May You Live In Interesting Times: a new age of political TV drama?

Ah, those old Chinese curses, eh?

A couple of years back, I was pitching a TV drama-comedy idea to a really cracking producer. We were both excited (I think!) about the central character – an unseated MP thrown into my old work world of lobbying, with all its grey shades and the implications for her previously stable world view. We laughed. And then we sighed.

“Broadcasters are shy of political drama,” she said. “It’s a hard sell.”

Ho, ho, ho.

I grew up in the ’80s – politics was everywhere on TV. A sixth-former watching the BBC’s House of Cards while Maggie Thatcher’s world fell about her. Spitting Image was the weekly treat (I say, “treat”; more like a 5-foot high trifle and a diving board).

Last week, you might have caught Channel 4’s Brexit. It had both an excellent cast and the level of quality that made you (well, me, at least) hungry for more. (You can watch it free online til early February.) There was a great deal of excitement generated both before and after and much to enjoy: the personalising of the players; the fictionalised insight of protagonist Dominic Cummings, the “Leave” Campaign Director, whose frustrations we were encouraged to share.

It was like having a giant iron door unlocked, so we could peer inside the machinery of Westminster’s Brexit campaigns, eyebrows raised or knotted as we watched this cog catch on that ratchet, while those levers went up and down for no obvious reason whatsoever. That’s what good political drama does – turn the abstract into the relatable: we all do silly things.

But does C4’s Brexit herald a”new age of political drama”? As a career-politico-turned-scriptwriter, of course I want that to be true. But the wise producer’s note of caution rings hard in my ear. Broadcasters are in tough times, competing with US and European content, and both born of different financial models.

Den of Geek’s superb run through 2019’s TV drama highlights shows that although – like 2018’s – 2019’s dramas tackle inherently political issues (the porn industry, poverty, the care and justice systems, NHS, inequality, globalisation…), the political system itself isn’t taking front and centre.

But even if British audiences lose all appetite for tales about democratic processes or political deal-making, our need for stories of politics’ on-the-ground human impact remains as hungry as ever .


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