AN invite to the premiere press screening of The Politician’s Husband last Friday night.
Followed by a Q&A with acclaimed writer Paula Milne, whose many credits include White Heat, The Night Watch and The Politician’s Wife.
We were shown the first two episodes, of three in total.
Including terrific performances from David Tennant and Emily Watson.
The series begins on BBC2 at 9pm tonight (Thursday April 25) and comes recommended.
Below is the story I wrote the next morning, which subsequently appeared here this week.
Followed by my transcript of that Q&A with Paula, hosted by BBC Drama boss Ben Stephenson.
DAVID Tennant turns into a sadist for his latest TV drama – in a sickeningly vicious sex scene.
The former Doctor Who star plays grey-haired Cabinet minister Aiden Hoynes in BBC2’s three-part The Politician’s Husband.
Appropriate Adult actress Emily Watson co-stars as his wife Freya Gardner, a Junior Education minister in Whitehall.
Known as Westminster’s “golden couple” they carry their House of Commons power games into the bedroom.
The two actors filmed several “combative” sex scenes as Aiden quits his ministerial post and his bid to become Prime Minister fails.
While rising star Freya steps out of his shadow and is appointed a Cabinet minister herself in “the cesspit of Westminster power politics”.
Thwarted MP Aiden’s anger, jealousy and frustration eventually boil over and he commits a shocking sex act on Freya, leaving her emotionally battered and physically bruised.
Writer Paula Milne said: “The first sex scene we see with them, it is not entirely comfortable. It’s fine but it’s quite combative.
“But it becomes more brutal and it had the darkness shone on it.
“It is unforgiveable what he does.”
The former minister later becomes involved in a sex scandal after he is propositioned by a naked nanny.
Family au pair Dita, played by Sex Traffic actress Anamaria Marinca, walks in on Aiden when he is having a bath and makes plain that it is not his expenses she is interested in.
In another scene the ex-Time Lord dives fully clothed in a suit into a local swimming pool to rescue his screen son Noah (Oscar Kennedy), who has Asperger’s Syndrome, from the bottom.
The political melodrama also stars Roger Allam as Chief Whip, Ed Stoppard as Aiden’s former best friend and political rival and Kirsty Wark as herself for a Newsnight interview.
With scenes set inside and outside No 10, including the Cabinet room, and the chamber of the House of Commons.
Mother-of-two Emily has spoken about filming the sex scenes and said that while David was a “complete gentleman” they are “always a bit of a nightmare”.
She added: “But this was particularly violent, and it’s a bit, sort of, ‘Mummy, what did you do at work today?’ Uh, well, you know that Doctor Who..?’”
Paula also wrote the acclaimed The Politician’s Wife, screened in 1995 by Channel 4.
She said this follow up was about “power within a marriage” and reflected voters’ “disappointment” with the current state of politics.
Also revealing that all the surnames in the drama are taken from the characters in one of her favourite shows – The West Wing.
BBC drama boss Ben Stephenson said: “Television has steered away from the depiction of sex and sexuality. But it’s at the heart of this piece.”
David spent time with famous MPs while preparing for his role in the political drama but refused to reveal names.
He returned to his Time Lord role last week alongside Matt Smith to film scenes for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special episode.
The Scottish actor plays grumpy D.I. Alec Hardy in ITV hit drama Broadchurch, with millions about to discover tonight who killed young Danny Latimer.
*The Politician’s Husband begins on BBC2 at 9pm on Thursday. (April 25)
Introducing the screening, BBC Drama boss Ben Stephenson said:
“This is a really compelling, delicious slice of political intrigue. Paula has used a Shakespearean backdrop of the modern political system to tell a very deeply detailed story about the gender divide in a modern marriage. So although politics is the backdrop of this piece, ultimately that is just the way of emphasising and dramatising the detail of this extraordinary relationship, portrayed so beautifully and brilliantly and surprisingly by Emily Watson and David Tennant, our two remarkable leads.”
