- A State of Play: British Politics on Screen, Stage and Page, from Anthony Trollope to ‘The Thick of It’ by Steven Fielding
In the opening sentence of this book, the first line of the acknowledgements, the author indicates its ambition: “A State of Play has taken far longer to complete than I anticipated, partly because in my ignorance I did not appreciate how many relevant works of fiction there were”. The sheer volume of candidates for inclusion is also the book’s main problem, although I am not sure how far Fielding is aware of it. A State of Play (and this title is used for two other books I know of) discusses a selection of plays, films, television programmes and novels that represent politics from the late-nineteenth century to about 2011 (a span given in the book’s sub-title). The periodisation is not precise, and seems to operate differently depending on what is under consideration, and the criteria for selection are not readily apparent. “Politics” in this case is “confined to the operation of formal representative democracy” (19), with a particular interest in the electoral process, although Fielding sometimes ignores, or at least expands, this definition when he chases down a text he finds interesting.
A State of Play follows a broadly chronological structure, with chapter titles indicating, roughly, the period covered (“The People’s War and After”, for example). Each chapter is given a contextualisation, in which the main political and historical themes are outlined in a way that sets up the ensuing discussion. There is no equivalence in the treatment of art forms, however. The early chapters are concerned mainly with novels, with a little stage drama (understandably, perhaps, as television was in its infancy, although one might ask for cinema to be more visible). Later chapters – that is the five chapters that constitute the second half of the book that deal with the period after 1945 – become increasingly dominated by television drama. The treatment of stage drama is particularly meagre and casual. David Hare is present, although his films and television plays are discussed rather more than his stage plays. There is no David Edgar, Howard Brenton or Caryl Churchill. Trevor Griffiths is only present through his television plays. Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1895) and Harley Granville Barker’s Waste (1906) are considered, and later Steven Berkoff’s Sink the Belgrano! (1986) receives an honourable mention. There is very little beyond this, and one wonders how “stage” can be included in the title alongside the rest.
Television fiction fares much better than its stage counterpart, however, and much of what one might expect to be included to represent the form accurately– the work of playwright Jim Allen, for example – is present. It is, [End Page 71] interestingly, in his analysis of television fiction that Fielding’s lack of consideration of debates about form or genre, and of the critical traditions of analysis that shape academic debate about them, produces unexpected results. Fielding ranges across the canonical (Troy Kennedy Martin’s Edge of Darkness, BBC 1985, for example) and the popular (indeed, sometimes forgotten), such as The Challengers (ITV 1972). Bill Brand (ITV 1976), Trevor Griffiths’s series about a left-wing Labour MP, is thoughtfully analysed in relation to its immediate political context. The inclusion of a range of examples, across genres, allows Fielding to develop a persuasive argument about the persistence of conspiracy narratives in television fiction, and the margin-alisation of alternative dramatic approaches. He even considers children’s programmes, such as The Clangers (BBC 1969-72), which – and I am sure I am not the only person who did not know this – devoted an episode to satirising electoral politics. I was particularly pleased to see proper attention paid to John Finch’s Sam (ITV 1973-75), an excellent and undervalued series that explored party politics in the north of England.
There is one particular...