UK Politics

The drama of New Labour

Politicians are often accused of telling stories, of cynically manipulating or "spinning" the truth. As a result an increasing number of voters no longer believe what they are told.

Image caption Michael Sheen played Tony Blair in The Deal and The Queen

In contrast, many are willing to believe the stories dramatists tell them about their politicians. Plenty of evidence suggests that screen dramas influence how people see politics.

Some even believe that the way television and the cinema depict politics adds to the current disengagement from Westminster because they present politicians so negatively.

It is ironic that, as fewer and fewer people participate in real elections there are more and more screen dramas about politics.

The New Labour administration elected in 1997 is the most dramatised government in British history.

Dramatists have treated New Labour in various ways.

'Massive weapons'

There are dramas where the characters and situations are wholly fictional - but which strongly echo reality, such as the comedy series The Thick of It (2005 to present).

Then there are dramas that put real-life figures into fabricated stories, like Alistair Beaton's black comedy The Trial of Tony Blair (2006), which imagines that Blair is taken off to the Hague to be tried for war crimes.

In some people's opinions, even series largely aimed at children, such as Dr Who, have taken on New Labour.

In one episode an alien masquerading as the prime minister referred to (non-existent) "massive weapons of destruction" that could be deployed against Earth in 45 seconds. Sound familiar?

The most significant way dramatists have dealt with the Blair-Brown years is, however, through works in which actors play real politicians in real situations.

Examples include: The Deal (2003), an account of the Brown and Blair rivalry; The Government Inspector (2005) which looked at the death of Dr David Kelly; A Very Social Secretary (2006) a comedy about David Blunkett's complicated private life; The Queen (2006), a portrayal of Blair's attempt to modernise the monarchy after Diana's death; and Mo (2010) which depicted the life and death of Mo Mowlam.

Sometimes described as drama-documentaries (although some qualify as comedy-documentaries) such works invariably begin with a disclaimer that not all of what the viewer will see actually happened but much has a basis in reality.

There have always been dramatisations of real politicians - Disraeli and Churchill have long been popular subjects - but they were made after they had died or left office. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell and the like are unusual in that they were all portrayed on the screen while still in power and very much alive.

'Guilty of prejudice'

So what do these dramatised Blairs, Browns and Campbells tell us about New Labour - and how close are they to the truth?

Alastair Campbell thinks that there is an inherent problem with what the dramatists do: "They're always going to try to do you in because that frankly makes for better drama. The misrepresentation that they can invent is usually more interesting."

Certainly when it comes to The Deal, some - like the Blairite MP Adam Ingram - complain that gave a distorted picture. Tony Blair is presented as a shallow, ambitious blow-in to the Labour Party in contrast to Brown's rootedness, humanity and loyalty to John Smith.

The deal is about events which took place before Mr Blair became Labour leader. But its director Stephen Frears is happy to admit that its depiction of events was coloured by his own hostility to the Iraq war which took place in 2003 - the year that The Deal was broadcast.

"I'm absolutely guilty of that prejudice," he said.

"Blair was coming out in his true colours by then."

Peter Kosminsky's drama, The Government Inspector, was based on evidence presented to the Hutton Inquiry. The drama changed attitudes to the Kelly affair, according to the former Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, who was himself portrayed in the drama.

"It marked a watershed. After that attitudes relating to the death of Kelly changed significantly", he said.

Scoop

As a member of the Commons foreign affairs committee Andrew Mackinlay had interrogated David Kelly and infamously described him as "chaff". The media subsequently blamed MacKinlay for contributing to Kelly's suicide. But after the drama was broadcast, Mackinlay faced less hostility.

"People came to me saying they understood my involvement", he said.

Mo, the Bafta-award-winning drama about Mo Mowlam, contained a scoop that would have made any journalist proud.

Neil McKay, the scriptwriter, spent two years researching the story. He won the trust of Ms Mowlam's husband, Jon Norton.

Image caption The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker is widely presumed to be based on Alastair Campbell

This enabled him to reveal that Ms Mowlam had known all along that her brain tumour was terminal. But she had kept its seriousness a secret from friends and colleagues.

Had she been honest with Blair it is certain Ms Mowlam would not have been appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

So, how can we assess what these dramas tell us about New Labour? Like all good stories, it is complicated.

Former Cabinet minister Clare Short had to turn off In the Loop (The Thick of It's cinematic spin-off). She found Malcolm Tucker's bullying of ministers brought back "so many painful memories".

A long-time critic of spin, Short believes such depictions say something "very important" about New Labour in power.

Alastair Campbell - who some believe provided the template for Tucker - believes such works are so much "invented bilge".

As he says of those who produce drama-documentaries: "I wish they'd be more honest that they have an agenda and are using drama to pursue that agenda."

As moving and as funny as they can be, these dramatisations of New Labour should, then, be watched with care and the intentions of their authors respectfully scrutinised. They can shed a new light on real events and expose truths missed by the mainstream media.

But just like the politicians they depict, all dramatists are, in their different ways, spinning their audiences a line. Their dramas are invariably politics by other - more entertaining - means.

Dramatising New Labour is broadcast on Radio 4 at 8.00 pm on Saturday 17 July, with a shorter repeat at 3.45 on Monday 19 July.

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