The Lion and the Unicorn

Television - Andrew Billen enjoys an all-too-plausible dramatisation of the Blair-Brown relationship

According to The Deal (Channel 4, 28 September), there never was a deal, only an assumption by Gordon Brown about his eventual Assumption. My old news editor used to say: "Never assume; it makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me'." As something of a journalist himself - scribbling newspaper tributes to John Smith on 12 May 1994 while Tony Blair was busy squaring Peter Mandelson - Brown should have known better.

"Much of what follows is true," warned a caption at the beginning (quoting from Butch Cassidy), but Stephen Frears's dramatisation of how Blair eclipsed Brown to become Labour leader carried the whiff of likelihood throughout. The story was, as it always is, about character. The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown. The lion was Brown, a powerful, growling presence even in repose, king of the jungle in waiting, so sure of his right to rule that he was willing to bide his time. The unicorn was Blair, agile, nervy and impatient but the one with the magic.

The film took us from Labour's electoral disaster of 1983, the year both men entered the Commons, up to that fateful supper at Granita, where Tony ordered the rabbit and polenta and another glass of wine and Gordon grunted that he'd just have water. Eleven years earlier they had been friends, sharing an office, developing mild crushes on each other and performing a puckish double act in committee. Brown started off as Blair's hero rather than the other way round, but no man is a hero to his office mate for long. Brown's mistake was to remain too long Blair's apologist.

The private dialogue naturally had to be invented and, with all the resources of dramatic irony at his disposal, the writer, Peter Morgan, layered every line he could with auguries and ambiguities. Early on, Brown tells Blair: "You're going every bit as far on this journey as me. I'll make sure of that." Blair replies: "Only one of us can go all the way." Brown: "Which one is that?" Blair: "The one who has Labour leader written all over him." But the writing changed. By the end, Labour did not need a leader who knew every verse of "The Red Flag" but a celebrity. Brown may have been the real thing but Tony, as Mandy said, was box office.

Yet the film was not, for me at least, the hatchet job on Blair that has been widely described. Nor did it make the case that Brown would have made the better leader. All it indicated was that, on the Buggins's turn principle, Brown deserved it - or would have done, had not Buggins and his principle been long ago retired to a TUC rest home. In David Morrissey's brilliant portrayal, Brown was terribly clever but, to coin a phrase, emotionally flawed: uncommunicative, secretive, obtuse and complacent, really at home only on the 1.25 from King's Cross to Edinburgh, trading whisky-charged cynicisms with the Scottish old guard led by John Smith himself. During the succession squabble, he is shown on TV making a ranting speech, his face washed out, his lips scarlet with unreconstructed passion. "What does it mean?" asks Blair. Mandelson says it means nothing.

So, if anyone is stitched up by The Deal (as opposed to a deal), it is Brown. Blair, although Michael Sheen played up his Bambi, effeminate side, came out looking sharper, making better jokes, possessing greater political timing and deeper resources of realism. The only complaint against him in dramatic terms was that he was not a "real" Scot, which is to say, not real Labour (but so what?). As for the last supper at Granita, if Blair did say something to the effect that he would not make Margaret Thatcher's mistake and go on for ever, Brown, the master of detail, should have demanded when "for ever" meant.

Morgan, despite all his research, may have got the non-deal entirely wrong. I hope not, for anyone who watched his version will find it hard to disbelieve, so convincing was the execution not only by Sheen and Morrissey but by Frears as director, who did an uncanny job blending his actors in with news footage. At the end, when we saw the real Tony and Gordon on College Green, we barely noticed they were not Sheen and Morrissey.

It was a pity the smaller parts were so neglected. Frank Kelly was a genial Smith, but did not quite get his canniness (and Smith's family will surely not have enjoyed seeing this cholesterol victim consuming so much junk food). Dexter Fletcher gave a wonderfully uncouth Charlie Whelan, Brown's spin-doctor, but Paul Rhys's Mandelson was a missed opportunity - he needed to up the sinister a lot; the only moment Mandy really lived was when Whelan remarked, "That man smells of vanilla." The women were particularly poorly drawn, with Elizabeth Berrington play-ing Lady Macbeth rather than Cherie and Valerie Edmond given nothing to work with as Brown's girlfriend Sheena McDonald (who, take my word for it, is not the sort of woman meekly to spend her free time answering her man's phone, even if he is Gordon Brown). But as a story about the shifts in power in a friendship, as an illumination of the truth that in politics there are no friends only rivals, and as a record of the richly deserved death of old Labour, The Deal was about as good, and probably as close, as television has yet got.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times