Andrew Billen - Love is blind

Television - With Blunkett back in action, satire struggles to outdo reality, writes Andrew Billen

Had things been saner, we might have watched Alistair Beaton's satire on David Blunkett's love life - broadcast in a celebratory manner on the launch night of More4, Channel 4's new digi-channel (10 October) - with a guilty conscience. Events ensured, however, that we were not kicking a man who was down and out, but rather someone all too evidently up and about. Back in the cabinet with indecent haste after the election, our new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was quickly sniffing round Annabel's looking for action. History repeats itself the second time as farce only if its first outing was not already unsurpassably comic.

In embarking this year on his merci- less attack on the disgraced Blunkett, Beaton demonstrated more judgement than luck. The author of Feelgood, a stage satire on Tony Blair's first term, knows his enemy. Blair was not going to sacrifice his old Labour merkin permanently, any more than he has been able to wean himself from his fix of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. Equally, Blunkett was too pig-headed and harboured too good an opinion of himself to learn his lesson. Beaton has described the moral of A Very Social Secretary as "goodbye champagne socialists, hello champagne socialites", and the film sent up a government addicted not only to power but to its most vacuous trappings: Blair to Tuscan holidays, Cherie to the celebrity carnival, and Blunkett to posh totty (or "love", as he called it).

Nevertheless, to ensure we laughed with an easy conscience - and laugh I did - Beaton presented Blunkett in a politically as well as personally unfavourable light: illiberal and intolerant. The first scene placed him at his constituency surgery shooing off a woman's complaints about her disability benefit on the grounds of her corpulence. At the end, a loyal party worker travelled from Sheffield to London to return her Labour membership card: she would, she said, tear it up, but it is plastic, "like everything else about the party".

Bernard Hill played Blunkett so well that at times the film looked more like a drama-documentary than a satire. He captured the former home secretary's narcissism, but also his social vulnerability as a northerner who laughs pre-emptively at his own jokes, knowing they are unlikely to amuse his sophisticated southern colleagues (when he found a posh woman who purportedly found him funny, he was dead meat). His blindness is part of his vulnerability. Blunkett can never, for instance, be sure how many people are in a room. But although Beaton could not resist his farceur's instinct - at one point an aide bundled Blunkett into a women's loo to avoid a collision with his lover's husband - blindness also serves as a metaphor. In a moment that was almost poignant, Blunkett and his increasingly disillusioned mistress, Kimberly Quinn, were walking in Derbyshire: she took one path, he, led by his dog, took another.

Shakespeare - because he was Shakespeare - managed to prevent Othello's dolt-headed sexual misunderstandings from descending into farce. Beaton did not even try to do Blunkett the same favour. Nevertheless, thanks to Hill, there was something pathetic in Blunkett's misreading of the romance with Quinn, as when, rebuffed sexually, he suggested going to bed with her just to "cuddle up". "It's not an affair. You make it sound so cheap," he berated Blair. "I'm in love, for God's sake." "That's terrific," his prime minister replied tepidly, Robert Lindsay providing a bar-raising Blair impression.

Victoria Hamilton as Quinn had the tougher job, attempting to lend credibility to a woman so lacking in compassion, judgement and morality as to make Lady Macbeth look worthy of kindly reappraisal. Beaton handed her one human motive. In a dust-up in a car park she berates her husband for not supplying her, at 41, with a child. Her response is to get laid extramurally, a tactic that serves the double purpose of assisting her social climbing. Her mistake is to think that Blunkett's motives are as base as her own and that, after "a quick servicing", he will happily return to his red boxes. She for-gets that Blunkett has known power for decades and that the novelty he craves is love. As obsessive as an adolescent, he writes her a love poem in Braille and later turns his sentimentality towards his child. In a neat visual metaphor, Quinn furiously stuffs the outsize teddy bear he sends him on his second birthday into a plastic dustbin, beating it down with a garden spade.

The real-life Blunkett affair was, and is, such a rich saga that Beaton seemed at times defeated by reality. He winced over some of its more egregiously embarrassing scenes, including Blunkett's karaoke rendering of "Pick Yourself Up". As if to steady himself, the dramatist resorted to some broader comedy - sheep-shagging, foul-mouthed spin-doctors - which was not all that funny. He even inserted a token good person, a young female adviser who resigns in disgust. But Beaton trium-phantly achieved what he had to. By the end, no disinterested viewer could think he had been too hard on his victims. A Very Social Secretary was the best argument against third terms I've heard.

A Very Social Secretary is repeated on 20 October, 9pm, Channel 4

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times