My favourite scene in Party Animals comes in the middle of the first episode when we are just getting to know the two brothers at the heart of the action. Scott Foster, a professionally cynical lobbyist, returns home from a cocaine-fuelled night in Shoreditch to find his geeky younger brother Danny, a parliamentary researcher, curled up on his sofa fast asleep – clutching a copy of his latest work on educational opportunities for young offenders. As Scott bends over to tuck a duvet around his brother, he shoots him a glance of protective affection, but the look is also infused with admiration for Danny’s ardent political commitment. It’s a shamelessly sentimental scene, but somehow Andrew Buchan, who plays Scott, manages to express something of the reality of life in Westminster with a single glance. Most young people who enter this world do so, incredibly enough, because they are idealists who want to make the world a better place.
Usually, political drama – from Yes, Minister and The Thick of It to The Project – shows Lon-don SW1 as a morality-free zone. Clearly politicians don’t help matters in this regard, the latest financial-sexual adventures of this government providing rich material for future scripts. But such representations of the inner workings of Westminster tend to concentrate on the ministerial power play rather than on the twenty somethings who keep the wheels oiled. With this series, could these young men and women emerge as the new social role models?
Party Animals has come a long way. When work began four years ago, it was planned as another take on the new Labour “project”, an exercise in hubris and control-freakery. Script meetings with its original consultant, this magazine’s editor, John Kampfner, revolved around stories of mendacity and thuggery. The Tories were so irrelevant in real-world politics, they merited not even a bit part. The BBC shelved the idea just as the shine had well and truly worn off the Blair government. By the time I replaced John in 2005, the BBC had set the writers two new, and somewhat bizarre, hurdles to clear. Corporation suits made clear that part of the job of the series was to re-engage young people with politics. I must admit I have always been sceptical about this. Frankly, I can’t imagine anything more likely to put people off politics than telling people how exciting it is.
The second hurdle involved the Conservatives. In the interest of balance, the Tories had to be represented in a positive light wherever possible. David Cameron is known to have taken a close interest in the series after bumping into one of the actors, Clemency Burton-Hill, on the Andrew Marr show (Burton-Hill plays a Tory journalist). Cameron is, if indirectly, responsible for the BBC’s renewed interest in the series, which coincided with the revival of Tory fortunes.
Clearing this last hurdle was a tricky exercise for the left-liberal writers of the BBC, but more so for the partisan political editor of a magazine with historical links to the Labour Party. But we have done our best to be even-handed, and I have already heard feedback from one government loyalist who complained that the series might instil in viewers’ minds the thought that Cam eron would win the next election.
My main task was to introduce the film- makers to people in the Westminster village. This allowed the writers to test their flights of fancy against hard reality. Each time, the real world outdid the fiction. One plot line about a Russian mafia type approaching a lobbying company to buy influence in the Commons came straight out of a meeting with a lobbyist from a respectable firm (which turned down the Russian approach). Another story about an adviser who left a key speech in a pub toilet was matched by several tales of researchers finding opposition documents on photocopiers. Yet all these were trumped by the real-life story of a Tory worker who put political loyalty above marital loyalty by leaking their spouse’s government research to the opposition front bench.
There has already been speculation in the corridors of power about who the programme-makers have talked to and (more intriguing still) who the characters are based on. One Sunday paper has linked the Foster brothers to the real-life Milibands, David and Ed. It is true that Ben Richards, who wrote five episodes, was at Oxford with David in the mid-1980s. But I can officially confirm that the cocaine-snorting lady killer Scott Foster is not based on the Environment Secretary, nor is his nerdy brother a portrait of Ed. What’s more, the Asian Conservative A-list candidate is not supposed to be Priti Patel, the former adviser to William Hague and now a parliamentary candidate. As for the gay Tory researcher working for the rising star of the shadow cabinet, that could be any one of a dozen characters from Cameron’s metrosexual circle.
Having seen the finished result, appropriately at a packed screening at a hip central London arts cinema, I am fairly confident that Party Animals will have the same effect on recruitment of resear chers for MPs as This Life did for the law and Spooks did for espionage. As you would expect from the production company that made This Life, Party Animals does its best to lift the lid on the sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll-fuelled lives of Westminster’s back-room staff (during these scenes, this middle-aged political editor was of limited usefulness). However, if thousands of new graduates want to get into politics because they’ve seen it on the telly, that’s not the same as political re-engagement.
I know I will get it in the neck from the anoraks for any inaccuracies. One interviewer has picked up on the fact that Jo Porter, the junior Home Office minister, seems to spend more time at her parliamentary office than in her department. No, this is not an oversight; we must have discussed it more than any other single issue in the script, but dramatic licence won out. Another blunder I spotted was the clip-on security passes. Real Westminster folk wear them proudly around their necks like medals.
The only filming hiccup happened to involve the NS. The second episode revolves around one of this magazine’s annual parties. Staff were invited to play themselves as extras, only for the actors’ union to complain. In the event, the producers and actors (whom we had invited to some of our real-life parties) did a great job. But in the glamour stakes, this one dramatised sequence falls far short of the real thing.
“Party Animals” starts 31 January, 9pm (BBC2)