Funnyman for all seasons

Television - Rory Bremner's winter special on life under new Labour charms Andrew Billen

Satire, when it works, never needs an excuse, but it can have several worthwhile, socially redemptive functions. Its instinctive ridiculing of power is one. Its exaggeration of the already perceived moral failings of our betters is another. But perhaps the most important is what one might call the Hamlet Method: alerting us, by means of comic subversion, to something rotten in the state. The Rory Bremner special My Government and I (Channel 4, 19 November) performed the last of these tasks expertly. The narrative of this one-off, one-hour comedy drama about the madness of King Blair span off by the end into fantasy, with T B and Clinton taking a space shuttle to Venus (a trajectory that I'm sure allowed new Labour to breathe more easily again), but its first half was all too telling.

It depicted a vain but insecure prime minister who, devoid of conviction himself, was in thrall to the chimerical certainties offered by his chief courtiers: Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, and Philip Gould, his private poll-reader. The Campbell dynamic was a reprise of the "hidden-camera" scenes pioneered in Bremner's May special, Blair Did It All Go Wrong?, in which Andrew Dunn's Campbell was a bully who had persuaded Blair that to govern was to lean on the media - and that no one had a heavier forearm than him. Michael Cockerell's documentary on Campbell a few months later revealed that both Dunn's impersonation and this description of their relationship were spot on.

By the new show, Dunn's Campbell had filled the vacuum at the heart of power and was answering the No 10 phone with the words, "Prime Minister, speaking". Whatever else you could say about this Rottweiler - a Rottweiler, incidentally, allergic to dogs: hence the expletives he hurled at the Queen's corgies - you could not doubt his focus. In comparison, his master was a yuppie lightweight who, as the pair drove up the Mall to Buckingham Palace, wondered: "How much do you think this place is worth?" Campbell's frustration with his titular boss was understandable. "What do you want me to do, Tony?" he asked. "I want you to tell me what to do. That's what I want you to do!"

Blair made subtly different demands of Gould: he wanted to know from him what to think, reasoning that leadership was impossible unless he knew what others already thought. As Gould, David Bamber turned in an extraordinary performance - a sinister, oleaginous tigger who browbeat the premier with statistics about him being thought out-of-touch, remote and boring. "It's fascinating stuff," Gould said, flicking his flip chart. "Useful?" When Jon Snow (in a slightly embarrassing cameo) asked Blair about the latest leaked demolition job from Gould's focus groups, he replied: "Frankly, a lot of memos are a lot worse than that and, frankly, if they weren't telling me that I'd be worried." The masochism leapt from the screen with the charge of a true psychological insight.

Bremner's two specials this year have marked huge progress for an impressionist whose material has, for years, left us thinking that he was considerably less clever than his mimicry. Intriguingly, like Blair, although with much more positive results, Bremner has fallen under the spell of two advisers - in his case, the veteran satirists John Bird and John Fortune. Their contributions as performers to this week's film were slight (although they lit up the screen with their wizened, public school cynicism each time they did appear), but their influence on Bremner in focusing on the detail of politics has been enormous over the past five years. Bremner gracefully acknowledged as much when he renamed his series Bremner, Bird and Fortune.

The result is that the most interesting aspects of Bremner's programmes are no longer his impressions, but their ideas. The technical virtuosity can, in fact, easily be forgotten. In one scene in My Government and I, Brown, Blair and Mandelson, all of them played by Bremner, sat in Cabinet as a Steadicam tracked between them - but you had to consciously remind yourself of the wizardry, so captivating was the bitching between Brown and Mandy. In general, when you found yourself congratulating Bremner on nailing a new impression - the twitchy, pompous Cook, for example - it meant the script had hit a weak point.

When Bremner does Blair, however, you accept his mimicry without thinking twice. He has reached the same stage with Prince Charles, a mad GM-crop wrecker who lectures the nation on the hallowed social order: "A society in which no one knows his place is - it seems to me - one in which we are all displaced . . ."

Bremner was understandably miffed when Channel 4, pleading budgets and the cost of Big Brother, cancelled this season's run of his shows, but this film was made with such care and flair that it made one wonder if part of what was wrong with Bremner's previous programmes was the sketch format itself. A Bremner special is still not exactly an event, but it is becoming a treat for political connoisseurs. This was one to videotape and keep safe so that your grandchildren might one day understand how strangely we were once governed.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth