For all its faults, US television knows how to be idealistic about politics. In this country we get cynical pap about shopkeepers becoming prime ministerby Amy Jenkins / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
“Democratic value” is a cornerstone of the BBC’s new charter. The charter talks about creating opportunities for people to become more active citizens. The trouble is, when the BBC makes drama with the charter in mind, it tends to be bad. “Messages,” as Sam Goldwyn said, “are for Western Union.”
Perhaps “democratic value” was in the minds of those who commissioned The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, a six-part series currently on BBC1 about a supermarket manager who becomes prime minister almost overnight. The show is written by Sally Wainwright, whose credits include The Wife of Bath, a drama written in the run-up to charter renewal which tried to shoehorn contemporary dilemmas into a Canterbury tale in a failed attempt to be both worthy and popular.
Now we have Jane Horrocks playing the said Ros Pritchard. She complains when two (male) election candidates brawl outside her shop, and ends up on Newsnight. She decides to stand for parliament on a “common sense” platform, with no policies to speak of. The owner of the supermarket chain jets in and puts £10m in the kitty. Within days Ros is fielding candidates across the nation and a frontbench Conservative, Janet McTeer, defects to her “Purple Alliance” after Ros helps her out by passing her a tampon under the cubicle door in the ladies’ loo.
Wainwright is presumably being feminist here: women bleed, therefore they’re the underdogs, therefore they have to help each other out, therefore they’re better people. But aren’t we also being told that McTeer is silly enough to exchange hard-won status—to say nothing of her political convictions—for a bit of cotton-wool solidarity?
The whole thing might be bearable if it were satire. But it’s not. It’s too busy being dumb and cosy, meeting the requirements of what well-educated bods at the BBC think should be served up for the masses on prime-time television. In fact, the tenor of the piece is virulently anti-intellectual. The amazingly irritating Mrs Pritchard refers to politicians either as “that lot who talk in riddles” or as “wankers.” This is a world where husbands are loveable because they’re too klutzy to work the video.
What about attempting to celebrate intelligence, idealism, capability? For that, we have to turn to the US. Commander in Chief (More4) is a glossy American network show in which Geena Davis plays an independent vice-president. Having been hired by her Republican running mate as a “stunt”—because she is a woman—she succeeds to the Oval Office when he dies of a stroke. Her first task is to complete a diplomatic mission to save an adulterous Nigerian woman from being stoned to death. She mobilises the navy, summons the Nigerian ambassador and threatens to extract the woman from a Nigerian jail by force. All in all, she flexes some very male muscles in this heartening—although entirely unbelievable—show of female solidarity.
The series is West Wing-esque but does not come from the makers of The West Wing. Unfortunately. The music is the same—melodious ceremonial horns signify matters of profound importance—but the characters don’t fire dialogue at each other like they’re at a coke-fuelled meeting of Mensa. Instead, the actors make their stately and understated best of a less sophisticated script.
Donald Sutherland, playing the speaker of the house, makes a good Republican villain, of the kind that would think the US president couldn’t possibly be a woman. There’d be that terrible worry once a month—would she or wouldn’t she push the button? We’re meant to think this is sexist nonsense, of course. But since Geena Davis’s first act in office is to mobilise battleships and send unwanted Cobras and CH-46s—whatever they are—into Nigeria, it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility that she might.
For all its faults, American television knows how to be idealistic. Like unhappy children escaping into fantasy, Hollywood liberals paint a picture of how they’d like the world to be. Over the years, the people of America were encouraged to dream of ranches and jewels in Dallas, of bodies and beach lives in Baywatch. Now, understandably, they dream of humane and liberal political governance.
That’s why, despite the disappointments of a storyline in which a woman has to prove her capability by being a proxy man and despite the usual weepy talk of freedom being “America’s gift to the world,” the spectacle of this powerful woman saving another woman from men’s injustice still raises a cheer rather than a cringe.
Commander in Chief has its self-aggrandising irritations, but it is in a different class to The Amazing Mrs Pritchard. One is aspirational television, the other is smugly defeatist—and patronising. Are we meant to be heartened and amused by the prospect of a complete novice running the country? Do supermarket managers really think they could unravel problems such as Northern Ireland, the middle east and poverty with a bit of common sense?
Mrs Pritchard’s slogan is “politics isn’t rocket science.” She’s absolutely right. It’s a great deal harder. She’s going to find out. The viewer, it may be hoped, already knows.