Thoughts on The Amazing Mrs Pritchard

Last night, I watched the first episode of The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard – the BBC’s new comedy drama about a supermarket manager who becomes a non-partisan Prime Minister. I wonder if I’m the only viewer who was disappointed by it?

The basic premise – for those who didn’t see it – was that Mrs. Pritchard, after witnessing Tory and Labour candidates physically fighting outside her store, decides to stand for Parliament. Even though she knows nothing about policy problems, she thought she could do better than the male-dominated political parties, who were all the same. Her idea catches on, and lots of other apolitical women stand for parliament, along with (female) defectors from existing parties. The episode ends with her election and succession to 10 Downing Street, as her ‘Purple Alliance’ sweeps the country.

I want to use this post to knock around a few ideas as to why this was a missed opportunity to critique modern politics. The essential message of the programme was really odd and, while I realise it was a light-hearted piece of fun, it’s still a primetime BBC show, watched – I suspect – by more people than normal politics coverage. What it informs, or reflects, about viewers’ opinion of British politics therefore matters.

One essential criticism by the show was that politicians are over-confrontational, promise too much, and are macho bullies. In these criticisms, I think there’s a lot of substance. The idiom of modern politics is about perfection and flawlessness, which means people faking they are somebody and can do something which they aren’t and they can’t. It is regular to demand resignations; it is regular to tout panaceas to the ills of the country (if not the human race); and to be a serious leader, politicians need to be the ideal man — tough, totally confident and flawless in every decision he takes. In other words, we want Messiahs who can promise to change the world, painlessly, and make us all personal winners, not losers, from those changes.

The problem is, what the programme prescribed in place of it was a 1950s ideal of a perfect mother. The smouldering super-Dad (of a Blair-Cameron mould) and tough protector of British innocence (of a Davis-Reid mould) was dumped for super-Mom. Mrs. Pritchard may get distracted from her family by her new responsibilities, but she’s basically the perfect working mother who can deliver common-sense advice to cut through the crap. The programme-makers (subconsciously) rubbish the use of an unhelpful fantasy gender stereotype and then replace it with their own. The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard will be cited in future women’s history as evidence of how little advancement had been made in perceptions of women politicians by 2006, if this is the way in which we want politics reformed.

Another attack by the show suggests that all politicians are liars. There doesn’t seem to be much to say in response to this. It’s often, I suspect, a slippery slope towards deception from the Messianic promises politicians have to give. I think, though, that it’s pretty unfair. I think the number of MPs who deliberately lie, as opposed to deluding themselves, is remarkably small in any party. I certainly don’t think it’s a fair characterisation of MPs to portray them as self-serving liars.

But the criticism that stings most deeply, as I watched it, is the rejection of political parties as obstructive and ‘all the same as each other’. There are elements of institutional politics, like institutional religion, which can make you long for the freedom and purity of personal conscience. If it had been a show about a single independent MP, it would have been different. But the attack was on political ideas as much as anything else, because it sees a mass movement of women Independents, united in their disunity of ideals. The fact she didn’t have policy knowledge, and they – as a potential government – didn’t have coherent, realistic ideals, seems not to matter.

Having opened up a critique of the modern party system, and suggested that it had become a contest of image, rivalry and management pitches, Mrs. Pritchard then misses the target. Where is the pitch to idealism? If it had been a drama about principle triumphing over pragmatism, it may have been high-skies dreaming, but at least it would have been inspirational. We should be demanding from our politics. Instead, we were given the absence of principles as an ideal, that made her pure. A blank canvass was apparently the best thing for a new sort of politician. Her lack of interest in politics is her strongest virtue. This wasn’t code for ‘those who desire power deserve it the least’, but ‘those who think and learn the least are the best’.

We should want better from our politicians and our politics. It’s good that we’re thirsty for them to improve, and it would be unhealthy if we ever think we’ve quenched that thirst – because we shouldn’t. But ultimately a democracy gets the politicians it deserves. Elections are the purest market mechanism; you can choose who you want. Our democracy does have failures in that market, which lead to poor politics, but Mrs. Pritchard didn’t touch on them.

