A Very British Coup – tape 526

Ah, revel as the glorious strains of Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor play out over a montage of Molotov Cocktails. It’s A Very British Coup, a programme which is almost certainly in my top ten of greatest TV series of the 80s (and very possibly of all time).

I’d recommend you watch it if you haven’t already. It’s available on Channel 4 albeit in a strange form, with the first two episodes as an omnibus edition. This article gives the whole story, so watch t first if you haven’t.

It’s the story of Harry Perkins (played by the hugely missed Ray McAnally), a left wing Labour leader who is elected as Prime Minister. It’s a story that resonates even more strongly now. Although Jeremy Corbin doesn’t look likely to be able to win an election, it’s astonishing to see the amount of monstering the press and the establishment have aimed at a slightly left wig politician. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same kind of things happen if he ever were to be elected.

And it came to pass that the oil money ran out. And Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard and there was nothing left to privatise, and the merchants and the moneylenders in yuppieland no longer collected £2million pounds for passing Go because most of them were in jail. 

Episode one sets up the players. It has a very fast-paced style, with a lot of shooting with long lenses, which compresses the distances – this was an aesthetic it shared with Edge of Darkness. But its pace is much quicker than EoD, with lots of short scenes, and an awful lot of the exposition being provided by fragments of news reports, rather than characters having conversations. This is a useful device as it allows them to get the information out efficiently, but avoids having to manufacture fake reasons for characters to talk about things they already know. It also reminds me a lot of the Frank Miller comic The Dark Night Returns which also features a lot of talking heads and TV reports.

In Perkins’ camp, there’s Jim Carter as Foreign Secretary Tom Newsome, and Geoffrey Beevers as the Chancellor, Lawrence Wainright, the one ‘moderate’ in the cabinet, Marjorie Yates as Joan Cook, the Home Secretary and Keith Allen as Frederick Thompson, his press secretary, who we first meet coming out of jail, where he was serving time for contempt, for not naming a source in a security story he wrote as a journalist.

Newsome and Wainwright

We also meet the other side, the shadowy operators of the establishment. Alan MacNaughtan plays Sir Percy Browne, head of MI5, and Tim McInnerney plays Feinnes, one of Browne’s MI5 operatives, digging into people’s past, monitoring their movements and affiliations, and itching to destroy Perkins’ government.

Tim McInnerney and Alan MacNaughtan

The first episode also features the great Shane Rimmer as the US Secretary of State, who is told by Perkins in no uncertain terms that he intends to make good on his election pledges to remove foreign bases and dismantle the UK’s nuclear arsenal.

Shane Rimmer

other policies of Perkins are unpopular with other powerful people. Philip Madoc plays a newspaper proprietor, George Fison, modelled after Murdoch or Maxwell, but not specifically either of them) who doesn’t like the idea of one man one newspaper.

Philip Madoc 2

The main drama of the episode is the parlous state of the country’s finances, rapidly running out of money to pay for vital services like pensions and civil service pay. Moderate Wainwright goes cap in hand to the IMF, who demand Perkins abandons most of his pledges, but Foreign Secretary Newsome has a secret meeting with the Bank of Moscow, who agree to lend the necessary money without as many conditions.

In episode two, the dirty tricks start. Newsome has been having an affair – something which was not mentioned in the MI5 files on his cabinet that Perkins had asked to see, leading him to suspect that the files had been redacted.

When the press are fed the story, Newsome has to resign, and the relentless hounding by the press leads his wife to commit suicide. Then the secret service turn to the unions, employing ‘friends’ in the union to cause disruption. The power workers leader doesn’t like the plans to close nuclear power stations.

This is definitely the second act reversal – a seemingly intransigent problem since a left wing government can’t really ride roughshod over the unions. Power cuts become the norm, there’s talk of a three day week, it’s all looking very dark for Harry Perkins. Pun intended.

