David Hare’s latest television thriller (18 October, 9pm), the title of which brings to mind rodents spread across country roads, all guts and matted fur, is extremely well-named, for it does indeed involve both much spattering and several rats. Everyone in it is paying the price for some bit of bad behaviour, their innards, metaphorically speaking, trailing behind them like bloody ropes. The message is that no one gets out of politics alive, not even those connected to it only tangentially. The civil service, the party hierarchies, the media: they’re the human equivalent of the machines used to slice loaves in a factory. You go in all fluffy and whole, only to emerge some time later, vastly reduced, looking as pale as a ghost.
But let’s get the silly stuff out of the way first. This one comes with minor notes of preposterousness that are really quite peculiar in a drama that is otherwise rather deft and exciting. At the centre of it all, for instance, is a Conservative cabinet minister called Peter Laurence (yes, Hare does Tory!) whose libertarian instincts find their ultimate home in his complicated private life. Laurence is played by Hugh Laurie, who’s brilliant in the part save for the fact that his character is supposed to have been born on the wrong side of the tracks (that’s Croydon to you). Do we buy Laurie as a barrow boy made good? I don’t, and halfway through the first episode, I noticed that he’d all but given up trying to inflect his voice with a piquant squeeze of Sarf London.
Then there’s Helen McCrory, who plays his boss, Dawn Ellison, the prime minister. Let us put aside the fact that Dawn has the poshest voice heard on television since the last series of The Crown. Even if we’re supposed to think she’s channelling Mrs Thatcher, no one wears their hair like this any more, in a wave so vast a surfboard would hardly look out of place on it. What the BBC saved when Gary Lineker took a pay cut it must have blown on McCrory’s Elnett and hot rollers. Still, in a way, it’s helpful, this barnet: at least it distracts from Roadkill’s dated, comic strip depiction of journalists (bruiser editors in horrible ties, girl reporters whose top investigations involve the deployment of their doe eyes and little else). When telly finally gets hacks right – I’m not holding my breath – I hereby vow to take the relevant writer and director for an eight-hour lunch at El Vino on expenses. Ha ha.
None of this is to say that I’m not enjoying Roadkill. I am finding it utterly delicious, like a bowl of chilli-infused olives that I cannot stop guzzling (I’m halfway through the four episodes). The overlapping connections of its myriad plots are deeply satisfying (though two car crashes within ten minutes might be pushing it in terms of incident), and I like the fact that even the smaller roles are played by the very best: Sylvestra Le Touzel as the private secretary at the Department of Justice, to which Laurence has been exiled; Saskia Reeves as his long-suffering wife; and, greatest of all, Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen fame as his mistress (the fact that his gorgeous lover is age-appropriate has made me exceedingly happy). I also relish its ambiguity. Laurence is neither decent nor charming, but he is compelling – his behaviour a reminder, perhaps, that it is wilfully stupid of us always to demand that the private life matches the public one.
Which is worse? A rampant libertarianism that brings a man to believe in prison reform, or a One Nation prime minister who, though she knows such change is vital, cares only for what voters think? I suppose we’re meant to want Laurence to be disgraced; for the plucky young reporter Charmian Pepper (Sarah Greene) to reveal him as completely corrupt. But a part of me – the part that despairs of those who only want characters to be “relatable” – longs for him to get away with it. What happens ultimately will come down, I think, to the women in his life: to his wife, his daughters, his lover, his secretary, his boss, his driver. Will they forgive him, or will they mercilessly throw him – splat! – under the nearest bus?
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic