TELEVISION / Playing loose balls

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'I'M SORRY Michael - you'll have to translate.' This remark, over half-way through David Edgar's intriguing play Buying a Landslide (BBC 2), fell into the category of lines that raise a muted cheer of sympathy from the audience. The phrase that had caused the problem, put to a Republican senator slipping in the opinion polls, was 'Downgrade free market - upgrade oatmeal, red-ribbon', and the translation went something like 'Forget your principles, pander to family values and small-town bigotry.' It's clear that Edgar relishes the vigorous shorthand of American political slang, a spicy soup of mixed metaphor and sporting analogy, and that he was, in the translation line, tipping a wink to the audience - it was all right to be confused, some of this stuff even goes over the characters' heads.

Buying a Landslide followed the process of training a political candidate for a televised debate, a rhetorical draughts game (chess would be too intellectual an analogy) for which every move is rehearsed and explored. To a Camp David-type retreat come three special advisers, the icy, born- again head of Coalition For The Family ('As far as I'm concerned there's no such thing as the good fairy,' is her party-line on gay rights), and two ex-radicals who have become conservative ideologues. They are there to pummel the candidate's performance into shape and, in the case of Michael Tyne, a 'Sixties student revolutionary turned supply-side libertarian economist', to act out the role of the Democratic opponent, Philip Kautsky.

Edgar dismantled the workings of the political machine with the fascination of a small boy taking a lawn-mower engine to pieces. So we learned about 'loose balls' (out-of-the-blue questions designed to test the candidate's mental agility), 'stopgaps' (remarks like 'I'm glad you raised that Bob', designed to allow time for thought) and the three golden rules of political debate - 'Answer hard questions short, easy questions long . . . and never commit yourself to numbers.'

It's a commonplace that the American political process has more artificial additives than a packet of Cheez Doodles, but Edgar was after a larger subject here, pinning down the way in which the theoretical chasm between political principles and their communication is filled with an unbroken chain of expedient euphemisms. When it became clear that the Senator had real problems with a straight pitch his advisors talked of adjusting 'the presentation', 'the tone' or 'the emphasis', never - as was the truth - the essential policies themselves.

By a nice twist the earnest speech of principle with which Tyne embarrasses his hard-nosed colleagues ends up in the mouth of the Senator - who doesn't believe a word of it - in the real debate, earning him a rapturous round of applause. Words here, the implication was, are not references to anything, just levers to move voters in the right direction.

Unfortunately not all of the play came across quite so clearly, partly because the confusions raised by the role-playing and the coded language were further multiplied by overlapping edits, partly because you had the sense that the play had been compressed from a much longer draft. Tyne's recognition that he was in the wrong camp was cramped rather than illuminated by the presence of a conspiracy thriller plot and undeveloped hints at emotional undercurrents between the characters.

The Radio Times noted that the play was 'cast and filmed in America', which struck you as an explanation rather than a boast. Certainly the result testified to the glaring difference in transatlantic styles - literally so in the case of the interiors, which all had the overlit pastel tones of The Cosby Show. The acting too - with the honourable exception of Griffin Dunne - wasn't quite as casual with Edgar's lines as it might have been, tending to stiffen them with an unnecessary urgency. Even so, it was richly entertaining and perfect armour for the American election.