Acting the hard man: How Alastair Campbell shapes up on-screen

Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's former press chief, will be portrayed yet again tonight in two television productions. It's something he must be used to by now, but how true to life are these performances?
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Why We Went to War. Tonight, 9PM, MORE4

As the second plane slams into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the Prime Minister is watching the terrible drama unfold. It is the defining point of his premiership. Beside him is his most trusted adviser, Alastair Campbell, and as smoke and flames start to engulf the south tower, it is the adviser, not the politician, who springs into life first. "Fuck ... I don't think there's any doubt now - clear the lines to America," he screams.

This is the opening scene from the former World In Action editor Stuart Prebble's depiction of 11 September and in this carefully researched drama, the Campbell figure is portrayed as an altogether more complex character than the pantomime villain of popular political mythology.

Campbell dismisses US President George Bush's infamous State of the Union assertion the following year that Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea form an "axis of evil". It is "bollocks", he tells his boss. "We will never be able to endorse that." As Blair embarks on the damaging road to war in Iraq, it is Campbell who is the cautioning voice. During the central London peace march, Campbell advises Blair that his position is getting "bloody dangerous". "There are a million people on the streets protesting. That means, what, there are 20 million people against you?" As Blair starts to lose the support of his cabinet colleagues Robin Cook and a lachrymose Clare Short, Campbell warns: " There's hardly anyone left who believes you are doing the right thing. You are not winning any of the arguments in the right places."

Truth or spin? With a high-powered team of leading journalists on the production team, this offers a more complex version of events than usual. Campbell questions Blair's judgement at critical moments as the Prime Minister offers unconditional support for President Bush.

Machiavelli rating: 2

The Thick Of It. Tonight, 10PM, BBC2

It may have hit the television screens more than a year after he quit Downing Street, but viewers seemed instantly to have seen the stamp of Alastair Campbell in policy co-ordinator Malcolm Tucker. Always at the centre of the action, Tucker exudes macho malevolence.

Played by Oscar-winning Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, his speech is laarded with expletives - from his rhetorical inquiry "What's the story, Balafuckingmory?" to his regular comparisons of colleagues' usefulness to that of a "marzipan dildo".

First shown on BBC4, the plaudits have rolled in for Armando Ianucci's semi-improvised satire on New Labour control-freakery, and the show recently transferred to a terrestrial slot.

Chris Langham, who plays Hugh Abbot, the world-weary minister for social affairs, picked up the gong for Best Comedy Actor at the British Comedy Awards last year and the programme was also named Best New Comedy.

Truth or spin? The realism is attributed to the presence on the writing team of genuine Whitehall insiders - Martin Sixsmith, the former Government press officer turned whistleblower who quit over the " burying bad news affair" - is the programme's "reality adviser". Those in the know believe Ianucci has captured exactly the insular, macho world of Whitehall decision making. Just as he did in real life, the Tucker character gets all the best lines.

Machiavelli rating: 5

Bremner, Bird and Fortune. October-December 1999, Channel 4

The decision to recruit Andrew Dunn to impersonate Alastair Campbell in the 1999 return of Bremner, Bird and Fortune proved an instant hit. But, played as "a cross between Machiavelli and a gruff northern football manager" according to Bremner, the portrayal didn't go down well in Downing Street.

Writing soon after Campbell's resignation, Bremner recalled how the Prime Minister's press secretary appeared to be untroubled by being portrayed as a master manipulator but upset by the fact that Dunn was much fatter than he was.

At a summer party hosted by Sir David Frost, the marathon-running communications and strategy chief approached Bremner and demanded to know: "How's that fat bastard who does me?"

Three days later, Bremner said he was telephoned by a newspaper jopurnalist asking whether Dunn was to be replaced because he had become too fat for the part. Bremner said: "It was classic Campbell, and in a way you had to hand it to him for cheek alone."

Ironically, Campbell had played a vital role in the early 1990s helping Bremner and his collaborators John Bird and John Fortune to gain an insight into the Westminster bear pit, even attending a meeting that the team had called with political journalists and former ministers.

Later, after Labour swept into power in 1997, Dunn - a passable lookalike as far as most viewers were concerned - was required to improvise his role. "While Andy's head and eyeballs were spinning, his Campbell persona took on a life of its own."

Truth or spin? Andy Dunn's ability to wind up Alastair Campbell must be considered a mark of success. Bremner has been perhaps the most consistently sharp political satirist of the past two decades.

