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28 November 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:05pm

What we learnt filming MPs in their constituencies

The murder of Jo Cox turned an idea born from satire into a profoundly different programme.  

By Dov Freedman

Anyone familiar with Armando Iannucci’s brilliant film In the Loop will recall the scene at the end of the film, where bruised and battered after his moment in Westminster spotlight, the fictional Simon Foster MP attends his weekly constituency surgery and comes face to face with a furious constituent and his mother’s collapsed garden wall. 

After watching the film again, we wondered: do all MPs treat their weekly surgeries with the same disdain and dread as Foster? What kind of conversations really go on behind closed doors, and would any MP actually be prepared to let the cameras in to find out? 

Surprisingly, what we found was that more than a few MPs were actually very receptive to the idea of letting the cameras in. Indeed, they claimed that away from the Westminster bubble it was the one aspect of the job they loved the most. A cynical photo opportunity, or a genuine passion for representation? There was only one way to find out. 

We set out developing the idea and sitting in on some actual surgeries, and immediately we knew we were onto something. With each constituent getting approximately 10 minutes with their MP, the meetings were a kind of speed-dating where ordinary Brits share some of their most intimate problems. For some, with nowhere else to turn, it is a last chance saloon. What’s more, the MPs were coming across as unvarnished and non-judgmental – in other words, as human beings, 

After being commissioned by Channel 5, we knew the documentary needed to offer a real snapshot of modern day Britain and the problems that people face. So when selecting which MPs to feature we needed diversity,  not just across political parties, but representing different parts of the country too. We signed up Naz Shah (Labour – Bradford West) Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat – Sheffield Hallam) and Jacob Rees-Mogg (Conservatives – North East Somerset).

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As filming began, the stories emerging were as varied as the people sharing them. Some tragic, some quirky, and some just plain funny. Most constituents seemed unafraid of telling their MP what they really think. 

And beyond listening, what can the MPs actually do about these problems? Well in reality, it’s the case workers that do all the heavy lifting. They write letters, open doors, and make phone calls, all in the name of the MP they work for. Sadly, a lot of the time, that intervention and influence can’t solve the problem

The most common hard-to-fix problem we saw was cuts to social welfare. From losing specialist care for a disabled child, to unaffordable care homes, we were seeing the human reality of big and blunt government cuts made in Westminster trickling down to constituencies all over the country. 

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Halfway through filming, the country was shaken by arguably two of the most significant political events of the times – Brexit and the tragic murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox. What had started as an idea born from political satire now become the most important programme we had in production. It was also clear that the disdain and dread portrayed by In The Loop character was a fiction, with all three MPs passionate and driven to do all they could for their constituents.

I think what we have ended up with is a sweet and sometimes funny, sometimes tragic documentary really does take the temperature of Britain, through the prism of an MPs’ surgery. 

True, most MPs can’t fix all the problems of their constituents, but in a time when much of our political system seems broken, this is one part, that while it isn’t perfect, in its own quirky way, does sometimes work. And for that, it should be cherished.

Dov Freedman is the executive producter at Sundog Picture. MPs Behind Closed Doors airs Monday 28th November at 9pm on Channel 5.