A very trying satire

Laughs and insight are thin on the ground in the wishful drama The Trial of Tony Blair, showing on More4 tonight.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Culture

The Trial of Tony Blair, showing on More4 in the UK tonight, offers a fantasy vision of 2010. Robert Lindsay plays former PM Tony Blair grappling with a newly acquired Catholicism. But that’s the least of his problems. As the title suggests, public opinion has turned against him. Obsessions with ‘Legacy’ abound within both Blair’s apparently childfree Connaught Square household and his gigantic open-plan office by the Thames. Retirement does not agree with him. The daily news from Iraq remains grim. Syria and Iran are in the firing line. That bloody war he launched back in 2003 continues to haunt him.

Lindsay exaggerates the verbal tics and vocal mimicry he first honed while playing Blair in A Very Social Secretary, another More4 drama, in 2005. It seems hearsay-based casting was used to recruit a David Cameron (Alexander Armstrong) and a Gordon Brown (Peter Mullan). At least the New Labour leaders get the accents and intonation right; posh-sounding Armstrong just plays Cameron as a posh bloke. The Blair-alike acting role – polished by Michael Sheen, Little Britain’s Anthony Head and even Hugh Grant in recent years – needs to carry some political weight in order to work. Without this, we might as well be watching 1970s impressionist Mike Yarwood’s harmless pops at Harold Wilson. And watching The Trial of Tony Blair does sometimes feel like watching the old Mike Yarwood show.

If the acting is uneven, the content is not much cop either. Political comedy? The few jokes floating in the thin gruel of this comedy-drama are signaled a mile off. To quote Keith Allen, I’ve had more laughs watching orphans burn. The Thick of It it ain’t.

Writer Alastair Beaton has a track record of ‘topical’ scripts organised around the traditional Labour-Tory divide. His previous work includes a 1988 episode of the anti-Thatcher mini-series Tickets for the Titanic (‘Incident on the Line’) and some Spitting Image sketches. At times, these scribblings typified what passed for political activism during the Tory high tide. Left-wing activists in the 1980s spent too much time criticising the media industries for reinforcing Thatcherite hegemony, giving rise to the idea that media consumers – the public – were automatons brainwashed into thinking and voting a certain way. Consequently there was an emphasis on infiltrating these same industries for ‘progressive’ ends (including TV drama) (1). For media types, then as now, print and broadcasting were where battles could be won and lost between general elections. Media studies and spindoctors alike are products of these preoccupations.

Compare Eighties agit-prop to the recent stress on politicians’ personal foibles and it is apparent that the personal has trumped the political. As Dolan Cummings said of Beaton’s previous film about David Blunkett, A Very Social Secretary: ‘Beaton’s complaint about New Labour’s schmaltzy confessional style is disingenuous, since he is clearly rooted in the same culture, and not above indulging in celebrity gossip disguised as politics.’ (See TV UK, 21 October by Dolan Cummings.) Little wonder that Trial’s executive producer David Aukin uses pop psychology to claim that (the real) Blair is ‘clearly in denial (2). Tony B Liar has bad policies as a result of his megalomania and vanity, say the anti-war dramatists. And because he’s Bush’s bitch. End of story.

By coincidence, this prevalence of cheap shots and superficial complaints has long stunk up Lindsay’s attempts to bring politics to the screen. In Citizen Smith (1977-1980) he played an incompetent urban guerilla, whose love of Fulham FC was meant to illustrate Wolfie’s middle-class brand of Marxism. In GBH (1991), a thinly veiled impression of left-wing Liverpool council leader Derek Hatton captured Degsy’s vanity but trotted out a tired old theme: one could be so far left as to be right-wing (and probably in the pay of the security forces to boot). These days, that cynicism about anything more radical than shouting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie… Out! Out! Out!’ is deployed against New Labour itself.

If you don’t want to know the plot, look away now. Suffice to say that the Trades Description Act could be used to prosecute the makers of The Trial of Tony Blair, since the ‘feature-length satirical comedy’ barely gets onto his eponymous international court case. By the closing credits we’re not much past an extradition hearing. In a way this is a shame, as we might get to see some reasoned enquiry applied to Blair’s beliefs. Some hope. Instead, dramas like Trial have the unsettling effect of making Blair look like he actually believes in something, paralleling Saddam Hussein as the sole dignified person at his own execution.

Instead of approximating the real Blair, Lindsay swears, sweats and twitches, not least when a publisher claws back the cash advance on his memoirs. Key to the narrative is the possibility of President (Hillary Rodham) Clinton leaving Blair to face a war crimes tribunal. The PM’s private anguish becomes the palette for compiling a checklist of filthy hospital wards and the distant echoes of the big anti-war demonstration in 2003. (Note to programme makers: the execrable This Life + 10 contained an equally dull recital of ‘the issues’, and it doesn’t make for good television. (3))

The ‘war on terror’ is presented in ways as hackneyed as politics in Hackney, with Blair hallucinating Gitmo, wounded children and dead soldiers whenever he pauses for thought. The script also features some fairly poisonous assumptions about how Blair’s policies have led inexorably to further homegrown London bombings, as if murdering civilians is somehow legitimate when linked to political disenchantment. Clunky touches of Macbeth and the cliché of nightmares making protagonists sit bolt upright in bed complete this lazy diatribe.

The Trial of Tony Blair demonstrates that satirical television as a political weapon is in decline. In its place, a recent genre of wish fulfillment has flourished, featuring Gordon Brown as the best prime minister we never (yet) had (The Deal, 2003) and the self-explanatory Death of a President (2006) (see A liberal porn movie by Rob Lyons). Coming soon: 1992, where Neil Kinnock gets the keys to 10 Downing Street. Fantasy blends seamlessly with sloganeering.

My advice to opponents of Blair, such as the anti-Bush e-zine calling this drama ‘another UK production that I desperately wish would make the hop across “the pond”‘? (4) It’s not worth the wait.

The Trial of Tony Blair will be shown on More4 at 10pm on Monday 15 January and Channel 4 at 10pm on Thursday 18 January.

Graham Barnfield is a senior lecturer in journalism who blogs at The Loneliest Jukebox.

(1) See Geraldine Harris, Beyond Representation: Television Drama and the Politics and Aesthetics of Identity (Manchester University Press, 2006) for a summary of these debates.

(2) Television puts Tony Blair on trial, Daily Telegraph, 6 January 2007

(3) This Life will eat itself, by Dolan Cummings

(4) The Trial of Tony Blair, Crooks and Liars

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