Sunday, 12 April 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 4th April 2015.

Coalition: Saturday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Difficult to believe now, but for a brief period in 2010 Nick Clegg was perceived, not as a pointless husk of a man, but as a straight-talking saviour whose promises of political reform and honesty felt genuinely viable.

Of course, anyone who bought into this hopeless fantasy now feels utterly foolish and betrayed. That bitter foreknowledge hung over Coalition like a toxic gas.

A feature-length dramatisation of the infamous week in May 2010 when a hung parliament forced the coalition government into being, it depicted the 11th hour Westminster negotiations as a kind of tragicomic farce in which an entire nation fell victim to the greed and ineptitude of its flailing political elite.

Yet despite these broad satirical leanings, it resisted the temptation to caricature its scheming protagonists. Instead, particularly with regards to Clegg and Gordon Brown, it offered a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of fundamentally sincere politicians brought down by naivety and hubris.

Writer James Graham reserved most of his ire for the Tories, who were portrayed throughout as cynically opportunistic. I particularly enjoyed the curdled depiction of George Osborne as a heavy-lidded, smirking henchman offering cold pragmatic advice to his anxious leader. Apparently based on extensive research, its portrayal of Cameron as a dazed politico forever on the verge of drowning was grimly plausible.

While commonly dismissed as a hapless patsy, the Clegg of Coalition was a morally conflicted and occasionally shrewd man whose flashes of remorse seemed genuine. However, Graham didn't let him off the hook for reneging on his flagship promises as soon as he got a whiff of power.

But it was Brown who emerged as the most intriguing character. The crumpled, socially awkward antithesis of his open-necked, chummy young rivals, the outgoing PM cut a tragic figure as he fruitlessly struggled to cling on to power. The scene in which he clumsily canvassed Clegg as they were about to lay a wreath on VE Day spoke volumes about his hopeless lack of perspective.

Shepherded by his long-suffering staff – including Mark Gattis playing Peter Mandelson in the inimitable style of Mark Gatiss – this gruff, bellowing teddy bear finally realised he was finished while scuttling through a secret Commons tunnel on his way to a make-or-break meeting with Clegg. I never thought I'd see the day where I actually felt sorry for Gordon Brown.

It was one of many arresting moments in which Graham's eye for detail reaped dividends. Brown obliviously squirting ketchup on his shirt basically summed the man up, and I'm convinced that casting an actor who neither looked nor sounded like the robotic Clegg was a satirical comment in itself.

Of particular note was the way in which the political old guard, including a wise, battle-weary Paddy Ashdown, were depicted almost as bastions of integrity. Unlike their Blairite descendants, at least they actually believed in something.

While Coalition didn't tell us much that we didn't already know, it was nevertheless a compelling drama which, despite being a matter of historical record, managed to sustain a degree of tension throughout. That's rather impressive.

Though it focused on the self-serving compromise and betrayal of supposed principles which brought this government to power, it was also written with a commendably human touch. Ironically, Clegg in particular was treated with the kind of fairness and honesty he singularly failed to deliver in reality. I hope he appreciates the courtesy. 

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