Beaton, not stirred

by Stephen Tall on February 27, 2007

Last year the Indy chose the headline, Is Alistair Beaton Britain’s greatest living satirist?, to trail its profile of the Spitting Image writer turned playwright.

The answer is clearly no*, as anyone who has seen his most recent works – The Trial of Tony Blair and A Very Social Secretary – will well understand. (He was also, lest we remember, co-responsible for 1990’s Dunrulin, an execrably unfunny BBC1 sit-com depicting Margaret and Denis Thatcher’s post-Downing Street lives.)

Rather, he is the clunking fist of modern satire – shades of grey, nuance, character development and subtlety are all knocked to the four corners of the earth by his tediously heavy-handed approach.

Tomorrow, Mr Beaton’s executive producer on those earlier collaborations, David Aukin, turns his attention to John Prescott in ITV1’s Confessions of a Diary Secretary. I won’t be watching. Nor, it seems, will The Guardian’s John Harris, who lambasts it as “another contribution to the chain of comedies and dramas in which TV’s much coveted edginess is simply a matter of wildly speculative scripts about politicians in office”.

However, I do feel the need to stick up for the show in one respect. Mr Harris alleges that:

Its acme of awfulness is a reconstruction of the watershed Brown-Blair summit at Prescott’s Admiralty Arch flat in 2004. Brown requests a higher chair than Blair’s, only for the latter to observe that – please, hold on to your sides – “Gordon’s always looked down on me.”

He’s entitled to his opinion about the humour. But, at least if we are to believe the Indy on Sunday’s political editor, Steve Richards, the incident is real enough. Indeed, he wrote a column describing just such a scene in July 2004:

The truce began last November [2003], when Mr Prescott famously hosted a dinner, acting as a mediator for both men after they had fallen out in public. Friends of the duo describe that evening as “cathartic”. Mr Prescott is uniquely trusted by both figures. Indeed if there was not a John Prescott there would be a need to invent one in the current stormy climate. I am told that when the three of them first sat awkwardly around Mr Prescott’s table, Mr Brown complained about his chair, that it was uncomfortable and too low. Mr Prescott rushed off to get the Chancellor a more satisfactory seat. He asked Mr Blair if he also wanted a new chair, to which the Prime Minster replied, “No, it’s alright, Gordon has always looked down on me.” That characteristically self-deprecating and accurate joke lightened the tense proceedings.

I have to say I find it hard to believe that (rather pointed) joke would actually have lightened the atmosphere between Messrs Blair and Brown. But I find it even harder to believe that this example of accurate characterisation will transform Confessions from overblown farce into acute satire.

* The answer is Chris Morris as any fule kno.

Correction (28/2/07): this post originally, and erroneously, referred to Alistair Beaton as the writer of Confessions of a Diary Secretary. The only link to Mr Beaton is via the show’s executive producer, David Aukin, and I have amended the article accordingly. Though he hasn’t requested I apologise – simply to correct what was wrong – I’d like to take this opportunity do so anyway.