David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve). Photo: Channel 4
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The Coalition will be televised: behind the scenes of Channel 4’s drama about May 2010

James Graham’s film about the formation of the coalition is an impressively human portrayal of constitutional torment.

James Graham’s captivating drama about the coalition’s formation starts off as satire and ends as an opera. It is the young playwright’s eye for detail and evident reams of source material that allow for such an astute commentary, and human portrayal, of how the Tory/Lib Dem coalition was cobbled together in 2010.

Those now infamous “five days in May” when the hung parliament flung our political leaders into pressured negotiations are the perfect basis for a tragicomedy. Fatal flaws, sad endings, and tentative beginnings make for a gripping rendition of a drama that took place at the time firmly behind closed doors.

Ian Grieve explores Gordon Brown's wounded pride. Photo: Channel 4

Graham, the playwright behind the National Theatre’s hit This House, which portrayed another precarious government – Jim Callaghan’s wobbly rule from 1976-79 – has written a balanced and exhaustively researched film about the dramatic 11th-hour coalition negotiations with both the Tories and Labour from Nick Clegg’s perspective.

“The personalities, clashes, the farcical nature of some of it, the loss of dignity – it was characterful and weird,” Graham tells me, when asked why he chose to dramatise this subject. “The lack of sleep, the pressure, and exhaustion make it exciting . . . It's really important to me to try and humanise them.”

And he succeeds. Although Graham insists “it is not a priority to change people’s political opinions,” he does inspire “empathy towards politicians” with his characters’ portrayal of the main players in the negotiations. “There’s this presumption that they’re all corrupt and incompetent – but I’d love people to empathise with the incredible situation.”

Watch the trailer:


Coalition is masterfully unbiased; the one clear lesson to the audience is that our politicians are humans. And this is conveyed with passion by the actors. Ian Grieve’s Gordon Brown is a boorish, ham-fisted mountain of dignity and wounded pride. Bertie Carvel’s Nick Clegg sets tentatively out on a journey from gauche newcomer, biting his lip at disappointed father figure Paddy Ashdown’s lamentations, to reluctantly ruthless pragmatist. Mark Dexter, whose uncannily Cameronesque features mean he’s also playing who he now calls “Dave” in The Audience stage play, portrays the Prime Minister’s superficial confidence and latent unease with eerie accuracy.

But the star turn is Mark Gatiss as a darkly frivolous Peter Mandelson. Gripping Brown’s knee in tender warning, when the then PM roars about “progressive alliance” in a blundering attempt to woo Clegg; casually texting the Lib Dems under the table in icy coalition negotiations; nodding menacingly that he had secretly scrambled trade union activists to protest against the Lib Dems working with Tories; suggesting lightly that the secret tunnel he and Brown wade through beneath Downing Street during the dying whisper of the Labour government is a “metaphor”: Gatiss has the macabre silliness spot on.

Bertie Carvel plays Nick Clegg, nervous and ambitious. Photo: Channel 4

And all these beautiful inside details that will fascinate Westminster insiders and Saturday night audiences alike are the result of Graham’s extensive research. “I was just really cheeky and sent loads of emails,” he says.

“When I began researching this, I just began asking whether I could come and meet people. So we met a range of people across the political spectrum – Labour, Tory, Lib Dems, and also members of the civil service – and luckily, for whatever reason, I'm not sure why, they were all pretty keen to get their side of the story across,” he grins. “Obviously it's a drama, so the conversations happening behind closed doors were imagined by me.”

He tells me he found Paddy Ashdown, the first person he met when preparing to write the piece, particularly useful. “He had that passion, that love of emotion – which drove me from that point on. That the situation was high stakes in a personal sense. He described to me the tears shed in that final meeting [of Clegg with the Lib Dem MPs ahead of entering government]. The human emotion.”

Mark Dexter looks uncannily like David Cameron. Photo: Channel 4

Graham also found George Osborne – who invited him to No 11 – a great help. And this might have informed the mischievous puppet master behind Cameron’s quavering leadership that is the soon-to-be-Chancellor in this production.

“I did sense from him [Osborne] an enjoyment about what went on in these few days,” says Graham. “I found him to have a twinkle in his eye when he told me some of these stories, and he, like a lot of people, saw it as a poker game, and I think he was very pleased with some of the moves they pulled in order to get into power.”

Gatiss too is clearly fascinated by the machinations behind the scenes. “An important thing for me was the realisation that as a punter you don't know the half of it. We make so many assumptions about politicians from what we see.”

A self-confessed “politics junkie”, the Sherlock actor says, “I hate the idea that people tar politicians all with the same brush. They get no credit and all of the blame. Really they’re rounded human beings full of foibles, contradictions.”

