Things can only get better

Television - Andrew Billen finds <em>The Project</em>, like new Labour itself, to be a big let-down

Like the new Labour project itself, BBC1's two-part dramatisation about it, The Project (10-11 November), was a big let-down. In fact, it was a bigger let-down. If Tony Blair in opposition, with his promise to keep within Tory spending budgets, had warned us about anything, it was to be sure and get our disillusion in early. But The Project came from an impeccable pedigree, directed by Peter Kosminsky and written by Leigh Jackson, the team that made Warriors. That film, about the British army in Bosnia, went far beyond its categorisation as a docudrama and will probably be remembered as the single-best drama of the Nineties. Compared with the Balkan miasma, new Labour is a huge and visible open goal. How could they miss?

Yet miss they did. Wearing its political sophistication on its sleeve - the research was so intensive that the pile of interview transcripts and notes approached Jackson's study ceiling - The Project somehow looked naIve. In part, I think, this was because the script ploddingly followed new Labour's story from 1992 to 2001, and thus had to convey a constant sense of outrage at betrayals that have long since been trodden into the collective memory of British politics. But more than that, most of it felt crude and unintentionally cartoonish.

More fundamentally, however, by deciding not to portray the leading players directly, Jackson and Kosminsky had to come up with imaginary middle-ranking movers and shakers who would keep our interest as protagonists. But with Brown and Blair almost always speaking in the background - the news or the Today programme was constantly on - these characters would in any circumstances have had a hard time attracting our attention.

As it turned out, however, the players they came up with were mostly dull ciphers and, in the case of the men, hard to tell apart. (I sometimes think that Rada is flooding the market with so many look-alike leading men that there will soon be no character actors left in Britain.) Since they shared a university and a house, the obvious comparison was with This Life. But the point about Warren and Anna and co was that, deep down, they resented having to earn a living and had fabulously complicated private lives to compensate. This lot actually believed in their vocation and could scarcely find the time or enthusiasm to bed one another. The Project was not so much This Life as Get a Life.

Since we all knew the arc of the meta-story of betrayal, the only real interest was guessing which of the two heroes would sell out and which would walk out. In the end, it was the ambitious Paul (played with something approaching charisma by Matthew MacFadyen) who could take no more, and the black babe MP, Maggie (a good, concentrated performance from Naomie Harris, with some thankless lines to deliver), who swallowed her integrity and got her second term in Westminster.

The other characters had allegorical functions. Some were there to represent aspects of real-life Labour devilry. Harvey (James Frain) was a bit like Mandelson but not sinister enough. Richard was a version of Gordon Brown's young turk Ed Balls. But, from Derek Riddell's performance, I could not tell if he was meant to be an ideologue, a nerd or a cynic. (Where was the Charlie Whelan tendency when we needed it?) The only enjoyable impersonations were from Anton Lesser as the ghastly champagne socialist and focus groupie Stanley, who was, clearly, nine-tenths Philip Gould. But creepy Stanley barely appeared after the first half-hour.

And if Labour patronises the electorate, so did The Project its civilian characters. Andy, as the gang's non-partisan, activist housemate, was given the Christ-like occupation of carpenter, while Lindsey, as Paul's occasional girlfriend, was a punchbag made to suffer all the sins of the government. Forced to take the rap at Millbank for sending out a fax suggesting a mass vote for Blair as Today's Man of the Year, she went back to nursing, where, of course, she was at the wrong end of the public spending parsimony. She was also a single mum, so hurt by the cuts in welfare payments. And her daughter was bullied at her sink school . . .

The only scenes that sparked into real life were those set around key archive footage - Harriet Harman's dismal performance against John Humphrys, defending the attack on single parents, was electrifying - or, curiously, those that focused on the workings of the BBC. Shaky on Labour, The Project's grasp of the Beeb's politics was total - and its portrayal of the popu-list working-class editor of the World at One, Kevin Marsh, was one of the best things in it.

But, unexpectedly, it was a chore to watch by the end, a soap that failed to sud. Broad satires such Rory Bremner's or Alistair Beaton's play Feelgood seem to suit this government better than this kind of realism. The sins that The Project accused Labour of seemed either trivial (rigging the Today poll), too complicated to follow (an attempt to out a Tory MP's mistress) or simply implausible, as when a thuggish male whip physically roughed up Maggie. The worrying thing is that they may all have happened, but The Project made them less rather than more easy to credit. Labour's worst excesses are, perhaps, literally unbelievable.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times