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November 23, 2006

Harry Phibbs discovers Euroscepticism on the BBC: The Amazing Mrs Pritchard

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Amazing Mrs Pritchard
BBC One, 3rd October - 7th November 2006

This drama series of six episodes screened recently by the BBC is about a supermarket manager who becomes Prime Minister. The story begins during the early stages of a General Election campaign. Even in the opening credits we get an idea of the character of Ros Pritchard - no nonsense, well organised, spic and span, firm but fair, bright and breezy. Part of this "down to earth" persona is that we are in Eatanswill in Yorkshire. The actress Jane Horrocks seems to enjoy the role.

Ros allows the Labour and Tory candidates to campaign in the car park of her Greengages supermarket but when they come to blows she intervenes and denounces them in front of the television cameras. She then decides to stand herself at the last minute collecting the ten signatures and handing over her cheque for 500 without discussing it with her family first. One of the aspects of her is that she acts impulsively without consultation either with her husband or in subsequent episodes her cabinet colleagues. "I know I should have done but I didn't", is pretty much all she usually offers by way of a defence.

The tensions and pressure with her family provide half the narrative intertwined with the political drama that provides the other half. I felt that the human element was sufficiently strong that even someone with no interest or knowledge of politics would enjoy watching this series while being surreptitiously educated as to how power is exercised in our country in an often rather quirky way.

Of course the scenario of her being flooded with phone calls of candidates who then sweep the country is unlikely in the extreme - but it was presented in such a way to persuade it was not impossible. What helped were cameo roles from real people. We had retired politicians such as Lord Hattersley and Lord Steel acting as pundits as the election results came in for Pritchard's Purple Alliance. She is interviewed during the campaign by Gavin Esler, Kirsty Wark and John Humphrys. I particularly liked Peter Snow enthusing about the "extraordinary result" as the map of Britain is turned purple.

The mix of fact and fiction is given a compromise with Tony Blair who exists as the Labour leader but is played by an actor and is presented quite well congratulating Ros Pritchard on her election as Prime Minister.

I also found it entirely believable at the start of the election campaign when Ros was told that the supermarket chain's owner Kitty Porter had arrived by helicopter. Ros assumed she was going to be sacked for plunging the supermarket into political controversy. Instead Porter donates 10 million thus financing the campaign not just for Ros but for the hundreds of others around the country keen to embrace a new spirit of amateur politics. It may be stretching it that a Party without a clear ideological stance or policies would sweep to power. But then we are in age where there is less ideological clash between the parties and so the charge against the main parties of petty squabbling carries greater resonance.

Once again the BBC has been accused of anti Tory bias with this series. Certainly Tory politicians, notably the fictitious Tory leader, are portrayed in an unsympathetic light. But in terms of the deeper message of the script the Tories should have less cause for complaint.

The political input is provided by Edward Howker, who used to work for the Centre for Policy Studies, a Thatcherite think tank. Howker is an influential figure in Direct Democracy, a campaign by Conservatives to promote "localism".

One episode had a powerful Eurosceptic slant with Mrs Pritchard being shocked after becoming Prime Minister to discover just how much power had been handed over to the European Union.

Howker tells me:

Mrs Pritchard wants to give power back to the people. She may be an Independent MP but she finds what the Tory Eurosceptics were warning about was true.
Lady Thatcher is mentioned favourably by Catherine Walker, a tough minded Conservative who defects to the Purple Alliance to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. Ros asks:
Oh, of course, you knew her. What was she like?
Walker replies:
A bit like you.
One paradox is that while tapping into anti-politician sentiment the series actually brings home to viewers how politicians are fallible, well meaning human beings who, as individuals, merit their fair share of respect and sympathy.

For example Ros faces the dilemma of where to send her younger daughter Georgina to school. Leave her up in Yorkshire and hardly ever see her? Send her to a fee paying school? In the end she sends her to Jericho Road School, a run down, inner city school. It seemed to bare a remarkable resemblance to Pimlico Comprehensive where I was educated and where Jack Straw sent his sons who became known as the Short Straws.

There are plenty of comical episodes as well as some poignant ones. It transpires that her husband's efforts to dissuade her from a political career are due to concern about a dark secret in his own past emerging. When eventually it comes out Ros is faced with a choice of divorcing him or resigning as Prime minister. We are left not knowing what she decides.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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