Andrew Whitaker: What happened to political TV?

The current ‘lazy’ offering of reality programmes never takes on today’s issues, writes Andrew Whitaker

Ken Stott starred as Arthur Birling in the BBC's An Inspector Calls on Sunday. Picture: BBC
Ken Stott starred as Arthur Birling in the BBC's An Inspector Calls on Sunday. Picture: BBC
Ken Stott starred as Arthur Birling in the BBC's An Inspector Calls on Sunday. Picture: BBC

THE UK is going through one of its most turbulent political periods in decades with Labour electing its most radical leader ever, the ongoing fragility of Scotland’s place in the Union, as well as the most severe spell of austerity since the early 1980s.

Yet despite recent events such as the independence referendum and Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader showing political engagement on a scale not seen in living memory, popular culture rarely reflects much of what’s going on. Night after night the terrestrial TV channels pump out an endless stream of reality TV whether it’s about people working in £1 shops, the experiences of holidaymakers, or others hosting dinner parties for each other.

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The dominance of what some people may view as “lazy” TV leaves the screen virtually bereft of quality issue-driven drama, particularly political drama – even that with a small p.

Last Sunday saw an exception, about as rare as a blue moon, when the BBC screened an adaptation of the left-wing author JB Priestley’s classic drama An Inspector Calls.

The play, first performed in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, tells the story of a well-heeled family called upon at their home by a mysterious police inspector as they are in the midst of congratulating themselves on their own wealth.

In a tale that draws heavily on the theme of social responsibility, each family member is quizzed by the inspector about their role in the death of a former employee after she is sacked spuriously by the head of the household – a self-important industrialist – prior to her suicide.

Sunday’s showing of An Inspector Calls was somewhat frustratingly for some viewers put up directly against This is England ‘90 – the latest instalment on Channel 4 in the gritty drama series from acclaimed director Shane Meadows – that follows the fortunes of a group of young skinheads right through from the aftermath of the 1982 Falklands war through to 1990 – the year of the poll tax riots and the end of Thatcher’s time in power.

The appearance of such drama, in the case of an Inspector Calls on Sunday and This is England ‘90 which continues for three more weeks, represents what are extremely rare screenings of dramas with political undercurrents of any sorts.

But even in relatively recent history it wasn’t always so. In the 1980s in the early years of Thatcherism the uncompromising drama about a group of unemployed tarmac layers in Liverpool The Boys from the Blackstuff by Alan Bleasdale was widely viewed as one of the most seminal dramas of the decade.

Also in the 1980s, A Very British Coup, which charts the against the odds election of a left wing Labour government – a production mentioned regularly in recent weeks on the back of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign – was another popular drama in the late 1980s.

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In the early 1990s, again penned by Bleasdale, GBH starring Robert Lindsay told the story of a troubled left wing council leader in north west England, with a resemblance to Derek Hatton – the militant tendency-supporting Liverpool council boss in the 1980s.

There were also popular UK dramas portraying the political right such as the popular House of Cards trilogy written by former Tory campaign chief Michael Dobbs, with the unforgettably villainous Francis Urquhart.

Yet with contemporary British TV, the genre barely makes it onto our screen a handful of times a year, largely due to the dominance of reality TV and souped-up challenge shows like The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den. TV drama plays that often had a political theme and were once a weekly slot on our screens, are now virtually unheard of on British network TV.

Dramas from screen writers such as the late Dennis Potter, that often took on social themes and used images that mixed fantasy and reality, like the ground-breaking The Singing Detective, were also once a regular feature of UK TV.

Even sitcoms in the 1970s, ‘80s and to an extent the ‘90s took on a light political theme.

There was the bittersweet classic The Fall of Rise of Reginald Perrin, starring the late Leonard Rossiter, that tells the story of an alienated business executive who fakes his own death to escape the daily grind before going on to return to create a multi-million pound empire literally selling rubbish.

Perrin, the original version of which was screened during the turbulent political period of the late ‘70s, while not overtly political is a fairly blatant satire on capitalism and alienation in the workplace.

In the ’80s there was the example of Don’t Wait Up – starring Nigel Havers and Tony Britton – that covered the at times strained relationship between a left leaning GP and his father – a wealthy Harley Street dermatologist.

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Although very much on the light side, the comedy, which also charted the difficult domestic lives of the two main characters, the doctors Latimer, did cover the conflict over the role of the private sector in health provision.

Yet little of the modern TV staple, even the limited number of dramas and sitcoms that make it onto our screens, are influenced by politics.

However, in fairness there were reports last week that the 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith, a comic portrayal of a self styled London-based urban guerilla and would-be-revolutionary, also starring Robert Lindsay, may be revived with the lead character now a Corbyn supporter in his local Labour Party.

Joking apart though the near-absence of serious issue-driven drama from our screens is something that could worsen with the UK government’s controversial review of the corporation’s size, funding and oversight. The Thatcher years were characterised by what was often cutting political drama and sharp comedy, often in response to the right wing approach of the government.

Think of much of the comedy of Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle from that period as well as subtle Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, which featured the character of Yosser Hughes who for many captured the mass unemployment crisis of the early 80s with his “Gizza’ job!” and “I can do that!” catchphrases. With the notable exceptions of this week’s screening of An Inspector Calls and This is England ‘90, there is for the most part simply no comparison on contemporary TV.