Three colours: Cameron (Mark Dexter), Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Brown (Ian Grieve)
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As this government comes to a close, Rachel Cooke is glued to Channel 4's Coalition

James Graham's mischievous account of the heady days following the last election is Where’s Wally? for people who watch Newsnight.

Coalition
Channel 4

As anyone who sat through the Danish series Borgen will know, the numbers game that is coalition-building is hardly the stuff of TV drama. There are meetings, and then more meetings. There are telephone calls, text messages and, if you’re really lucky, a little light political blackmail. Party elders loiter in corridors trying hard to impersonate owls. Civil servants glide smoothly about as if on ice. The rank and file piss and moan. And at the end of it, you get . . . what? A press conference. It’s not exactly Macbeth, is it?

Yet I was glued to Coalition (28 March, 9pm), James Graham’s mischievous account of those febrile days in May 2010 during which Frisky Nick and Cocky Dave got it together. It had two great advantages over Borgen. First, there was Graham’s writing, which nimbly reduced almost everyone to the paltry sum of their parts (in essence: ambition, ambition, ambition). Second, Coalition’s characters really exist. What fun we had trying to work out who was supposed to be whom. It was Where’s Wally? for people who watch Newsnight.

Personally, I think Chris Larkin brought far too much charisma to the role of Danny Alexander – which is saying something, given that every time he opened his mouth, out came the words “voting reform”. But elsewhere the competition was pretty hot, the cast having wisely decided to try to capture the politicians’ most essential qualities rather than simply to mimic them.

The trailer for Coalition.

I don’t believe Nick Clegg was quite the bag of nerves Bertie Carvel made him out to be, even allowing for how, in this version of events, Paddy Ashdown (Donald Sumpter) appeared to be stalking him. (If Paddy had jumped out of Miriam’s Zara-filled wardrobe in full combat gear while she was performing an intimate marital act on the leader of the Liberal Democrats, you would not, after a while, have been surprised.) But his reflexive pragmatism felt just right. Mark Dexter caught all of David Cameron’s turbocharged presumption and Ian Grieve something of Gordon Brown’s almost pitiable desperation. George Osborne is a man who seems always to be on the point of unsheathing his instinctive flashiness; in his presence, you want to take a step backwards, just in case. Sebastian Armesto, an actor who knows exactly how to deploy a sneer, replicated this effortlessly.

None of these performances could touch Mark Gatiss’s turn as Peter Mandelson. The voice, the walk, the bitchy impatience: he’d got them all. In one scene, a box of muffins was delivered to a meeting. Mandelson took one, peeled back its paper case and began delicately to pick at it. I couldn’t get over this. Several years ago, I interviewed Mandy – I’ve interrogated every politician I’ve mentioned so far, with the exception of Danny Alexander – on a train from Didcot Parkway to London, a journey during which he nibbled ostentatiously at a Pret a Manger tiffin bar, then a favourite treat of his. All I can tell you is that the two performances – Gatiss’s and Mandy’s – were so alike that it was unnerving. Gatiss had slipped beneath Mandelson’s skin, a feat at once astonishing and paradoxical when you consider the former business secretary’s unfaltering opacity.

“It’s like flirting,” Mandelson cautioned Brown, when the prime minister wondered if he shouldn’t call Clegg rather than wait for him to ring. “Desperate isn’t sexy when you’re flirting.” Naturally, Brown didn’t get this – or anything else. Every time he spoke, I wondered all over again about that unfathomable photograph of him and the future Sarah Brown having dinner in a Soho restaurant. Mandelson and Harriet Harman (Deborah Findlay) were reduced to holding up encouraging cue cards when he did finally reach Clegg on the phone and while I can’t believe that Harman would, in reality, have been much help in this situation – another ex-interviewee of mine, she is, alarmingly, only marginally less gauche than Brown – this scene got to me. A light came on. It is, after all, in such moments that governments are created. Or not. Manners, empathy, a certain kind of personal warmth: in a few weeks’ time, these are the qualities of which our hapless politicians will be in sorest need once the votes have been counted. Given what we know of them, it’s impossible not to tremble at the thought.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit