Thirty minutes into Partygate on Channel 4, and it occurred to me that if the entire population of Britain – or even half the population – were to watch it, there would be a revolution. Naturally, this soon passed; whatever its eventual ratings, doubtless we will all sleep on regardless, snoring our way to the next election and beyond. But still, it was there for a moment: the fleeting fire born of well-crafted art, and a couple of the excellent Ophelia Lovibond’s more de haut en bas smiles. This film by Joseph Bullman, who writes and directs, is surprisingly affective. Don’t be taken in by its slight, rather flimsy appearance. It made me angrier than I’ve felt for ages. It also made me weep.
Bullman makes some good decisions. First, we never see Boris Johnson face on; we only hear his voice, the work of Jon Culshaw, of Dead Ringers fame. No worries, then, about wobbly impersonations (a problem with Michael Winterbottom’s Covid 19 series, This England, in which Kenneth Branagh played the former prime minister). Second, while actors are mostly playing real people – Lee Cain (Craig Parkinson), the former Downing Street director of communications, and Mark Sedwill (Anthony Calf), the former cabinet secretary, are among the roles – Bullman has also invented several characters. One, Annabel (Lovibond), is posh, and entirely without conscience; the other, Grace (Georgie Henley), is not posh, and has some scruples, even if it takes her a while to locate them. These two effectively narrate events and, together, they frame the action, playing out a moral dilemma that would otherwise go unspoken.
Third, Bullman punctuates the drama with documentary clips, in which real people describe to camera some of the things that happened to them during the lockdown: the funerals missed, the last goodbyes said on Zoom, the extreme loneliness and isolation. One man speaks of a lockdown fine he’ll never be able to pay. The contrast between these moments and the unbridled entitlement inside No 10 makes Partygate unexpectedly shocking. Unless you read every word of the Sue Gray report (the 2022 investigation by the then senior civil servant into the breaking of lockdown rules in Downing Street), and most of us didn’t, this will be the first time you will properly grasp the extent of the bad behaviour.
Prosecco o’clock was only the half of it (though it seems to be a bottle of Veuve Clicquot from which Annabel swigs): here is the vomiting, the discos, the illicit sex, the little packets of white powder that were found the morning after the night before by the long-suffering cleaners. “Are you the stripper-gram?” shouts some hooray at a policeman who tries to break up one of the 14 parties that were held in Downing Street during the lockdowns – a line that has a certain veracity, irrespective of whether Sue Gray noted it in her little black book. It’s as if No 10 is an Oxbridge college, and every night is a freshers’ bop. Forget levelling up. Let’s all pogo to Bonnie Tyler in the cabinet room instead!
Ah yes, levelling up. Grace is from the north-east, and for some crazed reason really believes (at least at first) that Johnson is about to make Newcastle – and perhaps Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, too – great again, a Costa coffee on every corner. Bullman is savage, though, when it comes to class. With the exception of Grace, the other young aides all know each other from “your think tanks” and, before that, university and public school. Hugh Skinner (of W1A fame) plays a particularly chinless aide called Josh Fitzmaurice, who informs her that, yes, he’s sure Durham will soon be like, er, Cheltenham (he’s pissed, but this doesn’t make him any more stupid; in fact, it may make him more articulate). Grace tells him about her granddad, who used to work in a steel mill. She can just see the old man down the pub with Boris Johnson. “Yeah, what a ledge,” says Josh, whose adoration of Johnson is unbridled and semi-erotic. When the massed ranks of aides sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to the PM on the occasion of his birthday, Josh sings so hard, he looks like he might be about to give himself a hernia.
Josh, though, is just a representative of the wider malaise. It’s as if a spell has been cast over Downing Street. The wildness, the debauchery, the absolute state of the place. Johnson is the pied piper, and all these rich, lucky, young people are the rats. Many of us formed bubbles during the pandemic, but theirs is the size of one of the domes at the Eden Project: the Bullingdon Club, with girls and a bit of light Brexit speak. Everyone’s hypnotised, not only by the prime minister (go figure), but by their own importance. “They’re not meant for us,” Annabel says of the rules everyone outside must follow – those people who, not having been to public school or ever having been a Spad, apparently need “boundaries”. Grace, though, is increasingly unsure about this. Spending Christmas alone in her flat – she fears giving Covid to her family – has cleared her mind. Not even Annabel’s charm works on her any more. Why is that memory stick attached to her computer? What manner of shiftiness shadows her youthful face? To pinch a line from Lee Cain, substantial comms risks incoming.
Channel 4, 3 October, 9.30pm