WATCHING Christopher Eccleston taking on corruption in local politics in Blackout, I couldn’t help but think of his breakthrough role in the classic series Our Friends In The North, in which he played a young 1960s activist becoming disillusioned as he got drawn into dodgy council deals
But then the drama of idealism turned sour was enough of a plot in itself; now we need it wrapped up as a thriller with murders and secrets to make it sexy. Maybe the difference is down to the way that TV has changed – maybe it’s how local politics has changed – but certainly Blackout, while it has its strengths, is a strangely apolitical political drama.
For one thing, it’s not rooted in a real place: people keep talking about how “this city needs change” but they never actually say what city they’re in (there are so many varying accents, it could be anywhere). And the only issues mentioned are vague: the NHS is good, drug dealers are bad. When Eccleston’s Daniel DeMoys becomes an exciting outsider candidate for city mayor, his platform ends up being “Dump the bullshit” which could mean anything, really (I guess at least it’s not ‘the big society’).
But that’s later; when the drama begins, this local councillor is hardly in any state to stand up, let alone stand for office. He’s a mess. We know this because there is copious use of dramatic shorthand to tell us so, in the most obvious ways. Want to show he’s not a good dad? He’s missed his daughter’s ballet performance. Under pressure? He’s drinking vodka straight out of the bottle, then going to a bar to order a drink which is thrown down the neck in one go, because stressed alcoholics never sip, apparently. Having an affair which is all about angry passion? Have them go at it up against a wall. And so on: not the worst clichés in TV drama but dull and wallpapery ways to create a character.
And it’s not just the lead. Dervla Kirwan is stuck with the long-suffering wife character, downloading stuff off the internet about alcoholic blackouts to read out to him. MyAnna Buring, as the bored young single mother seeking excitement in the affair, is peculiarly got up like Lana Turner in a platinum wig and cocktail dresses, which seems quite an odd choice for a character in her 20s and perhaps forced upon her by the production’s attempt to add a touch of film noir glamour.
So the script is disappointing: people state exactly what’s going on with a remarkable degree of self-knowledge, there are unnecessary flashbacks and over-written speeches. The stylised shots and swelling music are overdone too. Apparently there were originally due to be five episodes which were cut to three after production started, which could explain the weirdly rushed feel.
But don’t write off Blackout completely. The cast save it, to some degree. Eccleston brings self-disgust and a sweaty physicality to his seedy character, which transcends the endless close-ups of him driving around and slurping out of the bottle. You can just about see the intelligence underneath this loser which helps you believe that maybe, once, he was a better man (not that the script bothers to tell us what the principles he has abandoned were, because that would be too specific). Kirwan tries to give a spiky edge to the wife, David Hayman puts a lot of power into a brief, crucial scene as a corrupt developer and Ewen Bremner doesn’t go the obvious route of playing a political fixer as a slick cynic, but suggests a certain sincerity. Mind you, Andrew Scott plays an obsessive detective almost exactly the same way he plays Moriarty in Sherlock – but people seem to like that, I guess.
Despite the woolly politics, there are also a couple of interesting ideas floating around. DeMoys unexpectedly turns his life around with a single act which makes him a national hero – but it’s hardly a simple redemption. There’s a sense that his sudden popularity, which Bremner’s fixer hopes to exploit in the upcoming election, is both genuine public craving for a political alternative, but also half-baked, X Factor style sentimentality. If the remaining episodes can develop that more, it could be an intriguing look at the way politics has become celebrity. But I fear that the thriller aspects, unoriginal as they are, will end up taking over.
Funnily enough, the politics in Richard II, one of Shakespeare’s less familiar history plays – no, it’s not the one with “my kingdom for a horse” but there is a monkey in it – are much clearer, in BBC2’s new production The hollow crown: richard II with a top class cast (Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart, David Morrissey, Lindsay Duncan, David Suchet, Rory Kinnear, etc). This king can’t play to the crowd: he’s dreamy, elitist, arrogant and wasting money on a foreign war. He believes that he’s born to rule, despite not being very good at it, because God anointed him, so his opponents have to wrap themselves in God’s favour too to justify overthrowing him. Every generation makes Shakespeare’s plays fit their own times, but this one’s parallels are easy enough to see that the production doesn’t have to dress everyone in suits and have them carry BlackBerries to make it seem modern. The acting, unsurprisingly, is a treat, but so is the beautiful cinematography, all shot on location.
Monday, BBC1, 9pm
The Hollow Crown: Richard II
Saturday, BBC2, 9pm
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