Thursday 23 November 2017

Power play

A sharp new show is winning votes among fans of political satire, says Paul Whitington

Ever wonder what a deputy prime minister or vice president gets up to? Not much, if a new HBO comedy called 'Veep' is anything to go by. Written by Scottish comedy writer Armando Iannucci, 'Veep' premiered in the US late last month, and will appear on Sky Atlantic in June.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer, a fictional US vice president who feels a bit left out of things. She wanders the corridors of power followed by an aimless coterie of flunkies and looking for something to do.

She dreams up elaborate initiatives that are always politely ignored, rides in motorcades, gets her photo taken and feels permanently excluded from the real decision- making.

Mostly, Meyer sits in her office swearing like a docker and her constant refrain is, "Sue -- did the president call?"

The president never calls, and his constant absence from the drama is a running joke. It's clever stuff, but then Mr Iannucci has plenty of experience in the field of political satire.

His brilliant BBC series 'The Thick of It' could not have been more in tune with the zeitgeist when it first aired in 2005. Though Iannucci and others always denied that the terrifying government communications director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) was based on Alastair Campbell, the parallels were obvious.

Using compelling streams of expletives, Tucker enforced the party line on cowering ministers who dreaded his approach.

Tucker's cynicism was breathtaking. In fact TV politicians and operators are almost invariably depicted as either corrupt and cynical, or hopelessly inept.

Hugh Abbot, the clueless Minister for Social Affairs who was the bane of Tucker's life during the first two series of 'The Thick of It' is a close relative of Jim Hacker, the hapless Labour Party minister played so memorably by Paul Eddington in the classic BBC sitcom 'Yes Minister'.

Hacker's main preoccupation was avoiding public gaffes and making any decision at all in fact that might land him in hot water

He was expertly handled by Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne), an oily senior civil servant who befuddled his minister with fogs of words and was dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo.

'Yes Minister' and 'Yes Prime Minister' ran from 1980 to 1988, are considered among the finest TV comedies ever made, and had the dubious distinction of having Margaret Thatcher as a fan.

Mrs T. would not have been so keen on 'The New Statesman', an overtly anti-Tory sitcom that ran on UTV from 1987 to 1992. Written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Glen, the show was hardly subtle stuff: Rik Mayall starred as Alan Bereford B'Stard, a Conservative backbench MP without a single redeeming characteristic. A vain, greedy, lecherous, sadistic imposter, B'Stard was a caricature of the 1980s Thatcherite, a man who bribed, lied, connived and even murdered his way closer to the reins of power.

Some political TV shows have painted a more realistic picture of political life. In the very clever 1990 BBC series 'House of Cards', Ian Richardson played a Machiavellian Conservative Party Chief Whip called Francis Urquhart who seizes his chance at greatness following the resignation of Thatcher.

Slick, cynical and utterly ruthless, Urquhart backs the election of a new party leader and then sets out to undermine and ultimately replace him.

He spoke directly to camera, making you feel complicit in his schemes, and his catchphrase was "you might very well think that -- I couldn't possibly comment".

There are plans to remake the show in the US later this year, with Kevin Spacey in the lead role.

Paul Abbott's more recent drama 'State of Play' was grittier and less grandly written. First aired in 2003, it starred John Simm as Cal McCaffrey, a Fleet Street reporter who discovers that senior government ministers are taking kickbacks from the oil companies in return for favours. It was later made into a film starring Russell Crowe.

In this country, depictions of politicians on TV have, perhaps fittingly, tended more towards farce. David McSavage's 'President for Life' character is part of a surreal tradition of Irish political satire that stretches back to Flann O'Brien, and 'Hall's Pictorial Weekly, a magazine comedy show that ran on RTE from 1971 to 1980.

The show featured such inspired recurring sketches as the Ballymagash County Council, a thinly veiled comment on the carry-on in Dail Eireann brilliantly performed by the likes of Frank Kelly and Eamon Morrissey.

Irish TV politicians tend to be absurd rather than venal overall, though Don Wycherley's Ultan Keane in 'Rasai na Gaillimhe' was a pretty colourful villain.

The canny clientelist country TD played by Ardal O'Hanlon in 'Val Falvey, TD' is perhaps a more accurate representation of the Irish realpolitik.

On American TV, a less overtly cynical view of politicians seems to be taken. And while it's okay to paint a less than flattering picture of local and city politics, as in shows like 'Spin City' and 'The Wire', depictions of the president are an altogether different matter.

Then there's Jed Bartlett, the man most people wish had been the real US president between 2000 and 2008. 'The West Wing' was the Rolls-Royce of political dramas, impeccably scripted by Aaron Sorkin, whose witty one-liners were delivered by a quality cast.

Martin Sheen's President Bartlett was a kind of idealised Kennedy who didn't booze and womanise and who always tried to make the right, ethical choice. And during the George W Bush years, he was a very comforting illusion.

A new US drama called 'Scandal', however, may paint a less flattering portrait of the American presidency.

'Scandal', which is the work of 'Grey's Anatomy' creator Shonda Rhimes, started on American channel ABC last month and stars Kerry Washington as a former political insider who now runs a crisis management firm. But she seems to spend most of her time avoiding the amorous intentions of a rather sleazy president.

Weekend Magazine

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