How on earth are we supposed to take British politicians seriously when we’ve got satire as brilliant as The Thick of It? When British policy enforcers are pulled apart so expertly by Armando Iannucci’s needle-like wit, it seems unthinkable for a TV programme to try and humanise the leaders. We like laughing at politicians, and it’s important that we do, so why would we want to feel any empathy for those guys in their ivory tower?
Channel 4’s Coalition provides the answer to this, because in its re-imagining of that tumultuous week after the May 2010 election, it manages to make the most powerful men in the country seem both ridiculous, and entirely human. The one-off drama is like The Thick of It on valium.
By letting us in on the backroom dealings and decision-making that led to Cameron and Clegg standing united in that rose garden, we are reminded that however megalomaniacal some politicians are, there are others who are fallible humans with vaguely the right idea.
Actors Bertie Carvel, Mark Gatiss, Mark Dexter and Ian Grieve respectively play David Cameron, Peter Mandelson, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown, and they bring forth laughs and empathy. As the May 2010 election results roll in, Clegg is a nervous wreck, sitting at home and staring wide-eyed into his uncertain future, while Cameron has a near panic attack beside Samantha, who is flicking through a copy of Vogue.
Then there’s Brown, who is depicted as a socially incompetent grump who is frequently told off by Harriet Harman (Deborah Findlay) for having negative body language. Mark Gatiss, fresh from playing a similarly conspiratorial Stephen Gardiner in Wolf Hall, is also spot-on as the wily yet exasperated Peter Mandelson.
There are laughs throughout in the small details, like Brown bringing the Lib Dems muffins to make up for that poor body language, and the whole thing feels almost like a teen high-school film where everyone’s courting each other but trying to play it totally cool. Brown might want to team up with Clegg but he can’t let it show too much. And Cameron’s playing hard to get as Clegg obsesses about which prom king to pick.
But alongside the comedy there are some really moving moments. When it’s the buffoon-like Brown’s time to go, his weariness, disappointment and dignity are impossible not to empathise with. In those moments, it’s not that you like the politicians but you recognise at least that they are human.
Coalition has the added thrill of being partly based on accounts from real politicians involved at the time. For the drama, writer James Graham talked to lots of big players across the political spectrum, including spending a bit of time at number 11 with chancellor George Osborne.
“The untold story is that the electorate handed the leaders an impossible problem and just six days to solve it,” said Graham to RadioTimes.com and other journalists. And this drama leaves you wondering, with a little shudder, what the next untold story will be after May’s election, when something just as strange might happen all over again…
Coalition is on Channel 4 on Saturday 28th March, 9pm