There is an interesting article on the BBC website discussing the dearth of British political dramas on television. Inspired by the airing of a Danish political drama, Borgen, on BBC Four, the writer, Terry Stiastny, wonders why there have been no British equivalents since the excellent House of Cards which aired in the 1990s.
Borgen is a political thriller about the election of Denmark’s first female prime minister (not the actual first female prime minister who was elected last year – the series aired a year before that actually occurred, so it’s about a fictional first female prime minister) and her coalition government. Borgen will appeal to all political junkies, especially anyone with an interest in coalition politics, but also people interested in good drama – the show also focuses on the main character’s personal life, and how she negotiates being a wife and mother with her political life. And to readers in Canada who are intrigued by this, Borgen is available through *ahem* unofficial sources. Not that I am advocating that anyone do anything illegal here. I’m simply saying it is available if you really want to see it (and it is definitely worth watching). (UPDATE: You can now order a region 1 DVD boxset of series 1 from Amazon.ca, and pre-order series 2.)
But back to the issue of political dramas on television. The UK has produced some classic political comedy. Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister are perhaps the best known – certainly familiar to viewers outside the UK. More recently, we have The Thick of It. While The Thick of It hasn’t aired in Canada (to be honest, I don’t think any network here could air it because of the language), many in Canada who work in and around politics are very familiar with the series, having found ways to view it. But as the BBC article notes, there hasn’t been a political drama television series produced in the UK since House of Cards.
The article posits two possible reasons for that. First, the UK public is too cynical about politics to warm to a political hero or anti-hero, and second, there exists a general ignorance of Westminster among writers.
Lord Michael Dodds, who wrote the novel House of Cards was based on, is quoted as saying “that awful word, ‘politics’” puts people off, while Dr Matthew Ashton, a lecturer in politics and media at Nottingham Trent University, explains:
“If you tried something like the American West Wing, which I think is still the gold standard for political TV – where you’ve got a very idealistic view of the presidency and the people who run it – over here, people would say politicians just aren’t like that, and I think they’d reject it.”
He may well have a point – there have been sufficient political scandals over the years, not least among them the expenses scandal, that have served only to further lower politics and politicians in the eyes of the general public. That is why political satire is probably more popular – it makes fun of politicians. It will be interesting to see how Borgen is received by the UK public – the lead character, Birgitte Nyborg, is likeable and optimistic.
The second reason advanced to explain the dearth of political drama does make a lot of sense. If most writers and those who commission scripts and proposals for television series are largely ignorant of the inner workings of Parliament, it isn’t something they’ll naturally think of writing about. House of Cards was based on a novel, external source material. There aren’t that many novels written about politics. Memoirs and other works of non-fiction yes, which can be turned into biographical pieces, but ultimately, these will focus on the whole life of the individual, not exclusively on their political life.
This made me wonder about Canadian television series about politics. After a bit of searching online, I have ended up with the following list:
- Quentin Durgens, MP (1965-69)
- Not My Department (1986)
- In Opposition (1989)
- Rideau Hall (2002)
- Trudeau (2002)
- H2O (2004)
- Snakes and Ladders (2004)
- DaVinci’s City Hall (2005)
- Dan for Mayor (2010-11)
Of those programs, only one (Quentin Durgens, MP) seems to have been popular, lasting four season. Most of the others were short-lived, usually only one season. DaVinci’s City Hall was a spin-off of sorts of a very popular program (DaVinci’s Inquest), about a Vancouver chief coroner. In DaVinci’s City Hall, the coroner enters municipal politics, running for mayor. While the original program ran from 1998 to 2005 – hugely successful for a Canadian drama, the spin-off was cancelled after one season. It would seem Canadians like their coroners to stick with forensics and solving crimes, not running for office. Rideau Hall was a short-lived comedy series about an earthy, one-hit wonder disco queen named Regina Gallant who is recommended for appointment as Governor General by a conniving Prime Minister anticipating she will become a national embarrassment in the job, allowing him to move ahead in eliminating the position, along with the Canadian Monarchy. The series brought in fairly good ratings for the CBC and it was expected the show would be renewed for a second season; however, the show was cancelled after the Canadian Television Fund’s budget was cut by the federal government and CBC could only afford to keep its more popular shows. Snakes and Ladders, also a comedy, was about a woman who takes a job as an executive assistant for a cabinet minister, was critically acclaimed and won awards, but never got the viewership. Dan for Mayor, another sitcom, again focused on municipal politics in a small town. Not My Department was the CBC’s attempt at a Canadian version of the highly popular BBC series Yes Minister, but is described as “painful”. I couldn’t find much of anything about In Opposition. Trudeau is a mini-series based on the life of Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau and was one of the highest-rated Canadian television programs of the year, winning several awards. H2O is an original mini-series about a Prime Minister agreeing to a US plot to divert water from the Great Lakes.
Canadian programs face special challenges simply finding an audience, given the heavy competition from US programs, which all have much bigger budgets and much bigger names attached to them. Snakes and Ladders, by all accounts, was very good – but it never found an audience in its first (and only) season, and Canadian networks, in particular the CBC, don’t have the budget to stick with programs over the long-term and try to build an audience for them. Canadians did watch Trudeau, but that mini-series benefitted from its subject matter – Trudeau continues to both fascinate and irritate Canadians. H2O‘s popuarity was undoubtedly aided significantly by the fact that it starred Paul Gross, who also co-wrote the series. Plus it played to Canadians’ underlying suspicions about their neighbours to the south.
Is there an audience in Canada for good television drama (or comedy) about politics? We might soon get an answer to that question. The CBC is in the process of developing a six-part mini-series based on the most excellent novel, The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis (read my review here). If the series is well-received, then we’ll know that Canadians aren’t too cynical about politics to embrace a political hero. Sadly, we’ll have to wait until probably some time in 2013 to find out.