As seen on TV: The many faces of Tony Blair

From Michael Sheen to Rory Bremner, a host of actors have portrayed the PM on screen. As Robert Lindsay has his second crack at the part, Andy McSmith looks back at the previous attempts, while John Rentoul, Blair's biographer, gives his expert view
Click to follow
Indy Politics

There is perhaps only one country where this could happen to a serving head of government. This Monday evening, if Tony Blair tunes in to More4, he will have the opportunity to watch someone pretending to be him.

Impressionists, comics and serious actors have all tried it, with varying degrees of success. Mr Blair has appeared as a character in television dramas more often than any other serving politician, including Margaret Thatcher during her years in power.

David Aukin, executive producer of The Trial of Tony Blair, claims this is a tradition in which the British can take pride.

"It's a sign of a very healthy democracy," he said. "It's a tradition that's hundreds of years old, and Britain is one of the few cultures in the world where it exists.

"You can't imagine that the French would make an equivalent film about Chirac, or the Italians about Berlusconi.

"It's unlikely that any American broadcaster would make a similar film about George Bush."

Monday's broadcast is likely to be all the more controversial because it is fiction, in which real people appear as characters.

Previous plays in the genre attempted to be more or less accurate reconstructions of real events. In The Trial of Tony Blair the writer Alistair Beaton has imagined Mr Blair, played by Robert Lindsay, staying in office until 2010, and then standing trial in The Hague as a war criminal.

"I started out thinking that Blair was a fundamentally decent man who made a terrible decision. I assume that he must care, and must be struggling to live with what he did," Beaton said.

It's not a film about the Iraq war. I am as interested in him, and the collapse of his denial system, as I am in the Iraq war."

He added: "I'd be thrilled if Tony rang up to complain. I live with the small but delicate hope that the film will get up Tony Blair's nose."

The Deal (2003)



STORYLINE: In 1994, two ambitious men who have been friends for years are both after the same job. The elder of the two, a brooding bachelor, considers the other to be his protégé, but the younger man has an aspiring wife.

They have to be discreet about manoeuvring for the job because people are in mourning for the old boss, who died suddenly, so they meet privately in an Islington restaurant. The married man persuades his former mentor to stand aside.

But why should anyone care? Because the job is leader of the Labour Party and whoever gets it will be the Prime Minister. The story is taken from a book called The Rivals, by James Naughtie.

SHEEN SAID: "It was the first time, really, that anyone had made a drama about contemporary political figures. We didn't know whether people would accept it. But they did."

OTHER NOTABLE APPEARANCE: David Morrissey, who plays Gordon Brown. He put on two stone and made his hair wavy to play the role.


A ghastly, cringe-making performance by an actor adopting all the quirks of comic impersonation - the hesitations, the "look, the important thing is ", the flash of the insincere smile.

It utterly destroys the dramatic tension because Sheen has no presence against a masterly David Morrissey as Gordon Brown, so Blair's prevailing over him makes no sense.


Why We Went To War (2006)



STORYLINE: The date is 11 September 2001. The Prime Minister and his director of communications are working on a speech to the TUC when their attention is caught by a news flash. The director of communications swears loudly.

Soon, the action moves from condemnation of the terrorist outrage in the US to the prospect of war with Iraq. Members of the Cabinet watch a vast anti-war demonstration pass Westminster, and the director of communications warns: "Just look at what's going on out there for Christ's sake. It's getting bloody dangerous for you." In another scene, the Leader of the Commons pleads that the UK should direct its energies to bringing peace to Palestine rather than war to Iraq.

But the Prime Minister is told by his security chief that a massive attack will catch the Iraqis off guard, a belief shared by the US. The decision to go to war is made.

OTHER NOTABLE APPEARANCE: Karl Johnson plays Robin Cook. This is a rare case of a politician being portrayed as sincere, thoughtful, and principled. And, by the way, taller than Tony Blair, which in real life Cook was not, by a foot.

