Thursday, January 18, 2007


And Now… The Verdict

The Trial of Tony Blair comes to Channel 4 tonight. It’s worth a look but doesn’t quite meet its promise, much like the repeat afterwards of The 30 Greatest Political Comedies… In which Michael Howard gives the world’s worst impersonation of relaxed bonhomie and co-host Charles Kennedy patently can’t bear the sight of him. The Avengers: A Sense of History is also on tonight, boasting outstanding guest actors (Nigel Stock, Patrick Mower and Jacqueline Pearce, Servalan herself) but with the script a rather limp political thriller. Alistair Beaton’s political comedy-drama has a more lively script but much less engaging leads.

I’m not disparaging Robert Lindsay, who gives a fine performance as a twitchy, haunted, but still sanctimonious Tony Blair. Tune in at 10 tonight and you won’t see an impersonation, but a character sharing a name and many attributes with our Prime Minister. In many ways, though, he’s more sympathetic than I suspect the real man is, borrowing much from Mr Lindsay’s earlier character of Michael Murray in GBH, ranting Derek-Hatton-a-like turned MI5 stooge turned nervous breakdown. For me the most convincing acting performance as ‘the real’ Tony Blair remains Tony Keetch back in a dramatisation of the Hutton Inquiry, but I suspect I find it easier to watch an obviously fictional version without throwing things at the screen. Paradoxically, he’s both a more rounded character – making it easy for the viewer to get involved with him – and more of a caricature. There is no cheap shot missed about how we expect these people to behave, with Tony obsessed with shredding details of Camp David meetings and Labour donors (there seem to be peerage jokes every few minutes), Gordon obsessed with hating Tony but feeling impotent to do anything about it, and Cherie hating Gordon right back, torn between distancing herself from Tony and wanting to be supportive, but mainly obsessed with money. Admittedly, her nicking the light bulbs from Downing Street and the huge piles of bags of shredded evidence are funny, but they don’t tell us anything we don’t already know from such informed sources as Steve Bell cartoons and Dead Ringers.

With the jokes such obvious targets, I suspect we laughed rather more at it on Monday night – its first outing, on More4 – than it deserved. We’d had a bit of a comedy warm-up that had put us in the mood to be entertained, recasting the white dreadlocked twins from The Matrix Reloaded with twin Robert Robinsons (hmm… Hysterical to us, but perhaps you had to be there) and just having watched the climactic episode of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin in which Reggie finally breaks and, before faking his own death, stages the world’s first loganberry slick in attempt to give his boss CJ heart failure with ‘rivers of blood’. Come to think of it, CJ is of course played by John Barron, and if you tune in to BBC4 at 7.10, he’s in The Avengers tonight as well. But back to the silly programme…

While Tony Blair is naturally the focus, and a slippery reptile he is too, The Trial of Tony Blair is even harsher to other three leaders: Gordon Brown can barely get himself elected even as Labour Leader, lacks all charm and is so indecisive that, asked where his killer instinct is, confesses he doesn’t think he has one (he eventually drops Tony in it only via his aide, who gets the British Ambassador to the UN to abstain in the shiftiest, least courageous way possible); David Cameron is a vacuous idiot sick of his bike and trying to rap; and Ming Campbell, er, doesn’t even get a namecheck. It’s difficult not to despise everyone involved, and I’m a little tired of political dramas like that. It doesn’t help that the actor playing Mr Brown looks like a cross between Christopher Plummer in a Hitler haircut and Droopy, or that even I can do a better impression of Mr Balloon than Alexander Armstrong manages.

This uncertain hour and a half offers two different openings, both involving Tony Blair giving an important announcement. It’s 2010, and in one he’s finally addressing the nation to step down as Prime Minister, the act that kicks off the rest of the drama; but while he has no problem with delivering this mealy-mouthed, self-serving flannel, the very first scene we see is taken from the end, a few months later. Mr Blair is in the confessional, desperate for absolution before he’s driven off, but even with his escort to The Hague waiting outside and a priest sworn never to reveal what he says he’s unable to admit out loud that his mortal sins were wrong. And that, of course, is the thread of the drama: the wish-fulfilment fantasy that the Security Council will set up a UN Special Tribunal on Iraq and that there’ll finally be a legal examination of Mr Blair that he can’t fix.

The outgoing Prime Minister plans his exit in exactly the terms any stand-up satirist would offer us, trying to work out what would look best for the cameras. “Can I cry?” he wonders. But then there’s the first spot-on moment, as he leaves Downing Street in a pitch-perfect evocation of his entrance thirteen years before, with broad smiles to fast camera shots of an excited (but this time, entirely hired) crowd as Walking on Sunshine plays. Then the parody turns cruel, as he spots among the actors a man holding a sign condemning 800,000 dead in Iraq. If that sounds like Banquo’s Ghost, there are similar suggestions that perhaps only Mr Blair can see him – he’s certainly given to ever-more intrusive visions of protestors, suicide bombers and, finally, his victims – and he’s seen obsessively scrubbing his hands, then with a splendid use of Mirror in the Bathroom as he slips into delusion, unable to bear every news broadcast announcing more dead in Baghdad.

