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David Hare can’t bear too much reality The upheavals of our time have left the playwright's new political drama feeling threadbare

Hugh Laurie in Roadkill. Credit: IMDB

Hugh Laurie in Roadkill. Credit: IMDB


October 22, 2020   5 mins

A Western democracy clashes with a Middle Eastern despotism in a war whose outcome will shape a new world order. Just a few years later, a writer presumes to turn this epoch-defining conflict into drama. He transforms real figures into stage characters, fabricates monologues and conversations, puts words into the mouths of living (and recently dead) rulers and their families. Every critic who has ever scolded the dubious mash-ups of history and invention found in the hybrid forms of “faction” or “docudrama” would find cause for harsh complaint here. Yet European drama begins with this work: The Persians by Aeschylus.

Aeschylus himself may have fought, in 480BC, at the Battle of Salamis. In 472, the Athenian warrior-playwright won first prize at the City Dionysia festival for a trilogy that included The Persians. The play imagines the aftermath of Salamis at the stricken court of Xerxes, King of Kings, in the wake of the Athenian naval victory that scuppered his rash invasion of Greece. Aeschylus probably wrote other topical plays but The Persians is the only one, and the oldest of his works, to survive — and so ranks as the founding text of Western drama.

Staging current events could stir controversy in ancient Athens, as it does today. An older dramatist, Phrynichus, was fined a thousand drachmas after a work of his embarrassingly revisited a Greek defeat at Persian hands. In contrast, Aeschylus plays patriotically safe. Still, The Persians shows that reality honourably shared the Athenian scene with mythology. Documentary drama boasts roots as deep as the European stage itself.

The critical quarrels of the City Dionysia have not gone away. Bring actual, near-contemporary events to stage or screen, and you risk today’s equivalents of the thousand-drachma fine — lawsuits, political and media outrage, career blight. Concoct imaginary politicians and their deeds, and a public steeped in the 24/7 melodrama of rolling news may find the made-up stories tame and lame.

Last weekend, BBC1 began to broadcast the playwright David Hare’s four-part series Roadkill: the latest of many attempts to channel the theatre of politics into effective TV narrative. Roadkill invents, rather than adapts, characters and events. It stars Hugh Laurie as Peter Laurence, a Conservative transport minister with a cheeky, populist persona (“People like me because I break the rules”).

Laurence dodges one scandal, successfully suing a newspaper for libel, only to find that his well-buried past threatens him with others. The opening scenes merge two favourite political-drama tropes: backstairs skullduggery in Westminster and Whitehall and old skeletons, whether erotic or financial, rattling in closets. Scenes set in a women’s prison serve to yoke grand affairs of state to life below the salt: a familiar swerve in Hare’s work — and, for that matter, in Shakespeare’s Histories.

At least since the mid-1960s, when Dennis Potter converted his own experience as a Labour candidate into two BBC plays about his alter ego “Nigel Barton”, political dramatists for television have sought to balance the competing claims of fiction and reality. Some playwrights have followed Aesychlus in his Persians vein, mining events for their plots and people — as James Graham did in Brexit: The Uncivil War, or Peter Morgan has in his monarchical saga The Crown (significantly, neither project came from the BBC). Others, from the BBC’s original Machiavellian farce House of Cards to series such as Paula Milne’s The Politician’s Wife, have skirted the minefield of docudrama and opted for fictitious scenarios. One of the best-loved corridors-of-power epics, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, blends hyper-realistic detail about US government with the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a liberal White House, transmitted during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Roadkill firmly eschews what James Graham calls “fact-based fiction” and largely avoids allusions that could quickly pass their sell-by date. Hare argues in his introduction to the series that “So much television drama is now based on documentary events that it is hard to remember the primary trigger for fiction is meant to be the imagination.”

Once a research-based dramatist — in plays such as Racing Demon, about the Church of England, or The Absence of War, on the Labour Party — he now assumes that too much topicality will shrink his canvas. “In Roadkill, neither Covid nor Brexit consume every politician’s waking hour,” he writes. In this light, the best political fiction unveils the core truths of personalities and processes while avoiding the messy taint of actuality, and the ruses of roman-à-clef disguise. “Mine is a parallel world to the real one,” Hare maintains, “and there is no secret passage between the two.”

Here, Hare is obeying the ancient preference for the general or exemplary plot over a mere description of events that dates back to Aristotle’s Poetics. “The poet’s [i.e. creative writer’s] function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but the kind of thing that might happen,” Aristotle insists. Therefore “poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” Roadkill opts, in Aristotle’s terms, for the universal over the particular. This represents not just a time-hallowed choice but a prudent one for a broadcaster always mistrusted by Conservative governments, and now more vulnerable than ever to hostile Tory fire.

