Whispering and white wine

The latest TV soap is set in Parliament's own watering-hole. By James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
The imposing figure of the Earl of Arran glares down from the wall of the wood-panelled chamber of Dining Room A in the House of Commons. The TV screen in the corner announces Mr Hain discussing the British Time (Extra Daylight) Bill, Second Reading. In the midst of a great hubbub, MPs are briefing a hungry pride of journalists. (Is that the right collective noun?)

In the heady atmosphere of whispering and white wine, it is quite easy to believe that we are taking part in a real Parliamentary intrigue; but we are in fact assembled for the launch of a fictitious programme, Annie's Bar, Channel 4's new 10-part soap opera set in the House of Commons. Annie's Bar is the real-life venue where journalists exchange gin and gossip with MPs; it's named after Annie, a legendary pre-war manager of the bar.

The makers of Annie's Bar have sometimes had to dilute reality for the purposes of credibility.The Conservative MP Michael Brown, in an immaculate pin-stripe suit, puffs on a cigar and reflects on his role as an advisor to Annie's Bar. "It is all plausible, because in my experience of politics, real life is more far-fetched than any drama."

Sir Anthony Jay, the co-writer of Yes, Minister, who also acted as a consultant on the series, takes up the theme. "Sometimes you have to tone down reality and say, 'People just wouldn't believe it'. The example I always use is that if you presented a script about a schizophrenic who climbs over the wall into Buckingham Palace and gets into the Queen's bedroom, where he asks her for a cigarette - I hope they would send the script straight back.

"Some of the funniest things in Yes, Minister were only thinly-disguised real events we'd been told about," he continues. "The only reason we had a top government meeting in a railway compartment was because it really happened. When UDI was declared in Rhodesia, Harold Wilson was on a sleeper to Blackpool and had to call a meeting there and then."

As such recent programmes as The Final Cut and The Politician's Wife have proven, politics is an ideal milieu for drama. "The essence of drama is conflict," says Jay, "and the essence of politics is conflict. That's why the courtroom is a good setting, with its in-built confrontation."

Like Drop the Dead Donkey, Annie's Bar will be recorded close to transmission to ensure topicality. However, the producers, Ardent Productions (Prince Edward's company), have already revealed that next Thursday's first episode will feature a by-election. Could this be related to the fact that it is the day of the real Hemsworth by-election? Jay assures me that the show will be scrupulously impartial. "As long as it's unfair to both sides, that's balance."

To avoid any legal difficulties, the characters are not based on actual MPs. "To the average member of the public, MPs are faceless anyway," avers Larry Lamb, a huge Cockney actor in a three-piece suit that could clothe a tank. "I play an East End property developer who's made good during the Thatcher years. Michael Brown said if I looked the way I looked and sounded the way I sound, I'd be straight in the Whips' Office." Which he is: a bullying Tory whip.

Throughout pre-production, Brown has been on hand to make sure that procedural points - such as the form of words used to introduce a new MP at the bar of the House - are accurate. But for all its plausibility, Richard Handford, the producer, cannot foresee politicians making a fuss about it. "We're not anti-establishment," he says. "The series is about the characters as much as it's about politics." Speaking from experience, Jay chips in: "Politicians are frightened of making themselves look foolish by complaining about a popular programme."

Brown concurs: "The idea that this programme is going to make the reputation of Parliament any worse than all your newspapers have done over the past 10 years is fanciful. The reputation of Parliament might even be enhanced," he laughs. "You'd have to have a very thin skin to make any complaints. If you do, you have no business being in this job. I hope that by episode 10, MPs will be coming up to me and saying, 'I wish I could have played X. The actor did it brilliantly, but I could have done it better'."

By the way, in case you were wondering about any possible sleaze, Brown is quick to point out that he has declared his interest in Annie's Bar. "I'm being paid pounds 1,750 for the lot," he broadcasts to his captive audience, before adding helpfully: "Before tax."

'Annie's Bar', Thur 9.30pm C4