When plain-spoken, charismatic former steelworker Harry Perkins becomes prime minister in a landslide Labour Party victory, his socialist agenda horrifies the entrenched ruling class and the right-wing media. As Perkins presses ahead with plans to close down U.S. Military bases, break up newspaper monopolies and dismantle British nuclear weapons, the establishment and its American allies conspire in a brutal back-room struggle to regain control. Starring Ray McAnally (A Perfect Spy, My Left Foot), this PBS Masterpiece Theatre miniseries won an International Emmy Award, three top British television awards and the Banff television Festival grand prize.
eyelights: the principled Perkins. its creepy portrayal of the shadows in the corridors of power.
eyesores: the cheap-looking production. the terrible score.
“Democracy takes time. Dictatorship is quicker but too many people get shot.”
‘A Very British Coup’ is a critically-acclaimed (four BAFTA awards, as well as an Emmy) three-part British mini-series that was produced for Channel 4 in 1988. Based on the 1982 novel by journalist and politician Chris Mullin, it tells the story of newly-elected Labour Prime Minister Harry Perkins and of the outside forces trying to manipulate his government into doing their bidding.
I knew nothing about the programme when I decided to sit down to watch it, other than the fact that it was a British political drama. I had no idea what the plot was (although the title was suggestive) or who starred in it. I knew that there was another adaptation of Mullin’s book (‘Secret State’, starring Gabriel Byrne), mind you, but decided to stick with the original.
I could hope that it might prove as good as the ‘House of Cards’ series.
‘A Very British Coup’ begins with Perkins (Ray McAnally, in an award-winning performance) preparing for his first day back to the Commons after his party’s landslide victory in the general election. A populist with a socialist twist, he takes the 2nd class train to London and then walks to 10 Downing Street – as shadowy figures watch the news reports, grimly.
The new PM, who is heavily derided in some circles as being a communist sympathizer, wastes little time before pushing the United States to remove their nuclear arsenal from the United Kingdom. This causes frictions with the country and soon they and their allies refuse to help Britain’s through their financial woes – leading them to borrow heavily from the Russians.
Although he promises an open government (don’t they all?) and has weekly Q&A sessions with the media, Perkins is frequently openly mocked by a particular newspaper mogul who uses his leverage to tarnish the PM’s reputation. Compounding the issue is the fact that his own secret service and the U.S. government are also conspiring to destabilize his government.
Facing tremendous political opposition to his plan to dismantle the country’s nuclear arsenal and dealing with regular power shortages due to a manufactured union revolt, Perkins faces the very real possibility that, despite having a majority government, he may be forced to resign. This pushes him to come up with rather unconventional strategies to counter those forces.
Personally, I found this series fascinating even though it seemed unlikely to me: That the new PM would wear his allegiances so cleanly by calling everyone “comrade”, that his government would be as popular with the masses and survive the incredible pressures put on it and that these pressures come from within and without and were strong enough to potentially ruin him.
Could that ever happen?
However, it was interesting to watch this “what if” scenario, and I really quite liked Perkins – for all his flaws, he is a rather principled character, something that we see too little off in real life and in fiction. So I liked that he made his decisions based on promises made and to counter intimidation; he may be considered a bit arrogant, but his convictions also made him brave.
I admire that.
Further to this, the mini-series progressively got better, after a slightly slow start; by the second episode, I was fully immersed and couldn’t wait to watch the third one. Oh, sure, it all became very melodramatic in the end, but I still found the games being played and the players extremely engaging. And I loved how it all wrapped up in a rather ambiguous way, with a question.
There were a number of unforgettable moments in ‘A Very British Coup’, including a moment when Perkins’ Press Secretary and strategist does a blackboard diagram to explain the conspiracy against him, when Perkins goes for a solo late-night walkabout to reflect upon things (showing again how grounded he is), and the finale, which has Perkins cast all expectations to the four winds.
Still, the mini-series has its flaws, looking, sounding and feeling dated. Although it was made in 1988 and was portraying future events taking place in 1991, it feels older than this, in part due to the production quality, but also due to a really poor soundtrack featuring cheap, outmoded and frequently inappropriate music. Let’s just say that it lacks a certain amount of fresh factor.
Having said this, the ideas and concerns expressed in ‘A Very British Coup’ remain valid today and that’s why it’s still thoroughly entertaining. It’s the mark of a good show when it can transcend the ages the way this one does. This is no doubt due to the source material, so it makes me wonder in what ways ‘Secret State’ was adapted, some thirty years after the original novel.
I just might take the time to find out.
Date of viewing: August 24+25, 2015