The Tory mayoral carry on

With Boris on the boards the London political scene now has a production to grasp the popular imagin

So one of the longest productions in the Westminster Playhouse is finally closing after more than a year.

Yes Carry On Conservative Candidate is finally coming to a triumphal conclusion having played to largely indifferent houses over the last fifteen months. The cast has featured several household names but none lasted more than a few days until the arrival of Boris in the lead role just as the curtain was about to fall.

The production has outlasted its author, Francis Maude. He wrote the confused script having ignored all advise from those who knew their London audience and saw a serious piece of political drama turn into complete farce.

Sadly no Carry On production has succeeded without Sid James but Steve Norris this time has resolutely kept in the wings having signed a more lucrative engagement at the Jarvis travelling railway theatre.

Other leading men resisted all blandishments to appear in the production. Michael Portillo (Kenneth Williams), has made clear his days of serious political theatre are over. He now contents himself instead with a regular outing on a Thursday night when his hilarious catchphrase 'Ohhhh Diane' echoes around the BBC studio at Millbank. How we titter.

Lord John Stevens (Former star of “Carry on up the Yard”) who was approached no less than four times made it plain that he was not interested and anyway had earned £8 million from his guest appearances in such productions as “Death of a Princess” and the long running “Footballers bungs”. A suggestion that Greg 'Roland Rat' Dyke should appear in a blue and yellow costume was dropped after coach parties from the suburbs made it clear they would cancel their block bookings.

There was a supporting cast most of whom were recruited from the Borough Repertory Companies. Lurline Champagnie was plucked from the chorus line of Harrow Rep where she has worked away for twenty years for one last attempt at stardom.

Warwick Lightfoot, an intellectual economist found that his rather dry style barely set Kensington Music Hall alight and making him utterly unsuitable for a West End transfer.

Victoria Borwick another Kensington veteran and previous auditioner, and always the winner of the best make up and costumes award, found herself condemned to the never ending Conservative Coffee morning Circuit.

Andrew Boff found his comedic style was as out of date as a routine from Stan Boardman and anyway probably more suited to the touring production of Carry on Camping.

Several cast members from South East London have struggled to get repeat bookings over the years at Bromley Butlins never mind the Town Hall and a late cast addition said to be a very Senior Alderman of the City of London Corporation is rumoured to have misunderstood and thought he was putting his name forward to be Lord Mayor of London: sorry the jewellery budget for this production does not run to a diamond badge!

So as the script is written for the sequel provisionally entitled “Clash of the Titans”, the London political scene now has a production to grasp the popular imagination.

Johnson and Livingstone must be the only two UK Politicians whose surnames are superfluous. I suspect Box Office records will be broken on this one and that next May there may well be a new name in lights on London South bank as the younger performer replaces the old veteran whose act is now seen by many as rather passé. Never mind Ken you can join Messrs Blair and Prescott, those bill toppers of yesteryear, on the much more lucrative the after dinner circuit.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.