Not quite Party Animals

The drama about political twentysomethings isn’t really the This Life replacement the Beeb was hoping for.

Neil Davenport

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While the political elite frets about the lack of legitimacy and popularity of Westminster, it seems that, for TV producers at least, it is fast becoming the place to be.

We’ve recently had Armando Iannucci’s comedy on parliamentary backbiting The Thick of It, the BBC’s TV film The Chancellor and series The Line of Beauty, and now we have BBC 2’s new corridors-of-power drama, Party Animals. As the punningly awful title suggests, Polly Hill’s drama revolves around bright and ambitious late twentysomething political researchers and lobbyists. It seems clear that the BBC is hoping for a repeat of its success with This Life, though with politicos rather than lawyers (indeed, it’s the same production team behind both). But will it strike a chord, as Amy Jenkins’ creation did 10 years ago?

Well, the good news is that Party Animals is not likely to induce a desire to chew your own toes off. In fact, for the most part it is fairly absorbing, well-acted and, given the production team’s pedigree, surprisingly restrained. So while the cast is mostly populated by attractive young things, the production team has resisted depicting blow jobs in nightclub toilets to a tinny soundtrack of Kasabian or the Kaiser Chiefs. The programme is also blessed by having the excellent Raquel Cassidy (Teachers, Lead Balloon) on board; she plays Jo Porter, Labour’s Home Office junior minister. She’s assisted by her bright but bumbling researcher Danny Foster, played by Matt Smith, who accurately captures nervy twentysomething angst and uncertainty.

Elsewhere Patrick Baladi reprises the same public-school smoothie role that he developed in The Office (as Neil Godwin) and Bodies (as Roger Hurley). Here, Baladi is perfectly pitched as an aspiring Conservative Party MP, James Northcote, who doesn’t quite believe in family values. Somewhat inevitably, he’s having an affair with his parliamentary researcher, the frighteningly glamorous Ashika Chandiramani (Shelley Conn). Judging by how she flaunts her underwear within the first 10 minutes of the first episode, it seems the producers are deploying a ‘ratings Viagra’ strategy. Does the programme have enough other enticements to keep our attention…shall we say, up?

So far, its coverage of political issues, such as a free-speech controversy involving radical Muslims and a film company making a movie about an inter-faith relationship, wasn’t as ham-fisted as I thought it might be. Likewise, the ‘good behaviour bond’ was an accurate take on New Labour’s tendency to bribe rather than convince people to act as citizens. On this score, at least, Party Animals is definitely not in the same brain-rot territory as The Amazing Mrs Pritchard. Then again, neither is it in the same league as The Thick of It. Although while watching Iannucci’s superior comedy-drama you do wonder whether such juicy and graphic insults really do roll effortlessly off people’s tongues, The Thick Of It had a genuine whiff of testosterone-fuelled power and aggression that Party Animals, thus far, lacks. Even allowing for the heightened dialogue in The Thick of It, its characterisations are far more believable and memorable. By comparison, the depiction of, say, male bonding and male competitiveness between lobbyists Scott and Jake in Party Animals was gormless and witless.

To be fair, those were the weakest scenes in Party Animals’ opening episode, though they might also be an indicator that the writing isn’t strong enough to sustain its hoped-for billing as a This Life replacement. Although This Life made an impact on the basis of its jittery camera direction and (for the time) racy sex-and-drugs content, its real strength was an ear for credible dialogue and careful pacing of plots. That is why the show’s final denouement, the revelations of Millie’s infidelity and her subsequent punch up with conniving Rachel, had such a spectacular impact. It seems Party Animals doesn’t have such patience.

So in the opening episode, drink-addled Jake is killed off unexpectedly in a road accident. No doubt the producers thought this would make ‘great drama’ (and there was certainly the surprise element), but such devices appear bolted on to compensate for a lack of nuanced characters and story. It says something about the current state of British drama that insightful observations on contemporary zeitgeists are found in dialogue-rich comedies such as The Office, Peep Show and The Thick of It rather than in dramatic programmes. That might be because successful comedies stand tall or dramatically fall on the strength of the writing alone. TV dramatists need to take note and obsess less about locations and HD camera angles, and more about characters, dialogue and plotlines – the very stuffing of quality drama.

Party Animals does, however, have something ‘to say’. And that is that parliamentary politics in the twenty-first century is just another ‘career option’ for the bright and talented to explore. So the political clashes in parliament, or in the local pub, sound like business managers competing with each other for the best deal. Nearly everyone here is shifty and on the make, and they appear more career-minded than constituency-minded. As such, the programme has an obvious, sneering cynicism towards parliamentary politics that has already been welcomed by those who detest the apparently bankrupt world of politics. Ho hum. Still, as hardly anyone here has any genuine beliefs and ideas, maybe Party Animals is the new This Life after all.

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