‘The Special Relationship’ goes out tonight, and in the build-up publicity, the promoters, as with The Deal and The Queen, have been keen to talk up how much research they did, and therefore how historically accurate it is.
I would love to see the ‘research’ papers. As it’s going out on BBC2, perhaps someone could try Freedom of Information. Because however much research they did, they did not get an accurate picture. Far from it.
As I am heading to the Great North Run post Palace v Burnley tonight, I won’t see it as it goes out. But Radio Times kindly sent me a copy a few weeks back, and the review I did appears below.
But I saw this morning an interesting quote from Michael Sheen, the actor who plays Tony Blair. ‘Whenever I talk about him, I’m talking about the character, rather than the actual person, because I don’t have any idea about the real person. Ultimately it’s supposition. I don’t know for definite. I don’t know Tony Blair … but I know this character that I play. How much similarity it bears to the actual Tony Blair, I’ve no idea. And I don’t really care.’
All very different to the ‘historically accurate’ claims of the writing, production and research departments.
Radio Times piece follows …
The Blair government has spawned more films, plays, docudramas, even musicals than any other, and The Special Relationship is the latest in that long line.
Interviewed recently for a Radio Four programme on the dramatisation of New Labour I told the story of a chance encounter ty with one of the makers of The Queen. He wanted to know if I had seen it. I had. He asked how accurate it was. I said the news clips were clearly accurate. For the rest, I put it in the four or five out of ten category. As for research, he explained that well, we wrote to everyone involved, most of you told us to get lost so we went away and made it up.
Here is the trouble with dramatised accounts of real events, especially when mixed with real footage. People start to think both are real.
Yet the gap between what actually happened and what is portrayed is even bigger in this one than in The Queen. What’s more, there is enough material out there for that to have been discerned, which makes me think the makers simply decided facts would not be allowed to get in the way of a good story.
The ‘story’ is of young Tony Blair essentially using the weakening of Bill Clinton via Monica Lewinsky, and TB’s genuine revulsion at ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, to make himself the main man on the world stage. And it ends with Clinton watching on as Blair talks on the phone to George Bush, and then telling his young heir that he always had doubts about him and wonders now whether he was ever a progressive at all. Somewhere between fanciful and preposterous.
A few facts. Kosovo was difficult. There were real pressures on both leaders from different directions. As he acknowledges in his book, TB put considerable pressure on BC over ground troops. Clinton did at one point think – wrongly – that we were building up TB at his expense. There was one particularly angry phone call. There was one particularly difficult meeting in Washington. In real life, it ended with everyone having a drink and agreeing to talk again tomorrow. In the film Clinton asks Blair to ‘step outside’. And at one point he says ‘what a tough son of a bitch you are … Stabbing me in the back in my own backyard.’ Never happened. Nothing like it. Period.
I watched the film with my 16 year old daughter. Put to one side her irritation that ‘Dad, why do they always do you like a yob?’ …her main interjection was ‘that wouldn’t happen would it?’ Like journalists applauding at press conferences, us not knowing before arrival at the White House what sort of meeting was planned, TB having to be told what POTUS (President of the United States) stands for, TB walking into the Oval Office and nobody being there, or cutting off President Chirac on the phone, Clinton not knowing how long a presidential term is, TB walking out of the Commons while William Hague was speaking. Ludicrous stuff.
As before, Michael Sheen does a technically good Blair. Dennis Quaid does a good Clinton voice even if he does not quite look or move like him. Helen McCrory and especially Hope Davis catch something of Cherie and Hillary. But the film gets nowhere near the truth about the Blair-Clinton relationship, and the closing scenes expose the real agenda, Clinton being used to warn TB in lurid terms not to get close to Bush.
It will not make it into the same league as The Queen. Watching it, I realised why that film was so successful. It was only partly the story. It was actually the fact of someone playing a figure who is as well known as anyone in the world, yet rarely heard or seen in anything other than formal settings. Whereas she has been dramatised so little, TB has perhaps been dramatised too much. When the makers go to Michael Sheen asking for another one, he might be better off making Brian Clough the sequel.