He has long been fascinated by Mandelson, and yearned to play him. He views his much-loved part Mycroft, Sherlock's brother, as a "Mandelsonian figure". "I find figures like Mandelson really fascinating," he tells me. "He's funny, bright, flirtatious, silly really. He's having a good time because he's been called back to the fray."

The three leaders stand awkwardly during VE Day after the election. Photo: Channel 4

Gatiss would love to "carry on forever" playing Mandelson, chuckling, "I think he's always going to be with us." He would also "certainly like to play more politicians; I'd love to do a film about Attlee; he's an amazing man, probably the best prime minister we've ever had".

Like Graham, he doesn't want to change the politics of his audience, but would like to put our politicians in a new, more relatable, light: "You can be diametrically opposed to someone's politics but you can still find something within the person that can appeal to you on some tragic level, a fatal flaw. It's not too much to push these Shakespearean analogies because these are the big stories.

"And that's certainly for me personally what I've always loved about politics. You can change the personalities, you can change the personnel, but essentially it's always the same story. We now call them prime ministers, but it's essentially still the king and queen. There are courts, there are favourites, there are exiles, and there are those who want revenge."

Mark Gatiss captures the macabre silliness of Peter Mandelson. Photo: Channel 4

Graham speaks of the story as “Shakespearean”, as does Grieve, who describes playing Brown as a “mix of Macbeth with King Lear, and there's elements of Henry V. You can apply any number of the history plays or the tragedies to any of these situations because they're so well observed.”

Carvel was also attracted to the drama of the story. "I read the script voraciously and made a beeline for [playing] Clegg," he tells me. "Because I think his story is so dramatic – he was at the crux of the drama. The fact he's emerged as a traitor and pariah is really unfair . . . I will watch him next time round [this May] with empathy."

Gatiss emphasises this theatrical dimension of the figures involved in coalition wrangling: “It's the same story throughout history; it's the struggle for the crown. That's what gives it the classical dimension. You can change the clothes and everything, people don't get killed as often, but actually it's the same thing and that's what gives it the heroic, melancholy dimension as well as all the cut and thrust of it.”

Coalition is on Channel 4 on Saturday at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The private renting sector enables racist landlords like Fergus Wilson

A Kent landlord tried to ban "coloured people" from his properties. 

Fergus Wilson, a landlord in Kent, has made headlines after The Sun published his email to a letting agent which included the line: "No coloured people because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy."

When confronted, the 70-year-old property owner only responded with the claim "we're getting overloaded with coloured people". The letting agents said they would not carry out his orders, which were illegal. 

The combination of blatant racism, a tired stereotype and the outdated language may make Wilson seem suspiciously like a Time Landlord who has somehow slipped in from 1974. But unfortunately he is more modern than he seems.

Back in 2013, a BBC undercover investigation found 10 letting agent firms willing to discriminate against black tenants at the landlord's request. One manager was filmed saying: "99% of my landlords don't want Afro-Caribbeans."

Under the Equality Act 2010, this is illegal. But the conditions of the private renting sector allow discrimination to flourish like mould on a damp wall. 

First, discrimination is common in flat shares. While housemates or live-in landlords cannot turn away a prospective tenant because of their race, they can express preferences of gender and ethnicity. There can be logical reasons for this - but it also provides useful cover for bigots. When one flat hunter in London protested about being asked "where do your parents come from?", the landlord claimed he just wanted to know whether she was Christian.

Second, the private rental sector is about as transparent as a landlord's tax arrangements. A friend of mine, a young professional Indian immigrant, enthusiastically replied to house share ads in the hope of meeting people from other cultures. After a month of responding to three or four room ads a day, he'd had just six responses. He ended up sharing with other Indian immigrants.

My friend suspected he'd been discriminated against, but he had no way of proving it. There is no centrally held data on who flatshares with who (the closest proxy is SpareRoom, but its data is limited to room ads). 

Third, the current private renting trends suggest discrimination will increase, rather than decrease. Landlords hiked rents by 2.1 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics, an indication of high demand. SpareRoom has recorded as many as 22 flat hunters chasing a single room. In this frenzy, it only becomes harder for prospective tenants to question the assertion "it's already taken". 

Alongside this demand, the government has introduced legislation which requires landlords to check that tenants can legitimately stay in the UK. A report this year by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that half of landlords were less likely to rent to foreign nationals as a result of the scheme. This also provides handy cover for the BTL bigot - when a black British tenant without a passport asked about a room, 58 per cent of landlords ignored the request or turned it down

Of course, plenty of landlords are open-minded, unbiased and unlikely to make a tabloid headline anytime soon. They most likely outnumber the Fergus Wilsons of this world. But without any way of monitoring discrimination in the private rental sector, it's impossible to know for sure. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.