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Very British Coup, A (1988)

Courtesy of Channel 4 Television

Main image of Very British Coup, A (1988)
Skreba Films/Parallax Pictures for Channel Four, 19/6-3/7/1988
3 x 55 minutes, colour
DirectorMick Jackson
ProducersSally Hibbin
 Ann Skinner
AdaptationAlan Plater
Original novelChris Mullin

Cast: Ray McAnally (Harry Perkins), Alan MacNaughtan (Browne), Keith Allen (Thompson), Christine Kavanagh (Liz), Geoffrey Beevers (Wainwright), Jim Carter (Newsome), Philip Madoc (Fison), Tim McInnerny (Fiennes)

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An elected leftwing Labour government begins a programme of radical change, including the removal of American nuclear weapons from British soil. But it soon finds itself undermined by dark forces in the Establishment.

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A Very British Coup (Channel 4, 1988) looks both to the past and to the future. Made after Labour's third successive election defeat in 1987, when the party was swinging to the right, the idea that a Labour government could be elected on a popular platform of public spending and anti-Americanism seemed extremely unlikely. Labour MP Chris Mullin's original novel was written in the late 1970s, a time which was already a fading memory for the population of Britain, who would not see another Labour government for nearly ten years.

In other ways it is utterly of its time, sharing a concern with the secret state and nuclear weapons with contemporary conspiracy thrillers Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1986) and Defence of the Realm (d. David Drury, 1985). State surveillance became an increasing concern for civil libertarians with the proliferation of computer databases keeping files on political activists.

The series' images of surveillance are striking: American agent Chambers (Erin Donovan) operates clunking reels of audiotape, while her British counterpart Fiennes' (Tim McInnerny) monochrome computer monitor is shot in close-up as names and numbers appear character by character. The look is laughably archaic, but at the same time clearly only the visible part of the iceberg of the unseen state.

Keith Allen's effective performance as Thompson, press secretary to charismatic Prime Minister Perkins (Ray McAnally), is more enjoyable for knowing that future 'king of spin' Alastair Campbell - later to perform the same role for Tony Blair's popular and radical, but much more right-wing, Labour government - was one of the production's advisers.

But such ironies don't detract from a powerful drama. Political victory for Labour in the first episode is followed by personal tragedy in the second, as Foreign Secretary Newsome's (Jim Carter) affair is discovered, and nuclear skulduggery in the third, as Perkins attempts to remove US bases from UK soil. Finally, as Perkins raises the stakes, the hidden state is forced to reveal its true face. McAnally's performance was so powerful that many would have preferred him to what Labour had to offer at the time.

In the end, A Very British Coup is perhaps best seen not as a conspiracy thriller, but as a political fantasy: a story of politicians, not plotting amongst themselves, but trying to do the best for their country and its working-class population, in a world increasingly hostile to the will of the people.

Danny Birchall

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Video Clips
1. A simple-minded fool (3:57)
2. Custom and practice (0:03:21)
3. Creating the rules (4:18)
Complete first episode (51:29)
Hibbin, Sally (1953-)
Plater, Alan (1935-2010)
Channel 4 Drama
Channel 4 at 25
Conspiracy Drama