Wednesday, October 04, 2006

 

Popping Mrs Balloon

The Amazing Mrs Pritchard is supposed to be the BBC’s new ‘political comedy drama’, but it failed dreadfully on all three counts. Something positive first, though. Jane Horrocks is very engaging as the supermarket manager whose gobbiness suddenly catapults her into power, despite the unbelievably crass script she was given. I’m also all for saying that sitting at home and complaining is no good if you’re unsatisfied with how things are; if you want to change the world, get off your arse and do something about it. My problem was with what she thought the problem was, and her ‘solution’. The problem with politics is apparently that there are not enough ideas, just aggression to disguise essential similarities; so the solution is to have no ideas at all, but be fluffy and nice (as long as you’re a woman, and white, and sufficiently bland and malleable to appeal to a multi-millionaire business tycoon). I know I’m a policy wonk who’s unusually set on the notion that you need ideas to change the world, but I suspect you don’t have to be as involved as me to see the problem there.

So far this morning, I’ve seen the views of two usually excellent Lib Dem bloggers:
Andy Strange rather liked it, while Richard Huzzey didn’t, offering instead some thoughtful criticism on models of national leaders as father- and mother-figures. I don’t know what other viewers thought, but I’m in the critical camp too. With an election campaign built entirely on a single personality and with no hint of a political direction, Mrs Pritchard appears to be a female version of David Cameron, exaggerated to such a ridiculous extent that he seems a model of substance. True, he may not have a single policy to his name, but I have an idea of what his general direction is. All I’ve been able to glean of Mrs Pritchard’s political direction is from her backers, and while that’s pretty disturbing so far she herself apparently manages to become Prime Minister without ever expressing an opinion on a single issue (except that the existing politicians are, gosh, all the same).

Before I offer a detailed political critique, I’d like to take the programme on its own terms, as ‘satirical drama’ and as offering a more people-friendly, touchy-feely style of politics. One scene stands out as showing up how utterly clueless it was as satire, how shallow as drama and, perhaps most damningly, how nasty and cold-hearted its ‘feelings’ actually were. So, the point at which it really jumped the shark for me was the ‘bottom pinch’. It’s most of the way through the episode, and Mrs Pritchard seems on course for Downing Street, and the nasty press (which appeared to consist entirely of The Sun; certainly, it gushed all over most media people, particularly on how nice the BBC are to broadcast on, er, the BBC) unleashed their full venom in a terrible personal intrusion of scandal. Are you ready for this? Well, seven years earlier, her husband pinched a younger woman’s bottom while slightly inebriated at the office party. Strong stuff, eh?

Never mind other people’s bums. This was the point when I had to pinch myself to check I really was watching a post-watershed programme aimed at allegedly mature people, and hadn’t drifted off and woken at 4.30 to see something on CBBC that was really talking down to the children. I’ve stood for Parliament a couple of times, in seats somewhere around the 400th-500th target mark for a party expected to get a tenth as many MPs as that, and before then in students’ union elections at university. In terms of public elections, then, if I’m lucky I might be in the top few, er, thousand ‘high fliers’ in the country. Yet I’ve had far worse things thrown at and – gosh, what a thing to say of our honest and lovely press – made up about me over the years than the best that can apparently be chucked over someone heading to be Prime Minister. Give me strength! I’ve never seen such a feeble ‘dirty trick’. Yet the bigger problem I had was when she flew into a hurt rage at her husband for this terrible, awful behaviour. Gosh, again. She’s surrounded by family and friends to try and contrast her with the heartless and contemptible male ‘politicians’ (none of whom are allowed family or friends by the script, and who might as well go about wearing horns and pantomime capes), but the thing that struck me was how badly she treated them, particularly her husband, while the script and direction all assumes the audience should be siding with her.

Politicians inevitably make prats of themselves when they tell other people how to run their family lives, but I couldn’t help but think of mine when she stood for Parliament without so much as a word to her alleged partner for life, and spent a load of their money doing so. I’ve always talked over standing for anything very carefully with Richard, and I know plenty of people active in politics – women and men – who’ve not gone for something because it would make life too difficult for their partner. So while I wouldn’t tell a real-life Mrs Pritchard how to run her life, it made me recoil from what a git she was. Perhaps it all boils down to this question: if your partner a) was found out as having once pinched the bottom of someone they found attractive, several years ago, while in a state of inebriation, or b) made an expensive and completely life-changing decision that would turn both your lives upside-down without mentioning it to you, still less actually consulting you, which option would make you feel hurt and worthless, and which would make you roll your eyes and tut for a moment? Because I know what my answer would be, and I can’t imagine being in a relationship so unequal, unpleasant and control-freakish as Mrs Pritchard considers puts her in the right. You see, real politicians do have family lives, and pretty much all the ones I know treat them better than this ‘nice’ woman does.

