I got the idea for this post from a recent one by Saturn Smith on Game Change – the story of Sarah Palin’s misadventures as VP candidate. I’ll see it soon enough but it reminded me of three excellent miniseries, all of them dealing with the political world. As they are all British, they probably aren't too well known here.
First up is the House of Cards trilogy. It’s known by the title of the first season (four 40 minute parts) which was released in 1990. Subsequent chapters came in 1993 (To Play the King) and 1995 (The Final Cut).
It’s a rise and fall story arc with the central character being Francis Urquhart (FU!), the Conservative party whip and his machinations to become party leader and Prime Minister. It’s set in England just after Margaret Thatcher steps down (though she isn’t mentioned by name). Some critics have compared Urquhart’s maneuverings, and Urquhart himself to Richard III. Here he is sizing up his rivals.
One feature the series’ fans quite liked was Urquhart’s penchant for speaking to the camera a few times every episode. The actor is Ian Richardson who spent much of his career on the stage. In film you might remember him in the role of Bill Haydon in the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries with Alec Guinness. Here’s another clip with one of his soliloquies:
In Part 2, To Play the King, Urquhart is Prime Minister and the drama revolves around his dealings with the new king – character a little like Prince Charles. Here is where they first meet, briefly on good terms.
The next clip illustrates the excesses of power and Urquhart’s reflections on the same. It also gives a good glimpse of the daily confrontations in the House of Commons between the two parties. And finally, it gives an example of Urquhart’s catch-phrase:
"You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment." Per Wiki, “It was used by Urquhart whenever he could not be seen to agree with a question”.
So popular did this phrase become that Prime Minister John Major actually used it in the House of Commons to great laughter and commotion from all sides.
The concluding chapter is The Final Cut. No clips here as the only ones I could find have too many spoilers. It holds up well and brings about a fairly satisfactory conclusion. Aside from the brilliance of its script and the acting, it’s worth seeing this soon. There will be a U.S. remake coming out later this year starring Kevin Spacey. Do let the original be your introduction to the story.
Next up isn’t exactly a miniseries; more like a Tony Blair trilogy and counting. I’m referring to The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship. Most of you have seen The Queen and if you haven’t, you’re likely familiar with the story. Well, The Queen was the only one of the three to be released in theatres. First there was The Deal. It’s by the same director (Stephen Frears) and writer (Peter Morgan) as The Queen and also features Michael Sheen as a younger Tony Blair.
The title refers to the alleged deal between Blair and Gordon Brown in which Brown would not stand against Blair for party leadership in return for being granted extraordinary powers over the economy of social policy should Labour ever form the government.
Brown, who even as a young man had had a long history in the Labour party, was seen as the star of his generation. Blair was more of a newcomer. Brown quickly recognizes Blair’s political gifts and takes him under his wing. While the acting (especially David Morrisey as Brown) and script are every bit as good as they were in The Queen, it helps if you have some interest in or knowledge of British politics in the late 80s and early 90s.
I couldn’t find any clips for The Deal and since the Queen is well enough known, let’s go directly to The Special Relationship. It was a TV only production and appeared on HBO in May 2010. The title refers to the relationship between the UK and the USA and in this telling, especially between Bill Clinton and Blair. It covers the years 1992-2000 but skips over the 1997 events covered in The Queen. At first Blair is just the leader of the opposition and takes both inspiration and practical tips from Clinton and his team. Later, Blair as PM becomes more self-assured, starts treating Clinton as an equal and makes a fine speech in the US in support of Clinton while he is beset with his Lewinsky persecutors.
Peter Morgan again did the screenplay and the director was Richard Loncraine who also directed The Gathering Storm about Churchill’s years in the political wilderness. Clinton is played by Dennis Quaid and Hillary by Hope Davis. Both received good reviews and were nominated for various awards. I found it hard to get over the perfect characterizations of Bill and Hillary by John Travolta and Emma Thompson in Primary Colors. You can see small bits of Quaid and Davis in the trailer:
Their performaces aside, it’s a fascinating story that mixes public events with behind-the-scenes dealings. The only clip I could find is of Blair’s aides marveling at Clinton’s slippery definition of oral sex.
The movie ends with Bush’s eventual election. Clinton and Blair are talking and Clinton is trying to sound him out about how he’s going to get along with Bush without sounding as though that’s what he’s really asking. Blair sees through this and replies (paraphrasing perhaps), “Well, I’d rather be inside the tent than outside pissing on it”. Which makes me think that a Blair-Bush sequel can’t be too far off.
The third of my picks is the original version of State of Play. It was remade as a pretty good movie in 2009 starring Russell Crowe but the 2003 British miniseries (six one hour parts) of the same name is vastly better. It’s hard to disclose much of the plot without giving away one of the several twists. Here is the bare bones outline courtesy of Wiki (and if you go to the link, note the rapturous reviews from the British press):
“The serial begins with the murder of a young man, in what appears to be a drug-related killing, and the apparently coincidental death of Sonia Baker, the young researcher for MP Stephen Collins (David Morrissey). As the deaths are investigated by journalist Cal McCaffrey of The Herald (John Simm) and his colleagues (including Kelly Macdonald as Della Smith and Bill Nighy as editor Cameron Foster) it appears that not only were the deaths connected, but that a conspiracy links them with oil industry-backed corruption of high-ranking British government ministers.”
This is the one clip I could find. It’s the newspaper guys trying to make sense of the latest development. If you haven’t seen this miniseries, and I’m guessing no one has, you’ll get an idea of the quality of the script, acting and characters. But I doubt you’ll be able to figure out any important plot details. With its six hour length it works much better than the movie, which I felt had a 24-ish air of trying to cram in too much too fast. The miniseries allows for better character development and the plot twists don't seem so arbitrary.
To wrap up, if you enjoy intelligent dialogue, excellent acting, political intrigue, and are sympathetic to a somewhat jaundiced view of the sausage making aspect of political life, these are the series to see. It takes a certain investment of time but it’s well worth it. I quite enjoy the miniseries format and just so you can gauge my judgment, my all-time favorite is I, Claudius. Hmm, more political intrigue.