On Expenses, BBC4
Hung, Channel 4
The political expenses scandal makes a gripping drama, and a potentially lewd US comedy proves rather sweet
Sunday 28 February 2010
The fiddling of expenses, even by MPs, may not sound promising territory for drama.
All credit, then, to writer Tom Saint and director Simon Cellan Jones for turning last year's political scandal into a personal stand-off between two people: Michael "Gorbals Mick" Martin, Speaker of the House of Commons, and the American-born journalist Heather Brooke, who investigated MPs' expenses for five years, forced a damaging tribunal, then saw the full story published in The Daily Telegraph with no acknowledgement of her role in bringing it about.
On Expenses made for a gripping hour, alternating legal argument, committee finagling and broad comedy. Did Martin really play "O Flower of Scotland" on the bagpipes in the Speaker's rooms, and offer Irn Bru to visitors from the Fees Office? I hope so. Brian Cox, pock-skinned and wild-haired, gave a brilliant impersonation of the Speaker: fatherly upholder of parliamentary privilege one minute, growling, implacable autocrat the next.
Anna Maxwell Martin looked nothing like the real Heather Brooke, but nailed her stubbornness in making full use of the new Freedom of Information Act (announced by Michael Martin himself in 2005). Perhaps wary of turning the drama into a simple, doughty-heroine-takes-on-the-Establishment battle, the makers presented her as shrill, obsessive and rather obnoxious, as she demanded "What kind of banana republic am I living in here?" (answer: a British one) and screamed at her voice-of-reason boyfriend for failing to agree with her.
We were warned that "some scenes" had been "imagined". We could have guessed that about the scene where Heather, visiting the Commons, stands deliberately in the lobby to block the Speaker's procession, like the chap with the shopping bags halting the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Elsewhere, the delights were more intellectual, like the verbal duel, at the tribunal, between Alex Jennings (smooth but perturbed as our man from the Fees Office) and Neil Pearson as Hugh Tomlinson, the barrister who helped Heather Brooke present her case.
The ludicrous nature of the expenses claims was too good not to recall, and we duly got duck houses, moats and under-heated tennis courts. But the script was crammed with casually shocking little asides that you felt had the ring of truth: "You mean the Freedom of Information Act applies to us as well?" "She's American – can't we have her deported?" It must have made uncomfortable viewing for 600-odd Britons who tuned in to check the accuracy of their portrayal.
A new comedy series from the constantly enterprising HBO channel is Hung, starring Thomas Jane as a chronic loser called Ray. He's coach of a luckless school basketball team in Detroit, his wife Jessica (Anne Heche) dumps him for a dermatologist; his house burns down, and his children (the son's a chubby goth with black nail varnish, the daughter has a boyfriend called Hammer) leave him to live with their screechy mother. He's broke. He's desperate. What should he do?
Given the number of hints and nudges in the script, it takes Ray an unconscionable time to work out his next move. "It's our responsibility to use any gifts God gives us," he announces to the basketball team. "Identify your own tool," urges the inspirational teacher at a wealth seminar. His ex-wife reminds him that he used to be cool, smart, popular and hung. "Now," she says crushingly, "you're just hung". His on-off lover, a hopeless poet, yells at him: "You wanna be a millionaire? Why not go market your dick?"
Eventually the penny drops and he puts a nervous toe, so to speak, in the waters of male prostitution. But this is several miles removed from Midnight Cowboy; it's a rather sweet-natured serio-comedy about loneliness and self-esteem. With the lady poet offering her services as a pimp, it's more than promising. And it will be interesting to see how the director Alexander Payne (yes, the guy who made Sideways) deals with the viewing public's desire for a sighting of the, ahem, main event.
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