Brave New World (The Hunt for Tony Blair, Channel 4)
Satire departs in varying degrees from the facts; indeed, this departure is part of what makes it satirical. Its intent can register in a slight exaggeration of a vocal inclination, or in depicting recognisable persons as animals or inanimate objects. The Hunt For Tony Blair presents a familiar cast in a recognisably different universe, not one created specifically for satirical purposes, but drawing on our knowledge of genre. Blair, Mandelson, Brown and the rest scuttle around in a Cold War-era thriller, which is perhaps suitable given that as a piece of satire it’s a little out of date (one reference to trusting the bankers and a mention of Afghanistan apart, there’s little that speaks to Cameron’s Britain).
And yes, the central theme is Blair as a Tory Boy shyster, on the run from a murder charge: the stuff of a million placards. But don’t let that put you off (too much): this is slick, smart stuff, and a lot better than anything else I’ve seen from The Comic Strip. There aren’t too many outstanding jokes, but the conceit introduces us to a black-and-white world where the theme from A Summer Place swoons over the action, bobbies toot on their whistles while ineffectually chasing fugitives, and the Evening Post is sold at London train stations; but it’s also a world with Iraq, New Labour, and an endless stream of political biographies.
The show is all about this world and its stylish execution: there is little attempt to dig into the coils of politics or present the New Labour years in a remotely realistic fashion. A couple of the actors could pass for distant relatives of their characters (notably Nigel Planer as a drooping Peter Mandelson), but in general there’s little attempt at physically matching the targets; Michael Sheen can rest easy. Stephen Mangan does essay the familiar Blair mannerisms, but it’s not so much a portrait as an aide-memoire to remind us who he’s meant to be. Jennifer Saunders does this even more blatantly with Margaret Thatcher; you’re never in any doubt that you’re watching a comedienne doing a Maggie impression (one of the better things in the show, as it happens). The fun lies in seeing how these characters appear differently in this world, and how it reflects on our perceptions of them in ours. Blair’s perpetually nervous grin suggested a man forever on the defensive; here, he’s got Robbie Coltrane’s hulking detective on his tail. Mandelson’s combination of entitlement and false deferrence to whomever he speaks makes him an ideal subject for police cross-examination. Thatcher is perfect as a faded diva, with Norman Tebbit as the butler playing her newsreel footage of her martial triumphs. Not all the characters are placed so delicately: the portrayals of Bush and Brown are one-dimensional, and the likes of Cherie Blair and Alistair Campbell get cameos at best. But by placing these rogues in a glamorous age, it emphasises their seediness without spelling it out for us. And – who knows – maybe it’s a deliberate attempt to portray them as yesterday’s men and women, their problems seemingly as remote from us as tiny black-and-white televisions, smoking cigarettes indoors, and Barbara Windsor’s East End accent.