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A Very British political drama

The Conservatives have been in power for years, the working man feels disenfranchised, unemployment is rife, and there’s really bad music on the radio. And then [cue: opening chords of Mozart’s Coronation Mass] Labour’s long-awaited electoral landslide, and all is right in the world!

1997? Not a bit of it. This is 1988 – at least, in author (and former Labour MP) Chris Mullin’s imagination – and leftist radical Harry Perkins sweeps into No.10 with his agenda of rampant socialism and public accountability. The honourable member from Sheffield (natch), wants to nationalise all the goodies, and isn’t shy about taking financial aid from Russian banks. He doesn’t quite change “Cabinet” to “Politburo”, but it’s close. And it probably doesn’t help that – as played by the late Ray McAnally with a bootblack ‘tache – Perkins bears more than a passing resemblance to Josef Stalin.

MI5 hit the roof, the stock market goes through the floor, and we’re off to the races in a conspiracy between the right-wing security services (tautology?), the Americans, A Very Powerful Newspaper Baron, and even – gasp! – the BBC, to unseat Perkins at all costs. Will there be blood? Of course not: this isn’t West Africa! No, this will be A Very British Coup.

The politics of this three-part Channel 4 production tend towards the cartoonish, but Perkins is a highly sympathetic character (he’d have to be, viewed from this political distance) and his genuine humanity and humour – and the dastardly ways of his enemies – sustain the tension in a relatively predictable Westminster-thriller plot. McAnally is aided and abetted in this endeavour by Jim Carter as his Home Secretary and political right hand, and a young Keith Allen as his savaloys-and-Carling ex-con press secretary (remember when they were in jail first, and Downing Street second? Happy times).

The significant face of the enemy is an even-younger-looking Tim McInnerney, a mid-ranking MI5 stooge. Unfortunately for him, the politics of his role require that his visage is also that of a post-op tranny – and a recurring irritation is that every scene involving civil servants or spies ends with a close-up on their lips as they moue in a manner significantly more gay than sinister. Still, this provides countless opportunities for chaps in Northern accents and donkey jackets to refer to the establishment as “these bastards”. It’s like a little bit of Sharpe, in Whitehall.

Not that this is supposed to be comedy, mind. Mullin’s 1982 novel is a full-scale far-left fantasia, with borrowed spice from the Wilson-government controversies of the previous decade.

On the one hand, looking back over 20 years, it’s all rather alien and unlikely. Not just because Perkins installs a dartboard in No.10 and goes to see the Queen clutching his Sheffield Wednesday nylon holdall (can you imagine Blair doing that?), but because he does these things without the assistance of Alastair Campbell (Allen’s character, Freddie Thompson, is practically an anti-spin-doctor). This is, at heart, an optimistic work. When Perkins has to roll over on the unions to break an energy strike, for instance, it’s not because they are unions, per se, but because one of the bosses has been got at by the CIA.

On the other, politics is politics, and we shouldn’t be too surprised that much of this storyline eventually played itself out, for real, when Labour’s turn came. Some of the overlaps are freaky, though. The leadership tussles between PM and Chancellor; the unregulated might of the media barons (who was first in the door at No.10?); the mingers in the cabinet. The government’s chief weapons expert is even bumped off in the woods, for heaven’s sake!

Mullin’s apparent clairvoyance notwithstanding, though, A Very British Coup stands now as a cultural-historical curiosity: a little time-capsule of frustrated Old Labour ambition. Mullin writes in terms of outrages against the very nature of democracy, perpetrated by behind-the-scenes, father-to-son elites who, as Perkins points out, have run the country, un-elected, for centuries. On its screening in 1988, A Very British Coup took four BAFTAs (including Best Actor, for McAnally, and Best Drama) and an International Emmy (for Best Drama) – and continued not to represent political reality in any way.

Two things stick in the mind (if not the craw):

First, great and noble drama as it may be, if you’re not a fully paid-up Communist the politics of Harry Perkins’ government are insane. Ideal for running a student union, perhaps (in, say, Aberdeen). But a country? No chance. (For fictional purposes, of course, extremes and contrasts are required. But that’s fiction.)

Second, this was written at a time when it looked like Tony Benn might end up as leader of the Labour party, and that party might actually get elected. In Mullin’s worldview, c.1982, socialism and democracy were one and the same – and it’s easy to forget that the British left actually were courting the Kremlin. If Harry Perkins is what core Labourites were expecting after all those years in the wilderness – and they waited another decade – then, boy, no wonder they were gutted.

For all that, and for all that we know it bears little resemblance to what actually unfolded (in ’88 or ‘97), A Very British Coup is very good viewing. The DVD has missed a trick with regard to extras, but if you want good background on how Labour went from Tony Benn to Tony Blair – or even just an alternative ending – get hold of Mullin’s original novel, or his latest volume of diaries.

For theartsdesk (published in edited form)

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