It’s now that Mr Blair finally takes the plunge to become a Catholic convert (there’s an acerbic little scene where a venal priest gives way to his wish to cut a few corners), because while of course he always did the right thing, in a very Blairite piece of doublethink he’s now also seeking forgiveness for his sins. That selfish desire comes across as his only genuine religious motive in this, despite the overly religious tone that puts his publisher off his autobiography. The publisher (the impressive Tom Burke, who you may remember as Casanova’s son) complains that Mr Blair felt the hand of history on his shoulder 29 times: “Actually, I think it was probably more than that.” Working on an early draft with an aide, Mr Blair declaims, “My guiding principles were… What would you say they were?” in an echo of his inability to answer Alan Beith’s similar question a few years ago, before being prodded into settling for the grandiose but meaningless “Doing the right thing, and standing up to evil.” But however often he repeats this mantra, his quest for forgiveness underscores that he doesn’t believe it, as does his constant snapping that “Iraq is not my legacy”. Yet in seeming more shifty than messianic, Robert Lindsay’s Tony Blair has a more sympathetic and human madness than the real one; I’d like to believe that our Prime Minister has doubts, and really is haunted by the idea that he might have got Iraq appallingly wrong… But I think he really does have scarily messianic self-belief, and the reason he refuses to tolerate all opposing views is not the terrified defensiveness of many of his underlings, but sheer inability to comprehend that anyone could fail to agree with him without such rejection of self-evident truth being deliberately evil. The fictional Tony Blair is terrified; the real one is merely terrifying.

Though some of the gags are quite amusing and the examination of a troubled soul gives us occasional drama, the political detail is very uncertain. I can believe that, with Labour boosted in the opinion polls by nationwide relief that Tony Blair has finally gone, he’d leak a damaging e-mail purely out of worry that Gordon would get a bigger majority. But, of course, Mr Blair appears to be the most public proof ever displayed that it’s not the size that matters, but what you do with it. Again, this Tony Blair keeps insisting that Iraq is not his legacy, but is obviously unable to provide any alternative answer; what else has the real one done? Been an incompetently Orwellian minor Tory Prime Minister whose protracted period of absolute power has left nothing but the most mean-spirited of marks.

Mr Blair is shown throughout as a lonely, isolated figure: the Labour Party regards him as electoral poison; the US has hung him out to dry (their Ambassador telling him that Hillary, with an eye to re-election, will be saying unpleasant things about him in public but doesn’t really mean them is possibly the funniest scene in the whole thing); he’s left with just two aides in a huge, empty office space looking out over the Tower of London (where traitors used to await execution). It’s a shame, then, that new Prime Minister Mr Brown appears to have just one aide, vaguely implied to be Tommy Sheridan for no particular reason, making Mr Blair seem busy and popular by comparison. Much is made of the Blairs’ money worries, but even with affected religious mania putting off a British publisher, surely he’d still appeal to the religious right in America, and if John Major can coin so much, I don’t doubt that Tony Blair would be rolling in it from US lecture tours (even if George is in rehab and unable to do much directly – well, what else is new).

However uncertain and contradictory the tone may be, it would take a heart of stone not to take a little pleasure in some of the jabs inflicted on the ex-Prime Minister. Brian Haw and his stand follow him to become his megaphone-bellowing ‘neighbour’ outside his house in Connaught Square; arrested for war crimes and escorted to the nearest police station, Mr Blair complains that it’s humiliating when the desk officer demands to swab his mouth for DNA. He refuses, and is told he can’t: “Who brought that in?” he shouts. An obvious point, but well made, and well-deserved. In the New Labour Bible, of course, his outrage is perfectly justified: such an indignity could never be forced on a nice person, as only bad people would ever be subject to any police powers and, being subject to police powers, by definition you are bad and deserve anything coming to you. His expression says it all: ‘I didn’t mean me!’ It’s very satisfying to see Mr Blair told to shut up at his own extradition hearing, too, with the presiding judge the ever-authoritative John Woodvine. As it happens, he played the remarkably similar but rather deeper role of Prior Mordrin in 1987’s post-Thatcherism, post-new civil war drama Knights of God. He starts out as a dominating, charismatic leader with terrifying religious fervour, but by the end of the series has descended into messianic lunacy, with his number two leading a revolt against him and the whole thing falling apart (and, goodness, Nigel Stock’s in it too, as well as The Avengers tonight. It’s like some huge TV conspiracy). His gradual disintegration over 13 weeks is one of the most towering performances I’ve ever seen on TV, though whether he more presciently resembles Mrs Thatcher or Mr Blair is difficult to judge.

There’s a certain amount of pathos at the end, when Mr Blair suffers from heart trouble the night before he’s due to be taken to The Hague (on recovering, he at last comes full circle to that rejected confessional booth we saw at the start), and pleads with Cherie not to call an ambulance: a final admission that he knows no-one believes a word he says, and he’ll just be seen as the boy who cried wolf. Naturally, his snobbish reaction to NHS casualty is calculated to keep us from empathising with him for more than a minute or two, but there’s one last blackly comic scene when, like a gangster visiting someone not long for this world – whether from their medical condition or other means – Mr Brown brings Mr Blair lilies on his hospital visit and tells him that, of course, no-one believes his “Pinochet stunt”.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of Mr Blair presented here is the implicit one. There have been complaints that it ends with him being driven in a mobile prison cell under heavy escort towards The Hague, and we never get to see the actual ‘trial’… But surely the point is that the whole process is not about the trial itself, but about how desperate he’d be to avoid it ever coming to that because the result is a foregone conclusion. Just look at the way Robert Lindsay acts guilty throughout. The clear message is that if Mr Blair were ever put on trial for war crimes, not just Mr Blair and everyone else in the drama but every viewer already knows what the verdict would be.

Millennium’s verdict, on the other hand, is less predictable…

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