Thursday, May 02, 2013


Three Problems With The Politician’s Husband

Tonight it’s Part Two of The Politician’s Husband – though, first, it’s political drama at the ballot box, so if you have elections round your way and you’ve not been out to vote yet, do. If you need a reminder, here’s why you should vote for the Liberal Democrats on philosophical grounds, on practical action, and for just five good reasons – but pick just one to read, as the polls are closing!

Now back to The Politician’s Husband, starring David Tennant and inevitably in a line from 1995’s rather good The Politician’s Wife and 1990’s outstanding House of Cards. But not a patch on either of those after Part One, is it? I hope it’ll improve, but a third of the way in it’s failed for me on three crucial levels.

No Politics

You can’t do a political thriller if you’re too frit to commit.

House of Cards prefigured Thatcher’s downfall and Major’s minor majority, and captured the moment by being utterly unafraid to show the Conservatives at their worst and best. The Politician’s Wife, too, was a brilliantly crafted revenge drama, but still took time to understand how the Tories worked, and felt of its times with the sleaze and media feeding frenzy of the last days of the old regime. But The Politician’s Husband wants to have its coke and sniff it. Is it Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper in a Labour Party struggling to cope after being returned to power by a masochistically amnesiac electorate? Is it the Tories all over again? Is the point that you can’t tell them apart these days? The problem is, it pulls every punch and so seems to be about nothing – a pale shadow compared to what’s actually happening in today’s complicated politics, and the personal conflict terribly artificial after Chris Huhne’s.

OK, One Bit of Politics. But It Was Rubbish

The whole farrago is triggered when Aiden Hoynes resigns to force a Leadership election. He has no support and his sole issue makes no sense. Has no-one ever seen a Leadership challenge?

For a senior Cabinet Minister to think they’re in with a chance – unless they’re an unbelievable idiot – a number of things would have to happen. We didn’t see any of them. Is the Prime Minister in trouble? Is there discontent, rebellion, lost votes, attacks in the press, open criticism from the party grassroots? Not here. Does Mr Hoynes have people talking him up in the press, cheerleaders in the blogosphere and the rest of his party – even in the Tories since the two better dramas of two decades ago, Leaders face votes from their party? Not here. Does he have more of a nucleus among the MPs than Cassius at the back there? Not so much.

So far, so stupid on the practicalities.

Then the choice of issue to resign over. Unbelievable.

Immigration is an increasingly toxic political issue on which, like the National Front and the BNP before him, Mr Farage’s neo-fascists are currently rising on in the polls. The Tories used it nakedly in the 1960s; when open racism started to go out of fashion, Mrs Thatcher dog-whistled to victory in the 1970s; the Tories binged on it all through New Labour’s time in office; Labour and the Tories and their lickspittles hit the Liberal Democrats on it harder than any other single issue to stop Cleggmania in the 2010 election; immigration is one of many issues on which Labour has shot to the hard right under Ed Miliband, apologising for being too soft in an attempt to corral soft racists back into voting for Labour. For crying out loud, politicians have been whipping up hate against immigrants to win easy support since the Middle Ages.

Everyone, but everyone, knows that immigration is unpopular, and it’s the first issue that desperate politicians leap on to oppose. Despite every crackdown on immigration being not just racist but kicking the economy in the nadgers. The only party I can think of in my lifetime that’s positively campaigned in favour of immigration was the Liberal Democrats in 1989, when passports for Hong Kong British / Chinese citizens and gay rights were two highly unpopular but principled issues that helped keep the core of the party together when we were at 3% in the polls.

So someone in either the Labour or the Tory Party resigns with an unprincipled, cynical, populist speech… In favour of immigration? In what sensible-but-incredible mirror universe?

If the Prime Minister had been exposed as doing a deliberate u-turn against what were known to be his convictions; if there was a smoking Cabinet paper exposing that he was only doing it because the press and the Opposition were forcing him; if Mr Hoynes had put out spin that he was a man of principle, prepared to take the hard but unpopular choices, so you knew he must be a pretty straight kind of guy… Then it still would have strained credulity past breaking point, but at least they’d have shown they’d thought about it. Nobody did.

It’s clearly not a coalition government, so if The Politician’s Husband had seriously wanted to make immigration a Leadership issue in this way they could only have done it with a Lib Dem majority government… But even I didn’t read that into it. Vince arguing for immigration on economic grounds to challenge Nick might just work with Lib Dem MPs and Lib Dem members. But not with any other party. And it’s clearly not us.

I can’t help thinking that writer Paula Milne chose the topic out of sheer cynicism rather than ignorance as something that viewers, like voters, would hate Mr Hoynes for all the more.