The best comedy, and the most incisive drama, at least fairly interrogates the problem it is focused on. Mrs. Pritchard plays it for the laughs and the prejudices. It doesn’t just feed off cynicism about politics, but actually buys into it, in its own way. It dumps ideas in favour of its own motherly brand of vacuous marketing. How will the show pan out over the next five episodes? I’ll try to catch some of them to find out. There were hints of problems for Mrs. Pritchard, along the lines of my criticisms. I suspect we’ll discover that policy isn’t such a dirty word, and that ideas matter. I hope so. It may even show that Mrs. Pritchard isn’t perfect and that even the best-intentioned can screw up. I hope so. It could even suggest that the politicians weren’t so bad after all, but that if people vote for Messianic image over meaty substance they get what they deserve. I’ll be lucky. Primetime comedy drama is entitled to be sentimental and non-naturalistic. But whatever happens, this was a bit of telly that, as an opening broadside against modern politics, was a missed opportunity. Mrs. Pritchard, as a sign of the times, literally amazes me — but for all the wrong reasons.

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36 Comments

  • I thought it was really poor drama – and even worse politics. Had to turn off after 10 mins as it was so cringe-making.

    I would laugh, though, if it transpires that the boss who gave her £10m turns out to be awarded a peerage or is a Bermudan tax-exile or gets jailed for deception :o)

  • Politically Restricted 4th Oct '06 - 9:33am

    I didn’t see it cos I was busy, but I did have an interview with the producers for a political adviser job to help them with their second series (which has already been commissioned).

    They wanted someone who could do two things:
    – introduce them to lots of cabinet ministers and formers cabinet ministers who could provide them with real life examples that they could then dramatise and
    – help them with scenarios for political dramas.

    They wanted the whole thing to focus on Mrs P and a very limited range of other ministers. I asked about civil servants but it appears they don’t want them cluttering up the series.

    They told me they wanted a lot of high paced short conversations that would take place as the cast walk the corridors. Sound a bit like West Wing? Well, that’s their aim.

    I could tell you the plots of the remainder of the first series, but I won’t.

  • nigelashton 4th Oct '06 - 10:45am

    The West Wing is mostly about the civil servants (albeit politically appointed ones), so if TAMP wants to be West Wing without civil servants it’s doomed to failure.

  • The premise behind this programme has been done time and again before. The idea that you can break the mould of politics and be elected on a common sense platform must be as old as democracy. What is annoying is that it is still being wheeled out. Does anyone at the BBC remember the fascists in Italy and the National Socialists in Germany, who did just this? Perhaps a little delve into history might be useful.

    The questions to the producers should be (i) why did they not do something more original (ii) why has every mature democracy got a party system, suggesting that it might just be a good idea (iii) why were the LDs sidelined in the drama as usual [LD politician just pushed away at the start, making him look absurd] (iv)do they really believe that women are so much better than men (v) why oh why did the lead character have to be Jane Horrocks putting her best ‘stupid northern’ accent? Why not give her a bit of depth at least, instead of the usual **** family stuff? How patronising is that?

    It was dire, tired and I hope it sinks without trace.

  • QUOTE:
    I think the number of MPs who deliberately lie, as opposed to deluding themselves, is remarkably small in any party. I certainly don’t think it’s a fair characterisation of MPs to portray them as self-serving liars.
    END QUOTE.

    So let me get this straight. You are making the point that there are very few politicians that lie deliberately, but there may be any number that say things that aren’t strictly true, as a result of self delusion?
    Do you think then, that the public, who quite rightly expect politicians to tell the truth (because they are paid to serve THE PEOPLE), should somehow be able to tell the difference between factual innacuracies resulting from either deliberate lies or self delusion? Should they also be more forgiving of the latter?
    Perhaps you are suffering from a modicum of self delusion yourself?

