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TV review: Drama out of a Crisis: A celebration of ‘Play for Today’, The Trump Show, and Roadkill

23 October 2020

BBC/The Forge/Robert Viglasky/Matt Burlem

Hugh Laurie as Peter Laurence in Roadkill (BBC1 Sundays)

Hugh Laurie as Peter Laurence in Roadkill (BBC1 Sundays)

IT IS hardly revolutionary to think that the best way to get under people’s defences, make them question their assumptions, or encourage them to adopt completely new goals is to tell them a story; we call them “parables”. Once upon a time, UK television held the same conviction, and Drama out of a Crisis: A celebration of Play for Today (BBC4, Monday of last week) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first of BBC1’s Play for Today dramas, broadcast between 1970 and 1984.

It reminded us how far we have travelled. Today, it seems scarcely conceivable that serious social dramas, one a week, would be watched by millions. They embraced many genres and styles, including comedy; but the vast majority were committed to gritty realistic depictions of contemporary life, deliberately challenging and controversial, keen to break rules and take chances, willing to overset the boundaries of acceptable taste. They exposed social issues with the explicit agenda of forcing political change, of creating mass popular opinion that would demand new determination to tackle poverty, exploitation, injustice, and inequality.

If all this sounds terrifically worthy, but on the part of its practitioners just a little humourless and slightly self-righteous, then I’m afraid that the programme — for all my being moved by the great and necessary causes that the plays championed, and their remarkable actors, directors, and producers — did not entirely remove that stereotype.

It these were Plays For Today, then The Trump Show (BBC2, Thursday of last week, first of three) might qualify as Worst Farce For Today. This account of the current presidency has a telling viewpoint: essentially critical, it is narrated not by the legions who viscerally oppose everything that he stands for, but by his own insiders — those who share the extreme conservatism of his opinions, his closest allies and staff members, who were all sacked or forced to resign.

It is a startling moral exercise to watch the realisation dawn that none of the standards or expectations reasonably expected from a politician applied here. President Trump enjoys disruption, comes to life in conflict, realises that his overwhelming sense of aggrieved entitlement, his preference for aggression over debate or compromise, resonates with enough Americans to make him almost impregnable. He sacks all his aides because, being absolutely secure in narcissistic egotism, he simply doesn’t need anyone. God help us all.

The sunny uplands of our own political set-up, as depicted in BBC1’s latest Sunday-evening drama Roadkill, seem, in comparison, positively benign: wily PM baulks Cabinet minister of his promised promotion because she is convinced — as are an unlikely consortium of top lawyers and journalists — that his cupboard hides dark skeletons.

The story overflows beyond credibility with secret contacts, underhand plotting, and sexual liaisons, and yet is just edgy enough to provide agreeably stylish, escapist entertainment: A Play For Our (Jaundiced) Day, perhaps.

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