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3 February 2015updated 20 Aug 2021 7:52am

Emergency duvets, sword pegs and the “Plastic Fantastic”: review of Inside the Commons

Will the first instalment of Michael Cockerell’s documentary series given unprecedented access to parliament horrify or mollify voters?

By Anoosh Chakelian

“It looks half like a museum, half like a church and half like a school”.

David Cameron’s description of the parliamentary buildings tells us a great deal about the grandeur of his education – and the poverty of his maths.

It’s these unguarded, often gauche, comments to camera from top politicians and longstanding staff members down to backbench newbies that make Michael Cockerell’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Inside the Commons, so telling.

It took six years for Cockerell and his team to persuade parliament to let cameras in where they are usually forbidden, and the result of this unprecedented access to the crumbling corridors of power reveals both the touchingly human and terrifyingly alien side of British political life.

So unusual was it for filming to be taking place in the chamber that a handful of cantankerous right-wing Tories – known as “berserkers”, or “MPs on the naughty bench”, as Cockerell puts it – hatched a plot to knock the cameraman in the Commons over to halt proceedings.

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Cameras aren’t permitted in the Commons chamber; some Tory MPs planned to knock the documentary cameraman over to get rid of him. Photo: BBC Pictures/Atlantic Productions

The cameras defied this “small Salon des Refusés” of reluctant MPs and managed to stay the course of the four-part fly-on-the-wall series in the Palace of Westminster, including a drone that buzzed around the rafters taking unique panning shots of Big Ben and parliament’s rooftops.

But amid the neo-Gothic magnificence are the banal, bizarre, and often frustrating realities of a career in parliament, and these are the most compelling stories. The first episode follows two young female MPs grappling with their new working environment.

Sarah Champion, the lively Labour MP for Rotherham, displays airy bafflement when told she has “unparliamentary hair” and perseveres with the convoluted and often intimidating task of an opposition backbencher attempting to amend a piece of government legislation. Her triumph at eventually achieving a new rule to protect children from grooming shows the sheer effort it takes to overcome the sclerotic and archaic parliamentary legislative process.

Her fellow traveller, Charlotte Leslie, Tory MP for Bristol North West, is also seen struggling to get to grips with the system. We follow her from late-night votes – she has an emergency office duvet – to applying to ask a PMQ (about 300 backbenchers apply each week). Her nerves when she’s at last chosen to put the first question to the Prime Minister mark the moment in this programme when the Commons suddenly becomes relatable. “Don’t cock up, don’t cock up, don’t cock up”, she chants, like everyone does at some point in their working life.

It took months of negotiating for the team to use a drone to film unique shots above parliament. Photo: BBC screengrab

Although Cockerell emphasised that the series is not intended to cover the “usual suspects” of politics, we do see Leslie’s nerves echoed by both Cameron and Ed Miliband. “Oh, have I got to do this again?” whimpers the PM ahead of PMQs, and speaks of the “total fear and trepidation” he feels. The Labour leader describes parliament as “intimidating” and laughs about his own terror at the weekly Commons stand-off.

Our politicians’ foibles and fears are reflected in the dilapidated state of the buildings we are shown around by the stoic House of Commons clerk, Sir Robert Rogers: “How to run a 21st-century parliament in a mock Gothic palace that is falling apart at the seams?” The filming soon cuts to some awestruck abseilers dangling in front of the Great Clock face, nose-to-nose with its grubby exterior.

A trailer for Inside the Commons. Video: BBC

The documentary also offers an intriguing insight into the lives of parliamentary staff, whether they are ferrying bills back and forth in frock coats and winged collars or, like Gladys in the “Holy of Holies” tearoom, opening the curtains to the inner sanctum at 7am, or sniffer dogs scampering over the green benches on Budget day morning.

Such untold stories will paint parliament as more engaging to viewing voters than the in-jokey Westminster whimsy – like the PM’s ringbinder being dubbed the “Plastic Fantastic”, former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy discovering special sword pegs in a cloakroom, or the Lego-haired MP Michael Fabricant reminiscing about the finery once worn by members of parliament. The more baffled and nervous politicians seem in this environment, the more trustworthy they probably are.

Behind-the-scenes stories, like this one about Gladys the steward, are what keep this documentary compelling. Video: BBC

Inside the Commons begins on 3 February at 9pm on BBC2

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