Now, fair’s fair, as the story is all about emotion rather than ideas, yes, I admit I felt got at, and felt people I know and like – even know and dislike – were being got at unfairly. It opened with her breaking up a fight between Labour and Tory candidates at the supermarket she manages, and who couldn’t like such a bit of slapstick, or hasn’t thought a strict headmistressy type should go into the baying yobs at Prime Minister’s Question Time and tell them they should be ashamed of themselves? But it’s a long way from that to presenting every single ‘politician’ as a slimy, worthless piece of scum all the same as each other. I got into politics because I wanted to change the world, and so did most others. I’ve never made a penny out of politics – quite the reverse, in fact, it can cost you loads – and neither have the vast majority of other people involved in politics. We get involved because we want to achieve something. So, yes, I was offended by this incredibly self-satisfied show that presented her as the first person ever to want to change things, and everyone else as exactly the same. Do they think political parties are grown in vats? It’s not an uncommon feeling to look at a politician and think, ‘I could do better’. I know it’s been the spur to an awful lot of the things I’ve worked at over the years. But it takes breathtaking arrogance and misanthropy to say ‘Not only could I do better than every one of them, but I’m entirely right and every one of them is entirely bad.’

And, sorry, but once you stand for election, when you found your own party, you’re a politician. So when she said, “I’m not a politician. Politicians lie,” she was, and she was. Because most politicians aren’t liars, but, goodness, believe different things to each other. She seemed to think all right-thinking people could only believe the same (alarm bells ringing here), but at the same time that everyone else was “all the same”. Well, those can’t both be true. There was a very disturbing undercurrent to all this. Because what she says – whatever it is – is only ‘common sense’, she didn’t have to listen to anyone else.

I’ve already established that she appears to treat her husband’s views as beneath consideration or, indeed, contempt, and though he’s presented as bad for not voting for her, funnily enough, she never bothered asking him to. He tells her of her bossy control-freakery “This is the problem with you. You can’t trust people to get on with their own – thing,” but it gets swallowed up by his rubbish argument, set to comedy music, that she’s not up to it when she so patently is. Like all the men in the programme, he’s weak, corrupt and self-serving, so when he’s the only one who hits the damning critique on the head, he’s easily dismissed. But it’s not that she just doesn’t bother listening to the person she’s sworn to love. She listens to absolutely no-one (she gets a cheer for refusing to speak to a Lib Dem in the first scene)… No-one, that is, except the high-flying journalist who spins for her, and the business tycoon who bankrolls her.

I’ve always been suspicious of political parties that are in hock to rich individuals or rich organisations, and when the Lib Dems were able to compete at the last election by having, say, one-tenth the money of the other two parties, the Michael Brown donation didn’t exactly work out brilliantly for us in the end. We took two and a half million pounds – much more than we’ve ever had before – from someone who later turned out to be a crook. Whoops. But on the bright side, the party still raised many, many individual donations from its members, and Mr Brown was never offered nor put up for a peerage, and once he’d given us the money and we’d spent it, his ‘leverage’ over us was, er, spent. Mrs Pritchard gets ten million pounds (four times as much, and with no background checks at all) from one donor, and that’s the only money we hear about for her campaign. The donor is an incredibly rich business tycoon, and she is in fact Mrs Pritchard’s employer. Mr Brown couldn’t sack Charles Kennedy – that was some other people, and it wasn’t over money – but Mrs Pritchard could at any stage have been sacked and her whole campaign wound up by one person, on a whim. The first time I stood for Parliament I was unemployed and had very little help in terms of money or people, against a huge, professional campaign by a millionaire. Which of us was the plucky outsider, and which the Mrs Pritchard? Pardon me if I don’t see this as ‘clean’ politics.