Post-screening Q&A hosted by Ben Stephenson:
Q: These character surnames ring a bell, Paula. Can you reveal…unleash the secret of the surnames?
Paula Milne: “The West Wing. It’s just a little homage, really. Every character…”
Q: The prequel – The Politician’s Wife. Just remind us of when it happened, what it was about and where you got your inspiration from?
Paula Milne: “That was 1994 / 1995, when the Tories were in power and John Major and family values and there was a kind of litany of David Mellor and Cecil Parkinson et al. And I remember in the Mellor situation, he and his wife and the family standing by the garden gate and thinking, ‘What if she didn’t forgive him? How could she forgive him and what if she didn’t?’ And that really spawned it. After it was made and went out, it was quite interesting – it caught the zeitgeist here because of what was happening in the Tory party and it was kind of on its last legs and the whole moral fabric and stuff was breaking down. But what was really interesting about it was that it was huge abroad, which didn’t have our parochial politics. So it obviously said something about – this is slightly precognition with hindsight – slightly maybe even like Borgen does, that if the politics are universal enough they don’t have to be that parochial. And in the end it was about the destruction of a marriage.”
Q: Whizz forward to where we are now – what has inspired you to write this about politics today? What’s the atmosphere around politics that feeds this?
Paula Milne: “I have to rewind and just say that there were a lot of opportunities to do follow ups to The Politician’s Wife, around that time and subsequently. And I had a very strong instinct to leave well alone. That it was a good piece and had really connected, much to my surprise as anyone else’s, and not to be so cynical…but then recently…it was partly watching The West Wing again and The Thick Of It and thinking about politics and the expenses scandal and how people felt about that. And to write a piece that was not party political, which The Politician’s Wife blatantly was, but about the power games. And to take the same template. I’d actually done it before The Politican’s Wife of taking a marriage in Die Kinder – which was a marital kidnap situation – to take an emotional engine, a prism through which to look at a political thing, in that case the Baader-Meinhof. And I thought, ‘If that worked before, it would be interesting to do it again but in reverse, because times have changed. So that was the basic idea.”
Q: So what is it that you think you’re saying about politics?
Paula Milne: “I hope I’m saying what a lot of the audience, and therefore the voters, feel. Which is an understandable disenchantment and disappointment. It is a tricky thing to do this, because The West Wing in America, it was aspirational. And we don’t have that. And The Thick Of It, which was fantastic but that was satire. I’m not a satirist. I’m a dramatist. But I felt that what the audience feel is credent, it’s important and it should be validated. And I wanted to reach out to that, as it were, because that’s what drama should do. It should reflect what people feel and create that kind of conduit. So that was part of what it was.”
Q: But do you think we’re inherently cynical towards our politicians? Because you also look at a classic show like House of Cards, which obviously has terrific relish for politicians – but only if they’re serial killers?
Paula Milne: “Or Machiavellian, let’s say?”
Q: Yes but by the end he’s killed them anyway?
Paula Milne: Yes, yes, yes. I think we have a very long tradition in politics that makes us look at it…I mean this is a political melodrama. As indeed House of Cards was. And it’s very interesting I think that in the re-make of House of Cards, which I think is actually brilliant…but there’s one thing I would take issue with. When Ian Richardson turns to camera, there’s a sort of delicious collusion. He invites us in and he make us as culpable as him in his machinations. But when Kevin Spacey does it, he’s just kind of telling us what he’s doing. And it doesn’t quite have that same ring.”
Q: So talk to us about sex, Paula. Televison has, I think, steered away from the depiction of sex and sexuality. But it’s at the heart of this piece. I mean in terms of gender as well. What you wanted to do about male and female relationships?
Paula Milne: “To return very briefly to The Politician’s Wife…”
Q: Which was also quite explicit…
Paula Milne: “Yes, it was. I think several politicans said to me their favourite line was when she was hitting him and he said, ‘Not my face, not my face!’ But the disintegration of that particular marriage showed itself in bed. And you know, why wouldn’t it? That is obvious. If you’re depicting a marriage, a sexual relationship, then it’s going to manifest itself there. And so returning to the template version, I did deploy that same dramatic strategy to The Politician’s Husband. It’s more brutal. I talked to Simon (Cellan Jones) the director quite a lot about this. So that the first sex scene you see with them, it is not entirely comfortable. It’s fine but it’s quite combative.”
