Carry on claiming: On Expenses

The MPs' expenses scandal had all the ingredients for a farce, yet a new television drama deftly balances the serious with the absurd

It was The Daily Telegraph what done it, right?

It was Middle England's favourite broadsheet that so uncharacteristically got its hands dirty and drip-fed us, morning after morning after morning, the sordid, petty, outrageous and often comic details of the MPs' expenses scandal. Well, yes, true in a sense – but where was all this information about the venality of Parliament coming from? Or, to put it another way, why was there any information available to be leaked in the first place? The short answer is this: Heather Brooke.

Brooke is the great unsung heroine of the Great Westminster Expenses Scandal, although that is about to change with the transmission of a BBC4 drama which details Brooke's five-year campaign to force MPs to come clean about their allowances. This is the other great thing about the story: it's generally unknown, says Tony Saint, the writer of On Expenses, which stars Anna Maxwell Martin as the plucky truth-seeker. It must have been quite frustrating for Brooke that no one seemed hugely bothered about it until the Telegraph started leaking the details. They got the totality of it and that became a story in itself – the scale became a story, I suppose.

Brooke had been an aspiring American journalist living in London when, in 2004, she started working on a book to coincide with the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in the UK, a citizens' guide called Your Right to Know. Used from her student journalism days in the US to a transparent system of political expenses, Brooke took a keen interest in our own opaque parliamentary method of reimbursing itself.

"I've always been in love with old-style investigative journalism," she said last year, as the scandal claimed scalp after scalp. "You know those movies in the 1930s and 40s about the press in Chicago featuring hard-bitten hacks with hearts of gold, like Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday? I always wanted to be that kind of reporter. I'm not sure if an onslaught of details about bath plugs and porn movies was how I envisioned the great investigation of my career, but then there are high principles at stake."

Indeed there are, and I must admit that my heart sank when I read that On Expenses was going to be a humorous drama about a story that has angered a lot more people than it has amused. What is it (the legacy of Private Eye and Spitting Image perhaps?) that means anything to do with Right Honourable Members (oo-er) must be automatically turned into a Carry On farce? "I was trying to capture what seemed to me to be a very British sense of humour about it all, says Tony Saint, who also wrote the jaunty 2007 Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Long Walk to Finchley.

Happily, On Expenses isn't any sort of Carry On Paying for My Duck Pond; it turns out to be pacy (the 60-minute running time helps) and entertaining primer to the whole sorry state of affairs, striking a good balance between drama and humour. But what really makes it stand out from your usual hot-off-the-headlines, kneejerk drama crowd is some serious casting.

Although they share only two wordless scenes together, Brian Cox as Speaker Michael Martin, the figurehead of parliamentary intransigence, and Maxwell Martin as his don't-take-no-for-an-answer nemesis complement one other beautifully.

Set up as the comic butt in early scenes – playing bagpipes in his office and mixing Irn Bru with his whisky – Cox endows Martin with an unexpected pathos. It will be up to those who actually know the man to say whether it is deserved, but Cox clearly believes he should be granted a fair hearing.

"Clearly he made errors in the way he handled the situation," Cox says. "But I also think there's never been any precedent for that kind of thing. And he was an old trade union man when a statesman was needed. But I think he was a kind of fall guy, and I wanted to play his humanitarian side."

Maxwell Martin, more used to portraying period characters in TV dramas such as Bleak House and North and South, is feisty, sexy and sporting an American accent quite unlike Brooke's. (You can check the real one out on YouTube.)

"Heather actually has a hybrid accent, half English and half American and I tried it make it more American because I didn't think her hybrid would translate very well," says the actress, adding that Brooke's nationality was the key to her determination. "She came over here and was shocked, really, at how much we bury our heads in the sand about things."

The obligatory disclaimer at the start of On Expenses is given an amusing slant, stating that this film is based on real characters and events. Some scenes have been imagined... some dates compressed. But mostly you couldn't make it up. The film's director, Simon Cellan Jones (Generation Kill; The Trial of Tony Blair) agrees. "It's quite a surreal story in that the people who voted in the Freedom of Information Act were the very people that tried to get themselves exempt from it."

On Expenses is on BBC4 on Tuesday, 10pm

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'