Now, let’s imagine for a moment that Mrs Pritchard was real. I know, anyone who’s got the faintest clue even about how the law works, let alone a campaign, will be shrieking, ‘But it’s all rubbish!’ but try and hang, draw and quarter your disbelief for a moment. She’s got no policies, no positions, but people rushing to stand ‘on her platform’ all over the country, and her campaign consists entirely of a personality cult – her face plastered all over every poster, literally all about image. What would she be like? Well, who knows, as there’s only one scene with one word about her ‘Manifesto’, and we don’t hear a word of what’s in it, or we might have to make our minds up about what she stands for other than Poujadism (ironically, my spell-check offers ‘pluralism’ for that). It’s implied that she thinks policies are a bad thing, but what do you have instead? How do we know what she believes, what she stands for, what she’d do in a crunch? At least with a political party you have some idea of their philosophy, so even if events knock their manifesto completely off course, you have some idea of which way they’ll jump. Not her. And, of course, it’s not in the interests of the writer to give her any actual policies, even if the plot had needed them: she’s got to be sympathetic, and lovable, and appeal to everyone with her self-evident common sense goodness, and because any fool knows that politics is about choices and there is no such thing as a programme of self-evident, common-sense, painless policies, as soon as she set out a single idea, the viewers would start to say, ‘Well, if that’s what she’s about, I wouldn’t vote for her.’ At one stage we hear her spin guru talk of positioning her as a ‘centrist’, but if the problem she rants about at the start is that everyone’s crowding into the middle so there’s no choice, how will that improve anything? Though ‘centre’ isn’t exactly the position that most of her followers seem to fall into. Let’s see; there’s that millionaire supermarket tycoon, and though it’s implied that women backbenchers of several parties defect to her, suggesting that either they’re devoid of principle or she’s in for a problem, the only ones we actually hear identified are Tories. And she head-hunts a brilliant and ambitious Tory to be her Chancellor, while all identifiable members of all other parties are scorned. So forgive me if a few more alarm bells start to ring.

All the defectors to her and all of her candidates are women, of course, just as all the other politicians are men and all the men are slimy, weak, corrupt and self-serving. This is the bit I’ve been putting off writing, because the ‘battle of the sexes’ is my least favourite rubbish science fiction cliché. By a series of miracles, it’s one Doctor Who almost entirely avoided (though run screaming from any Blake’s 7 story by Ben Steed, as they’re all like that and uniformly god-awful). Science fiction? Well, actually, a lot of The Amazing Mrs Pritchard is sat somewhere between really bad sci-fi and really bad 1970s sit-com trying to get a grip on how frightening it thinks feminism is. It sits in that other well-known sci-fi cliché, the ‘parallel world’ (or, if Duncan Brack is writing it and trying to sound serious, the ‘counterfactual’), as it appears to be an alternative version of the 2001 General Election, with its boring campaign, terrible turnout and rubbish ability of the opposition parties to get women elected turned round by a new party out of nowhere that unseats Tony Blair. But, really, when Mrs Pritchard sounds off about how men are all the same, they all lie, and how only women can run the place with straight-talking and common sense, it’s a wonder that this isn’t being beamed directly from 1972. There’s admiring talk of Mrs Thatcher (quelle surprise), but, goodness, why not mention those inspiring individuals, those paragons of excitement, principle and straight-talking who are actually in government, like Harriet Hewitt, or Tessa Harman, or Patricia Jowell? Er… Oh, because the idea that women are all thrilling and men all loathsome is just Horrocks. If this sort of tedious sexist blather had come from a male politician in any party other than the nuttier fringes of UKIP, their political career would be over before they could say ‘pretty little head’, because no-one would vote for a bigoted shit who calls half the population worthless. So what, exactly, is Mrs Pritchard?

Oh, yes, UKIP. Well, I was thinking about how Mrs Pritchard’s government might be if it was real, and the kindest example I could come up with was government by Jamie Oliver; well-meaning celebrity stunts with supermarket money. But if I was living in Mrs Pritchard’s Britain, I’d be petrified she’d be like Kilroy. A celebrity face that’s all image, and doing everything in the name of common sense because naturally everyone agrees with you, and anyone who doesn’t is obviously just being Evil. We know, because we’ve watched the programme, that she is ‘nice’ (‘nice’ being defined as a caring, compassionate bigot who treats her husband like dirt, but leave that to one side), but if I was just someone living under her ‘Purple Alliance’, I wouldn’t have that insight. I’d just be praying that her coalition of people with their own argumentative agendas would fall apart before it could do too much damage, because the only parties I can think of that have ever ridden to power on the sort of populist cult of personality seen in The Amazing Mrs Pritchard are fascist ones. I know; who could possibly think of that nice Jane Horrocks as a fascist? But if I wasn’t in the privileged viewer’s position of knowing how ‘nice’ she is, all I could go by is my historical knowledge of what demagogues do in power and that, as well as no men in her team, there are no black or Asian faces, no-one I know is gay, and that because no-one who disagrees with her could possibly be worth considering, when interviewers say, “If only more people thought like you,” she declares, “Oh, most people do.” ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’

