I’ve just listened to the new Radio 4 drama Number 10, about which Peter Hyman wrote about in the Guardian on Friday. Spoilers below…
It was clear from reading Hyman’s article that the pitch for this series was “the British West Wing“. This being the UK of course, such aspirations are relegated to radio while nonsense such as the Amazing Mrs Pritchard gets prime time on BBC1. The question is, does it work?
Well, it’s early days yet, but on the whole I think it does. First of all, the inevitable West Wing comparisons. These are unavoidable as the formula appears to have been imported almost whole. We have the quirky story about Number 10 having two doors (and both of them going missing), the use of a narrative to explore a controversial issue (in this case immigration), the soap operatics as characters juggle their jobs with their chaotic private lives. Even the Sorkin Golden Rule that no problem is so great that a speech at the end can’t fix it is (sort of) observed. But it is also distinctively about British politics and British issues. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who they are nodding to when it is revealed that the Home Secretary is a binge drinker whose colleagues constantly find themselves covering for.
The play is both plot and dialogue dense but even though I was multi-tasking while listening, I didn’t have any difficulty in following it. In terms of wit, it is nowhere near the West Wing, but it does have some humourous touches.
Unlike most political dramas, it also gains points by not having the sort of enormous howlers about British politics that usually has me throwing something at the radio/TV. Perhaps more pedantic people than me can bigger mistakes, but the only mildly annoying thing I found was the discussion about how the immigration policy might cost the government “points”. Maybe people in Number 10 do talk obsessively about opinion polls in the same way that they do in the West Wing, but I suspect they talk about it in more prosaic ways (“British politics is less obsessed with opinion polls than US politics: discuss”).
Where of course the programme may stretch credibility is in its idealistic portrayal of politicians as honourable, decent people. The cynic in me found some of the more principled speeches a little hard to take. But then I wondered why that is. It is certainly a more accurate portrayal than the aforementioned Mrs Pritchard, and while I think that both Yes, Minister and The Thick of It contain within them more than a grain of truth, the bungling ministers at the heart of them are very much exceptions rather than the rule. What sticks in the craw is that this is about a Labour government and I simply can’t believe Blair or Brown’s Number 10 being anything like this. But then, what resemblance does Jed Bartlett have with Bill Clinton?
The real problem for me about politics, is not cynical people who are all in it for themselves, but group think. Despite all the talk about “thinking the unthinkable,” so many politicians don’t merely restrict themselves to thinking inside the box, but one corner inside that. Take constitutional change for example. Both Labour and the Conservatives have recently produced papers on this which they have hailed as revolutionary, yet most of their proposals are superficial at best. Yet, paradoxically, by Westminster standards a lot of these ideas (a modern petitioning system for example) are revolutionary. It is that hive mentality that is key to the problem in politics today (in my view): how you could present that in a dramatically interesting way however is another question.
So ultimately, even if it makes me bristle from time to time, it is good to have a drama that tells a positive narrative about politicians for a change. If it can avoid the occasionally mawkish sentiment of the West Wing, so much the better.