LittleBigPicture politics special: 10 political TV powerhouses


12th May 2010

I hear there's been an election of some kind? I must admit to having missed it, being trapped as I am in this TV closet without access to polling stations or postal ballots.

In honour of our new robot leaders, we've compiled a list of the ten most noteworthy political television series. Some are noteworthy for their glorious view of what could be in an ideal world, some for their reflection of the more tedious, and occasionally seedy, reality.

The New Statesman (ITV, 1987-1994)

Bloody Tories! What a bunch of slimy, money obsessed, sexually deviant bastards! Well, B'Stards actually' The New Statesman was one of the finest British comedies to grace our screens, and Alan Beresford B'Stard (played by Rik Mayall) remains one of the nastiest and funniest politicians in creation.

The New Statesmen is an unusual fish; it is a comedy series wherein - with only one exception - every main character and the majority of peripherals are utterly hideous people. An amalgamation of all the worst things about the greedy yuppies spawned by Thatcher's Britain, Alan was the MP from Hell. Actually from Hull. You see, the once-fictitious constituency of Haltemprice became a reality in 1997 when boundaries in East Yorkshire were re-drawn, and David Davis (Conservative MP) won the seat for Haltemprice and Howden. Life reflecting art. Although while Mr Davis MP is a climate change sceptic and therefore a fool, I doubt he is plotting to kill any trade unionists for good PR.

All Alan wanted was everything Alan could get, and he would crawl through sewers to get it (or have poor dimwitted sidekick Piers do it for him) but somehow always come up smelling of roses. During his career, B'Stard committed subterfuge, bribery and murder in his attempt to claw to the top of the pile and managed it. True Blue Maggie grit.

Splitting Parliament asunder and appointing himself Lord Proctor was not enough for this particular B'Stard. Once the series and specials had finished, the Sunday Telegraph employed the Statesmen's writers to write a weekly coloumn from Alan's perspective on the goings on at Whitehall ' this ran right up until he resigned upon Gordon Brown's promotion to PM. Rumour has it, he's the one behind David Cameron, pulling all the strings.

House Of Cards (BBC1, 1990)

In this four-part thriller, adapted from the novel by Michael Dobbs, senior politicians jostle to become Prime Minister. A tale of vaulting political ambition, betrayal and murder, it was played as a (very) black comedy thriller. The main character, Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson), is the Conservative chief whip, scheming and killing in his attempts to win the 1990 general election for the Tories. Tsk. Them again.

At times a disturbing tale, House Of Cards is certainly the most theatrical TV show featured on this list; the coldy evil, and yet charming Urquhart transforms into a contemporary Richard III, breaking the fourth wall and using soliloquies to the camera to confide in and seduce the audience whilst simultaneously bedding innocent journalists with Elektra complexes. Ian Richardson won a BAFTA for this performance and rightly so.

House Of Cards creates a feeling of seediness in the dark underbelly of British politics, scenes intercut with shots of rats nesting in London's streets. Appropriate? You might very well think that, but I couldn't possibly comment'

The Thick Of It (BBC, 2005 -)

Armando Iannucci is the heavyweight champion of political satire, from the 1995-99 Friday/Saturday Night Armistice, through 2006's surreal Time Trumpet, to what is surely considered his magnum opus, The Thick Of It. In equal turns the most realistic and funniest look at the minutiae of local government, particularly of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, it is beautifully written and partially improvised by the cast which definitely adds a layer of realism to the proceedings. The Thick Of It has so far enjoyed three series, two specials and one loosely related spin-off movie, the Oscar nominated In The Loop.

The first two series followed cabinet minister Hugh Abbot and his retinue until the departure of Chris Langham, at which point Iannucci stalwart (and very funny lady) Rebecca Front was cast as Nicola Murray, a inexperienced and naive MP whose public blunders and dour image serve to give professionally angry Director Of Communications Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) someone to ream out on a regular basis.

Iannucci has described it as "Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders", but with considerably more swearing. Now that is a late night interview I would pay good money to see. It would, I think, be interesting to see what Ollie, Glen and the rest would have made of the last few weeks. Doubtless all of them would be scrabbling for jobs in the Lib Dem camp, gleefully and profanely stabbing away at each others' backs all the while.

This clip is NOT safe for work, but it does feature the foulest-mouthed Scots to be featured on TV since The Krankies, and watching it is worth getting reprimanded for, you massive shitty ballbag.

Yes Minister/Prime Minister (BBC, 1980-1988)

When it premiered in 1980, Yes Minister was something that hadn't been seen on television before. A situation comedy that took the driest subject possible and turned it into a weekly must-see comedy event, while at the same time being remarkably educational for the masses. Recently appointed Minister for the Department of Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker (Paul Edmonton) struggles to find his way and keep his job through the political mire and endless red tape that the British Civil Service, in the form of his Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne), keep throwing in front of him.

Playing Hacker as almost an everyman character baffled by the by-laws and etiquette of the cabinet, meant that great swathes of complicated jargon and bureaucracy were put (very wittily) into layman's terms that the public could understand. In fact, the series used real Whitehall blind sources to spill the beans on what was going on in the Houses of Parliament, making Yes Minister the most hilarious risk to national security there ever was.

It is a quintessentially British sitcom, all stiff upper lips and Etonian old boys drinking tea in high backed leather chairs, understated and respectful even of the institution it is so thoroughly mocking. Props have to be given as well to the opening credits; drawn by political artist and editorial cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, they were a work of art in motion.

Despite being now nearly 30 years old, the political landmines and national issues dealt with in Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister are still relevant to today's political climate; politicians tell the same half truths and use the same jagon to astound and misdirect the public. Thanks to these true gems, and the performances of two of the greatest English actors in Edmonton and Hawthorne, we have an Enigma machine to crack their tricksy verbal codes.

Commander In Chief (ABC, 2005-2006)

Commander In Chief starred Geena Davis as the first female President of the United States, Mackenzie Allen. Despite only running for one season, her performance garnered her a Golden Globe. Bad scheduling, dodgy plots and long unexplained hiatuses meant this multi-nominated series was cancelled after only 18 episodes.

Whilst Davis did a sterling job in the lead role, and the drama benefited from the presence of the great Donald Sutherland as Speaker of The House and general villain figure Nathan Templeton, the rest of the show was a confusing mishmash of a family drama. Too much time was given over to the gender issue and the supposed emasculation of the First Gentleman, and not enough to the actual workings of the presidency, where the interest lies. Interviews with cast and crew imply that the focus would have shifted to more dramatic plotlines, had the show been given the chance to find its feet and a regular audience.

Some US conservatives had implied at the time that the series was taking the temperature of the country and laying the groundwork for Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign. However if you ask me, the way Allen achieved the Presidency (she was VP until the incumbent President had a heart attack and died) smacks much more of the horror that could have been Sarah Palin. And that shouldn't be envisioned in any reality.

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