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Party Animals

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 by

Programmes that purport to “lift the lid” on certain professions consider there is always something worth lifting the lid for. It’s a custom built on an assumption that the effort required to mine the seam of a particularly lumpen vocation will be matched by the glittering treasure hidden within. We’ve gone to the trouble of throwing some light upon these hitherto murky practices, the writ runs, now bask upon its illuminated contents and feel grateful.

It was erstwhile BBC reporter Martin Bell who, upon becoming MP for Tatton in 1997, professed himself gripped with the desire to do just that and “shine a light into the darkest corners of the mother of all parliaments.” Such bombastic oratory somewhat ill-fitted the specifics of a job that, traditionally, involved representing your constituents’ interests as regards the proposed a) opening b) closing or c) re-naming of a local maternity ward.

Bell presupposed there was actually something he would be able to shine a light into – and, moreover, that the electorate would be interested in whatever he found there. That, historically, he failed in both tasks wasn’t solely down to his rather pompous preening. His new stamping ground had a big hand in matters.

The workings of Westminster don’t lend themselves to playing the role of the dead body in the boiler cupboard ready to topple out just when our heroic detective is about to throw in the towel. They defy conventional melodrama. Its heroes and villains are grey, shabby people working in grey, shabby offices to turn Britain into a new Jerusalem. Sometimes they succeed. Most of the time they fail. In both cases hardly any of the population notices until many years later and they discover they need to start filling in a different coloured form at the post office.

To render the machinery of power revelatory, the wheels and cogs need to be fashioned from the magical, not the mundane. You can throw as many eccentric, jovial or corrupt individuals into the pot as you like, but ultimately, so long as the system entertains a humdrum cloak, what goes in alluring will always come out charmless.

Party Animals, one episode in, has certainly amassed an armoury of multi-faceted personnel ready for battle. Its characters are refreshingly genuine and sympathetically fallible. It has a fair stock of rookies and rogues. People do things that happen in real life, like take a sip of beer from a pint glass before sitting down at a table, or not walk in a straight line down a corridor.

The Westminster through which these conscripts tentatively advance, however, remains defiantly opaque. None of those elusive pistons of government have been exposed or challenged. It’s not too soon to expect such an autopsy; the first episode of House of Cards, for instance, cavorted through whole centuries of parliamentary procedure in devastatingly entertaining fashion. By contrast, Party Animals disguises more than it concedes. Offices are nameless. Positions of authority are unexplained. Jargon is ubiquitous, bland rather than colourful.

Its characters have also been armed with decidedly rank dialogue. It’s a fair bet nobody in the Westminster square mile says things like, “A year’s work – flushed down the toilet!” or ,”Goodnight Vienna!” or, “If you want to step up, you need to grow up” anymore. Even if they do, their TV counterparts certainly shouldn’t be saying them.

Such pendulous clich├ęs dragged otherwise ebullient characters down into the depths of tedium. Decent political drama amplifies the ordinary rather than revelling in the banal. At times this episode sounded like a piece of drama prepared for a junior school assembly.

Devoting equal attention to offices of the government and opposition was one of the show’s more effective tactics. The way the action ping-ponged between rival camps gave the episode an infectious momentum, and helped the 60-minute running time to feel more like half an hour.

This was in spite of sequences – characters boozing, characters moping – also guilty of the charge of holding back more than they were letting on. Were it not for the wealth of intriguing plot points (seduction, betrayal, treachery, death), it would have been all too easy to emerge from the episode not caring enough about the cast to tune in next week.

The tone of the piece, though, was the clincher. An air of confidence was palpable in every scene. Everybody on camera seemed gripped by the fact that they were proving a point, despite it not always being clear to those watching at home what the point was. Abstract characters going about their business in purposeful ways can prove to be deeply entertaining; such was the case here. There was something in the eyes of the main protagonists, from the lowly Jarvis Cocker-esque researcher to the tyrannical chief whip, that compelled you to keep watching. Perhaps it was the glint of light being shone into dark corners.

Grand themes and big ideas are being groped at in Party Animals. On balance the omens look favourable it will ultimately deliver both. There’s so much to be said about the operation of government it would be a desperate shame if the show – like Martin Bell – ended up leaving viewers less enlightened and more bemused to the ways of Westminster.

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