Winston Churchill wasn’t immortalised on British screens until five years after his death. The Profumo affair took a quarter of a century to dramatise. But the rate at which politics is appropriated by showbusiness – prosthetics obscuring the traditional difference between the two – is rather faster these days.
On Wednesday, we’ll get This England, a drama covering Boris Johnson’s time in office, with Kenneth Branagh in lumbering, pseudo-Churchillian mode and Ophelia Lovibond, with bump and twice as much hair, as Carrie.
This feels rather quick – perhaps too quick. It is pure chance that the series isn’t showing while Johnson is still prime minister. Lovibond has told interviewers how strange it was to see her character on the front pages as she showed up to film and spoke of her responsibility – as if she were on jury service – not to be swayed by speaking to the wrong people about it. Filming also finished too early for director Michael Winterbottom to include the real end of the story, over which he must be kicking himself, and the series will even dwell on the rampages of Covid, with dying patients and sobbing relatives. Too soon?
Political dramas have been happening too soon for quite some time. While still in office, Tony Blair was immortalised to death (The Deal, starring Michael Sheen, one of many Blair docudramas, was screened just five years into his premiership). Brexit: The Uncivil War was released in 2019 while big decisions over the event still loomed and Dominic Cummings, the main character, still ran amok in Downing Street.
What result, if any, will this dash to turn current events into drama have? In contrast to the political balance in the media, say, the effect that political fiction might have on the body politic isn’t taken especially seriously. But fiction and television drama does change how people think about politics and politicians. It might even change how we vote.
This is, of course, hardly a new observation. Shelley once wrote that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”.
The political novel has had a profound effect on politics over the years – the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is credited with pushing America towards abolition and the civil war, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies with anti-child-labour legislation.
We still reach for classic works such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale to explain and rally feeling around political events. Fictional victims, who have taken the time to draw us into their psychological worlds, can have more emotive power than real ones.
But the power of fiction can reach far beyond its use as a political tool into the realms of the unintended. Take a recent US study that exposed subjects to a far-fetched film about a government conspiracy – Wag the Dog – and found they became significantly more likely to believe that a president will stage a fake war in the future and that an actual president has done so in the past. Another study found that even intelligent viewers bought into conspiracy theories in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK, which blended fact with fiction in a tale about his assassination.
This liability to get confused between drama and reality is true even with portrayals of current politicians whose stories we know extremely well. Research finds that audiences primed with facts have come to believe blatant falsehoods if they see them in a drama documentary (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one). “At the end, when we saw the real Tony and Gordon on College Green we barely noticed they were not [Michael] Sheen and [David] Morrissey,” as the critic Andrew Billen wrote of The Deal.
This credibility can apply even to those who have actually witnessed the events themselves. In his book A State of Play, Steven Fielding relates the reaction of Geoffrey Howe to watching Thatcher: The Final Days. “At almost every moment when my actions, my words, were being depicted, I was conscious of serious, no doubt unintentional inaccuracies. Literally nothing was quite right. Yet for all those sequences where I was not on screen, disbelief was largely suspended… ‘So that’s why George’ – or Peter or whoever – ‘did that’, I found myself thinking time and again.”
It doesn’t help that politicians have discovered in recent decades that key to electoral success is telling personal stories about themselves; becoming heroes of their own dramas. Nor that they seek to draw favourable comparisons between themselves and fictional politicians. Westminster’s obsession with The West Wing has led to such excruciating maxims as “let Boris be Boris” and “let Starmer be Starmer” (a reference to “let Bartlet be Bartlet”, of the show’s fictional US president).
Fielding writes that Ukip once deliberately acquired a web address similar to the one used by the BBC to promote The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, a series about a popular politician. But perhaps the best evidence for this modern blending of politics with its portrayal on screen is the career of the extraordinary Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected on the basis that he had played the Ukrainian president in a TV show.
Fiction influences democracy. It would be wrong to do anything about it, of course, but we shouldn’t ignore it either. Those who make films about spin doctors are a species of spin doctor themselves. They have influence. We can only urge them to take it seriously.
• Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent