On Television

Learning to love Big Brother

A contemporary political drama uses the double whammy of Covid and Brexit to reanimate older, primeval forces

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

I‘ve always thought of myself as British rather than English, but lately I’ve started to wonder. A while ago I was having dinner with a senior editor on one of our great liberal publications. He asked me how I voted in the Brexit referendum. Leave, I answered. He looked startled — I was a very rare specimen among its contributors — and asked why. “Because I believe in sovereign nation-states in charge of their own legal systems and borders,” I replied. He nodded and the conversation moved on. Well, be careful what you wish for. Borders are back. I just did not imagine them appearing within Britain.

In Wales, Mark Wakeford, the doleful first minister, declared that once the firebreak lockdown was over, the country would be sealed off. Welsh residents would not be allowed out. The English and Scots would not be allowed in. All international travel, unless “essential”, would be verboten.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon, his Scottish equivalent (in so many ways), told her citizens to avoid travel to England unless “absolutely essential”. Sturgeon then conjured up five planned lockdown levels. By Level Two, pubs and restaurants could not serve alcohol indoors. By Level Four, all citizens will be required to stay at home in separate rooms until a cure is found for Covid, or Independence Day, whichever comes first. Without alcohol. I exaggerate — a bit.

The most interesting character is in prison, engagingly played by Shalom Brune-Franklin

There are two ways of dealing with insurgent nations in a wider commonwealth: quash their nationalistic urges or indulge them. Both are perilous. Quashing breeds further resentment. Indulging — in Britain’s case setting up national parliaments in Wales and Scotland — seems to have only accelerated the drive towards further autonomy or independence. Deprived for now of much of a say in the big issues like defence or monetary policy, Sturgeon and Drakeford seek succour in micro-management.

The Welsh government solemnly approved lists of essential items that could be sold in shops during lockdown. Adult clothing was forbidden, but baby clothing allowed. So were bicycle pumps and clingfilm, which at least open up promising possibilities for those long winter lockdown nights. Meanwhile, actual businesses that employ people are going into freefall.

Most surprising of all is the relish with which many Scottish and Welsh people welcomed their leaders’ authoritarian control freakery. Anything — lavish subsidies aside — is better than rule from Westminster.

Opinion polls show support for Scottish independence hitting its highest level in six years, with 55 per cent in favour and 39 per cent against. A poll in late October showed 79 per cent support in Wales for a circuit-breaker lockdown. Writing in the Guardian, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett was full of praise for Wakeford’s restrictions. Lockdown had deprived her of the chance to meet much of her close family, she wrote, bringing “a pain I’d never experienced before, but it is offset by the knowledge that their country is doing what it can to protect them”. There are many ways, Covid is teaching us, to love Big Brother.

All of this is rich material for a skilled television writer to weave into a contemporary political drama for television. The double whammy of Covid and Brexit is reanimating older, primeval forces.

Can the centre hold? There is the faintest whiff of late-1980s Yugoslavia in the air: not a descent into war and ethnic cleansing, but a steady corrosion of central authority, a clique of nationalist leaders determined to exploit a crisis for their own benefit, a slide into authoritarianism, a sour resentment, the fracturing of common bonds of culture and history.

Whoever does eventually write this series, please let it not be David Hare. His recent BBC series Roadkill is less a television drama than a series of wokeist reflexes. Hugh Laurie plays Peter Laurence, a Tory politician who is a cartoon fusion of the worst of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Laurence says things like “Let’s hope there are injuries. Better still, fatalities,” while watching footage of a prison riot, because that’s how Tories talk, of course.

As well as leaden dialogue, there are several legal clunkers, a self-obsessed coked-up daughter (now obligatory in British political dramas), a dutiful, terribly buttoned-up wife, treachery and backstabbing, all deployed in a Westminster arena where everyone, from the lowliest researcher to the prime minister herself, is utterly cynical and motivated purely by ruthless self-interest.

The most interesting character is in prison: Rose, Laurence’s super-bright, previously unknown daughter, engagingly played by Shalom Brune-Franklin, whom he does at least publicly acknowledge.

Meanwhile, as the Scots and Welsh hanker for a future free of England’s rule, so do we — slowly, reluctantly — start to ponder one without them. October marked the two hundred and fifteenth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson, the navy beat off a combined French and Spanish fleet. Trafalgar, like the Battle of Britain in 1940, is seared into our national consciousness as a symbol of courage and defiance. But which nation? Britain existed then, but Nelson signalled “England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty” from HMS Victory. Perhaps, as our union fractures, it may yet come to that again.

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