The British have lost the art of heavyweight political drama

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the original House of Cards - BBC
Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in the original House of Cards - BBC

Tonight BBC Four will reshow House of Cards, the seminal British political drama from 1990 starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, the magnificently manipulative and Machiavellian Chief Whip who channelled Richard III and Macbeth to forge his path to the top.

It aired four days before Margaret Thatcher’s resignation and was, appropriately enough, the primus inter pares of a golden age. It came two years after A Very British Coup, in which what would now be called the deep state conspire to undermine Ray McAnally’s socialist Prime Minister, and five years before Juliet Stevenson took revenge on her faithless ministerial husband in The Politician’s Wife.

These were all stellar pieces of television: morally complex, dramatically layered, richly characterised and deftly written. There is nothing around now on British television that is remotely in the same league. Contemporary political dramas tend to fall into three categories. There are the true(ish) stories, such as This England about Boris Johnson and the Covid Crisis, and Brexit: The Uncivil War about Dominic Cummings and the Leave campaign. There are the glossy affairs such as Netflix’s Anatomy of a Scandal which pedal a sort of high fantasy without much in the way of political rigour. And then there are the self-consciously ‘big issue’ dramas like David Hare’s Roadkill, in which moral shade is reduced to Right wing bad/Left wing good and where characters talk in a presumably unintentional parody of the ghastliest Hampstead dinner party imaginable.

With the exception of Brexit: The Uncivil War, none of these dramas were warmly received by critics (and the ratings tend to be low, too). So why aren’t we matching real-life political dramas with fictional ones? Politics is by its nature such rich dramatic material, and it’s not as if the past few years have skimped on conflict, high stakes or jaw-dropping twists. In a word: cynicism. There are few nations, certainly in the developed world, whose electorates are so scornful of their representatives in public office as the British are. We are peerless at taking the mickey out of anything and everything political, as a thousand social media memes show.

This makes for great comedy, and one big critical success in the 21st century was the BBC’s The Thick of It which tapped into public cynicism about politics and suggested that the inner workings of government are carried out with precious little oversight or regard for the greater good.

But great comedy does not necessarily mean great drama. It is hard to imagine, for example, a British version of The West Wing, perhaps the best-known of modern American political dramas. We are not idealistic enough as a nation, do not automatically respect the office of the executive irrespective of the incumbent, as the Americans do. We do not think of our society as a shining city upon a hill, as Ronald Reagan did. Our cabinet members are constantly jockeying for position and being reshuffled: our Prime Minister faces adversarial questions from the Leader of the Opposition every week. Our politics feels less like sweeping fictional epic and more like survival reality show: literally so at the moment, as a nation takes out its anger on Matt Hancock by making him eat every available piece of kangaroo anus from Brisbane to Perth and back again.

But there is a halfway house between nihilistic cynicism and sophomoric idealism, and one political drama of recent times hit it spot on. It was neither British nor American, but Danish. In Borgen, the characters were all flawed but relatable, none of them more so than protagonist Birgitte Nyborg, the country’s first female Prime Minister. She had principles but was willing to get down and dirty to achieve things. Though by no means a saint she embodied Raymond Chandler’s dictum, suitably genderised, that “down these mean streets a woman must go who is not herself mean”.

Rupert Friend and Sienna Miller in Anatomy of Scandal - Netflix
Rupert Friend and Sienna Miller in Anatomy of Scandal - Netflix

What Borgen showed was a central truth about any drama: it works if you care about the characters. The House of Commons has its fair share of loathsome operators, but it also has hundreds of committed men and women trying to make this country a better place. They do so imperfectly because both they and the system are imperfect. Only when we accept that all of these things exist in our politicians, perhaps, will we be ready to make and appreciate a great British political drama series again.

House of Cards is on BBC Four tonight at 10pm