1 9 8 8 (UK)
3 x 60 minute episodes
A Very British Coup followed the destabilising of an elected Left-Wing British government by shadowy forces from the Right.
Alan Plater adapted it from the novel by Labour MP and former Tribune editor Chris Mullin.
Made after Labour’s third successive election defeat in 1987, when the party was swinging to the right, the idea that a Labour government could be elected on a popular platform of public spending and anti-Americanism seemed extremely unlikely.
In other ways it is utterly of its time, sharing a concern with the secret state and nuclear weapons with contemporary conspiracy thrillers Edge of Darkness (1986) and Defence of the Realm (1985).
State surveillance became an increasing concern for civil libertarians with the proliferation of computer databases keeping files on political activists.
The series’ images of surveillance are striking: American agent Chambers (Erin Donovan) operates clunking reels of audiotape, while her British counterpart Fiennes’ (Tim McInnerny) monochrome computer monitor is shot in close-up as names and numbers appear character by character.
The look is laughably archaic, but at the same time clearly only the visible part of the iceberg of the unseen state.
Keith Allen’s effective performance as Thompson, press secretary to charismatic working-class Labour Prime Minister Perkins (Ray McAnally in BAFTA-winning form), is more enjoyable for knowing that future ‘king of spin’ Alastair Campbell – later to perform the same role for Tony Blair’s popular and radical, but much more right-wing, Labour government – was one of the production’s advisers.
But such ironies don’t detract from a powerful drama. Political victory for Labour in the first episode is followed by personal tragedy in the second, as Foreign Secretary Newsome’s (Jim Carter) affair is discovered, and nuclear skulduggery in the third, as Perkins attempts to remove US bases from UK soil.
Finally, as Perkins raises the stakes, the hidden state is forced to reveal its true face.
McAnally’s performance was so powerful that many would have preferred him to what Labour had to offer at the time.
In the end, A Very British Coup is perhaps best seen not as a conspiracy thriller, but as a political fantasy: a story of politicians, not plotting amongst themselves, but trying to do the best for their country and its working-class population, in a world increasingly hostile to the will of the people.
Sir Percy Browne
Foreign Secretary Newsome