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From A Very British Coup to Collateral: the best state-of-the-nation dramas

Carey Mulligan as Kip Glaspie in Collateral
Carey Mulligan as Kip Glaspie in Collateral Photograph: Liam Daniel/BBC/The Forge

From its earnest conversations about immigration to the complicated plot involving cover-up and conspiracy at the highest level, it’s clear that Collateral, David Hare’s latest drama which began on BBC Two last night, has pretensions above your average crime thriller. Set in a world fuelled by the gig economy, Collateral’s central plot follows detective Kip Glaspie’s (Carey Mulligan) as she investigates the murder of a Syrian pizza delivery man. It’s a case which swiftly turns out to have a far wider impact than might initially appear. There are hints of government corruption, a military cover-up, possible media foul play – it can only mean one thing: this is a state-of-the-nation drama, and, according to Hare, the state of our nation is looking very sickly indeed. He’s not alone in feeling this way. From Boys from the Blackstuff to last year’s Broken, British television has a distinguished history of producing dramas that tell us about contemporary Britain. Here’s our look at what they said about the nation at the time.

Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)

Boys From The Blackstuff
Boys From The Blackstuff Photograph: BBC

The plot: Spun off from his original teleplay, this Alan Bleasdale series follows five unemployed men in Liverpool with each episode featuring on a different member of the group. Episode Four, Yosser’s Story, following Bernard Hill’s Yosser Hughes as his life entirely disintegrates along with his sense of self-worth, remains one of British TV’s most powerful hours.

What it told us: A blistering condemnation of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies, in particular the notion of ‘managed decline’, Boys from the Blackstuff gave a human face to the rising unemployment figures and in doing so hit a chord in homes throughout the UK. It was described as being “TV’s most complete dramatic response to the Thatcher era and as a lament to the end of a male, working-class British culture”.

Edge of Darkness (1985)

The plot: After Boys from the Black Stuff, producer Michael Wearing worked on the story of Bob Peck’s police officer and his attempts to uncover the truth behind the murder of his activist daughter (Joanna Whalley). He’s soon drawn into a complicated story of cover-up, conspiracy and nuclear espionage.

What it told us: It’s easy to forget now just how paranoid life was in the mid-80s was. Nuclear war and the destruction of all human life seemed a very real threat and the bleak Edge of Darkness is the ultimate conspiracy drama for the age, a dark tale of cold war and nuclear fear in Thatcher’s Britain.

A Very British Coup (1988)

Keith Allen as Thompson and Ray McAnallay as Harry Perkins
Keith Allen as Thompson and Ray McAnallay as Harry Perkins Photograph: BFI

The plot: Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel about the rise to power of an unassuming and left-wing Labour leader and the subsequent political, military and media conspiracy against him was adapted for TV by Alan Plater and starred Ray McAnally. The TV series was set a few years in the future in 1991.

What it told us: Mullin’s book was written during a time when the left-wing Tony Benn was thought likely to become deputy leader of the Labour party and imagined establishment reaction to an anti-NATO government keen on unilateral nuclear disarmament. Surely some enterprising TV exec will commission a modern-day version?

GBH (1991)

The plot: Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay) a charismatic Labour councillor with links to a hard-left political organisation not a million miles from Militant is elected City Council Leader in an unnamed city in the Northwest of England not a million miles from Liverpool. His rise to power brings him into conflict with modern Labour member and local headmaster Jim Nelson (Michael Palin).

What it told us: Alan Bleasdale’s series made headlines for the similarities between Lindsay’s bombastic Murray and the former Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council Derek Hatton. It now it seems like a prophetic warning as to what was to come with Murray’s superficial charm and media nous heralding the beginning of New Labour as much as the fall of Militant.

Our Friends in the North (1996)

The plot: Peter Flannery’s superlative drama followed four friends (played by Gina McKee, Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig and Mark Strong) from Newcastle over the course of 31 years from 1964 to 1995.

What it told us: As much a history of the Labour movement as the story of four friends, Our Friends in the North told an ambitious story of youthful idealism gone astray and the compromise of middle age. A large part of the focus was on Ecclestone’s idealistic Nicky and his struggle to find his place in the party, although it was McKee’s pragmatic Mary who eventually became a New Labour politician, at a time when the hope and promise of 1997 election was still to come.

State of Play (2003)

David Morrissey and John Simms
David Morrissey and John Simms Photograph: Joss Barratt/BBC/STAYSTILL LTD

The plot: Paul Abbott’s conspiracy thriller is perhaps the nearest show to Collateral on this list and not just because of the presence of John Simm. It tells the story of journalists Cal McCaffrey (Simm) and Della Smith (Kelly McDonald) who find themselves caught up in that old favourite a wide-ranging government conspiracy with links to MP Stephen Collins (David Morrissey), an old friend of Cal’s.

What it told us: Slick, clever and fantastically cynical about the machinations of government, Abbott’s taut drama, which was aired in 2003 at the height of Blair’s Britain, was the perfect series for those image-obsessed times.

Capital (2015)

The Plot: Adapted by Peter Bowker from John Lanchester’s best-selling novel, this three-part series focused on the residents of a seemingly ordinary street in south London to comment on how the property boom has transformed lives in London, not always for the better.

What it told us: A state-of-the-nation drama for the Cameron era, Capital both highlighted the growing disparity between the haves and have nots while suggesting that if we don’t make the effort to understand those whose lives are different from ours then we will all be lost.

Broken (2016)

The Plot: Jimmy McGovern’s six-part drama followed local parish priest Father Michael Kerrigan (Sean Bean) as he attempted to come to terms with his past while providing succour for his impoverished and beleaguered community.

What it told us: The focus might have been on Father Michael’s journey to redemption but McGovern was unsparing in his depiction of a community destroyed by zero hours contracts and unstable housing, ignored by the current government and let down by local politicians, health workers and police officers alike. As state of the nation dramas go they don’t get much bleaker than this.

This article titled "From A Very British Coup to Collateral: the best state-of-the-nation dramas" was written by Sarah Hughes, for on Tuesday 13 February 2018 06.00am

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