Westminster Soap Operas: New Labour, Ancient Power

by Tom Watson
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The DealLast summer, another occasional blogger on this site gave me a sterling backstage view of Parliament, a thoroughly enjoyable excursion through wood-lined passages and old stone arches, into robing rooms and vaults and the like. So I was thinking of that very tour as The Deal unfolded on my screen recently – a tight, well-acted bit of British political drama in Westminster that follows the rise and rivalry of a pair of prime ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in their evolution from old Labour back-benchers to New Labour Titans.

The Deal, written and produced by Peter Morgan, came to America via HBO (I Tivo’d it) and was directed by Stephen Frears, who brought us The Queen in all its Mirrenesque splendour (yes, I’ll spell it that way, thank you) and it stars David Morrissey as Brown and Michael Sheen once more as Blair. Indeed, I wondered momentarily if Frears and Sheen filmed it as part of The Queen set-up, the way Peter Jackson did The Lord of the Rings trilogy in one, long shoot.

In the same week, I also watched the conclusion of a bit of mildly entertaining fluff from BBC One called The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, about the unlikely rise of a middle-aged woman from supermarket manager to Number Ten on the back of a purple women’s revolution. It aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, which has really stretched its modifier in recent years – this was no master work. Just a Parliament-based soap opera with a fairly dour, depressive cast. Nothing like the fabulous House of Cards, for instance, a 1990 series that chronicled the rise of a ruthless British conservative to power in a post-Thatcher Britain. The Andrew Davies script of a Michael Dobbs novel was written for Sir Ian Richardson, who inhabited the Shakespearian villain, Francis Urquhart, to a rapacious turn. They don’t do Whitehall like that any more.Mrs. Pritchard purports to have its main character’s purity as the beating heart of the series, a woman whose inherent goodness is suddenly discovered by a nation yearning for more than the usual Labour vs. Tory slugfests. But this female Obama is as clueless as they come, naively taking her key supporters and cabinet members at face value while they connive and cover up, and while her family disintegrates. Oh, it’s a sloppy affair and the viewer never suspends disbelief.

The Deal, on the other hand, feels like the real thing. The best scenes are filmed in claustrophic spaces – the tiny shared office of newly-elected MPs Brown and Blair, the stifling and smokey train coaches to Scotland, the middle class kitchens and sitting rooms of the English, and the angular pubs and wine bars of London. This isn’t soaring politics; Frear only shows that in clever video clips. This is deal-making or, more accurately, a fine portrayal of the kind of personal compromise that is a necessary ingredient to attaining political power. As Jim Wolcott said:

…for an American audience, the internal battles of the Labour Party are as obscure and muffled as the rustlings in a coat-check room. Yet my interest never flagged and I admired how Morgan and Frears communicate through informal scenes of joshing in close chambers and primping for the spotlight how policy, personality, and local/national politics subtly interweave, and how loyalty or the lack thereof are revealed by the angle of someone’s head or the height at which they hold their drink glass.

It’s a very mature view of the political process, and was particularly stirring given the debate in this country’s Democratic Party about what constitutes a real liberal or a true progressive in the run-up to the 2008 election. And it shows too the degree to which, even at the highest levels, politics is so damned personal.

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  • November 21, 2007

    I DVR’d The Deal and made the mistake of attempting to watch the beginning when I should have been headed to bed. I watched the whole damn thing, which is amazing as I was so tired and it is so damned low-key, as you suggest. I found that it helped that I knew absolutely nothing about English internal politics, which kept me curious. I don’t know how I would have taken it if I knew the story well. It is a good way to get a character sketch of the two leaders; I kind of felt like I had read a really good article when it was over. I found Gordon Brown appealing but towards the end the actors seemed to drift into caricature. A nice movie for a political buff to watch on a grey Sunday afternoon.

  • November 21, 2007

    Oh House of Cards–that is so worth renting to watch again. Sigh.

    I haven’t seen The Deal, but I too had a tour of Parliament during my college days. A friend’s mother worked for a Scottish MP, and she swooped me through all sorts of rooms to the MP’s dining room, where her boss drank me under the table at lunch after an aperitif on the Parliament balcony. Those were still the days when politicians and editors had a liquid lunch. Seems when I finally got “there” myself, everyone was drinking water. Sigh.