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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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