On 1 October 1950 the BBC broadcast a seemingly innocuous little play by Val Gielgud. A light-hearted and critically unremarkable political comedy, Party Manners carried a number of pointed criticisms of Labour policy, taking pot shots at egalitarianism, tax-and-spend and big government. With Clement Attlee’s party enjoying only the slimmest of parliamentary majorities and a fresh election in the offing, some BBC executives feared that Party Manners might swing the balance in the Tories’ favour. Lord Simon of Wythenshawe, chair of the BBC governors and a Labour party member, cancelled a planned repeat showing, unleashing a storm in the House of Lords.
The controversy evoked memories of 1906, when Harley Granville-Barker’s play Waste was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, owing to its unflattering portrayal of the cynicism of party politics. In both instances, upholding the moral integrity of public life was given as a reason for censorship rather than party bias: Lord Strabolgi called Party Manners ‘a violent attack, if you like by ridicule and satire… on the very essence of democracy itself’.
This sensitivity was temporary. As the precarious equilibrium of the immediate postwar years gave way to greater stability, the emergence of a more openly critical discourse would change British political culture forever. First came the progressive populism of Ealing Studios, whose films celebrated ordinary people in everyday, realistic contexts, while also dramatising their relationship with an expanding state; then the satire boom of the 1960s. Somewhere along the line, irreverence ceased to be dangerous. Democracy and its hallowed essence became fair game. By the 1980s, Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey could glibly declare that ‘Since 1832 we have been gradually excluding the voter from government,’ without fear of repercussions.
A State of Play is a trundle through a century of productions, with Granville-Barker’s Edwardian travails at one end and Meryl Streep’s big-screen portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady at the other. Well researched and judiciously selective, not to mention fastidiously politically correct — nearly every chapter includes a sub-section on women — Steven Fielding’s study makes a concise and thought-provoking shadow history of modern British politics.
The introduction of pay-to-view satellite television in 1989, followed by changes to ITV franchising rules under the 1990 Broadcasting Act, transformed the landscape of television. Increased competition piled commercial pressure on channels to make cheaper programmes and deliver bigger audiences. The earnest, thoughtful political dramas of the 1970s and 1980s were on their way out, their writers relegated to the theatre, while in their place came high-octane thrillers about terrorism and ecological disaster.
Contemporary programming is slick, sophisticated and at the same time curiously listless. From the paranoiac world of conspiracy thrillers to sardonic sitcoms like The Thick of It, the characteristic timbre of 21st-century political fiction is, says Fielding, one of fatalism and hopelessness. Set against a backdrop of indifference to parliamentary politics, this jaded register appears symptomatic of a deeper rot. It is all a far cry from the genteel optimism of the world of Anthony Trollope, with which this survey begins.
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