The new BBC series is “the first proper peer that television has taken at the peers”by Philip Collins / February 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
It has been said that satire is dead but this programme proves it’s not. It just has to take on more subtle forms. Whether it means to or not, the BBC’s new series Meet The Lords, the first proper peer that television has taken at the peers, succeeds in making its subject absurd. The case for reform has rarely been more gently made.
In the first episode, “Joining the Club,” talking peers are assembled to voice the usual defences of the Lords. The expertise, the non-partisan discussion, the amendment of ill-considered legislation that comes down from the House of Commons. We see John Bird, the founder of the Big Issue who used to work in the kitchens in the Palace of Westminster, introduced to the House. We witness his slightly artless attempts to settle in—he even says a naughty word, for which he is gently told off by Black Rod.
Attempts by peers to amend the government’s bills on housing and welfare provide the arc of the story. As Michael Dobbs puts it, the Lords are like the worms in the compost making something more fragrant out of a stinking mess. The government ends up losing the vote in the Lords on housing and Oona King manages to win a concession from the government such that parents of adopted children will be eligible to receive child benefit. So the film adds the case that the House of Lords does its job and, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, does it rather well.
The case for the defence is all there yet the prosecution is so delicious. We see Black Rod putting on his stockings and discussing denier, the man on the door saying that morning only ends when prayers are said, conversations about the milk pudding being like that at school, the Queen’s most senior herald in fancy dress. David Blunkett admits that people are ennobled because they give money to political parties. Norman Tebbit, a stranger to irony, laments the fact that so many Lords are appointed just because of who they know. Peter Hennessy points out caustically that the only elected people in the Lords are the hereditary peers. “This is the Ealing comedy that never gets made,” he says. They even wheel on Julian Fellowes, the actual writer of Downton Abbey, to say how splendid it all is.
Along with Bird and King, there is one other person whose story is given particular attention in the programme: the star of the show is the elected hereditary peer Adrian Palmer. In a way, this episode is an extended trolling of Palmer who, just after he shows us his grandfather’s coat-peg, cheerfully admits that he was kicked out of all the schools he went to “because I was so incredibly stupid.” The programme then moves from the clauses of the Housing Bill—which will affect low-income people in rented accommodation—to a tour of Palmer’s 110 room mansion in Berwickshire. He explains that the roof over his head cost, and there is no typo here, £400m at current prices. The house is modelled on the Palace of Versailles and has the only silver staircase the world. Palmer is a cove out of the address book of Bertram Wooster. He is quite exercised that the peers’ TV room has been turned into offices and recalls a dear old chum who took 44 years to make his maiden speech.
Bird seems befuddled by the oddity of the place. King leaves to go to work for YouTube in Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, Palmer bumbles towards the conclusion that is inescapable: “the hereditary principle is very hard to defend.” And the rest. The whole institution comes over as absurd. Black Rod will be making a visit to the BBC soon to have a quiet word.