The Weekend's TV: The Special Relationship, Sat, BBC2<br/>Joe Maddison's War, Sun, ITV1

Double act doesn't quite come off
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The Independent Culture

Two out of three isn't bad. In The Deal and The Queen, Peter Morgan demonstrated that it was possible to deliver a modern kind of history play, one that infused real events with surmised emotions in order to explore the psychology of high office (and, as it happened, the theatrical nature of contemporary leadership).

The Special Relationship, the third in a trilogy of films about Tony Blair, wasn't nearly as successful as either of its predecessors, in part because it was overcrowded with rich material. As the title suggests it was a study of how personal chemistry can affect public affairs, but it was also a film about the difference between outright power and moral influence, a commentary on the frustrations of the consort's life, an examination of Bill Clinton's flawed character and a reminder that Blair arguably had a good war before he had the bad one. And somehow – bouncing from one compelling theme to another – you found that you had just a little too much time to reflect on how artificial the set-up was.

One of its problems was innocence. Morgan's play deals with the early part of Blair's term in office, beginning even before the election, at a time when the driver meeting him at the airport has to carry a board with his name on it. Blair was in America to learn how Clinton carried middle America, although he already had the prospective glow of victory about him. And in stressing Blair's political apprenticeship, Morgan leant a little too heavily on the inexperience and gaucheness. It's possible – just about – to believe that Blair and Jonathan Powell found themselves scrambling to change seats in the limo as it approached the White House for Blair's first meeting with Clinton, because they'd assumed they would be going in the back door. But it's harder to believe that Blair was quite so starry-eyed in his deference to Clinton, or that Clinton was this condescending. Visiting London, a month after Blair's landslide, Clinton sagely advises him to "hit the ground running", apparently unaware that Blair had startled the press with the immediacy of his policy initiatives.

I'm guessing that the public record probably contradicts Morgan's other big narrative curve here – the suggestion that the Lewinsky affair gave Blair moral leverage over Clinton, and that he employed this crowbar with some ruthlessness when he was in America trying to stiffen international action against Slobodan Milosevic. But it works reasonably well as drama, and bears directly on Morgan's buried theme, which is that the origins of Blair's fixed conviction over Iraq lie there, in the exhilarated discovery that he could gear up his world status tenfold by goading the giant across the Atlantic into action. And the fact that in this case the reviled war (it's easy to forget how fierce the protests were against the bombing of Yugoslavia) delivered pretty much what it promised is a proper acknowledgement that in politics failure can often have its roots in intoxicating success. Unfortunately, Monica's stained dress keeps getting in the way, in scenes that are interesting in themselves, but clutter the overall drama. Hope Davis was particularly good – and particularly distracting – as Hillary Clinton, shown in one scene furiously attempting to convert the Lewinsky scandal into right-wing conspiracy, because the sticky, physical humiliation of the deed is simply too much to bear. And Helen McCrory was good as Cherie too, wryly observing her husband's crush on Clinton from the outside. The scene in which she hurries the children out of the room because the Today programme is going into just a little too much detail about the Lewinsky affair was both funny and believable. Unfortunately, elsewhere you couldn't entirely forget that Morgan was pulling the strings, and that his characters were stiffly wooden in comparison to their real life counterparts.

Joe Maddison's War sadly turned out to be Alan Plater's last television play, one which, if the Radio Times is to be believed, he thought of as his "most personal and perfect piece". I'm not sure he was right about the perfection, but if this wasn't the best Plater ever it certainly had the best of Plater in it, from his dry, humane wit to his willingness to take risks with a swerve into deep emotion. Its working title might have been "Two Weddings and No Funeral", since it was book-ended with marriages and the one event you spent most of the evening bracing yourself for – the death of Joe's son in an RAF bomber – never actually occurred. That absent scene is a clue as to what kind of drama it was. Most writers would have been unable to resist the temptation to have such an easy emotional hit, and Plater seemed to tease you with its proximity in a scene where Joe's son, home on leave, explained the horrifying odds faced by bomber crews. After 25 missions you were living on borrowed time, he said. How many have you flown now, someone asked. "The low fifties," he replied. The telegram didn't come though, as if Joe Maddison's War was staying true to a real life, rather than a conveniently fictional one. Kevin Whately played Joe, a Tyneside shipyard worker who finds that service in the Home Guard stirs up his well-banked fires. In one lovely scene, almost wordless, he found himself in a widow's house during an air raid, snappily awkward about exactly where he was going to spend the night. Even he didn't know quite what he was cross about, and the glancing truth of that moment was pure Plater.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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