  • Hmmm… let’s have a little read back through the posts so far on this blog….

    Well, notably apart from Mark’s comments, I think we can see a trend here. Now take some time to try and see what the posts are saying? I think they clearly show that the program in question was pretty much spot on! Overbearing boorish individuals. most of whom admit they didn’t even watch the program, blindly ignoring the needs and wishes of real people and the debacle that is modern politics.

    Maybe, instead of all this blustering, you should be taking note of a program which seems to sum up the feelings of the nation at large.

  • It is all to easy to dismiss certain characterisations as ‘stereotypical’.

    Remember that a stereotype is created from fixed ideas that the general public form. This does not make the stereotype invalid or untrue. Basically if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, guess what? It’s a duck!

  • Quack!

  • Richard Huzzey 6th Oct '06 - 2:30pm

    Mark,

    Thanks for your – frank – comments. I think you’re completely twisting what I said, though…

    I don’t think many MPs lie, in the sense that they attempt to deceive. However, if it is true that they regularly state contrary opinions or statements of fact, then it must logically the case that some of them are wrong, and what they said false. Is that lying? There must be a logical distinction between a lie (as a false statement intending to deceive) and something said in good conscience but false.

    You’re right that politicians should be expected to be truthful, and I expect them to be too. I merely point out that many honestly repeat their own delusions. That is bad, but a morally different thing to lying.

    If you’re going to twist my description of MPs’ self-delusion into my support for lying, then you’re being ludicrous.

    Dave,

    I don’t think you’ll find me anywhere disputing that this show reflected genuine stereotypes about politicians, as held by many members of the public. I merely question whether the fantasy it represents is actually desirable. You’ll see that I actually agree with much of the criticism, but think it is not radical enough in breaking away from the stereotypes being criticised! (i.e. style and smile over substance and efficacy).

  • Barry Maycock 11th Oct '06 - 11:11am

    The very least that we should look for in the Scottish Election is an opportunity to vote for Mrs Pritchard. The only meaningful alternative has to be a spoilt ballot paper.

  • Billy Niblick 11th Oct '06 - 1:12pm

    “The fact she didn’t have policy knowledge, and they – as a potential government – didn’t have coherent, realistic ideals, seems not to matter.”

    Well, it’s never held the Lib Dems back.

  • Richard Huzzey 11th Oct '06 - 2:29pm

    I stand by my comments… and I think Nick Robinson has some interesting thoughts at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/nickrobinson/2006/10/fact_and_fictio.html

    In fact, I’m not sure I’d be as defensive as Nick; I actually think it’s quite healthy that we mock our political leaders. A messianic cult of political leaders is exactly the sort of unreasonable expectation and affectation we should attack. My objection to Mrs. P was that its alternative was just as wrong-headed as the behaviour it was attacking.

    The second episode definitely touches on the fact that “it’s actually more complicated than it looks” and tries to set the series in the direction of becoming a British version of The West Wing.

    I suppose it was inevitable that this sort of premise was necessary for a British West Wing, as US politics are so much more personality-based around a President than our parliamentary party system, and that’s the sort of dynamic that makes good TV. Hence, the need for a less partisan PM. Still, I think it requires such a suspension of disbelief as to undermine any political story-telling it now wants to do…

    Ironically, what opinions she does show (massive enthusiast for decentralisation; anti-war) are liberal ones! But then we lapse back into strange fantasy populism that apparently pleases everyone. For example, the “People’s Queen’s Speech” clips showed us how bizarre and unreconcilable different ideas were… but yet Mrs. P apparently reconciled them all off-screen.

    It’s politics without the ideas or any fractures in public opinion, it seems!. Given that politics is really about ideas and the process by which we resolve conflicting ideas, how can a “political” TV show do any more than concentrate on the capuccino froth? (aka Cameron, Blair and the spin doctors). It will try, but I think its treatment of issues (e.g: Iranian kidnapping last night) squares oddly with the premise of the series.

