Churchill and Thatcher are popular subjects—but what makes a good Downing Street flick? And when will we finally get the Gordon Brown biopic we deserve?by Caspar Salmon / July 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Last week a new trailer was released for Darkest Hour, the second Winston Churchill biopic to grace our screens this year after the somewhat less dramatically titled Churchill. Why anybody in 2017 would want to see a film about a strong leader at a time of great conflict for Britain is anyone’s guess—but the fact remains that Churchill does seem to exert an on-screen appeal unlike that of any other British prime minister. Can anyone hope to match Churchill’s silver screen dominion?
Gary Oldman is the latest actor to incarnate the famously jowled wartime hero/racist, following in the steps of Brian Cox. The role has previously been taken on by such high profile names as Michael Gambon, John Lithgow, Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson and Timothy Spall, making Churchill by far the meatiest and rewarding role out of Britain’s PMs. Margaret Thatcher comes a close second: she netted an Oscar for Meryl Streep in 2011, and has been portrayed (on television) by an array of rather classy actors from Greta Scacchi to Andrea Riseborough, via Lesley Manville and Lindsay Duncan.
So far, then, the key to getting a juicy biopic seems to be having an outsized personality and an easily imitable face and voice. Anyone with a hat and a cigar can do a rudimentary Winston, just as every Briton over the age of thirty has an imitation of the Iron Lady up their sleeve. (I’m still working on my reading of “I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name”, but it’s recognisably her.) This may account for the lack of famous portrayals of Britain’s best Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. For all that he brought in maternity leave and unemployment pay, created the NHS, and played a key part in founding the United Nations, Attlee could only get Patrick Troughton to play him. No Oscars for Clem!
Tony Blair is third-best represented of all the modern Prime Ministers, mostly due to Michael Sheen’s definitive performance of him in The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship. Sheen’s impression of Blair is uncanny, and he does great work elevating a character seemingly devoid of any internal conflict into something dramatically interesting. His portrayal of Blair would garner him a BAFTA nomination, giving Tony a rather improbable spot on the Prime Minister podium alongside Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. He doesn’t have any particular arc beyond his assuredness, making him a dramatically inert character in himself.
Blair’s portrayal on screen is interesting, because the character lacks dramatic meat: on his own, he is merely a bag of tics, whereas when locking horns with Brown (The Deal), oozing his way into the Queen’s inner circle (The Queen) or learning from Bill Clinton (The Special Relationship), he comes into his own. Blair is an observer and a leech on screen, deriving power from others, always manipulating.
In the first of these, David Morrissey played Gordon Brown opposite Sheen—but we are sadly lacking the great Gordon Brown biopic that our age surely requires. You couldn’t hope for a meatier role than this talented, erudite and powerful man given to fits of rage and storms of self-doubt, a man who overcame his disability and worked behind the scenes for years to attain his dream job—only to find that he was fundamentally unsuited to it. What actor will take on the great Scottish silverback, the brooding Heathcliff of Westminster? There are also prime roles in the Gordon Brown biopic for Brenda Blethyn as Gillian Duffy—and Shakira as herself. We need this film, and we need it now.
All of this is bad news for Jeremy Corbyn. Though he has been Prime Minister for forty days now, he doesn’t seem at first glance to be likely to land a big name star. What is the narrative arc that will make his character come through? What bones are there for an actor to gnaw on? Perhaps if Michael Sheen could be persuaded to return, a film could be made out of Corbyn’s treasonous opposition to Blair and Brown (he voted against the whip on 428 occasions under their governments), which later became the wave that brought him to power. Something suitably All About Eve could be drawn from that—although whether Corbyn himself has enough gristle to earn his actor a big award nomination remains to be seen.
We must hope that he doesn’t go the way of Chamberlain (biggest actor: Eric Porter) or even Callaghan, Major or Heath, who don’t seem to have anything of note happening on their IMDb page. His opponent, on the other hand, could make a decent subject for a film, perhaps in the vein of Jacques Tati: Miranda Hart could play her in a few years’ time as a hilariously hapless, clueless witness to all sorts of events that spiral uproariously out of her control. Anthony Eden is a case in point: while not necessarily an exciting figure, he nevertheless commands honourable names such as Robert Bathurst and James Fox, purely on the basis of his Suez fuck-up—proving that there is interesting fodder in getting something totally, wretchedly wrong. There’s hope for May yet.