Yes, I chose a deliberately provocative headline. Only a fool would say that we need more political drama in the real world, but I believe that we could do with more on the small screen.
Why? Because television influences reality. It informs, educates and entertains us. Good shows generate understanding and empathy, and they challenge us to think. They can help us see other people’s perspectives, and give us a window into their worldviews. Goodness knows, we need more of that.
I’m a sucker for political drama. You name it, I’ve watched it. Whether it originates in the U.S., U.K., mainland Europe or beyond – the chances are I’ll have seen it (please email me with recommendations – I’m always on the lookout for more).
I love shows with a comedy angle, even if they’re as farcical as Veep or The Thick of It. I was weaned on those old British satirical sitcoms, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (would it surprise you to know that only 21 and 16 episodes, respectively, were made?). But my real passion in recent years has been for U.S. presidential politics – from the gritty, sinister House of Cards (the British original is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it) to the upbeat, utopian euphoria of The West Wing (my favourite show).
There have been a slew of enjoyable political dramas from our Continental neighbours, too. French TV has been perhaps the most prolific, serving us up Spin (Les Hommes de l’ombre – or ‘the shadow men’), Baron Noir and Marseille. But my highest recommendation goes to Borgen – the wonderful three-season Danish drama. It comes as a bonus to me that there’s almost always a strong communications director, press secretary or messaging maven somewhere in mix.
But there’s been a dearth of British brilliance. Sure, A Very British Coup and Secret State (both based on Chris Mullin’s novel) were good – and The Politician’s Husband and The Politician’s Wife were entertaining – but producing a clutch of good TV over several decades is a pretty poor performance.
Our director of public affairs, Victoria, would chide me if I didn’t mention Madam President – which I found entertaining, although rather preachy toward the end. Whilst I enjoyed Scandal (with a commanding lead performance by Kerry Washington) it also became dreary and repetitive and fizzled.
If you’re nodding through all of these, you’re on my wavelength. Fans of Madam Secretary should give Political Animals and Commander in Chief a try. For something light-hearted, check out the boys behaving badly in Alpha House. If you’re after a masterful and brooding performance, with a touch of Macbeth, Kelsey Grammer in Boss is your man. Interested in what might happen if the Capitol Building is blown up and the inexperienced Secretary of Housing and Urban Development suddenly gets thrust into the Oval Office to rebuild the country? Designated Survivor is your go-to. Want to see a grumpy, grizzly Nick Nolte as a former President trying to make amends for his past misdeeds? Twenty episodes of Graves await you.
I’m expecting that those of you who have read this far may call me out on the absence of The Wire, 24, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Handmaid’s Tale, Occupied etc. etc. etc. But this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive overview. It’s meant to make a point. And here it is.
I’m a centre-right Conservative. If I was a citizen of the United States of America, I’d (usually) vote Republican. But I could easily imagine voting for Democrat President Josiah Bartlet. So could a great many Americans.
In 2015, a Reuters-Ipsos poll gave The West Wing’s fictional leader of the free world (played with panache by Martin Sheen) an 82% favourability rating. Followers of U.S. politics know that’s far higher than President Trump, who’s only ever hovered around 50 at his peak, and that it beats both Obama and Clinton’s highest approval ratings throughout their shared sixteen years in office.
Both Bushes beat Bartlet – although in exceptional circumstances. Bush senior peaked at 89% in 1991 after victory in the Gulf War, and junior hit 90% in the days shortly after 9/11. But they were anomalies.
Why could so many Americans imagine themselves voting for a (fictional) Democrat for President? Because he was depicted as a smart, fair, dynamic leader – a man with deep convictions and principles, yet open to debate and dialogue. Bartlet was, for the most part, decisive and wise.
Over lockdown, I have watched the vast majority of the 156 episodes of The West Wing again (I fell asleep during some, and was distracted by life whilst other episodes played in the background). It has stood the test of time (pagers and old fashioned computer monitors aside).
My friend and colleague Az Chowdhury also consumed all of The West Wing over the past three months – and he was kind enough to buy me an original script as a gift. Reading it made me realise again just how powerful words can be. The West Wing showed me a different political perspective from my own, again and again. It revealed the humanity of people who hold a different worldview, and it opened my eyes to new arguments about substantive issues of both policy and life.
I’m privileged to call politicians of differing political persuasions my friends. I believe that we are well served (by and large) by our Members of Parliament in Westminster, both those on the government benches and those opposite. I believe that they want the UK to be a better place. They want healthcare, education, housing, social justice, the defence of the realm and a robust economy. They just have different ideas about how government ought to deliver those things, and different priorities.
The only wildly popular British political TV series to have been created recently is Bodyguard. Screened in 2018, it was nominated for an Emmy and two Golden Globes, and achieved the highest viewing figures for a new BBC drama in the multichannel era. In fact, no BBC drama has drawn a bigger audience since the Christmas Day 2008 episode of Dr Who. It’s time for more.
We need more homegrown politician television, showing the humanity and principles of people from both the left and the right. We need intelligent dialogue, to stretch our minds and broaden our views. We don’t need it to be holier-than-thou, telling us what to think – but we do need it to challenge us and motivate us.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve enjoyed theatre performances of James Graham’s This House, David Hare’s I’m Not Running, and a raft of small stage plays, such as the excellent An Honourable Man and Maggie & Ted – both by my friend Michael McManus. We need more of this, and we need more of it to make the transition to our living rooms, thus gaining a wider audience.
In a timely twist, I noticed today that Sophie Sandor has launched a crowdfunder for a pro-free speech dystopian comedy drama for the National Youth Film Academy, called Intrusion. If you fancy chipping in, just click here: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/intrusion-film
But there’s a wider challenge. The British public is ready for mainstream political drama. It’s time the creative community sharpened its pencils, met the demand, and treated us to scripts to be brought to life on the stage and screen.