Laurence, in common with most TV politicians, comes across as more operator than ideologue. (He announces early on that “You have to forget about Brexit,” thus letting his creator, and the series’ funder, off a nastily barbed hook.) Dramatists who invent rather than reflect events like to suppose they are stripping an ephemeral veil of policy away from the eternal pulse of pride, greed, lust and ambition throbbing beneath. Nothing in Roadkill hints that Hare will stray far from this approach.

Laurence, “a relaxed Conservative who admires progress”, makes bland statements of a vaguely free market/libertarian bent. He, the Croydon lad made good, is the story, not his principles. So far, so TV-typical. Parliamentary and political drama tends to be not anti-Tory or anti-Labour, but anti-ideology. “Universal” human passions matter more, as do the equally timeless motifs of careers that wax and wane, colleagues who flatter then betray, and triumphs that turn to ash. The post-Cold War assumption that politics turns exclusively on image, spin and showbiz put a postmodern, end-of-history twist on this downgrading of big ideas.

In the 21st century, however, all-consuming ideology has returned — and, with it, the need for political drama to engage with the content of beliefs as much as with the character of their upholders. Writers — such as Graham and Morgan — who do bring actuality to screen and stage are better placed to do exactly that. Morgan’s 2003 TV film of the pact between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, The Deal, set the tone for later docudramas, with its twin-track attention to principle and personality. Although far from flawless, and contentiously selective, Graham’s referendum drama did address ideas and technologies. It amounted to more than a Dominic Cummings biopic.

Tales of political strategy and subterfuge that diminish the convictions that fuel intrigue feel increasingly threadbare. For the lurching upheavals of our times have left stories of polite (or even vicious) political manoeuvrings about not-very-much looking like an antiquarian sideshow. With austerity, Brexit, Trump and now the pandemic, we may have drunk too deeply on reality’s strong wine. So Roadkill’s wrangles over privatising prisons taste like thin broth in comparison. Laurence may assert that “This is the moment we start again as a nation”. But Hare’s show has yet to explore the deeper reasons for that collective reboot.

Of course, James Graham’s “fact-based fiction” sets its own artistic and ethical challenges. He believes that audiences have a firm grasp of docudrama conventions and are seldom misled. Speaking of The Crown, which can stretch its artistic licence to the limit, Peter Morgan has argued that viewers “understand a lot of it is conjecture. Sometimes there are unavoidable accuracy blips
 But I’m absolutely fastidious about there being an underlying truth.” People who choose a career in public affairs must now expect dramatists as well as journalists to compose a subjective version of their “underlying truth”. The Crown, though, makes queasy, if transfixing, viewing precisely because the royal family did not choose. “Fact-based fiction” still needs deeper thought, clearer pathways, keener criticism.

No doubt subjects of Xerxes, King of Kings, objected to Aeschylus’s portrayal too. When the playwright first put statesmen, and statecraft, on stage, the beleaguered Athenians could take nothing for granted about their identity, status or survival. Another period of flux, fear and division means that the most urgent TV drama now pivots back to real events and their makers. Should calm return, and harmony reign, then fictional suited smoothies — Roadkill-style — might satisfy us on screen again. For now, the hunger for transformed reality feels sharper than ever. In due time, I hope to watch a Covid-themed dramadoc to match the genre’s one undisputed masterpiece so far: Craig Mazin’s great miniseries Chernobyl.

 

’Roadkill’ continues on BBC1 on Sundays. The fourth series of ‘The Crown’ starts on Netflix on 15 November


Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.

BoydTonkin

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Graham Cunningham
Graham Cunningham
3 years ago

In Sir David Hare’s previous BBC drama series ‘Collateral’ we find that UK human-trafficking, supposedly, is orchestrated not by shady foreign mafias but by quintessentially British businessmen and ex-military types. Illegal immigrants are mostly nice people whereas it is hard to find any decent and sane white people in Britain apart from a few who have the courage to spout some much needed left/liberal outrage at the state of this “nasty little country”. And as for decent and likeable people; these are most likely to be found in the ‘lgbt community’. That’s David Hare and that’s the BBC all over.

peterdebarra
peterdebarra
3 years ago

… a living definition of Oikophobia ” the obsessive hatred of one’s native land and one’s native culture … the word is increasingly useful …

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  peterdebarra

Yes, a wonderful word which has the supreme advantage of being abbreviated to ‘oik’, unlike its alternatives. Well done!

