A Very British Coup (1988)

“‘A Very British Coup’ is a 1982 novel by British politician Chris Mullin” according to Wikipedia. But this post is not about the book. At least not directly. It is about the ‘original’, 1988 TV mini-series. I love mini-series as I find them to be perhaps the most appealing film-making format of our times, the sole format that has eluded both the demographics-based, profit-maximising paradigm that is the norm at Hollywood and beyond, or the milking-it-until-it’s-dry, fillers-r-us paradigm often found in TV series. But then again we’re talking about 1988, almost twenty-five years ago and things were a bit different back then.

The spoiler-free version of the plot goes as follows: This is about a working class, charismatic and honest British politician, Harry Perkins, who gets elected as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, under a purely socialist manifesto. His pledges, removal of Nuclear Weapons from the British Isles, as well as foreign (viz. US) bases, neutrality and withdrawal from NATO, vast economist reforms focusing on education, health and public welfare seem unacceptable by the country’s long standing allies, the United States and Western Europe; his programme seems radical and his ‘revolution’ scares those that strive to brand him a Marxist, a Soviet instrument, a crazy fool. Inevitably his election, puts him at odds with the ‘The Establishment’ and starts a sequence of schemes and plans to discredit and, eventually, dethrone him.

While somewhat dated by today’s standards, the series is impressive in many ways; the acting, especially by Ray McAnally (the PM) is exceptional, the atmosphere is dark and raw and despite the various flaws the situation seems real and compares favourably to other works involving similar themes. But above all lies the premise: this series presents a situation that rings very true in today’s economically and — increasingly — culturally bankrupt European states. The book, upon which the original series was based, was written at a time when politicians like Tony Benn, the likeable veteran socialist former Labour MP was a potential leader of the Labour party, and by extension potential PM. Labour was split between centrists and leftists and the leftists may have frightened the British Establishment, as communists did in the previous decades in countries like the United States. It was the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s first term as a leader of the United Kingdom, and a ‘Harry Perkings’ type leader was the most obvious antagonist to Margaret Thatcher’s mono-thematic “free market über alles” premiership.

Even then, mass poverty was a possibility — and for many a reality — public debt is mentioned as a mechanism for foreign powers to affect policy, scheming and the cloak-and-dagger of British Public Service and power failures becoming an everyday phenomenon. Back in today’s southern European states, the similarities are striking. Even formerly powerful European states are not so far away from it either.

A Very British Coup ends differently to the book and much more dramatically at that; it serves as a reminder of the illusion of liberty in our modern democracies, the fragile balance between competing forces and interests that results in peace, relative prosperity and that blissful sense of stability upon which people depend to live their lives.

Despite its merits, I find ‘A Very British Coup’ simplistic at times, especially for a mini-series, a format that is supremely positioned to exposing more detail, having fewer corners cut and overall having more substance than the alternatives. Sadly, the book also recently became the inspiration for yet another TV series. A series that bears no resemblance to the original, but is a reminder of what was great about the original series. Secret State is a modernised loosely-based version starring Gabriel Byrne. Contrary to the original, it seldom rings true; its characters are caricatures and the circumstances unconvincing. Sarah Dempster of the Guardian called it ‘ludicrous’ and ‘Spooks with its head in a bucket of dumb. It’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Sigh’. I tend to agree with her criticism and despair at the lost potential of this amazing medium.

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