Notebook - Rosie Millard

Our actors are queueing up to play former politicians - but only on the small screen

We can't get enough of our old politicians. It seems that, once they give up performing in the real world, they enter a twilight zone where they continue to operate in the realm of television drama - if their story is good enough. Recently, Harold Wilson has popped up in the shoes of Kenneth Cranham on BBC4 and James Bolam on BBC2, and next we are to be treated to the great Derek Jacobi playing the Chilean dictator General Pinochet, with Anna Massey doing a superb turn as his devoted ally Lady Thatcher. Pinochet in Suburbia, which screens on BBC2 at 9pm on Sunday 26 March, also features actors of the calibre of Michael Maloney (playing Jack Straw), Phyllida Law as Pinochet's wife, Lucia, Peter Capaldi as the head of Amnesty UK, and the comic Jessica Stevenson as a policewoman assigned to look after the general during his lengthy house arrest on the Wentworth estate, Surrey.

This sort of drama is conventionally known as low-budget, but Pinochet in Suburbia, with its swanky cast, multiple locations and special effects, looks very glossy, and has a budget somewhere in the region of £800,000-£900,000. It is the sort of money that could have almost funded a half-decent British independent feature film.

Richard Curson Smith, who wrote, directed and produced Pinochet in Suburbia, considers that British TV dramas can score over cinematic presentations because our small screen is so much more reliable than our silver screen. "Uncertain financing is the problem with British films. They can suddenly all fall through. It is very difficult if you have asked actors to commit a couple of months to a project which then all comes crashing down."

Equally, big stars are amenable to invitations to work on the box; in fact, they might welcome a call from a television company a bit more than the big hello from Pinewood Studios. Previous Curson Smith dramas have starred Olivia Williams and Antony Sher, actors one might have thought would be too lofty for television. "I don't think British films have the range of interest that television drama can offer," says Curson Smith. "Costume dramas are very thin on the ground. And big actors can see that, at the moment, television drama is up for doing something interesting."

Even so, personifying a public figure on the small screen is testing for anyone other than the NS columnist Rory Bremner. And one might have thought that Jacobi playing Pinochet would be quite a hurdle. Jacobi in an Elizabethan ruff, yes; Jacobi in a toga, absolutely. But in the martial uniform of Chile? "Big actors often say, 'Why me? I don't look or sound like that person,'" says Curson Smith. "But as James Bolam showed playing Wilson, what matters is the soul beneath the skin.

"A mimetic performance isn't the most important thing. That was the certainly the case when Mark Rylance played David Kelly in The Government Inspector. Rylance looked nothing like Kelly. But he made Kelly's inner life come through very strongly."

Indeed, so subtle is Jacobi's portrayal of Pinochet that Curson Smith admits that, during the sequences when the old dictator manages to avoid extradition on health grounds, he wasn't sure if Jacobi was acting Pinochet acting sick, or playing a truly weary, ailing old man. It's that ambivalence which takes this film out of the realms of reconstruction and into the territory of real drama.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Trident