Freya Hoynes Doesn’t Seem Up To It

And finally, there’s Freya Hoynes. From the start a far more important figure than The Politician’s Wife’s Flora Matlock – not just a wife, but an MP, and not just an MP, but a minister in her own right, if not quite yet as high-flying as her husband. She must be good! But though we keep being told it, we don’t see it. Nothing of her talent at all. It’s not just that Emily Watson isn’t quite as good as Juliet Stevenson – it’s that her character is written so much worse. With no politics and no personal grudge yet, in the first episode we needed to see that she was, at least, brilliant. She was a vacuum. Only the men around her gave her definition. And that wasn’t just sexist, nor just foolish to think we’d assume she could get there on so little, but insulted the viewers by expecting us to side with her anyway.

When Ed Stoppard’s slimy Tory Bruce Babbish – and, come on, if you’re trying not to give away which party it is, don’t make him such a caricature – took Mrs Hoynes to dinner to slather her in blatant lies so as to get her on side, he did it incredibly badly. He told repeated and obvious lies – that he’d never supported Mr Hoynes’ bid, and had tried to deter it, when everyone on Earth knew he’d set him up for a fall – then came in with the enticing truth, that he’d suggested her for promotion (without noting that he’d only done it as part of the power-play against her husband and didn’t expect her to take it). What sort of fool would believe that?

Any student of human nature, still less drama, could see that if you want to persuade someone in a political thriller, you come out with the disarming truth first – ‘Look, you know and I know that I stabbed Aiden in the front, but he was a loose cannon that was damaging the party, he’d only have done more harm to himself and the rest of us, so I encouraged him to self-destruct’ – and then come in with the persuasive lie, which then seems plausible. At least, that’s how you’d do it in a political thriller with any brains. Doing it the other way round was rubbish writing for Mr Babbish, and apparently worse for Mrs Hoynes when she seemed to swallow it.

I can just about forgive her being written as deer-in-the-headlights on Newsnight – the character was making up her mind, dramatically (as if we didn’t expect it), live on TV. But this should have been the moment when she showed, suddenly, that she was up to it. She just looked like she was wavering between whose pawn to be.

I could have come up with a better answer for her to Kirsty Wark. So could you. Go on the attack.
‘My husband resigned on a matter of principle and I respect him for it. Of course I support the Government – I’m a Government Minister. But, Kirsty, I didn’t come on your programme to talk about this issue. It’s not part of my Ministry. And we both know that the only reason you asked was to embarrass my husband or the Prime Minister. You would never ask a male politician if they took all their views from their wife, and frankly I’m surprised and disappointed that you’ve taken such a sexist line of questioning.’
But, no. She didn’t. Frankly I’m surprised and disappointed that Paula Milne’s written such a sexist script where a female politician must be a helpless victim and can’t be any good until she has to be to escape her husband’s no-doubt-soon-to-be-sociopathic control freakery.

Still, at least some of the actors were good. David Tennant, of course, despite the Highlights of Evil. Hoping to see more for Chipo Chung to do. Roger Allam’s Chief Whip, reliable as always, his marvellously disillusioned Peter Mannion MP now bleeding into all realities.

And was it just me, or was Mr Hoynes named for Tim Matheson’s disgraced Vice-President John Hoynes and slimy Bruce Babbish named for Oliver Platt’s Oliver Babish, both from The West Wing? Shouldn’t you have spent a bit more time getting your scripts up to Sorkin level before exposing yourself quite so blatantly to unflattering comparison?

Update: On the bright side, and for the sake of fairness, Richard reminds me of the BBC’s last, disastrous attempt at a political drama. The Politician’s Husband is much, much better than The Amazing Mrs Pritchard. But that was brain-dead Poujadist* smiley-faced UKIPpery, and it was shit. Here, also, is an informative factual snippet – though not without its own bias, naturally – from one of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s leading hit-men. Unlike anyone involved in The Politician’s Husband, he knows exactly what’s involved in a Leadership coup attempt.

*Yes, it is known in our flat as The Appalling Mrs Poujade.

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Most atrocious hit on the crass-ometer (apart from the obvious sex-must-be-even-nastier-than-Nasty-Trevor-Eve) so far tonight: two senior Government MPs actually saying to each other, 'If only we put as much effort into fixing unemployment and education as we do plotting for our own evil selves...' Yes, of course that's the Shocking Reality of Politics. Please.

You could see in poor Roger Allam's dead eyes 'I've spoken Shakespeare with this mouth, you know.'
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