasperated by the spin and chicanery that he is faced with, is a portrayal of the Ken Clarke-esque MPs who now find that they have no place or value in the post-Brexit Conservative party. While the almost poetic arias of obscenity and insult are still as funny as ever, the programme now seems almost cosy in its belief that politicians set out with worthy ideals that are then frustrated by media manipulation. The 2009 expenses scandal did for any lingering belief in our MPs’ collective integrity, and we have regarded them with concomitant suspicion and loathing ever since.

In America, of course, politicians can be presented as noble and idealistic figures without the instinctive cynicism that we regard them in Britain. One thinks of the Clinton-esque President Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing, Michael Douglas’s arch-romantic Andrew Shepherd in The American President or even Kevin Kline’s initially hapless impostor in Dave, drafted in to cover up when the usefully identical president has a stroke during an extramarital rendezvous and able to act inspirationally, declaring a war on poverty and that a job will be found for every American citizen who wants one.

And, most stirringly and ridiculously of all, Bill Pullman’s impeccably WASP President in the science-fiction romp Independence Day was able to bely the film’s apparent nods to diversity with his climatic set-piece call to arms (“We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”) that ended up celebrating American exceptionalism, even as it pretended not to. Somewhere, a businessman named Donald Trump took notes. This year, the now-President superimposed his own head over Pullman’s body, much to the actor’s distaste and borrowed the speech to further his own standing. The parallels between life and art, fact and fiction were – as with so much involving Trump – blurred to a point of obscurity.

Roadkill feels small-scale when we are surrounded by far more impressive real-life drama

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of Roadkill, it feels anachronistic and small-scale at a time when we are surrounded by far more impressive real-life drama, both in the presentation of the current pandemic and in the way that our politicians have responded to it. Ever since Brexit – itself portrayed grippingly by James Graham, the go-to writer for fictionalised contemporary real-life drama, in The Uncivil War – was voted for in 2016, British politics has been a never-ending rollercoaster ride of treachery, skulduggery, unexpected twists and larger-than-life protagonists and antagonists. Very few screenwriters would have had the gall to create Boris Johnson, depict his shifting allegiances, failures and successes, and then give him a near-death experience when it came to Covid-19: one can imagine that the producer’s notes might read “isn’t this just a little de trop?”

Much the same could, of course, be said of the outstanding political drama of the past few years, A Very English Scandal. It could never be made during its protagonist Jeremy Thorpe’s lifetime for obvious reasons of libel, but Russell T Davies’s blisteringly witty and often laugh-out-loud funny script, interpreted beautifully by a career-best Hugh Grant as Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as his lover-turned-prey Norman Scott and the director Stephen Frears, managed to bring the strange and contradictory world of Seventies Westminster to hugely entertaining life, to say nothing of the farcical assassination attempt made on Scott’s life at Thorpe’s behest. It helped that even such minor characters as David Bamber’s “Boofy”, the badger-obsessed Earl of Arran, are both absurd and recognisably human, moving the drama away from the dull stock characters of untrustworthy special advisers and ambitious politicians that Roadkill has so far served up.

It may yet improve, and even if it does not, the chance to see Laurie in saturnine and charismatic form is always an enjoyable one. But one feels that, had Hare removed himself from his Hampstead surroundings for a while and taken the pulse of contemporary politics with more urgency and investigative nuance, that he might have written something that addressed the current climate of 2020 – of Black Lives Matter protests, of arguments about pronouns and gender, of furious debates about the very future of political parties – rather than this oddly old-fashioned and even parochial drama that seems to have an almost comforting belief that we can still be shocked by the behaviour of our elected representatives. I fear, Sir David, that that ship has long since sailed.

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