As anyone who sat through the Danish series Borgen will know, the numbers game that is coalition-building is hardly the stuff of TV drama. There are meetings, and then more meetings. There are telephone calls, text messages and, if you’re really lucky, a little light political blackmail. Party elders loiter in corridors trying hard to impersonate owls. Civil servants glide smoothly about as if on ice. The rank and file piss and moan. And at the end of it, you get . . . what? A press conference. It’s not exactly Macbeth, is it?
Yet I was glued to Coalition (28 March, 9pm), James Graham’s mischievous account of those febrile days in May 2010 during which Frisky Nick and Cocky Dave got it together. It had two great advantages over Borgen. First, there was Graham’s writing, which nimbly reduced almost everyone to the paltry sum of their parts (in essence: ambition, ambition, ambition). Second, Coalition’s characters really exist. What fun we had trying to work out who was supposed to be whom. It was Where’s Wally? for people who watch Newsnight.
Personally, I think Chris Larkin brought far too much charisma to the role of Danny Alexander – which is saying something, given that every time he opened his mouth, out came the words “voting reform”. But elsewhere the competition was pretty hot, the cast having wisely decided to try to capture the politicians’ most essential qualities rather than simply to mimic them.
The trailer for Coalition.
I don’t believe Nick Clegg was quite the bag of nerves Bertie Carvel made him out to be, even allowing for how, in this version of events, Paddy Ashdown (Donald Sumpter) appeared to be stalking him. (If Paddy had jumped out of Miriam’s Zara-filled wardrobe in full combat gear while she was performing an intimate marital act on the leader of the Liberal Democrats, you would not, after a while, have been surprised.) But his reflexive pragmatism felt just right. Mark Dexter caught all of David Cameron’s turbocharged presumption and Ian Grieve something of Gordon Brown’s almost pitiable desperation. George Osborne is a man who seems always to be on the point of unsheathing his instinctive flashiness; in his presence, you want to take a step backwards, just in case. Sebastian Armesto, an actor who knows exactly how to deploy a sneer, replicated this effortlessly.
None of these performances could touch Mark Gatiss’s turn as Peter Mandelson. The voice, the walk, the bitchy impatience: he’d got them all. In one scene, a box of muffins was delivered to a meeting. Mandelson took one, peeled back its paper case and began delicately to pick at it. I couldn’t get over this. Several years ago, I interviewed Mandy – I’ve interrogated every politician I’ve mentioned so far, with the exception of Danny Alexander – on a train from Didcot Parkway to London, a journey during which he nibbled ostentatiously at a Pret a Manger tiffin bar, then a favourite treat of his. All I can tell you is that the two performances – Gatiss’s and Mandy’s – were so alike that it was unnerving. Gatiss had slipped beneath Mandelson’s skin, a feat at once astonishing and paradoxical when you consider the former business secretary’s unfaltering opacity.
“It’s like flirting,” Mandelson cautioned Brown, when the prime minister wondered if he shouldn’t call Clegg rather than wait for him to ring. “Desperate isn’t sexy when you’re flirting.” Naturally, Brown didn’t get this – or anything else. Every time he spoke, I wondered all over again about that unfathomable photograph of him and the future Sarah Brown having dinner in a Soho restaurant. Mandelson and Harriet Harman (Deborah Findlay) were reduced to holding up encouraging cue cards when he did finally reach Clegg on the phone and while I can’t believe that Harman would, in reality, have been much help in this situation – another ex-interviewee of mine, she is, alarmingly, only marginally less gauche than Brown – this scene got to me. A light came on. It is, after all, in such moments that governments are created. Or not. Manners, empathy, a certain kind of personal warmth: in a few weeks’ time, these are the qualities of which our hapless politicians will be in sorest need once the votes have been counted. Given what we know of them, it’s impossible not to tremble at the thought.