Politicians, eh? Who trusts them? After all, half of them are barely human. The idea of watching Coalition, a 90-minute drama about a deal made between a group of them, is therefore hardly an easy sell.
It doesn’t help that these kind of dramatised accounts of history have become somewhat commonplace, largely thanks to the impact of Peter Morgan, whose The Queen (not to mention all the others since) proved how much appeal can lie in peeling back a public persona to reveal the person beneath. But this is where Coalition, written by James Graham, excels.
We begin with the leaders’ debate that kicked off the 2010 general election race – an event that occurs again, on a bigger scale, tonight. A skilfully assembled montage recaptures the buzz surrounding the broadcast within minutes; a ticking soundtrack and frantic behind-the-scenes activity, carefully interwoven with archive TV footage, add to the excitement. The drama’s success partly relies on the thrill of recognition, that sense of familiarity combined with the promise of something new and unseen.
The cast certainly deliver that – and not just because they look unlike their real life counterparts. The costume and make-up teams pick up individual details about each character – Cameron’s haircut, Clegg’s tie, Brown’s flappy suit and ungraceful walk – and rely on the actors to do the rest. It’s to their credit that it works.
Each brings another way of seeing their performer. In Mark Dexter’s excellent hands, David becomes nervous about getting power at all, struggling to sell the coalition to his party and fretting over whether the Lib Dems will realise just how much power they have as kingmaker. Ian Grieve’s Brown becomes inwardly passionate, rather than outwardly brusque, constantly told to smile by Peter Mandelson (a perfectly slimy Mark Gatiss). Clegg, though, emerges as the most intriguing protagonist – perhaps inevitably, given his central role in the affair.
Graham’s script makes Clegg both ambitious and conscientious, principled and unafraid to compromise. Donald Sumpter’s Paddy Ashdown sits unsubtly on his shoulder, like a cartoon angel, but Bertie Carvel sells the notion of a well-meaning liberal seizing the chance to make a difference. It’s an impressive turn from the Olivier Award winner – and a promising indicator of what we can expect from his as Jonathan Strange in the upcoming Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – managing to be engaging, as well as generally unlikeable, thanks to his apparent selling out, as the agreement comes to fruition.
Alex Holmes, who directed half of 2008’s House of Saddam, shoots the behind-closed-doors discussions with the kind of candid air we’re now familiar with from The Thick of It. There is a more balanced tone, though, than Iannucci’s satire: Graham and Holmes both play things straight, a dramatised account that tries hard not to take sides. We laugh at both Osborne’s smarmy arrogance and at the mild incompetence of the Liberal Democrat team, but mostly, we sit and wonder whether what we’re seeing is close to what happened at all.
In a way, it doesn’t matter, just as it doesn’t matter whether the drama is pro-Clegg or anti-Clegg. Rather than argue a point, it fleshes out each side of the power struggle. It does that impossible thing: it humanises the politicians, which inherently makes them more sympathetic.
As the party leaders prepare for another debate tonight, the prospect of it all happening again, five years later, seems high: people can’t decide who they distrust the least. The provocative question Graham leaves us with is this: are coalitions the future of politics? If the answer is yes, at least we can look forward to another quality piece of drama like this.
Coalition is available to catch up on 4oD here until 26th April.
Photo: Rory Mulvey