It’s resolved by Harry confronting Chancellor Wainwright over his contacts with George Fison, squash games with a CIA agent from the US Embassy, and his affiliation with the power workers union, at odds with his insistence the government crack down on the power workers. When he folds at the suggestion of an inquiry, talks can resume with the striking union, and power is restored. “I think we’ve shaken his confidence” says Feinnes.

Credit spot: Advisors include Alistair Campbell, future Blair press secretary, and Duncan Campbell, the journalist who broke a lot of top secret stories in the 80s.

In the fina episode, the press’s narrative is that Perkins’ agenda has stalled, so he needs to do something to get public opinion back on side.

This episode introduces Sir Oswald Kowalsky, chief scientific officer for the MOD, who advises Perkins on how they might dismantle the nuclear arsenal.

         Is it dangerous? Dismantling a nuclear warhead?
         It's a precise technical operation but routinely 
         carried out. Not at all abstract. It's quite 
         practical really. I've often thought it would make 
         an interesting television programme. Or even a 
         media event.
         Like a moon landing.
         At least as good as a moon landing.

Naturally, the armed forces aren’t happy, claiming that loss of our nuclear deterrent would leave the UK facing “the prospect of total domination by Warsaw Pact countries.” There’s great scene where all their figures and projections are convincingly demolished by Joan Cook.

Then the dismantling goes ahead, all bright lighting, hazmat suits and shiny surfaces. Although I do think the release of a flock of doves was a bit over the top.

Meanwhile Fison and his newspapers start agitating for a leadership crisis, wanting to bring in their lapdog, Wainwright.

During a summit with the Americans, Kowalsky is diverted, while driving to the summit, and ends up driving through a level crossing while a train is going through. “A short circuit in the level crossing warning. The only time this has ever happened.”

Then the shadowy conspirators strike with their best weapon. They know Harry had a relationship with Helen Jarvis, whose husband helped arrange  the Kremlin bank deal. So Sir Percy comes to Harry bearing statements from a swiss bank account that he claims belongs to Harry, with £300,000 in it. Supposedly kickbacks from the Kremlin.

So he’s presented with an offer. Resign, due to ill health. Let Lawrence Wainwright take over. He reluctantly accepts. He and Thompson draft his resignation speech. “I’ve never written something of historical significance before” says Thompson.

Then comes the delivery of the speech, live on the BBC. Another brilliant scene. Harry ditches the prepared speech, and the Director General of the BBC, in the gallery, is aghast. “He can’t do this. It’s an abuse of a ministerial broadcast.” he orders the broadcast shut down, looks for the switch to cut the broadcast, but Perkins’ bodyguard (played by Bernard Kay) grabs his arm and tells him to sit down.

Bernard Kay

It’s a powerful climax to the story, and leaves us on the edge of resolution. Harry calls an election, but we never learn the outcome. But that’s OK, as the story has been told.

The script by Alan Plater (from Chris Mullin’s novel) and the direction by Mick Jackson were both excellent. Jackson directed a lot of the great TV dramas of the 80s, and also made several films in Hollywood, including the surprisingly brilliant Kevin Costner vehicle The Bodyguard. Alan Plater was equally at home with drama like this, or whimsical comedy like The Beiderbecke Affair.

I can’t recommend this series highly enough. Watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

Although, if you do watch it, and you watch it on Channel 4’s catch-up service, if you watch it on your TV, you’ll find that Channel 4 can’t do 4:3 TV shows properly on their streaming service. It looks like they’ve taken the 4:3 picture, stretched it horizontally, then pillarboxed a 4:3 section of the stretched picture. This is something they do for all their 4:3 material, and it’s horrible. Not only is it stretched, but you’re losing picture material at the sides.

Even more weirdly, the picture is perfect if you watch it on the Channel 4 website. It’s only on big screen services like NowTV, Chromecast, or their XBox app that have the incorrectly composed streams. I’ve complained on Twitter before now but have never had a response. They’ve been doing this for several years now, so it’s not as if it’s a new fault.

Sorry, Rant over.

The tape ends just after the last episode.


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