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We Brits are going to the polls for the 2015 General Election and with so much political campaigning happening on these islands, now is the time to look a very British political drama.
Based on a 1982 novel by then servicing Labour MP Chris Mullen, A Very British Coup was a TV miniseries for Channel 4 that has been edited into a two and half hour long movie, telling the story of a radical left-wing Labour party winning a surprise landslide victory. Led by former steel worker and trade unionist Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally), his manifesto includes breaking up newspaper empires, nationalizing industries, withdrawing from NATO, closing American military bases and nuclear disarmament. But Perkins and his government face threats from the British establishment, the American government and even within his own cabinet.
A Very British Coup is pure nirvana for political nerds regardless of political persuasion: I classify myself as a moderate, pragmatist and centrist. The novel was an entertaining read at a brisk 224 pages. The TV adaptation does make a few changes to the novel, the book was written when it seemed like Margaret Thatcher was heading towards an electoral defeat, while the show was written after the implementation of her policies, acknowledging changes within the left from being pro-nuclear power to anti-nuclear and some characters were changed for plot convenience. The biggest change, came with the ending, but the for the most part the miniseries keeps to the spirit of the novel.
Most fiction set in British politics tends to have a satirical edge to it, shows like The Thick of It and Yes Minister being prime examples. You can go as far back as the 18th century where you can see political cartoons deride political leaders. More serious looks at British politics and government are either historical or are party neutral. A Very British Coup is very clear with its political colors and the intent of the fictional government. The miniseries works as a political drama with the manoeuvres the government has to make to ensure their policies can be enacted and offering an insight into the mechanics of British governments, looking at the role of Cabinet level, the civil servant and the office of the Prime Minister. It also works as a darker political thriller as shadowy figures in dark rooms plot to undermine and overthrow the government because they do not like the agenda, using an unofficial, unspoken network of civil servants, media barons, the BBC, the intelligence service, sympathetic union leaders and the CIA: the very British Coup of the title. The miniseries is also highly referential to Post-War British political history, which may be lost on audiences with limited knowledge about the subject, referencing the premierships of Anthony Eden, Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.
Both the novel and the miniseries look at the theme of who really runs Britain, the elected politicians or the Old Boys Network, people who all went to the same elite schools and university, get connections to land top jobs in government, the media and big businesses. It still exists, it’s still an issue, with the Labour party claiming the Conservatives are in the pocket of bankers and big businesses and the right-wing UKIP and the SNP claiming they are standing up against the Westminster system. The UKIP beleives they are standing up against the liberal metropolitan elite not listening to British public and left-wing and nationalist parties promising to shake up Westminster.
Though A Very British Coup is drama and a thriller, there are moments of satire and comedy. These include Perkins being proudly working class in contrast to the upper class world of tradition and ceremony, Perkins’ literally going off script when receiving a congratulatory phone call from the President of the United States and the use of Perkins’ support of Sheffield Wednesday.
Ray McAnally is excellent in the lead role as the radical politician, having fantastic oratory skills, strong political instinct when facing fierce opposition and being able to relate to ordinary people. It was one of McAnally’s final performances before his death and it was one of his most famous. The cast was strong throughout the show but McAnally truly dominated.
Director Mick Jackson, who ended up directing The Bodyguard and Volcano, helmed the miniseries. Despite the long running time, A Very British Coup moves along at a fast pace as we watch Perkins and his government having to handle various crises while the Establishment is plotting to bring him down. The quick editing emphasizes the problems Perkins faces: a stock market crash straight after his election, a power workers strike effecting the nation and the various revelations that are made. There was one moment in the middle of the series showing all the connections between Perkins’ enemies and it was very much like the “Through the Looking Glass” moment in Oliver Stone’s JFK, predating his movie by four years. The series does suffer from having very standard thriller score music, but it excels using operatic classical music and using a chorus of the Labour anthem “Red Flag” at the beginning and end of the series.
Both the novel and the miniseries are radical left fantasies, the British electorate rejected their offer back in the 80s. The Labour Party’s 1983 manifesto was dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’ and the Green Party’s 2015 manifesto has been ridiculed. But despite this, the miniseries is a must see for anyone interested in politics, the working of British government and political thrillers.