Political Drama: What Drama?

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Quintin Oliver (Director, Stratagem)

As part of its 15th anniversary celebrations, Stratagem hosted a political drama film and discussion event at The MAC.

Stratagem Director, Quintin Oliver, explained how he was motivated by a gift request from his son for a box set of the West Wing series. “He said it would be educational. I realised it was as much for me as it was for him,” Quintin said, making him ponder why there wasn’t a similar political drama series for “the Hill, in the Bay and at Holyrood” (Northern Ireland Assembly, Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament). “Is it because we don’t find our politics interesting enough, or are we too cynical even to watch politicians?” he asked.

Arlene Foster MLA (Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment) remarked on the strength of the creative industry in Northern Ireland. She also said that local politicians are able to take the satire or other dramatic portrayal, but “does the audience want it? Would they watch it? Are we mature enough for political drama here in Northern Ireland?”

A montage of clips from political dramas elsewhere was shown — learning about filibusters (West Wing), forming a coalition Government (Borgen), making life difficult for your political opponent (Party Animals), and the hard personal and political perspective of conflict negotiations (Mo).

The subsequent discussion panel included Simon Heath (Producer, BBC 2 series Party Animals), Tim Loane (Lead Writer, Teachers), Neil McKay (Producer, Mo), Mads Qvortrup (Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Cranfield University), and Lesley Riddoch (Broadcaster and Commentator).

Earlier in the day, Lesley and Mads discussed political drama with Wendy Austin on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme.

And later in the day, Neil McKay and Tim Loane did the same on UTV Live Tonight.

After the Stratagem event, I had the pleasure of joining the panel guests for dinner. Mads educated me on the origin of Borgen — a Dutch book about internal Conservative Party politics (Solitaire Royale) inspired a Dutch film of the same name, which in turn inspired a Dutch celebrity chef, Adam Price, to write Borgen.

We also carried forward the discussion on fantasy political drama projects. I made a pitch for a piece of political fiction — the American patriots don’t achieve a conclusive victory in the War of Independence; Westminster acknowledges and funds an American Loyalist Assembly (probably situated in upstate New York); and the Founding Fathers have to include this dimension as they draw up the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Unsurprisingly, none around the dinner table got excited about my proposal!


Originally posted at http://mrulster.org/2013/04/24/political-drama-what-drama/

  • wild turkey

    “Is it because we don’t find our politics interesting enough, or are we too cynical even to watch politicians?” he asked.

    ah, could it be a bit of both? aside from the annual and ongoing hillbilly feuds re: flegs. parades. commemorations etc. etc. regional politics is singularly lacking in drama. if i recall correctly, the word drama derives from the greek word for ‘action; ‘to do’ or ‘to act’. numerous posts on slugger have addressed from different perspectives the lack of action, the lack of ‘doing’ at stormont. so not much to get interested then, is there.

    given the overwhelming number of players, MLA’s, Spads, a relatively immense PR operation and the associated accoutrements of administration that appear to exist not to act but to exist, and to maintain meaningful employment for 100s (or 1000s?) of gifted and talented individuals who have foregone lucrative careers in the private sector to serve the public and civic good, yeah a bit of cynicism might kick in.

    and finally, for your consideration Mr Ulster, try this political fantasy on for size. the american patriots decisively win the revolution. the british see the writing on the wall. Westminster, becomes a regional assembly of the greater american empire. The founding fathers do draw up a written constitution and bill of rights.
    hey presto, all of a sudden the UK has a written constitution and a bill of rights.
    The British royal family is stood down,given an attractive redundancy package and retires to a lovely mansion on the shores of Cultra. American largesse includes the construction of an impressive ‘Queens highway’ from Cultra to the edge of Donaghadee pier. local loyalists can march it into perpetuity.

    During the 1840s the irish potato crop fails. a massive import of american grain and foodstuffs is followed up the incorporation of the four provinces of ireland into the american federal union. …. and in series 2…….

  • Scáth Shéamais

    I’d have thought the event being hosted as part of the Belfast Film Festival might have been worth a mention.

  • Yes, Scáth Shémais, you’re right, both @BelfastFilmFes1 and @TheMacBelfast (and others, of course) played critical roles in supporting and helping this endeavour…we are all grateful for the various partnerships that oil the wheels of debate, contestation and argument.

    So, let’s continue that disputatious discourse…

  • wild turkey

    well here is a genuine piece of political drama. direct from Slugger no less.


    in classical greek drama the protagonist is one of over reaching ambition who eventually meets their demise. whilst we, the chorus, stand in the off wings with some awe. and often pity.

    but given the allegations, and horrific impact on the young woman, in this particular instance awe and pity for the protagonist is off the table.

  • wild turkey,

    For some reason yet to be explained, that particular blog has disappeared.
    Unfortunately for some, if you earn a reputation of being a chronic liar, then, even when you might be truthful, it is hard to fully believe anything you say.

  • That blog has now reappeared but I don’t know if it has changed.

