The pressure cooker of Westminster politics combined with the theatre of Parliament sounds like a dramatist’s dream. But it’s been trickier than you might imagine to capture SW1A on screen – perhaps because the place contains so much inherent drama that any retelling seems like a poor imitation.
On the small screen, the Parliamentary system has rightly been target of satire – both brutal, with the likes of The New Statesman and The Thick of It, and gentler, in the case of Yes Minster/Prime Minister and Penelope Keith’s No Job For A Lady (1990-92). And, lest we forget, Prince Edward’s Annie’s Bar (1996), the Earl of Wessex’s misguided attempt at a Westminster sitcom/soap.
In terms of drama set in the Westminster environs, there’s a long tradition of memorable shows, including A Very British Coup, the original House of Cards trilogy, The Politician’s Wife and the perhaps neglected Faith, an ITV mini-series from 1994 that starred Michael Gambon as a dodgy politician involved in a sex scandal and arms dealing.
I suppose we must also mention Jeffrey Archer’s 1986 mini-series First Amongst Equals, which was something of a guilty pleasure for politicos at the time.
The talky environment of The Mother of Parliaments probably doesn’t lend itself to the big screen, accounting for the relative paucity of pictures where Westminster takes centre stage, although it hasn’t stopped a handful of directors from trying:
State of Play (2003) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Acclaimed at the time, Paul Abbott’s tale of murder, oil money and political intrigue starred David Morrissey as the presumably New Labour MP Stephen Collins, with John Simm as his investigative reporter friend Cal McCaffrey.
As apparently the ending of State of Play was written on the fly, subsequent viewing does tend to reveal some jarring inconsistencies in the plot, but it’s still a gripping series. Bill Nighy shines as newspaper editor Cameron Foster.
The show was remade as a Hollywood movie in 2009, with Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe taking Morrissey’s and Simm’s roles respectively.
Black Mirror: The National Anthem (2011) – Netflix
The audacious debut episode of Charlie Brooker’s hit series certainly set his stall out, with a tale of a Prime Minister forced to have sex with a pig on live TV to save the life of a kidnapped British Princess.
Rory Kinnear starred as the unfortunate PM Michael Callow, with Anna Wilson-Jones as his understandably less than thrilled wife Jane.
The National Anthem differs from many of Brooker’s Black Mirror episodes in not using AI, Virtual Reality, gaming and other imaginary future-tech as a plot driver.
Secret State (2012) – All 4
Channel 4’s loose remake of Chris Mullin’s excellent A Very British Coup (1988) largely went under the radar, and whilst it’s not as good as the original mini-series, it’s still well worth watching.
The sudden ‘accidental’ death of the Prime Minster propels his reluctant deputy Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) into the hot seat where he battles international conglomerates and internal rivals.
Dawkins is very much a One Nation Tory, which even at the time of transmission was vaguely quaint.
The show was bolstered by a great cast, including Charles Dance, Stephen Dillane, Gina McKee, Ruth Negga, Douglas Hodge, Anton Lesser and Tobias Menzies as Byrne’s prematurely deceased predecessor.
Years and Years (2019) – BBC I-Player
Shades of Dennis Potter’s Cold Lazarus (1996) in Russell T Davies’ dystopian mini-series, with a fascist PM (Emma Thompson), dirty bombs, AI, death camps and cybernetic implants all in the mix.
So not exactly a whimsical chuckle-fest, especially in current times.
Still, if you’re up for it, Years and Years has ideas to spare – maybe too many for its own good.
Also, honourable mentions to A Very English Scandal, The Trial of Christine Keeler, The Project, The Alan Clark Diaries*, Brexit: The Uncivil War, The Politician’s Husband, Party Animals and The Amazing Mrs Pritchard.
In The Loop (2009) – Amazon Rent/Buy
The movie spin-off from The Thick Of It lacks the concise punch of the TV series, suffering from the traditional problems of ‘opening out’ a sitcom/comedy franchise – which the picture does by having famously foul-mouthed Director of Comms Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) travel to the US to help engineer yet another US Middle East intervention.
Much in the way that the Carry On Team went to ‘Elsbels’ for Carry On Abroad (1972) and Grace Brothers’ staff holidayed in ‘Costa Plonka’ in Are You Being Served (1977).
See also Steptoe and Son (1972 – Spain), The Inbetweeners Movie I & II (2011, 1014 Crete and Australia respectively) and last, but by no means least, Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007, Cannes).
Interestingly, part of In The Loop’s storyline concerns US tariffs on China, so props to Armando Iannucci’s crystal ball reading skills. Worth a look, but reality has sadly overtaken the wackiness of the events depicted in the film.
The Ghost aka The Ghost Writer (2010) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Admittedly there’s not a much of your actual Westminster to be seen in Roman Polanski’s excellent adaptation of Robert Harris’s thriller The Ghost, but the Blair Years permeate the picture.
Ewan MacGregor, giving a (rare?) committed performance plays the ghost (writer) of the movie’s title, hired to churn out the autobiography of lightweight former PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan – a thinly veiled portrait of Tony Blair).
Olivia Williams plays Lang’s intellectually superior wife Ruth, whilst Robert Pugh takes the role of former Foreign Secretary Richard Rycart, an obvious Robin Cook simulacrum.
The Iron Lady (2011) -Amazon Rent/Buy
Meryl Streep added to her Best Actress Academy Award collection with her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, but reviews were mixed, with the late PM’s friends/family and some critics feeling that the picture played fast and loose with history to service the needs of the plot.
Redeeming factors include her confrontations with her cabinet and bravura Commons performances – although, like Thatcher herself, enjoyment may depend on one’s political leanings.
Richard E. Grant co-stars as her nemesis Michael Heseltine, with Jim Broadbent as the steadfast Denis Thatcher.
The Darkest Hour (2017) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Plenty of rowdy and rousing House of Commons scenes in this Churchill biopic, which won Gary Oldman a Best Actor Academy Award for his role as the wartime leader.
The Darkest Hour is fairly by the numbers in my view and takes a high hand with some of the facts, but such is the motion picture industry.
For me, the most interesting part of the movie was Ben Mendelsohn’s take on King George VI, which gave the monarch a degree of depth and ambiguity not normally associated with him.