Politics on the small screen: the verdict on the BBC's Collateral
John Simm plays a Labour MP in David Hare’s drama. But is his character just 'a sexed-up Corbyn'?
From its debut last week, when a pizza delivery boy was murdered on the doorstep of a customer who just happened to be the flaky ex-wife of a local Labour MP, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Collateral was your run-of-the-mill political thriller.
David Hare’s drama initially threatens to follow in the footsteps of ‘State of Play’ or ‘House of Cards’, or yet another police investigation drama that we’ve come to expect in the 9pm viewing slot. However, it soon becomes clear that Collateral is being painted on far broader canvas – including a catalogue of British institutions from parliament to the police, as well as the Church, security services and, at its heart, an impenetrable detention system.
One of David Hare’s central characters is the over-taxed Labour MP, David Mars. Made appealing in his portrayal by the always likeable John Simm, Mars is nonetheless, inevitably carrying his own share of demons and dilemmas - juggling his duties to his party with his own values, as well as a toppling personal life, peppered with above-mentioned ex-wife (Billie Piper), amicable ex who happens to be a vicar (Nicola Walker) and a prospective new girlfriend who’s feeling justifiably neglected.
“With high profile, successful figures like an MP or a barrister, the challenge lies in making them sympathetic,” explains fellow screen writer Chris Lang. “You’re always trying to find a way in, while staying away from the grandiose.”
Lang, who earned his stripes on ‘The Bill’, ‘Casualty’ and currently juggling scripts for three series, including the hit crime drama ‘Unforgotten’ and a forthcoming Netflix production, adds: “The rule of thumb is that a third of the character is you, a third is people you know, a third is made up, and it’s that final third where true empathy can hopefully be felt.”
Many MPs would no doubt feel a certain empathy with Simm’s character that we first meet in bed, attending to his Twitter followers rather than the attempted attentions of a would-be girlfriend. It’s not long before she storms off in a huff. Does parliament really play this much havoc with MPs’ personal lives?
Paul Scully, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam since 2015, tells me he’s relieved his family was in place long before he became an MP.
“It took a lot of getting used to, for me and my family, even though I’d been a councillor before. I’m up at 6.30am, do half an hour of email before I’m out of the door. I get home between 11 and 11.30pm every night. I have to travel in and out of Westminster because I’m a London MP.
“I basically get home every night to catch up with the back of my wife’s head.”
Nick de Bois, the Conservative MP for Enfield North between 2010 and 2015, is even more emphatic about the demands on MPs and their loved ones.
“Losing in 2015 had its upside. I had one divorce behind me already and hated the idea of missing my kids’ events because of MP commitments,” he says.
“In my case, weekends were destroyed as I spent time either canvassing or more likely attending events on both days in the vain hope it would rebuild trust with voters the more they saw of their MP. I am lucky my wife was extremely tolerant but let’s be candid it meant some rubbish evenings out with me wanting to sleep and her wanting to party.”
Does all that tweeting in bed really happen? De Bois - who has just published a book about his times as an MP - confirms it to be so:
“Yes. Perhaps I did it because I was in a very marginal seat and felt that the interaction with people on social media was important. Looking back I realise it wasn’t and had little impact on either electoral success or changing minds.
“My wife tried to be very understanding at first, but she did point out, ‘I am here in person, you don’t even know these people!’”
Hare explains in a BBC blog discussing the series: “I’m much more interested in exploring how the death of one individual, who has lived out of the sight of respectable society, resonates and reaches into various interconnecting lives.” Why, then, is this ambitious state-of-the-nation piece framed within such seemingly conventional dramatic parameters with a criminal investigation at its centre?
For Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at Nottingham University, Hare is the latest in a long tradition of playwrights and screenwriters adapting their message to the medium. He says: "David Hare could write anything he liked for the National Theatre, but for a 9pm slot on TV, it isn’t enough any more to be even him, just telling us we’re all in a mess.
“He was part of that tradition in the 1970s, when there was less competition. But since the 1980s and 90s, we’ve basically inhabited the conspiracy genre. There’s a lot more competition for viewers. Perhaps the audience always wanted entertainment, but the way TV has evolved, now it’s all they’re going to get.
“David Hare isn’t doing this for the money, he wants the audience, and he needs to get beyond Guardian readers. The danger is that people will watch it for the thriller element, and they might miss his bigger message. But they’re still more likely to get it than if he didn’t do it at all.”
What is that bigger message? Well, Hare asks himself in that same BBC blog “why so many organisations seem deliberately structured in a way which prevents individuals being allowed to exercise their own judgements and standards. Why are we feeling disempowered?”
For Fielding, Hare is doing what he’s always done – “trying to get within institutions, understand them and criticise them, while remaining sympathetic to the people within them. And he’s continuing to ask, where are we now?”
Hare isn’t the only writer navigating his way through the demands of genre TV to give a platform to a bigger preoccupation. Lang tells me all his work “feeds off the anger in the air”.
He explains: “Even when I’m writing something quite conventional like ‘Unforgotten’, it’s a real opportunity to say something about the things exercising people in a broad sense, about the UK and the way it is. It might not be state-of-the-nation stuff in its most literal sense but - you’re a writer, you look around you and you’re baffled. Perhaps the anger has always been there, it’s just that now we have better ways of expressing it through social media.
“I’m fascinated by the national psyche, by what drives people, it’s much more interesting to write a script that has something to say, not just character stories. Although of course you express all that through character.”
For those MPs past and present watching the show, there is one other thing that many will be able to relate to. Because the murder in ‘Collateral’ takes place on a local doorstep, David Mars becomes the focus of a concerned public and curious press.
For Paul Scully, this rings true as the Old Bailey trial of the murder of local youngster Ellie Butler shone the spotlight on Sutton through tragedy. “It can be awful when it’s something like that, but there are good days too. We also had a surprising FA Cup run. In both circumstances, people come to you.”
Nick de Bois rushed to speak to Enfield residents when the local riots occurred in 2011. He reflects now: “You go from being an MP of this or that party to a civic leader representing the whole area. It’s a rare moment when for once, you speak on behalf of all your constituents echoing their concerns, thoughts and sentiments.”
It seems, then, that ‘Collateral’ may be accurate when it comes to the day-to-day stuff of politics, however, for Professor Fielding, it’s a bit too London-centric to qualify for proper state-of-the-nation status.
He tells me he’ll stay with it “to see how the threads all come together”. But for now he bemoans the middle-class protagonists, finds the sympathy for the immigrants “a bit crude” and wonders whether David Mars isn’t just “a sexed-up Corbyn”.
Collateral continues on Monday evenings at 9pm on BBC Two.