  • Neil

    Comments removed and suspended Joe. Most likely as the case is still going through the courts. Don’t tempt honest people kind of thing.

  • wild turkey

    ‘Given the legal sensitivities around this case all comments have been suspended…’

    we are left in suspense. well, i guess that is drama in a way.

    Mr Joe, the serious point i was trying to make is the that players in the game here, and their associated zipper lickers (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ?) do not possess the dignity and depth to in any way be associated with drama. comic books? perhaps.

    i remember staying with my grandfather as a young boy listening to the election returns of the 1960 presidential election on the radio! during the evening, and yes after a couple of beers and shots, started to reminiscence with some pride about voting for FDR and his vote that day for JFK.

    Maudlin? yep. those days are and never comin back. but they never existed here in northern ireland and definitely do not exist now.

    ‘Romantic Ireland is dead and gone. It’s with O’Leary in the grave;

    so, hence no drama. after thirty plus years resident in the north i remain surprised that the national enquirer never had a stringer in belfast .

  • @Mister_Joe Indeed your point was made by Neil McKay (in the UTV clip provided above), that making fictional political drama for Northern Ireland would be particularly challenging because many of its characters “have had previous lives”.

  • @wildturkey Your alternative American political fiction made me smile. Of course, the crucial phrase is “the british see the writing on the wall”. I recall the splits between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in regards to the spoils of WWII, i.e. America wasn’t fighting to restore the British Empire. Ah but if only the writing on the wall was so clear all those centuries ago…

  • Rory Carr

    I am reminded that it is almost 50 years since the death of Northern Ireland’s first, last and only serious political dramatist, Sam Thompson. Sam’s great breakthrough play was a corruscating drama of violent bigotry in the shipyards and it’s theme of trade union dithering on tackling the issue until tragedy overtook procrastination was mirrored by the board of the Group Theatre who, having commissioned the play then got cold feet and “ in May 1959 the company’s directors announced that they were withdrawing the play just two weeks before its scheduled opening; they described the play as ‘full of grossly vicious phrases and situations which would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public … It is the policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage’. “.

    Sam sued for breach of contract and won and the Group’s recently appointed producer, Jimmy Ellis resigned along with other members of the Group and the play was successfully staged at the Empire Theatre opening on 26th January 1960 and then (no doubt thanks in part to the influence of Sam Hanna-Bell) was broadcast on Ulster Television in the ITV Play of the Week series in 1961. I still remember the excitement and anticipation as the opening credits rolled and the catharsis that swept through us as, at last, the taboo was broken and the unspoken finally spoken on bloody TELEVISION ” For ff’s sake ! Heady days indeed. **

    In 1964 Sam stood as NI Labour candidate in South Down in the Westminster elections and I joined his very small team headed by Downpatrick’s own ardent left-winger and sometime playwright and actor, the highly individual, Raymond Barry. Sam ran in third with 6,000 votes behind Capt. L.P.S. Orr (Ulster Unionist) whose only abiding interest was as chairman of the House of Commons Wine Committee and who, in his three decades in parliament only addressed the House once, on the heady question of the correct length of vestments to be worn by Anglican clergymen (and people complain about the loss of representation caused by Sinn Féin abstention policy – harrumph !). Strangely, during the campaign, I was hitchhiking home from Belfast in pouring rain having spent my bus fare on fags when I was picked up by an elegant, mustachioed gent driving an Austin Cambridge. He contrived to quiz me if I recognised him and was immensely pleased when I acknowledged that I did. He then asked if I might vote for him and I explained that I was yet too young to have a vote and he then wondered whether there might be any votes in my family. I explained that, as we were Catholic, this was most unlikely and he took this with good grace and delivered me safe (and dry) to my destination.

    Sam died suddenly the following year from a heart attack but not before producing two more plays to go into production, The Evangelist 1963 (bit of a guess who ?) at the Grand Opera House and Cemented With Love broadcast on television posthumously in 1965 which dealt with the politics of an election campaign and which,although I watched it and although I was directly involved in the author’s recent ploitical campaign upon which I suppose it is safe to assume he had drawn for inspiration, I’m damned if I can recall a single thing about it.

    ** Here’s the cast list for the tv production of Over the Bridge which reads like Who’s Who ? of every Northern Irish actor from the 50’s through to the 80’s :

    ELIZABETH BEGLEY – Nellie Mitchell
    JOHN COWLEY – George Mitchell
    FINLAY CURRIE – Davy Mitchell
    SHELA WARD – Martha White
    J G DEVLIN – Rabbie White
    FRASER HINES – Ephraim
    RIO FANNING – Warren Baxter
    MAUREEN TOAL – Marian
    JAMES ELLIS – Archie Kerr
    DONAL DONNELLY – Peter O’Boyle
    DERMOT McDOWELL – Billy Morgan
    KEITH PYOTT -Clergyman
    ALLAN McLELLAND – Mob Leader

    Them wuz the days !