Oh no, minister: Fictional politicians have fallen from grace. Once conscientious left-wingers, now they are right- wingers who murder and cheat their way to the top. Mark Lawson on the rise of the TV 'bastards'

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The central character in Central Television's new four-hour drama Faith - to be shown on ITV next Wednesday and Thursday nights - is the Rt Hon Peter 'PJ' Moreton, MP. A former Secretary of State at the DTI, Moreton is desperate for a return to what is, fairly explicitly, the Major Cabinet. And Moreton will do anything for a comeback.

Hypocritical, arrogant, unethical, faithless, possessing a dark sexual secret and a political one, Moreton is, in short, a fairly typical television Conservative minister these days. The only surprise is that he is not actually a murderer, which, by the standards of modern political drama, makes him something of a 'wet'.

One of the most notable developments in television in recent years has been the way that the depiction of politicians has been liberated from fears of libel, disrespect and - given the Government's role in awarding Charters to the BBC and appointing regulatory bodies over ITV - of direct political revenge.

Repeats of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (BBC2, 1980-88) still seem verbally very funny, but the modern viewer is struck by their political timidity. Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington, belonged to an unspecified party and, before becoming PM, served at a non-existent ministry: the Department of Administrative Affairs. Satire of politicians extended only to their weakness and inability to make up their minds. The sharpest humour was saved for the conceit that the Civil Service really ran the country.

For all its popularity, though, there was something odd about the success of the series. Its rise occurred during the decade of Margaret Thatcher, a politician whose style, though inviting to satire, did not obviously prompt jokes about weakness and indecision. Indeed, the humour was so wide of contemporary targets that Margaret Thatcher was happy for it to be known, when a humanising touch was required in interviews, that Yes, Prime Minister was her favourite programme. She even staged a photo-opportunity with its actors.

It is hard, though, to imagine the No 10 press secretary encouraging John Major or his ministers to have their pictures taken with any of the shadowy cabinet of killers, liars and adulterers who have appeared in political dramas on television in the years since Jim Hacker faded away.

Leslie Titmuss, in John Mortimer's Paradise Postponed (Thames, 1986), began the trend towards naming names and parties in parliamentary drama, although its satire was mainly aimed at the class aspects of Thatcherite Conservatism. The tendency towards a sort of hostile surrealism in the depiction of fictional politicians began with Marks & Gran's The New Statesman, which began on ITV in 1987, the year of Margaret Thatcher's third election victory. Alan B'Stard, played by Rik Mayall, was a backbencher on the far right of what was, specifically, a Conservative government with Margaret Thatcher at its head. During the research for their series, the writers met a young Conservative member called Michael Portillo, but have repeatedly stressed that the vain, arrogant, vicious B'Stard - who, in one scene, kicked away the crutch from a disabled beggar - was in no way based on Portillo.

The series was regarded by politicians as too silly to wound, but, in retrospect, The New Statesman was a brave and visionary show, the first to have realised that executives and viewers would now permit a crueller attitude to politicians. By the late 1980s, it had become permissable to implicate Conservative politicians not merely in cynicism and deceit, but homicide. David Hare's Paris by Night (1988), a cinema film part-financed by Channel 4, showed a hard-line female Conservative MP, Clara Paige (Charlotte Rampling), killing a man who threatened her career.

A year later, Francis Urquhart, the Tory Chief Whip who screws and murders his way to No 10, was born, in book-form, in Michael Dobbs's House of Cards. That the politically timid BBC should dramatise this lurid vision of modern Toryism while Mrs Thatcher was in power - it was screened in the week of her departure - was another sign of the new freedom of speech on the subject. Urquhart - in Andrew Davies's adaptations and Ian Richardson's performance - has since become to the 1990s what Jim Hacker was to the 1980s. Faith is clearly an attempt to buy shares in the same viewing market.

Politicians believe that these fictional killer and liar Tories have helped to encourage the public's current contempt for politicians. The writers involved would argue that viewers were keen to watch such series because of a contempt they were already beginning to feel. I incline to the latter view. Jim Hacker - nice but weak, could be either party - was a product of the relatively tranquil concensus politics of the post-war period. B'Stard, Urquhart, Moreton - venal, evil, power- crazed - follow just as naturally from the bitter divisions of the Thatcher years, the tendency of her personality to provoke extreme reactions, and the low reputation for probity and competence achieved by the Major administration. After all, though no recent Tory PM or minister is known to have committed a murder with their own hands, they have been implicated in versions of both of the fictional dramas that engulf Peter Moreton in next week's Faith: sexual hypocrisy and confusion over arms-sales policy.

One of the reasons that recent fictional ministers have been Tories is, of course, historical practicality: anything else would be a kind of science fiction. But what might a Blair administration mean for dramatists? Strangely, virtually all the representations of Labour MPs in TV drama have been figures of considerable intellectual integrity. Bill Brand, the hero of Trevor Griffiths's 13-part ITV series screened in the summer of 1976, was a figure on the party's left, arguing for socialism against the emergent social democracy.

Nearly two decades later, in Ron Rose's BBC2 three-parter Love and Reason (1993), heroine Lou Larson was engaged in the same ideological struggle, though willing to compromise enough to take a front-bench position. In between, A Very British Coup (Channel 4, 1988) was a form of science fiction in which a very left-wing Labour leader became PM. This, though, was at heart another drama about the murderous tenacity of Conservatism, for it showed the right-wing establishment plotting to destroy the left-wing champion.

But, while word processors warm up for Blairism, the next fictional politician to reach the screens is likely to be Paul Devereux, Tory Secretary of State for Defence. Involved in baby- snatching, defence contract corruption, and attempted murder, he seems to have all the credentials for success as a television minister. He was another creation of Michael Dobbs, in his most recent novel A Touch Of Innocents, currently being adapted for Carlton by Ted Whitehead.

The immediate future of Michael Dobbs himself looks very odd. On Friday, he will finish the book version of The Final Cut, the last Urquhart adventure. Already being adapted for the BBC by Andrew Davies, it apparently deals with Urquhart's desperate attempts to remain in power despite his government's unpopularity and the challenges of younger rivals.

Shortly after that, Dobbs will report to Conservative Central Office to take up his new post as a deputy chairman of John Major's party, in which role he will work unpaid three days a week. One of his first tasks there will to be address the problem of the terrible cynicism and distrust which the public now displays towards politicians. He will have to hope that no bright Saatchi & Saatchi spark has written a paper blaming this state of affairs on the unprecedentedly negative depiction of politicians on television.

(Photograph omitted)