New Labour, New Genre: Political Drama In The Blair And Brown Years

The General Election that could end the New Labour era nears a conclusion – here, Adrian Lobb looks at the new wave of political biopics in the last 13 years

The Labour Party’s return to power in 1997 was hardly the revolution hoped for by some. But the Government of Blair, Brown, Mowlam, Mandelson, Prescott et al has been widely televised. And not only on news and current affairs shows. Just as the reporting and analysis of history accelerates, so does television drama’s co-opting of events. In recent times, Canoe Man and Five Daughters looked at the story of John Darwin faking his own death and the 2006 Ipswich murders respectively – the latter much more successfully.

If an idiotic insurance scammer in a kayak can turn a TV producer’s head, it is hardly surprising that events as raw as the decision to go to war in Iraq have been dramatised, as contentious as the supposed Granita pact between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown imagined, and the affairs of state and statesmen picked over for comic effect. As an election campaign more mediated through the gogglebox than any in history draws to a close, we look back at the highs and lows of a new genre that sprung up on New Labour’s watch. Oh, and feel free to suggest which actors could play Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, the Miliband of brothers, the Bigoted Woman in the next round of dramatisations…

Mo, C4, 2010

Anything but a stodgy political biopic, the feature-length Channel 4 film is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measures as it charts Mo Mowlam’s story from the heady days leading up to the 1997 general election, through her time as Northern Ireland secretary to her distressingly premature death in 2005. With a deliciously sneaky Peter Mandelson, courtesy of Steven Mackintosh, adding moments of comedy, the high point was surely Julie Walters, as Mo spitting: "You devious cunt!" at Mandy on the steps inside the House of Commons.

The Deal, C4, 2003

Michael Sheen’s pitch-perfect impersonation of the former PM and his trademark shit-eating grin, alongside the iron fist of David Morrissey’s intimidating Gordon Brown, ensured Channel 4’s early look at the dysfunctional relationship at the heart of the New Labour project hit the target. Both lead actors enhanced their reputations – with Sheen returning to Blair alongside Helen Mirren in The Queen, and, next up with Denis Quaid’s Bill Clinton in The Special Relationship – in a compelling political drama…

Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley, BBC4, 2008

The Tories were not immune to the political biopic treatment in the New Labour years, and Andrea Riseborough’s sexed-up star-turn as Margaret Thatcher created awkward feelings in more than a few lefties. Her courtship with the dashing Mr T (Rory Kinnear), and flirtation with Samuel West’s Ted Heath were not exactly as written in the history books, but a nice line in knowing glances to the future – the proto-milk snatcher promising every child in the country ‘would have as much milk as they wanted’ were she in power – made this an enjoyable, if disconcerting romp…

Confessions of a Diary Secretary, ITV1, 2007

In which Prezza is mercilessly mocked for his tabloid-titillating affair with Tracey Temple. John Henshaw and Maxine Peake were the mismatched lovers, with no chance missed to mock the Deputy Prime Minister for his northern-ness. More miss than hit, scenes in which Tony Slattery’s Gordon Brown bickers with the most cartoonish depiction of Tony Blair since his turn in the Simpsons, courtesy of Damian Lewis, only highlighted the lack of ambition and, worse, the lack of gags.

The Trial of Tony Blair, C4, 2007

In the final days of Tony Blair’s premiership, Robert Lindsey unveiled his own version of the former PM in a devastating satire, looking at to what might happen if Blair was to face a war crimes tribunal. The impressive depiction of a spiteful leader, happy to undermine his successor (Peter Mullan as Gordon Brown) and concerned only with his legacy was nicely played, while Alexander Armstrong’s version of David Cameron as a slippery opportunist was remarkably prescient.

Ten Days to War, BBC2, 2008

Shown to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, these poignant ten-minute shorts attracted huge names – Kenneth Branagh, Harriet Walter, Stephen Rea, Juliet Stevenson – as they focused on the countdown to war. Set in the UN, parliament and, with Branagh as Colonel Tim Collins, on the Kuwait-Iraq border, they offered a compelling account of the pro-war pressure in the lead up to the conflict. Precisely the sort of project the BBC does so well, and is increasingly unlikely to produce in the future for fear of upsetting the status quo.

The Government Inspector, C4, 2005

Peter Kosminsky made a drama out of the governmental crisis that ended with UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly dead. While scenes of Tony Blair (James Larkin) playing the blues on his guitar while discussing ‘outing’ Kelly to the press with Alastair Campbell were arguably suitably satirical, the depiction of the immediate build-up to Kelly’s suicide made for uncomfortable viewing, given the lack of co-operation from his family. That said, Mark Rylance was pitch perfect in the role of Kelly, a man unraveling under unbelievable pressure.

Tony Blair: Rock Star, C4, 2006

Christian Brassington played the pouting proto-politician in his erstwhile career as frontman of Ugly Rumours in this better-than-average spoof of the ex-PM. What the hapless hippy, who apparently modeled himself on Mick Jagger, lacked in musical talent and rock authenticity, he made up for in an uncanny ability to sell tickets as he spent a year between public school and Oxford University following his dream of rock stardom.

Margaret, BBC2, 2009

Lindsay Duncan’s more serious turn as the Iron Lady followed just months after Andrea Riseborough’s depiction of the younger Miss Roberts as something of a saucepot. The moment of Thatcher being dumped by the Tory party in 1990 should have had us cheering – but something in Duncan’s compelling performance almost had us feeling a tad of sympathy. The power of television, indeed…

When Boris Met Dave, C4, 2009

An odd, confusing mash-up of documentary, interviews, and dramatic reconstruction telling the story of Oxford University’s hideous Bullingdon Club, and the alumni who may soon be dividing up the country between them. Christian Brassington, fresh from his lead role in Tony Blair: Rock Star, played Boris, while Jonny Sweet was memorably unmemorable as Dave in a chance missed for a real expose of the drinking, dining and destruction of the toffs in their 80s university heyday.

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