Q: It’s power play…
Paula Milne: “Yes. And they had learned, or understood, to keep that in the bedroom. But as things transpire between them, and is obviously clear in the second episode, it became more brutal. And if you like it had the light shone on it, or the darkness shone on it. So sex scenes in drama must carry narrative. They can’t just be there to consolidate something you’ve already seen. It has to carry narrative. To ignore that in this…specifically on what happens in that second episode…it is unforgiveable what he does. And extraordinary that she can even begin to tolerate it. But she has felt, if you like, the thermos of power and she has too much to lose not to tolerate it. I just think these things are very complex and interesting.”
Q: So what’s your feeling about an audience’s sympathy? Because I think in The Politician’s Wife it was probably clearer where your emotions lay?
Paula Milne: “Yes.”
Q: It was very much her revenge against him. Whereas in this, perhaps both of them are, at times, on rather different moral compasses. What’s your intention for what they audience thinks about these people?
Paula Milne: “In The Politician’s Wife, just to put that in context at the time, there had been quite a lot of political dramas at that time. There’s quite a dearth of them now, really. But then there were a lot. There was Blair and there was a whole load of things and they were quite satirical and they were very polemic. That particular piece characterised Tories as characters. And I thought that was really important. And therefore you could inhabit them and so on. And of course she had been betrayed. She did behave badly. And we always felt in this that there should be a tightrope where you knew where he was coming from and then recoiled. I think that again, to go back to the audiences, where they feel about politicians…I wanted to convey by making it an ordinary family with a kid with Asperger’s and they’d suffered the buffets of life that all of us are not immune to. So I wanted to convey that. But at the same time, that the quest for power had damaged them both…as is said in her speech in the second episode, ‘Perhaps all power does corrupt regardless of gender.’”
Q: And there’s not party politics in this. You don’t care who they are – whether they’re Conservative or Labour or…
Paula Milne: “No. I made a very conscious decision that I felt that unlike with the previous piece, it would just then become either coalition or become party politics. And what I was interested in was…first of all, what is the difference anyway? Frankly? I’m sure people must feel like me when they’re asked questions on Question Time and Sky News and ITN and so on and they don’t answer the question…the frustration that we feel of seeing them toe the party line and so on. And it’s the party line, not the particular party line, so it was the power games, the leadership bids, the coups, the select committees…”
Ben then opened up questions to the audience:
Q: (From me as it happens) Paula, you’ve said times have changed and you spoke a little about that. Can you just expand on your view of that…in terms of the political scene?
Paula Milne: “Well that (1995) was a very specific piece about a very specific thing that was happening in politics. When I wrote it…you have to remember…at the risk of sounding creepy, I applaud the BBC for making this and putting it out quickly. But also Michael Grade did that in Channel 4. He read the script and said, ‘We must make this and make it now.’ Because he understood that. And drama is labyrinthianly-slow to make. So this is really important, to catch whatever semblance of zeitgeist there is. That was about family values…and this was…I wanted to see if I could connect with an audience in what I felt in my disappointment. This is post-expenses and a number of other things. Promises broken, from Blair onwards. Nick Clegg…there’s some visceral disappointment, I believe, that exists in the public now about politics.”
Q: (Ben Stephenson) Is there any Miliband in this piece?
Paula Milne: “Sadly no. I would be disingenuous to say that that did not feature in the back of my…to make them such close friends obviously. When you say it’s a political melodrama, that’s another way of saying a political allegory, if you like. So those things do…there has to be a recognition factor with the audience. If you’re not going to do party politics and you’re not going to say it’s about obvious political couples, there has to be the odd moments where people go, ‘Ah.’ The shoes with Theresa May…”
Q: The Asperger’s storyline is a surprise and unexpected. What’s the rationale from bringing that in?
