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10 June 2016

In the BBC’s Reg, we see the story of the man who took on Tony Blair over Iraq

Plus: gently but genuinely funny sitcom Mum.

By Rachel Cooke

Kevin Doyle, the brilliant British actor, has enjoyed a good run of late, his stint as Joseph Molesley in Downton Abbey having been followed by the role of DS John Wadsworth in Happy Valley, a part he played with such shifty aplomb that he deserves to pick up a Bafta come awards time. So it was surprising to find him in Reg (6 June, 9pm), Jimmy McGovern’s latest agitprop-cum-family-drama, appearing as a character listed in the credits only as “returning officer”.

Poor old Doyle, I thought, pondering the patchy life of the jobbing British character actor. One minute, you’re stealing a scene from Sarah Lancashire; the next, you’re playing some nameless local government official with only half a dozen lines.

Then again, this particular nameless government official turned out to be the hero of the hour. Perhaps Doyle’s fleeting appearance was a measure of the producers’ regard, rather than a commentary on his need to work. As McGovern had it – and I’ve no reason to disbelieve his version of events – it was thanks to this man and him only that on the night of the 2005 general election Reg Keys, having stood as an independent anti-war candidate in Sedgefield, the prime minister’s own constituency, was finally able to confront Tony Blair over the death of his son. Convention had it that only the top three candidates got to address the crowd and Keys had come a close fourth. But then, as Blair’s victory was announced, something happened: a last-minute shift in protocol. Doyle’s character, in a crisis of what seemed to be conscience, gave Keys’s agent an encouraging half-nod, and there it was: the green light. Speak, man. Now’s your chance. 

No one who was watching then will ever forget what followed. Keys talked plainly and movingly of his son, Lance Corporal Tom Keys, a military policeman who was murdered by an Iraqi mob in 2003, while the prime minister looked fixedly into the middle distance. It was excruciating, for many different reasons – though what amazes me now, looking back (and forward to next month’s Chilcot inquiry report), is that Keys polled so few votes, not so many. Surely, there is a lesson in this decent man of conviction being unable to do better against a politician so supposedly reviled as Blair, even if it’s not one that the Corbynites are willing to learn.

Keys, a retired ambulance driver from Birmingham, was played by Tim Roth, and his wife, Sally, by Anna Maxwell Martin. I loved Roth’s performance. It was so natural, and yet there was such charisma in it. His quietness was no actorly patina; it felt rich, silted up. The scene in which he unscrewed the lid on his son’s coffin, the better to examine his wounds for himself, was a masterclass in withheld emotion; he would not cry, and so we saw him braced like a man in a high wind on the edge of a cliff. Only the sight of his head suddenly dropping told us the extent of the punishment Tom’s body had taken. McGovern, I think, too often writes to an agenda; plot and character are less important to him than the issues at hand, for which reason his writing can seem a bit preachy. But Roth’s performance quietened his engine on this occasion. It was them we heard, not the creaking levers.

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Mum (Fridays, 10pm) must rank as one of the worst (meaning stupid, plaintive, cloying-sounding) ever sitcom ­titles. Which is a shame, because it’s actually wonderful: gently but genuinely funny, and full of utterly winning performances. Written by Stefan Golaszewski (Him and Her), it’s about Cathy (Lesley Manville), newly widowed, and the various lovable (and not-so-lovable) fools that populate her Essex semi – her daffy son, Jason (Sam Swainsbury), and his even daffier girlfriend, Kelly (Lisa McGrillis); her hopeless brother, Derek (Ross Boatman), and his snobbish girlfriend, Pauline (Dorothy Atkinson) – and Cathy’s husband’s friend Michael (Peter Mullan), who is secretly in love with her. Everything about it is right and true, and somehow this brings out the best in us, the audience. I root for them as if for my own batty relatives. Oh, let them be happy, I think, as they paddle uncomprehendingly through the puddles of their lives. 

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe