A Very British Coup

Having pulled together the video round of the Politics Quiz for Haiti back in October, I’m now going through a backlog of DVDs with a political theme.

A Very British Coup tells the story of Harry Perkins, a steel worker from Sheffield turned politician is elected as prime minister of a left-wing Labour government.

Though the book behind the screenplay was written by Chris Mullins in 1981, it is a peep into a parallel universe to see what might have happened if Tony Benn had been able to lead Labour to power when Margaret Thatcher went to the polls before she had a chance to “consolidate her grip on power”.

Perkins (played by Ray McAnally) was elected on a manifesto of open government, nuclear disarmament and a sentiment of anti-American feeling that included a policy of removing US airbases from UK soil. His chances of a smooth ride were further undermined by his policy of removing newspaper monopolies.

True to his work, he seeks to implement the will of the voters. That’s counter to the voting habits of the UK establishment – people who have walked the corridors of power and oiled the wheels of government departments for decades.

Despite reassurances that the UK intelligence services aren’t tapping Downing Street phones, the under-impressed US administration is sharing its files, databases and covert recordings with British players who operate an even more effective press machine than Perkins’ spin doctor (played by Keith Allen).

For two and a half hours the surveillance state battles the quick wits of the prime minister, leading up to what one character describes as “a very British coup”. Danny Birchall’s article on The British Film Institute website sums the drama up well when he says:

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.

It’s a terrific film, and if you can’t find the DVD, the three episodes of the TV version are available to stream online from the 4oD website. Well worth a watch.

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  • Harry Flashman

    A great movie but a bit of a lefty wet dream, I particularly love the part where Perkins saves the economy by signing a deal with er, the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc, yup those economic powerhouses of the early 1980’s, Russia and Bulgaria would have been able to rescue the UK.

    A jolly good piece of entertainment but watching it you realise why the British people voted for Maggie Thatcher in three landslide elctions, Perkins’policies actually weren’t that far off Michael Foot’s manifesto in 1983.

    Oh and McAnally was superb.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I always found “A Very British Coup” to be in the same genre of fantasy as “Scotch on the Rocks” (ironically written by another politician Douglas Hurd).
    Alan Bleasdales early 1990s GBH was much nearer the reality of left wing politics.
    But the best portrayal of left wing politics in drama was the little remembered Bill Brand (mid 1970s) with Jack Shepherd in the title role. …..itself clearly based on the writer Trevor Griffiths.
    Bill Brand was a lefty and polytechnic lecturer elected for a Manchester constituency where his support of abortion got him into difficulty with the local partys Catholic working class membership and support.
    Nor did he find a minority Labour govt (did Arthur Lowe of Dads Army play a Wilson-esque Labour PM?) much help. Of course Griffiths himself was a Catholic educated Mancunian.
    The series is also memorable for rather unpleasant but amusing and accurate references to doing deals with unionists.

  • Belfastconfetti

    Chris Mullins, as I remember, was associated with Tony Benn’s attempt to wrest control of the Labour Party from the hands of it’s ‘right wing’ – Michael Foot and Dennis Healy – which involved giving great influence to entryists in local branch parties and magnifying the trades union bloc vote rather than allowing trades union members to vote for themselves.

    In any case, the book ends with Perkins being deposed as a result of a pro-nuclear decision he made as a Minister in the past. Even Benn wasn’t pure enough apparently.

  • gendjinn

    I watch A Very British Coup at least once a year and it is still one of the best things Ray McAnally ever did. That and No Surrender, naturally.

    The actor who played the nuclear scientist in AVBC reprises his role in Yes Prime Minister and comedy or depressing drama his position and some of his lines were interchangeable.

    I remember being disappointed with GBH, despite some excellant performances and brilliant scenes, it doesn’t compare favourably with his earlier Boys from the Blackstuff cycle.

    Remember “The dead ask the best questions, and we are answerable.” Or “If you want to build a cenotaph, first find a million victims.”

  • Mark

    I can do that ! gis a job .

  • Barry the Blender

    I read the book a few months ago and had no idea there was a TV series. Thanks for the 4od link Alan, you can be sure it will be enjoyed by at least one person.

    I remember thinking it was a bit of a “lefty wetdream” too Harry however as I recall Harry’s contract decision was proven wrong in the end and the country didn’t end up a socialist utopia, so I wonder if it was written to demonstrate the hard left’s unworkability.

    It was a good book, and I’m always on the lookout for similar political stories. I recently watched the DVD of First Among Equals (great) but the all time best was Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards.

  • Dec

    “I watch A Very British Coup at least once a year and it is still one of the best things Ray McAnally ever did. That and No Surrender, naturally.”

    Ray McAnally was great in everything (even the dreadful No surrender), never more so than The Mission where he effortlessly acted De Niro, Irons and Quinn off the screen.

  • Dec – the TV/film adaptation has a different ending to the book … so you’ll not quite know where it’s going!

  • Driftwood

    Not a patch on ‘The History Man’, Malcolm Bradbury’s satire on the ‘new’ ‘universities’ that will hopefully dissolve under the glare of market forces.

    Unlike great drama – ‘(Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) it’s about House of Cards level of mediocrity.

    other than that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

  • Hi FJH1745

    Dougles Hurd started off a little shakily but his novels mostly co-written got increasingly better very quickly and became top notch, his short stories less so. One of the latter is set in Hillsborough.

    Incidentally nice to see Aurelio Zen brought to the screen this evening, surprised that BBC NI didn’t highlight the author’s local connections – Michael Dibdin was a pupil at Friends in Lisburn. Easily in the top rank of detective fiction. Oh and Dibdin’s Zen series got better and better and better or perhaps just darker.

  • Dewi

    Dibdin Irish? Never knew that – fabulous writer.

  • Not quite – he was born in Woverhampton and according to the obits his family were constantly on the move until young Dibdin put his foot down at 7 and they settled in Lisburn. He is still remembered by Friends alumni.

  • toker

    A good film with brilliant acting have to agree with fitzjames horse1745 also If mac anallys characheter was so principled why did he take alone from one of the most oppressive empires in history who as most people knew in the early 1980s were facing economic decline. I recommend GBH .Mine you I think the best thing Bleasedale done was Boys in Black Episode with the brilliant Pete Posthelwaite who died today

  • gendjinn


    Perkins took the loan from a bank. He took it from the bank because they were the only ones who would give him one because, if you had watched the series, the Western banks refused to. Remember in that part of the story the establishment forces (which included all the banks) were attempting to economically cripple him.

    Money is fungible, its source is irrelevant.

    Your assertion that “most people” knew the USSR was in economic decline is false, one just needs to be reminded of Reagan’s frothing at the mouth terror of the power and might of the “evil empire” to know that.

  • gendjinn


    Alan Bleasdales early 1990s GBH was much nearer the reality of left wing politics.

    You should probably watch the mini-series to refresh your memory as your assertion could not be any further from the Bleasdale’s story.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Reagan’s frothing at the mouth terror of the power and might of the “evil empire”…”

    As I recall Ronnie was perfectly calm and reasonable when he referred, correctly, to the Soviet empire as “evil”.

    He most certainly wasn’t terrified of it however, on the contrary he was one of the few western statespeople (a certain lady in 10 Downing Street and a Polish pontiff in Rome being two others) who recognised that the prevailing idea of “detente” with the Communist bloc was wrong both strategically and morally.

    From very early on in his political career Reagan’s view of the then “Cold War” was refreshingly simple: “we win, they lose”.

    He was proven correct in the end, though it will be a cold day in Hell before lefties ever admit that.