Paula Milne: “Well it’s both kind of slightly cheap and decent. I’d done a lot of research into Asperger’s for another show that never got made (looks at Ben amid laughter) basically. So waste not want not. And what I felt about it at that time was valid. But also I didn’t want the whole thing to be about the usual stuff about kids and child care and stuff. To show in bite-sized moments for the audience that this family had dealt with something really meaningful. And in terms of the character of Aiden, I think that…to me, it was quite important, this relationship with his father, who as an academic had a pure relationship with politics. But Aiden had been, if you like, digging the dirt on the front line and had lost that. I spoke to many people with both my researcher and others and special advisors and a couple of politicians who helped with this and a line struck me, which I used but in a slightly different context, which is, ‘People hide in politics in plain sight.’ And a lot of them are hiding from things. And I thought that was very interesting and that the father’s deep disappointment in his child…it’s very difficult to acknowledge that you have a disappointment in your child. And so you displace it. So that was the idea.”
Q: Quite a lot of the characters are portrayed as selfish…do you think there’s space for the good in politics in terms of a drama? Or do you think it’s only the negative aspects of politics that really appeal?
Paula Milne: “I’m sorry to hear you say that. I believe – and I’m trying to convey this in the piece – that most people go into politics for good reasons. There’s not much money in it. It’s a tough journey. A lot of people go into medicine for altruistic reasons. Some don’t. But most people go in with really decent motives. And I believe that Freya and Aiden did. I’ve tried to convey that. Because what I was trying to say in the piece is, as she said, you get to be an MP, you think you can change things and as happened to him, you end up doing the holes in the road and the Post Office. And of course those things are important. But then you see that the things that actually can really change the infrastructure of society lie elsewhere. And that is what I was trying to convey. Not that they’re selfish. Quite the reverse, really. But he says at one point, ‘Sometimes you have to do bad things to get in power to do good things when you get there.’ And that is really what this piece is about.”
Ben Stephenson: “I’m always asked why there aren’t more nice families in EastEnders? And you think, ‘Because it’s boring,’ as well. So that was my answer to that.”
Q: Paula, I’m loving it. Absolutely fabulous. I’m very interested that he’s got his dad to talk to but she’s rather isolated. She doesn’t have a sidekick. Why did you decide to make her so lonely?
Paula Milne: “Maybe because she is. There was a thing on Woman’s Hour this morning that as women get successful, they get more isolated. I certainly know from my own case that the more successful I got, the less friends I had. That’s fine. I just had lots of children and made up for it that way. But I also think, just in narrative storytelling terms, when I went to Channel 4 to pitch The Politician’s Wife, the commissioning editor said, ‘Who is she going to confide in?’ And I hadn’t even thought about that. But immediately I said, ‘No-one. The audience.’ So in terms of suspense, you have to wonder what she’s going to do next. The most critical moment for me is when she’s alone in the Cabinet Room and she puts her hands on the table. I think the stage directions said that she felt the thermos of power. And that put the audience ahead of him and gave them a kind of, ‘Uh-oh.’ So if she’d had a confidante it would have ruined that. So a lot of it just actually comes down to sheer storytelling.”
Q: I wondered if you’d been influenced at all by Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper? They seem to me to be the most obvious couple where you’ve got two..?
Paula Milne: “They obviously are. I didn’t base it on them or talk to them or anything because I really wanted to steer clear of this party political thing, because then it just became about that. But this is what I would say – I watched Prince William’s wedding on television and in the Abbey the camera was going round, it was settling on Gordon Brown and so on, and it settled on those two. I had already started writing this. And Yvette was talking and he was looking at her. And he looked at her with sheer love. It was like a Bergman moment in a movie. It was so unexpectedly touching because he’s so thuggish in his persona often in the Commons. But there was such extraordinary tenderness and it re-inforced, as I was writing, what it was I was trying to do.”