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A Very British Coup (1988)

This three-part serial is an odd beast that posits an interesting premise: what would happen if a truly Left-wing Labour government had come to power in the early Nineties and what would the Right-wing establishment do to stop them – how far would they be willing to go? Media manipulation? Security service abuses? A military intervention?

I found Alan Plater’s script (based on Chris Mullins 1982 novel) to be sharp. The serial explored a fascinating premise and was well-executed – if a little dated. If you treat it as a period piece, however (for a period in recent history that admittedly never took place) then even the elements showing their age, like the technology, attitudes and political landscape, feel authentic.

What is particularly fascinating is the way in which actual political history feeds into this reimagining. Prime Minister Harold Wilson had documented suspicions that he was being watched by his own security agencies and some believe that strange military manoeuvres around Heathrow airport at the time were practice for an intended Right-wing coup. The Winter of Discontent of the same period also finds expression in the serial’s handling of union infiltration by MI5 and the manipulated energy worker strikes that plunge the country into darkness. These are high crimes, committed by individuals and agencies at the top level of society: they are explored with gusto in this alternative version of history.

Familiar faces Keith Allen and Tim McInnerny lend colour and emotional texture to the different political factions and Alan MacNaughtan is chilling as the face of the Establishment – the elite that defy the will of the people and refuse to allow genuine political change. The real revelation for me here, however, is Ray McAnally. McAnally is an accomplished actor that I was previously unfamiliar with – partly because he tragically died of a heart attack shortly after completing the serial. McAnally’s portrayal of Prime Minister Harry Perkins is mesmerising. He gives the character a brash intelligence and magnetism that is difficult to resist and goes a long way to explain how his character secured his unlikely, fictional, electoral win in the first place.

Ultimately, just like the agonising Threads in 1984, A Very British Coup has a dark and suggestive ending. Like the rest of the serial, it is both thoughtful and uncomfortable, remaining with you long after the credits have rolled.


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