William Cameron
William Cameron
3 years ago

Roadkill -I had high hopes because of the excellent Hugh Laurie. But sadly Hare has just written an anti Tory polemic. Wicked Tory minister, threats of privatising the NHS , over powerful special advisors, Tory minister infidelity, – etc etc . Its a sort of Hatchet job set at the intellectual level of middle school. Shows just how dim the BBC is at time when it needs to build bridges rather than offend half the country.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

And no rational person can bear any David Hare. Whatever….90% of these of these dramas are garbage, and 100% of any political dramas the BBC produces will be garbage. Hare has always been a colossal bore.

Jim Richards
Jim Richards
3 years ago

I thought it was dreadful. You can guess whether a character will be good or bad according to skin colour and sexuality. And the plot device that Laurie’s character has a daughter he didn’t know about would not be a potential career ending disaster – look at the PM – it would be spun to give the character a human dimension. As for the Tories selling off the NHS, they’ve been in power for 45 years of the NHS’ existence and it hasn’t happened yet. In fact NHS worship has reached new heights under Johnson and Hancock

There are good political dramas to be written but not by a playwright whose view of politics is about as subtle as a Xmas pantomime

david bewick
david bewick
3 years ago

I watched the first episode and in all honesty it’s a formulaic and very ordinary drama. All the usual suspects are there and where would we be without a slippery conservative minister getting a bashing and a set of SPAD’s roaming freely. Rather poor fare and the BBC really needs to up its game.

peterdebarra
peterdebarra
3 years ago

… Hare ” a name from the past, which we associate, for whatever reason, with the classist/colourist/racialist/sexist/marxist NT/RSC/Old Vic/BBC output ” all at their dying embers stage, all with audiences in free fall after previous enthusiasts fled pre-covid … and continue to flee …

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

The Bodyguard could be weirdly pro-conservative. Heck even Moffatt-era Dr Who had its moments.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
3 years ago

I don’t think I shall bother with this series given my distrust of David Hare and the BBC. On the other hand I must say “A Very English Scandal” was a triumph in terms of script and performances, especially Hugh Grant as Thorpe.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Gourley

Off course “A very English scandal” was by Davies, and the equally excellent “The Night Manager” by Farr.
Mr Laurie playing an ‘out of character’ villain in the later rather than his normal buffoon.
No sign of the oikophobe Hare in either.

simon taylor
simon taylor
3 years ago

BBC political drama always manage to bore, offend, and patronise me.

Ben
Ben
3 years ago

Simply awful – I HAD to turn off – was it fifteen minutes in? And I normally love political dramas. This had no nuance, no depth, no interesting characters, no balance, just one long diatribe. David Hare ranting at the entire nation – again.

cbarclay
cbarclay
3 years ago

Hare has a nerve claiming that writers need to show imagination. Even in his prime, watching his plays felt like speed-reading a year’s collection of the Guardian. The mogul in Pravda was clearly based on Murdoch and yet Hare expressed disbelief that anyone could think so.

Many previous political dramas left the party of the politicians unstated. None suffered because even in the days when Labour had some working class MPs audiences understood that there was a lot of similarity between the people leading the two parties.

Rob Alka
Rob Alka
3 years ago

David Hare is now 73 years old. Sadly his great plays were decades ago was when he was in his thirties. I’m thinking of plays like Plenty, Murmuring Judges, Absence of War, Pravda. Once he became older he seemed to become a paid-up member of the establishment. Naturally he remained a left wing/Champagne Socialism, like the majority of those making it in the arts and media. Nonetheless, the years have clearly affected the way he handled the same range of topics, which drifted away from passion or hard-edged satire to highlight the loss of ideals and principles to a more mundane naive treatment of the same old topics of disapproval but where Mr Hare now seems to have no emotional skin in the game.

I don’t know how good an actor Hugh Laurie can be. The storylines and script were first rate in the early seasons of “House”, from which Hugh Laurie created a mesmerising character. But in later seasons “House” ran out of ideas and the plots and situations became childishly surreal and no actor, however good, can rescue that.

I can only imagine Hugh Laurie read David Hare’s script and decided that, even with what he must have earnt on “House”, saying yes to the BBC’s Roadkill was better than gardening.

Today, comparing David Hare with Aaron Sorkin was always like comparing chalk and cheese, and that remains true to this day as evidenced by the scripts of Roadkill and The Trial of Chicago 7