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I've worked for a big multi-national, lived abroad for several years, travelled a lot, now in politics. Married once but separated; no kids. Generally utilitarian except for minority rights.


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MARCH 15, 2012 8:27AM

Three First-Rate Political Miniseries

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          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.

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To Play the King was f***ing great!!! Wasn't there another BBC miniseries about a virtually unknown Labor MP who was elevated to PM?? I want to say it was titled Dark Horse, but I know that's not right.
thnaks for the tips, I'll have to rack one of these in the Netflix queue
Have not seen this one yet but I will show my beloved this as it looks great..
I wonder what other deals Blair made.
Saw all of these and applaud you for your great taste. Tremendous.
OK--I'm sold on House of Cards. I'll be checking that one out.
STATE OF PLAY! You are absolutely right, its 6 hrs went by like a breeze while the 2 hr US version dragged ass. And Bill Nighy is amazing. He's worth seeing in other things too - The Girl in the Cafe, Gideon's Daughter, and of course Shaun of the Dead.

I'll have to check out the others you mention.
Hmmmmm....think I'll dig out my DVDs of West Wing and have an "a-thon" with 'em.
Thanks for this excellent recommend. I've seen all but "The Deal" and "House of Cards." Next stop, netflix.
I haven't seen them, but, they are exactly the kind of movies and TV I watch. I leave the shoot-em-ups to my son. They get me a headache!
jmac – I’ve seen that House of Cards series three or four times and I’m sure to see it once more before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I’m not sure of the other one you’re thinking of. There was one in the 1980 called First Among Equals based on a Jeffrey Archer novel. But it isn’t a Labour backbencher that gets the job. Another that has a great reputation is Edge of Darkness. I haven’t seen it so don’t know if the plot is the one you’re thinking of. Please let me know if you find out.

Damon – You won’t regret it. Much better than 99% of the stuff out there.

Linda – I’m really hoping for a Blair-Bush movie. Blair was so eloquent in favor of the Iraq war that a couple of times he almost persuaded me.

Mary – I am impressed. You are the first person I’ve known who’s seen both The Deal and the original State of Play. Applause right back at you for your discerning taste.

Paul – You are in for a treat. The clips in the post are by no means the best scenes. Urquhart is one of the greatest fictional characters ever, and Ian Richardson is perfect for the role.

Luminous – When I first got SoP I hadn’t realized it was six hours. It cost me a couple of late nights as it was very hard to stop watching. I’m almost ready for a repeat.

Walter – I was working for a politician when West Wing debuted and it was required viewing. We used to imagine what roles we’d have if we were transported to the White House jobs.

bsb – Both are highly recommended but House of Cards is the better of the two. It’s also a lot longer so time is a factor. Hope you enjoy them.

scanner – if these are all new to you, are you ever in for a treat. Please let me know how you liked them whenever you get around to it. And do try to see House of Cards before the Netflix/Spacey version arrives.
One thing you have to say about the Brits they do like smart television even their comedy can be wickedly smart. Haven't seen any of these will take a peek at what my library has on tap to see if I can find them.
Desnee - Agreed. I must be a bit of an Anglophile as my fave bands growing up were all Brits - Beatles, Stones, the Who, Moody Blues and later Floyd, Genesis and The Clash. Well, there was also Dylan. Their TV productions at their best (they do have a fair amount of shlock) are unrivaled. I'll repeat what I said before - please let me know how you like whichever of them you wind up seeing.
Wow, so interesting!
Hey Sheila - Pick one and enjoy. House of Cards, and especially the second part (To Play the King) is my fave of the group, but it's a close call.
I am so happy that we both have the same taste in TV. I'm incredibly picky and series like House of Cards is the level of my interest. r
This is a marvelous post about this movie and I hope to see it one day now that I have been primed.
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onl - If you enjoyed the House of Cards trilogy, do try to see the others. The State of Play miniseries is especially gripping.

Algis - I'm gratified if I've brought them to your attention.
Wow! I have seen them and what a fantastic review, Abrawang, right on the money. R
Thoth - I'm pleased to find another OSer who's seen the lot. I was sure I'd be the only one but there's you and Mary Stanik too. Spread the word.
Thanks for the head's up on these, Abra. I'm surprised that I've never heard of any of them. I loved "The Queen" and am a fan of Stephen Frears, so I'll definitely look out for The Deal and The Special Relationship.
My favorite British political comedy, "In the Loop," is a film, not a TV show. It's a piquant, timely and insightful send up of the inner workings of international politics and the ineptitude of some of the players within--and how the sharper players use them as pawns.

If you haven't seen it, you might want to add it to your list!
Hi keka. In the Loop was my fave film of the year when it was out. I usually like my satire a bit subtler but the script, acting and characterizations were so great that I got swept up. I once worked for a politician so seeing things from an aide's point of view made it especially enjoyable.

Various - Just noticed your comment. I liked The Deal better than The Special Relationship but because the latter deals with more public events, it may be easier to cotton on to. But do try House of cards.
Thanks for these excellent recommendations and reviews. I've seen them all, but they deserve a second look. Thanks for reminding me. I'm always on the hunt for a good movie!