If there was ever a time to release a new political drama, it would be now. Given that coronavirus has shown (depending on your point of view) either the success or failure of government, a new TV drama could allow audiences more access behind the door of 10 Downing Street.
Political dramas are by their very nature, human-focused. Based on the actions individuals do or don’t take to seek influence, this allows elements of subversion that transcend the narrow confines of one genre. Yes Minister and The Thick of It masterfully demonstrates the political humour and chaos facing those in charge, and though I believe it was overrated, Bodyguard was undeniably a great thriller exploring what lied at the heart of power.
The new BBC drama Roadkill is clearly trying to adopt the latter approach. Written by David Hare, it stars Hugh Laurie as up-and-coming Tory minister Peter Laurence. Though supportive of Prime Minister Dawn Ellison (Helen McCrory) in person, it’s obvious that he’s desperate for power and – perhaps more importantly – the title of being Prime Minister.
Power struggle? Tick. Any political drama without one would, arguably, not be political. The ground is set for working out how Laurence acquires power and the barriers that will be put in his way. Scandal and law breaking? Tick. Though it shocks us, I think parts of the British public rather like the idea that those making the laws that govern our lives don’t themselves live by them.
Intriguingly, the drama starts with what, in another universe, could have been the ending. Laurie’s character charges out of court, victorious in a libel action against a newspaper and investigative journalist Charmian Pepper (Sarah Greene). Having being served by authoritative barrister Rochelle Madeley (Pippa Bennett-Warner), Laurence took the unusual step for a politician in taking legal action against a publication.
The stage is set for a fascinating four hours of truth, motive and justice. Unfortunately, Roadkill veers off into a fairly cliched, dull examination of Westminster politics that brings no originality. We learn early on that Pepper changed her story in court, which initially argued that Laurence was in Washington, D.C. giving a speech to a group supportive of private healthcare. It is never made clear why her story was changed, not least when it led to her sacking as an investigative reporter.
“A generic political drama, it’s inconclusive, lacks pace and, worst of all, is just painfully dull.”
This traditional view of the establishment encapsulates the entire drama. Hare’s own clichés and views about politics run through the drama in a manner that lacks an appreciation for the changes the 21st century brought about. Helen McCrory spends almost the entire drama locked down in Downing Street. Backbench MPs, key to any vote of no confidence, never feature. While sexism and power imbalances within journalism haven’t gone away, this has been previously covered in dramas like Press. The image of reporting presented is, at best, highly dated.
Roadkill’s redeeming feature is its fantastic performances. From established performers to rising stars, their ability to invest in a character is stellar, and it’s clear this programme wouldn’t dent their future CVs. Praise must go to Shalom Brune-Franklin in particular – as Rose Dietl, a woman in jail for fraud, it’s clear she’s cleverer than all the other inmates or prison staff, and ow and behold, we come to learn that she’s Laurence’s third, unknown daughter. Though her performance is exceptional, the idea of secret affairs and family chaos is just another tick in the cliché box used to attack politicians.
Many scenes appear contrived and unbelievable for the sake of plot advancement. Information between Laurence’s and Ellison’s team is conveyed by Duncan Knock (Iain De Caestecker), the special adviser to Peter, who is sleeping with the Prime Minister’s special adviser, Julia Blythe (Olivia Vinall). How realistic is this? It’s not for us to know. But it failed to strike a chord, feeling like an overly dramatic way to pass secrets.
The drama would feel out of date in 2010, let alone 2020. References to social media and their power of communication, not least in politics, were minimal; greater public engagement in politics, not least since Brexit, was nowhere to be seen. As its heart, Roadkill represents politics as something that interests only an elite few. In reality, every one of us should be invested.
Invested is unfortunately not an adjective to describe my Roadkill viewing experience. A generic political drama, it’s inconclusive, lacks pace and, worst of all, is just painfully dull. I felt no care or attachment towards any character (with the exception of Rose Dietl) – it’s not believable that these are real people making proper decisions, not least because of the mediocre dialogue. The fact that those in power – whether in business or politics – are allowed to get away with corruption offers nothing new to an eternal political cynicism in both fictional and real-life approaches to politics. Hare obviously longed for Roadkill to be exceptional, but in comparison to other dramas, it’s only as good as it’s title.
Words by Noah Keate