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Emma Gray: What Francis Urquart's creator told me about political fiction

Emma Gray is a graduate of the Leeds University Politics and Parliamentary Studies programme and has worked at Westminster for eleven years.  She is author of new political thriller Party Games.  Follow Emma on Twitter: @emsie1979

Screen shot 2012-10-18 at 20.21.53I have often pondered how much political fiction contributes to our understanding of personality in politics, the human aspect of a world relatively few know much about.  “Politics is such a rich backdrop, it is a fantastic stage on which to set a drama...inspiration is all around, you only have to open the morning newspapers, switch on the radio.” Bestselling author Michael Dobbs tells me over hot chocolate and a muffin.

The Coalition provides such a rich political tapestry I’m surprised fiction writers even know where to start. So how do we tell whether fictional portrayals of those who uphold our democracy are, in fact, true to life? And should they be?

In political fiction, imitation can indeed be the most sincere form of flattery if you are a politician who sees yourself as a ruthless schemer. “I think the only people I’ve actually upset in politics are those who rushed up to me and said ‘Francis Urquart, you really did base him on me, didn’t you?’” Lord Dobbs says. “And I have to say ‘actually no, I didn’t’, and they go away usually crestfallen.”

Politicians such as Boris Johnson, George Bush Jr and even Australia’s answer to Boris, the formidable Kevin Rudd, would surely be ‘too unrealistic’ if they were fictitious creations. All three possess certain traits which border on caricatures, yet in real life we (on the whole) accept them at face value. I have been asked whether I based those in my own book on real people. To answer ‘no’ wouldn’t be strictly true; it is quite fun to take bits from different people and blend them into one to create a character worthy of the reader's attention.

Although writers may try hard to create a plausible yet entertaining story, sometimes real life can be as strange as fiction.  Lord Dobbs says: “If I wrote something in a book about a Chief Whip on his bike at the gates of Number 10, nobody would have accepted it.  You have to take reality and then water it down in order to make it credible in a novel, because you expect people to act reasonably rationally, but time and time again in politics, they don’t.”

Political gaffes and the general inadequacies of the human condition mean that politicians fall into the trap of becoming a parody of themselves.  Sean Gray (no relation!), one of the writers of The Thick of It, wrote recently that ‘life imitates sweary art’ in the series more than he intended. The excellent Armando Iannucci U.S series, Veep, features an incident where Vice President Meyers sacks her special agent for smiling, essentially telling him he should know his place, only for one of her staff to further insult him by calling him an ‘ape’.  An increasing cynicism with politicians in today’s world, with more gossip about politicians’ behaviour entering the public consciousness, means it could be argued that people are less shocked than they once were with real-life politicians and their fictitious counterparts.

But, for all the satires and the dramas, I don’t necessarily think it does politicians themselves too much harm. It can, instead, give them more of a human face. They are individuals with flaws, who on the whole are (contrary to popular belief) a bunch of people who want to make a difference and who may trip up along the way, like we all do in life. Only their indiscretions, words allegedly said in the heat of the moment to police officers, their blunders, their arguments at work, are shared with millions over the blogosphere rather than kept to mere office gossip.

Political fiction, whether in novels such as A Very British Coup, House of Cards (which is to be shown as a “West Wing for werewolves” US remake next February starring Kevin Spacey) or television comedies such as Yes, Minister, Thick of It, and Veep, all use political situations merely as a vehicle for human interaction.  It’s not necessarily about the politics itself; there isn't a preachy political message, more a story about people, their failings and their flaws.  While a documentary might not excite the non-political mind, a drama – a soap opera about people which happens to be set at Westminster - just might.  Millions don’t tune into Coronation Street because they want to know about Manchester.

Equally, Mad Men isn’t a successful series because people want to learn about advertising.  It is popular because it is essentially a human drama about people working in a stressful, powerful, pressure-cooker world, and how those people react to the environment in which they operate.  It helps us understand how people tick, with a good dose of artistic license thrown in.  I firmly agree with Lord Dobbs when he tells me that “people assume that politicians are a different breed, but they’re not, they’re just in a different place, subjected to different pressures and huge temptations, [but] if we wrote dramas that were all about what a wonderful bunch of guys these are at Westminster, it would be a hard sell.”  Yes, politics can be exhilarating, rewarding, change lives for the better, but it can also be a dirty, nasty, dog-eat-dog business which can corrupt.

But, of course, it’s not just the politicians themselves who are mocked. The media, the ‘SpAd’ culture, the political institutions, the very processes which put the politicians there in the first place (leading to all sorts of local difficulties, if Iannucci is to be believed), are there to be lampooned, questioned, explained through a dramatic setting. So does that mean that the viewers themselves – the voters - are also subject to a little dig by the writers for being the ones who actually elected these ‘back-stabbers’, these ‘incompetents’ in the first place? Perhaps it’s not necessarily the fault of those poor individuals who dedicate their lives to public service after all.  But that is for a different discussion.

The future for such dramas, on television at least, appears bright. More and more high quality political dramas are being made, but as long as they don't fully embrace the stereotype or indulge in party political messages they can continue to entertain. BBC left-wing bias may still be alive, but in today's world of a multitude of networks available both here and in the US, including Internet TV such as Netflix (which will be showing House of Cards), there is scope for even more thought-provoking and human portrayals of politicians in future.  This can only be applauded.


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