“It’s like being back at school!”: why a look inside the House of Lords left me furious

It's hard to believe, but the people in Meet the Lords, floating along on the gas of their pomposity, are not fictional characters. Plus: The Replacement reviewed.

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How to respond to the BBC’s new documentary series about the House of Lords (Mondays, 9pm)? In the first episode (27 February), I veered between blind rage and the bleak, slightly unhinged feeling that comes of clutching too tightly at straws. When, for instance, Lord Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, briefly and smugly appeared in front of the camera, it was hard to ignore the sudden throbbing of a vein in my neck. But then we saw Lady King – better known as Oona King, formerly the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow – successfully amend a government bill in order to protect benefits for adopted children, and I found myself thinking: thank God for the Upper House.

If the lords offered the BBC such unprecedented access hoping to improve their image with the public, I think their plan may have misfired. Badly. This series is a PR disaster from start to finish. The newspapers have already gleefully reported Baroness D’Souza’s tale of a nameless peer leaving his taxi waiting while he nipped inside to claim his daily £300 allowance (it seemed to have slipped her mind as she delivered this anecdote that she once kept a chauffeur hanging around for the entire duration of a performance of Britten’s Gloriana that she attended with some Russian dignitary, even though she was only a mile from the Houses of Parliament). Practically every moment is a tabloid headline waiting to happen.

Where to begin? With Lord Palmer, an “incredibly stupid” (his words) hereditary peer whose main preoccupation seemed to have been that the Lords TV room had been converted into an office, leaving him and his colleagues with nowhere “comfortable” to view such important events as Wimbledon? Or with Lord Borwick, a chump-and-a-half of a multimillion-pound property developer, who apparently cared not a jot what viewers might think when they learned that, acting as an unofficial whip, he had helped to get a bill passed involving the relaxation of planning laws?

“I favour the milk pudding,” said one old boy ecstatically, as we were shown the dining table where it is mandatory for peers to park their weary bottom next to the last person who sat down. “It’s like being back at school!” And you thought the Liberal Democrat ex-MP Lord Tyler was only joking when he described the House as the “best daycare centre for the elderly in London”.

As the camera panned across the benches of the chamber, it was as if we were flipping through one of those “Where are they now?” magazine features. So many vaguely familiar faces – minor Blairites, major Tories, the odd person off the telly – all brazenly settling down to enjoy another languid afternoon on the taxpayer’s tab. Having once worked on a long House of Lords project myself, I saw that the programme-makers had been somewhat selective: the nitty-gritty of legislation and earnest types working away in committees do not make for televisual joy. But, still. These people, floating along on the gas of their pomposity, are not fictional characters. They really do exist and sometimes they shape our laws. Think about this for too long and it’s first enraging and then quite terrifying.

And now to The Replacement (Tuesdays, 9pm), a melodrama so exotically loopy that it might have been written for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. On the plus side, it’s about working women: two clever, high-flying Glasgow architects, Ellen (Morven Christie) and Paula (Vicky McClure), one of whom – Paula – replaces the other when she goes on maternity leave. On the minus side, it’s bonkers: compelling but completely unbelievable (I’ve seen all three parts, and it only gets worse).

All the same, I’m interested both in it and in the reactions to it of other women. The show is predicated on a toxic mix of female jealousy and competitiveness, with a dash of hormonal nuttiness thrown in for good measure. That you couldn’t – and wouldn’t – make a drama of this sort about men, and that a male writer (Joe Ahearne) was able to find a home for this one, speaks volumes. Our battle to be taken seriously in the workplace goes on, and on, and on.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again