Machiavelli rating: 4

A Very Social Secretary. 10 October 2004, Channel 4

The fact that Alastair Campbell had departed Number 10 by the time the Kimberley Quinn story broke is seemingly irrelevant in Alistair Beaton's satire of the David Blunkett saga. But in the writer's imagination, clearly no New Labour scandal is complete without Mr Campbell's dark presence. The communications supremo appears on screen in two of its most memorable scenes.

Campbell, played by Alex Jennings (who also played President Bush in David Hare's Stuff Happens at the National Theatre) is lurking in the background as the beleaguered Home Secretary discusses his future with Blair after news of his affair has emerged. As the blind Home Secretary inquires nervously if there is anyone else in the room, the Prime Minister's eyes lift surreptitiously to Campbell who is standing behind Blunkett's chair. He shakes his head ominously.

The scene angered disability groups, but Beaton was playing it for laughs. After that Campbell disappears from the action, only to return towards the finale, where he rubber-stamps Mr Blunkett's marching orders.

Jennings' Campbell contrasts sharply with his nominal master Tony Blair, played by Robert Lindsay. The Prime Minister comes across as an indecisive ditherer, in dire need of his henchman's political guidance.

It was not the first time the playwright had turned his attention to New Labour. In Feelgood, set during a party conference as anti-capitalist demonstrators rampage in the streets outside, the Prime Minister's press secretary, the "sinister and obsessive Eddie" attempts to redraft his boss's speech.

Truth or spin? Romp rather than reality is the order of the day for this play-turned-television drama. Campbell is undoubtedly still in contact with the Prime Minister - he claims to speak twice a week - but it is unknown whether he played a role in the Blunkett affair.

Machiavelli rating: 3

The Government Inspector. 17 March 2005, Channel 4

One scene in Bafta-winning Peter Kosminsky's controversial two-hour dramatisation of the events surrounding the death of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly particularly captured the imagination.

Naturally enough, it featured Alastair Campbell, in this case played by actor Jonathan Cake. The action revolves around a late-night telephone call between Campbell and Blair, played by Mark Rylance. The Prime Minister is strumming away on his guitar, as he debates whether to leak Dr Kelly's name to the media.

Campbell told the Hutton inquiry into Dr Kelly's suicide that he had not leaked the name, and claimed exoneration with the publication of the inquiry findings. Kosminsky goes no further than the evidence but in the insouciant way the two men discuss the life-or-death decision, he makes his distaste for the Blair-Campbell axis clear.

As the tension mounts, the Prime Minister picks out a particularly accomplished blues riff. Not quite Nero fiddling while Rome burns, but not far off.

Truth or spin? Because of the death of Dr Kelly, Government Inspector was always going to be controversial and Kosminsky used plenty of dramatic licence to bring the characters and events to life. But the scenes in which Campbell subjects subordinates to foulmouthed bollockings are among the most enjoyable.

Machiavelli rating: 3

An Evening With .... January-June 2004, touring nationwide

If the Prime Minister's communication supremo was sick of people forming judgements about him without ever having met him, what better way than to meet the people than in the flesh? His one-man show, which he played at the Royal Festival Hall, and across the UK, was popular with the public and many performances sold out. It clearly fulfilled a requirement in Campbell too, whose unexpected departure from Downing Street in 2003 had left an 18-hour hole in his day.

After signing to News International as a sports writer, he raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for his cancer charity, ran marathons and was still able, in that much-abused political phrase - to spend more time with his family. The one-man show was a product of this time. The format had already been a hit for the likes of Tony Benn - another much demonised figure in his day. But critics inevitably accused Campbell of using the show as a way of justifying his actions and settling scores.

Journalists in general were high on his hate list, being all together less likeable than politicians, he said. In particular, the Daily Mail and its editor Paul Dacre felt the full force of the Campbell fury. The Daily Mail should "emigrate", he said. Other targets included Clare Short - for her opposition to the Iraq war - and Millwall Football Club for alleged racist behaviour by its fans. Proceedings were compered by a series of New Labour celebrities including EastEnder Ross Kemp.

Truth or spin? This was the man himself and the public, if not the journalists sent along to review it, seemed to like him well enough. There was little in the way of foul-mouthed tirades although there was enough ranting and slagging-off to give a sense of the real Campbell.

Machiavelli rating: 2

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