    President Bartlet may have been the unrealistic hero of liberal US Democrats… but at least The West Wing concedes the existence of detractors who disagree with him, even if they were too often pantomime villains, and dilemmas that challenge his values. I’m sure the needs of the drama will introduce these elements slowly, and Mrs. P may well become passable political drama.

    I wish the series well, and it may do a good job of exploring issues and raising public awareness of political issues. But for now, I’m not sure how well it can do that until it dumps its idea-free permise and starts engages with political issues not presentational narrative.

  • I’ve watched the first two episodes and love it as light entertainment. This is not intened to be a political programme. Jane Horrocks is great. I think you guys are all too cerebral about this – treat it as a situation comedy and farce. If you want an insight into the state of British politics today, watch Newsnight. Lighten up and just laugh at the ludricrously improbable storyline. The injection of real life politicians and media people is fun – get in on the joke too. This series was not written to provide a commentary on the state of politics today.

  • Well said David,

    After reading most of this drivel I was finally pleasantly surprised to see someone who appreciates the programme for what it is – Entertainment!

    As entertainment I thought it was very good too. I am amazed that people who have not even watched the programme can be bothered to write here and then criticise as well!

  • There is a much more serious argument about this programe,and that is its overwhelming whiteness.In the first episode, there were two or three very background non white extras. In the second episode there was a brief appearance from Meera Sydal,and then some token ‘ethnic’ cabinet members and MPs -none of whom had speaking parts. The glaring contrast was with the daughter’s friends from the local school (so bad,we were informed by Mrs Pritchard, that it contained pupils speaking ’20 different languages’-shock,horror!). Suddenly we had a shot of the kind of normal ethnic mix you might expect in a London school,and ,you might have thought, in a London casting agency.The BBC, however, seems to feel that non white people really should be seen (albeit sparingly) and not heard .
    Episode 3 had a visiting black dignitary -in ceremonial garb so suitably exotic -and one black policeman with a very small speaking part. On top of all this, Mrs Pritchard wishes to move Parliament to Bradford because it’s closer to the people, but no mention of which people-I strongly suspect if it happens we will find a white Bradford with the occasional background ethnic person,and,of course,absolutely no Muslims.
    Makes you wonder why David Cameron is bothering with all that change stuff….

  • Oh whatever

  • LibDem mumof3 7th Nov '06 - 10:36pm

    I’ve watched the whole series & can’t wait for the next one.

    As a light comedy/drama it’s excellent, ok if you nitpick it’s totally innaccurate.

    But from all of the people I’ve spoken to about it, nearly all would like a PM that idealistic, down to earth & in the words of one lady “Does give a dog’s left ******* about the people!!”

    Now we find that she knows about her husband’s dubious dealings (laundering money 15 years hence, under pressure), how will she handle this, resign, divorce him or try to cover it up for the sake of looking “at the bigger picture” and keep doing a good job?

    Well how would you handle it?
    I’d divorce him, more for the fact he showed a distinct lack of trust & respect for me in not telling me, than my own anger at the act of laundering the money in the 1st place..

    We all think someone else (maybe even yourself) could do the job of PM better than the present one, but could you do it?
    I’d like to think I could, but wouldn’t because I think it would kill my homelife, as it seems to be doing to Mrs Pritchard.
    I have the knowledge of what it’s like working for the NHS, having two disabled children and one who is “Gifted & Talented” according to teachers, I’ve worked in care homes, psychiatric units, and worked as a teaching assistant. I have also been a branch secretary for the LibDems in the South West.

    I wish I had the ‘testicular fortitude’ as it were to take the bull by the horns & do what my old friend & local LibDem councillor suggested & run for council!
    But I am a commited mum and wife, and I have no desire to relegate those commitments to the back burner. Well certainly not until my kids are all a lot older…
    So I guess you may well see the real Mrs Pritchard one day….lol

    Someone mentioned Mrs Pritchard was a utopian PM, of course she is, but her ideals embody everything most of us want.

