Politicians themselves may have their faults, but recently we’ve been thinking that perhaps wickedly inventive screenwriters should shoulder some of the blame for disillusioned, apathetic voters. It’s possible that they’ve raised public expectations by creating characters that we prefer to watch – leaving us underwhelmed by the banal and predictable platitudes of the real life party mouthpieces.
After all – who would you rather listen to in a political debate – Jed Bartlet (The West Wing) or Jeb Bush? Or in Number 10 would Ed Miliband or Hugh Grant (Love Actually) be more likely to get the public’s attention?
For the past century the entertainment industry has created political characters with guile and gusto, who speak their minds and damn the consequences. The more you think about it, the more you realise how many great charismatic, dramatic and sometimes hilarious characters have been created by top notch screenwriters.
Think Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) – the foul-mouthed spin-doctor and kingmaker in the BBC’s The Thick of It or poor old Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) of Yes Minister fame – bullied and cajoled by his manipulative permanent secretary Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne).
Here are seven of the best – an election between these formidable opponents would certainly be something to sit up and pay attention to. Who would you vote for?
Birgitte Nyborg (Borgen)
This drama about Danish coalition politics features Birgitte Nyborg, a strong but conflicted female prime minister (Sidse Babett Knudsen). A 2013 survey by the Copenhagen Business School suggested that the show had helped viewers become more engaged with real life politics. With just the right amount of personal baggage to make her “relatable” to the public but with enough material to be “monstered” by the tabloids on a daily basis, riding on her campaign bus would be a blast.
President Jed Bartlet (The West Wing)
Martin Sheen’s performance as the Democratic White House incumbent Bartlet captured the hearts and minds of American and UK viewers. A poll saw the fictional president with a popularity rating of 81%, compared with that of the real life President Obama at 48%.
Campaign in poetry, govern in prose is the adage. But Bartlet is so principled he wants to govern in poetry also. Such strong principles are certainly attractive in today’s climate of rampant mistrust – he would never have to resort to erecting an 8ft stone tablet engraved with six “commandments” in the rose garden to try to convince.
The Amazing Mrs Pritchard
Enough of these professional politicians. How about if an ordinary Northern housewife took it upon herself to be prime minister? Screenwriter Sally Wainwright imagines just this in The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, starring Jane Horrocks. Fed up with the same tired old party politics Mrs Pritchard’s refreshingly honest no-nonsense talk grabs the public’s imagination and projects her straight into Number 10.
There’s a great scene where she’s confronted in the toilets prior to a crucial TV debate by Janet McTeer’s hardened Tory MP who hopes to psych out her inexperienced opponent – but Mrs Pritchard manages to turn the tables and unsettles her rival just before they go on air (by offering her a top job in her new government). Great fun, and an appealing prospect, but I’m not sure she’d see such success amongst this formidable bunch.
Francis Urquhart (House of Cards 1990)
Ian Richardson plays the unscrupulous Francis Urquhart in this classic political tale. He’s a silky, smooth, duplicitous civil servant who enters politics and climbs the greasy pole inch by murderous inch until he becomes prime minister.
Adapted by the soon to be doyen of the TV adaptation Andrew Davies, this is politics as we dread it, decisions made behind doors, the public good subservient to individual political desires and ambitions. Urquhart — a devious, manipulative individual – addresses the audience directly and honestly, recognising and relishing his own evil irresistible ambition. No thanks.
Frank Underwood (House of Cards 2013)
Or what about the more recent reimagining of House of Cards for a US audience? Starring Kevin Spacey as the ruthless president, he’s a sophisticated and dangerous creation whose political double-dealings would put Machiavelli to shame. This is a brilliant show that reaches a new generation of potential voters, asking awkward questions about the motivation of politicians. The ultimate backstage, behind closed doors ruler-ship – somewhat reminiscent of Mandelson.
It seems probable that Underwood would trample all these others underfoot – we’d reach the ballot box and find that his was the only name there.
Senator Bill McKay
Ed Miliband might now have his own fan club but he’s unlikely to be able to compete with 1970s heart throb Robert Redford when it comes to attracting female followers. Redford stars as Bill McKay in The Candidate, a wet-behind-the-ears US senatorial contender for the Democrats who is expected to lose by a landslide and therefore feels free to speak his mind.
He’s funny and smart and resists the urges of his safety-first spin doctors –- and in doing so convinces the electorate that there is another way. He’s also wonderfully human, as illustrated in the scene where he gets the giggles half way through a vital political broadcast.
None of these appeal? Then how about a Roman general, transposed into the modern world. Skillful, ruthless, slightly foolhardy soldier turned reluctant politician Caius Marcius Coriolanus won’t bow down to his public any more than he would his enemies.
The inner life of politician is so often hidden to voters that those who seem natural are anomalies. Coriolanus’s explicit disdain for politicking separates him not only from other politicians, his mentor, his powerful mother, but ultimately from the people he seeks to rule. How he’d react to the amplified political wrangling of our world is a scary thing to contemplate.
So who’d get your ballot paper cross? Birgitte would be a good bet for those favouring a coalition; Barlet if you like tough but fair; Pritchard for the romantic dreamers; Underwood and Urquhart for the ruthless pragmatists; Coriolanus for those in favour of the iron fist. But it’s Redford’s Bill McKay who would seem best to capture the mood of the moment – a population desperate for something fresh, honest and unscripted.
So don’t ever let anyone tell you that politics can’t be invigorating and dramatic. It can: in the world of make-believe at least.