Monday, October 22, 2007

The Right Honourable Lady

The following is possibly only of interest to hardcore Doctor Who fans and other Anglophilic sorts.

Last night I watched the first two episodes of The Amazing Mrs Pritchard on Masterpiece Theater. Despite my nearly boundless love for political dramas/thrillers/soaps/comedies (particularly those of the British Parliamentary variety) and despite my total admiration and worship for the divine talent and beauty that is Jane Horrocks (Little Voice! Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous!) I won't be watching the rest of the series.

Although the premise was potentially interesting -- ordinary supermarket manager fed up with clueless politicians declares herself a candidate for local MP, only to find herself succeeding beyond her wildest dreams and becoming Prime Minister by accident -- and Ms. Horrocks (here looking almost exactly like J.K. Rowling) was excellent as always, the script really let this down. The writer gave Mrs. Pritchard at least three different, mutually contradictory characterizations in the course of the first hour. Was she "just plain folks" whose common sense cuts through the obfuscation of old party hacks or was she a brilliant orator with a superhuman ability to memorize and recite the careers of potential rivals despite never having been interested in politics? The script couldn't make up its mind. Also, the storytelling consisted largely of expository dialogue telling us important things about the characters rather than showing them. And there was more than a little sexism in the way the initial conceit was presented. Yes, the series was written by a woman...but if you think a woman can't be sexist and perpetuate the same old lazy stereotypes of how men and women supposedly behave, then we live on different planets. (And I don't mean Venus and Mars.)

The doings of Parliament have inspired a lot of great television over the years. House of Cards and its sequels are one example on the dramatic side. The comedic tag-team of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister probably did more to explain the inner workings of governments and why things are the way they are than anything else on television. The prinicples discussed in YM and YPM are universal and apply to all democratic nations; the American viewer can get just as much of an education from them as the British audience. (One of the creators of YM went on to direct the surprisingly excellent Eddie Murphy film The Distinguished Gentleman depicting the same factors in play in American politics, albeit with a greater emphasis on the corrosive effects of money and lobbyists.) Even the main idea behind The Amazing Mrs Pritchard -- decent woman of integrity gets an education in how politics and government work while juggling ordinary home life with her husband and kids -- was already done better (and with considerably less condescension) in a little-known British sitcom called No Job For A Lady starring Penelope Keith.

Like I said at the start and have just demonstrated, I watch a lot of British television with political themes. But the above list conspicuously omits one of my very favorite television depictions of a British political leader: a character who was always realistically and convincingly depicted in every appearance, brilliantly written and acted, no matter how wild and outlandish the situations were.

Yes, my disappointment with Mrs. Pritchard last night made me think of another female Prime Minister of recent memory...and that's when I realized Russell Davies made a huge mistake in building his Doctor Who spinoff around Captain Jack Harkness and the oversexed boys and girls of the Torchwood Institute. Instead, he should have done a series about Harriet Jones.

From the moment we meet her in Aliens of London, she's a coherent, consistent, and believable character -- timid and unsure, but with a core of feisty determination beneath that, ultimately leading her to help save the world from an alien conspiracy. When the Doctor reveals that this newly elected junior back bencher from Flydale North is destined to become Prime Minister, it makes sense. We can believe it because the strength of the writing and acting has shown us her exceptional qualities; we didn't need to be constantly told because we'd seen it for ourselves.

Now, instead of a tired and obvious X-Files wannabe series, imagine how cool and unique it would be to have a series about political intrigues and governmental infighting against the backdrop of a world facing the prospect of invasion by aliens. Think of it as West Wing with science fiction. In addition to worrying about who's going to become deputy undersecretary of commerce, Jones also has to worry about fending off the Cybermen or the Sycorax without causing public panic. Questions are being asked in Parliament about budget can the PM answer the Opposition without exposing the secret anti-Dalek gun those hidden funds really went to? You could have your Torchwood or UNIT or what have you in the story as well, but PM Harriet Jones would be the focus of the series. Torchwood was a combination of a lot of second-tier SF series we've seen before, but this would have been something really fresh.

Well, I'd watch it, anyway.


  1. I've only seen one episode of Torchwood. The premiere. And I did feel a lot of sympathy with the cop girl...

    But now that you mention it, I think you're right. Not that the cop girl shouldn't've got involved, but as Scipio might say, she would've been a much more important figure as a mirror for Harriet Jones...perhaps, even, she might have been amnesia-ized, except that Harriet Jones saw something in her, and forestalled the ammnesiafication. That could have been very nice. "Shut up, Jack! I say she stays!"

    Better, in fact.

    You're right, RAB. How did they miss that? Terry Nation wouldn't've missed it...

    On The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard: after seeing the first episode, I directed my mother, the world's most extreme Jane Horrocks fan (and RAB, I'm shocked: no mention of her star turn in Life Is Sweet?), to watch it...and, you know, even my mother went off it after two episodes. Thing is, Jane notwithstanding (nor any of the other excellent actors), it's kind of, well, stupid.

    Because it's The West Wing.

    Or maybe it's Studio 60? There's an unconscious metacommentary there, the Purple Party, they were supposed to be a joke, they were so terribly obvious that no one would've voted for them...but look, now that they're in power, they're...they're...

    Either conservative or liberal?

    Either for order or equality?

    The writing's good, and the acting's better, but it's still The West Wing. It's a little bit (inadvertantly) of a propaganda piece. It is, of course, a ludicrous beginning, and everyone knows it...that's the hook...but unless the writers have something truly wild and weird to offer us soon...then it'll have a ludicrous ending, and that WON'T be good. Mrs. Pritchard is not going to go to Northern least I hope she isn't. Mrs. Pritchard will probably tell George W. Bush to go fuck least I hope she will, because that's all this show is really about. Either one must be Tony Blair, or one must not be Tony Blair. But in the end one cannot be Guy Fawkes. Or even Ralph Nader (although clearly one is supposed to be). Which in the modern popular conception of politics is the same damn thing: far too extreme. And yet not extreme enough, because in the popular conception of politics, at least as they show it on TV, in a drama, all intentions, no matter how well-acted, count for nothing anyway.

    Yes: give me Jim Hacker instead! A capable idiot. Whereas Mrs. Pritchard is, unfortunately, an incapable genius -- and her whole show is a very brilliant, very well-dressed, very gorgeously-acted, lie.

    My gaze will outwear this show. Terrible but true. Even though Jane is my girl. Sad.

    I agree with your assessment.

  2. I was also weirdly surprised to hear Mrs. Pritchard call the Opposition members "Right Honourable" -- MPs get to stick "Hon." before their names, but "Rt. Hon." is generally reserved for Prime Ministers.

    Funny thing to get wrong.


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