    A safer, cleaner, happier and more respectful world than the one we currently occupy.

  • hywelmorgan 8th Nov '06 - 4:17pm

    “I had hoped (against hope as it turned out) that on learning the truth she would in fact stick to her principles and tell everyone about it, calling a general election to see if the people still trusted her”

    But isn’t that what Harry Perkins does in “A very British Coup”….. And look what happens there 🙂

  • CheapWallper 8th Nov '06 - 9:27pm

    I think will can allow her 24 hours to come to a decision.

    Boringly enough, I expect the BBC will find a way out with Jane’s virtue intact.

  • It’s just a program! Jeez, give it up!

  • Hermannia in Britannia 21st Nov '06 - 1:33pm

    For God’s sake, Richard! You make it sound sooo easy! But you’re missing the point: Mrs P needs to decide where her loyalty lies (this is a decision that every mother and wife is still expected to make today if she wants to combine motherhood with her worklife) and this can’t be done within 24 hours!

    If her loyalty is with her husband, as what is expected of a ‘good’ wife and mother, she will not be able to stay true to her principle of never lying to the public, which is probably the main reason why the public ‘voted’ for her (I know it’s only TV!!). By initially trying to conceal it – because she had been ‘innocent’ – she also wants to protect the country and her own role in it. Stability is needed most to actually change politics. The least thing now needed for the country is more turmoil.

    If however she leaves him, she would immediately be perceived as power hungry, disloyal to her husband, (public’s perception?); and especially she would very likely not been able to convince people that she had had no idea in the first place. Which again would probably make her a selfish person as she should have known about his problems anyway – as a good wife!! Of course this would also upset the public.

    She clearly hopes that the deception can be controlled but learns within these 24 hours that once you give in to corruption the snowball starts rolling. But if she resigned then the voters’ trust would also be made a mockery of.

    And yes, in the UK voters are not nearly as person-centred as in the US, but you just need to look at how ‘important’ the figure of Tony Blair has become to politics.

    To summarize it: Mrs P needs to decide between her family or the British public. Wherever her solution lies, she will always feel that she has let down one side. It would be just too easy in her eyes to ‘blame’ her husband for being weak.

    And this is in my viewpoint the charme of this series, that often we can only stick to some of our principles and that we constantly need to adapt those. However, your statement, Richard, of ‘power corrupts’ of course cannot be ignored, and I wonder where the BBC let Mrs P head towards. If she starts or actually already has started to think that it is only her person who can achieve what she thinks what the public wants (as if the public had only one opinion i.e. hers) then ….

    I have enjoyed the series, however, more from a point of view of how a person combines the often conflicting issues of work, family and personal fulfilment rather than from a political viewpoint as this can always only be oversimplified.

  • Roger Fairhurst 1st Dec '06 - 7:49am

    It’s sitcom for goodness sake!
    At least one person appears to appreciate this fact but the majority appear to see it as a serious and vicious attack on modern day politicians. Bearing in mind the forum in which this debate has been launched it is perhaps not surprising that criticism of current politics and politicians touches a sensitive spot with so many. Too close to the truth for comfort for some I should imagine, so if the cap fits..

    I don’t remember hoteliers being up in arms when Fawlty Towers hit the small screen although most of us could relate to the characters, type of hotel and service portrayed and to suggest that “the voter” can change the face of british politics in the way that Mrs. Pritchard did is to ignore the restrictive and stifling nature of our democracy that only pays lip service to genuine choice.

    The series is great fun and for those of “us” who care to check what REAL people think about the series and the policies of Mrs. P. then they need look no further than the poll to be found on the Purple Alliance website asking who is in favour of the Pritchard ban on the use of private cars on Wednesdays. Currently the poll is running at 78% in favour.

    Long may Mrs. P. bring a smile to our faces and for those who switched off after ten minutes of the first episode – it’s very much a question of your loss, not ours.