This show could easily have appealed to me. I believe, for example, that politicians should be less slavishly on-message – though having no message at all is rather a turn-off – that there should be more women involved in politics and that there are under-performing men who face no serious challenge (sorry, Simon). If I sound as grumpy as Victor Meldrew about all this, perhaps it’s because Mrs Pritchard is only Victor Meldrew in cuddlier form. Did she have any ideas? Any passion? Other than being wholly negative about every single one of her opponents, who were, to a man and woman, smeared as liars, until some of the women were suddenly redeemed by defecting to her? Presented as fresh and inspiring, the irony is that hers was the single most wholly negative political campaign I’ve ever seen. The story could have been funny; it wasn’t. It could have had something interesting to say about how political parties are seen as too establishment, and the small but noticeable rise of Independent MPs beginning with Martin Bell in 1997; it didn’t. It could have encouraged people to get involved and change things, but by tarring every single person who’s already doing that as a cynical, horrible shit and saying ‘politics will mess up your family’, it can only make things worse. People will say, ‘They’re all horrid, but what can I do? I don’t know any millionaires and I’d get shafted.’ Besides, what little ray of hope has come of the sudden revolution of the first episode will swiftly vanish; she’s on top, so there’s only one way for the story to go now. When it all goes horribly wrong, any people inspired by her message that ‘Politics isn’t rocket science’ will just be put off, thinking they can’t change anything after all, but you can. It wants to be a political comedy drama, but it’s not funny, it’s pitiful drama and it’ll only pour politics further down the toilet. I just think it’ll make the work of all those of us who actually do want to change the world rather than sneer at it more difficult, and what a missed opportunity that is.

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Comments:
Succinct as ever Alex but I agree with a lot of stuff you said. Was a welcome hour long break from creative blue sky local policy thinking though.
 
"as well as no men in her team, there are no black or Asian faces, no-one I know is gay"

I hate to contradict you Mr Alex but Meera Syal joins the cast next week.

I also fear you missed the point of the show - in the words of the creator and writer:

"It's a fantasy idea about an idealistic world where this ordinary, sensible woman becomes Prime Minister."
 
It is lucky that Plenary is quiet this week or I would never have had time to read this all the way through :-)

I agree with all you say however there was one other sin attributed to politicians. They were portrayed as stupid. Why else would the Labour Party parody her poster and give her campaign legitimacy and additional publicity. Even Labour would not be that daft.
 
I suspected that that's how it would be and was tempted to watch it to see. But I forgot it was on, and I'm glad that I did...
 
I hate to disagree with you, Marty, but as I said, I was trying to look at it from the point of view of someone who was a citizen, rather than in the privileged position of the ‘viewer’. It’s hardly surprising that I don’t have all the additional knowledge over and above that of the previewer ;-)

And… An idealistic world? In which everyone who’s ever tried to achieve anything aside from the sainted Mrs Pritchard and those who rally to her flag is an unmitigated shit (and, as Peter says, an idiot - leaving aside the hypocrisy of her suggesting they’re negative), and all men are worthless? Is the author crazy, or believing their own hype? Do you really not find what appears to be government by Daily Mail just the teeniest bit scary?

I did not, in fact, miss the point at all (surely that would be impossible, when it was rammed down our throats so constantly and in such a contrived way). It’s just that, unlike you it seems, I didn’t fall for it.
 
Gosh Alex, it really got under your skin didn't it!

I write one short paragraph saying I rather enjoyed watching it, Richard Huzzey writes an in depth analysis, and you write a 13 paragraph rant ripping it to shreds!

As a "usually excellent" Lib Dem Blogger I feel another post coming on! ;-)
 
Ah, Andy, I always look forward to your posts, while mine are never knowingly underwritten. But I did sit there watching it with more and more steam coming out of my ears… Can anyone remember the last drama in which the twist was that the politician (of whatever stripe) wasn’t, in fact, a complete git?

We’ve not watched The Outsiders yet, by the way, but recorded it and – from the logo alone – I’d agree with you that it looks like a stab at The Avengers (the real thing is back on BBC4 this time tomorrow). Will wait and see if it’s any good.

And I should point out that I know and am very fond of Martin, so my stomping on him in my last comment was rather more tongue-in-cheek than it looks on reading it back ;-)
 
Thanks Alex. Well, you now have another post to read on this subject. And you can tell from it almost approaching Wilcockian lengths that I've wasted rather too much time writing it!

Interested to hear what you think of The Outsiders. I didn't see it all. But look out for the design of the explosives - for me that was the real give away about what they were trying to do.
 
Thanks, Andy. And you won’t be surprised that I’ve just spent far too long this morning composing a reply of, er, nearly Wilcockian length back on your blog ;-)

Will hope to find time to blog about the ITV offering later…
 
Communists foster personality cults even more than fascists (there were far more statues of Lenin, Stalin and Mao than there ever were of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco) and judging from Mrs. Pritchard's policies in the later episodes she is more into their camp than that of the fascists. Radical green/ ultra feminist seems to be her policy. Why am I not surprised, considering it's the BBC.
 
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