  • I’d love to see a second or even third series

  • yep – me too. good old escapist TV! 🙂

  • TAMP is an excellent series, wonderful premise, very well acted, gripping story lines.

    I think there is a dearth of worthy leaders in the world to-day and yes, maybe we deserve the politicians we get if we elect them. However, is there really a choice and if someone comes along like Mrs Prichard with her utopian values, does power eventually corrupt?

    Yes, as someone has remarked, ‘it is only a TV series’ but it has certainly given my husband and I (by the way, the actress’ portrayal of the Queen was dreadful) lots of food for thought.

    I hope that a second series will follow.

  • As a European-American I always seem to be in the middle, but I want to know one thing: This series was produced by an English company (& yes,it is a take-off on West Wing & the other US series on a female pres. -the title eludes me)- I saw the first installment today that ended w/2 Engl. soldiers having been tortured by Iranians. Is this another incendiary ag. Iran like the well-known WMD rumor(etc.)ag. Iraq several yrs. ago w/the now too-well known consequences? I hope not. & I wish that BBC would be above this kind of repulsive machinations. Apart from that, as entertainment goes, fine.I am not an arbiter of English politics.

  • Vivie Haygood 22nd Oct '07 - 7:33am

    I am an English woman living in north west USA, and I watched the first epsisode of this show this evening– what absolute rubbish! I knew within the first 30 minutes of watching (missed the opening titles) that it was written by a woman, but in the most embarrasingly sanctimonious Lefty way. Definitely very “cringe worthy” to quote a previous writer. Definitely one of the worst of BBC, what a waste of a Sunday evening!

  • Actually I thought it was a fun program– most people hate politics and regard politicians as being one step above child molesters, so entertainment is key.

    Having been involved in local politics here in Toronto for some 20 years, I think that most politicians lie.

    Most people only take an interest in politics here when something has gone really wrong, and they want a change.

    They still believe the same lies(i.e that you can cut taxes, balance the budget and deliver acceptable public services and have clean government)if presented by a new group. Most people are self-involved and lazy.

    I find politicians (particularly young aspiring politicians) take themselves too seriously. No one takes you seriously, everyone hates you.

  • I’m astonished that some people are referring to the series as a comedy. What do you find funny? The torture-murder of two soldiers by Iranians in episode 2? The assassination of a politations family in episode 3? Do you roll on the floor laughing at the younger girl’s difficulties in school?

    People are strange.

  • it had to happen someday…substitute “Palin” for “Pritchard”

3 Trackbacks

  • By Quaequam Blog! » Blog Archive » Missing Pritchard on Wed 4th October 2006 at 1:13 pm.

    […] Richard Huzzey confirms my worst fears: Having opened up a critique of the modern party system, and suggested that it had become a contest of image, rivalry and management pitches, Mrs. Pritchard then misses the target. Where is the pitch to idealism? If it had been a drama about principle triumphing over pragmatism, it may have been high-skies dreaming, but at least it would have been inspirational. We should be demanding from our politics. Instead, we were given the absence of principles as an ideal, that made her pure. A blank canvass was apparently the best thing for a new sort of politician. Her lack of interest in politics is her strongest virtue. […]

  • By No geek is an island » A suitable job for a woman on Tue 10th October 2006 at 6:51 pm.

    […] I was planning to watch the second episode of the annoyingly-titled The Amazing Mrs Pritchard this evening to see what all the fuss was about, but now I see that More 4 is starting to show flaccid American drama Commander in Chief tonight at exactly the same time. Having caught an episode before (in the way one catches a cold, which coincidentally I had at the time) I’m not expecting great things, but I’m tempted to take a look at the first episode to see if it started any better. (Oh – they appear to be making a TV movie.) […]

  • […] Ros Pritchard – Jane Horrocks’s eponymous character in The Amazing Mrs Pritchard (which prompted a lot of discussion on Lib Dem Voice) […]

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