JOHN RENTOUL'S VERDICT: The sub-Hugh Grant good looks are a distraction, but Cullen does at least manage to suggest a character who knows how to get his way and is used to getting it. The drama is once again spoiled by the tics, the hesitations and "y'knows" that Tony Blair uses to convey deep thought and sincerity, which only succeed in makinng him look nervous.


The Trial of Tony Blair (2007)



STORYLINE: The year is 2010 and Tony Blair has finally agreed to step down. He leaves Downing Street confident that he has a future as a world statesman and that the US and UK would veto any proposal to create a war crimes tribunal on Iraq. He opens up a new office, completes his memoirs, prepares himself for admission into the Roman Catholic Church, and waits for the telephone to ring. Gordon Brown succeeds him, but only just wins the general election. Neither Prime Minister Brown nor President Hillary Clinton feel strong enough to wield the veto.

LINDSAY SAID: "I was seriously angry with him for making the decision to go to war. I still think it's an illegal war and has been a huge mistake and it's not going to get any better. That's why I did the film. Iraq is going to be his legacy and he is not going to escape it."

OTHER NOTABLE APPEARANCE: Phoebe Nicholls as Cherie Blair. Flatteringly glamorous and hard as nails.

JOHN RENTOUL'S VERDICT: Lindsay is better cast as a tortured soul who bears no resemblance to the real Tony Blair. He makes a token effort, pausing in the wrong places and nervously touching his forehead, which I have never seen Blair do. But the script makes it impossible, requiring him to be rude and graceless. At least the jokes are better.


Beneath Iraq and a Hard Place (2006)



STORYLINE: The programme opens with news footage of a peace demonstration in March 2003, joined by Tony Blair, who addresses the crowd to say that we in the UK will stand shoulder to shoulder with France and our other EU allies in refusing to send troops into Iraq.

BREMNER SAID: "The dentures I use when impersonating the Prime Minister are now so uncomfortable that they are making it difficult to speak clearly. I was thinking of getting a new set. Then I thought, well, they're quite expensive, and he won't be around for that long."

OTHER NOTABLE APPEARANCE: Andrew Dunn as Alastair Campbell. A good lookalike, but Campbell bitterly complained that he was too fat for the part.

JOHN RENTOUL'S VERDICT: Bremner may be the most skilful impersonator of Blair, which proves that you do not have to be a lookalike to convey character. But what works for satire doesn't work for analysis. We need to understand Blair's motivation and Bremner is no better at that than anyone else with an opinion about Iraq.


The Government Inspector (2005)


STORYLINE: Britain is embroiled in war in Iraq. A weapons scientist who had been a UN inspector in pre-war Iraq meets a BBC journalist to talk about why the government believed weapons of mass destruction existed. He implies that the intelligence could have been sexed up. His words are then sexed up by the journalist into an allegation that the Prime Minister's Director of Communications had falsified evidence to make the case for war.

KOSMINSKY SAID: "I've made a number of films of this kind. Sometimes I say: 'This is a true story.' In this case we say: 'Based on a true story.' I am not saying this is 100 per cent accurate. This is a dramatic take on a set of events of which we are all to a greater or lesser extent familiar."

OTHER NOTABLE APPEARANCE: Mark Rylance, as the enigmatic, reserved, honest, timid, geekish and quietly desperate Dr David Kelly.

JOHN RENTOUL'S VERDICT: A reasonable try by Larkin against another script unable to resist the cheap shot. He manages to seem forceful, even while sipping from a Union flag mug - at least until the writers make him talk to Alastair Campbell on the phone while playing his guitar, and then leaping to attention when called away by Cherie.


Very Social Secretary (2005)



STORYLINE: It is like Othello, minus the poetry and the tragedy, with a lot of crude laughs instead. The main character is a man who has overcome the double disadvantages of an impoverished Yorkshire working-class background and of being blind from birth, to rise to the office of Home Secretary. A sexual innocent, he is seduced by a woman who publishes a weekly magazine called The Spectator. She becomes pregnant. Misled into thinking that their relationship is for real, he demands to be recognised as the child's father. She tells him to get lost as she wants her husband to be the father. Memorably she warns him: "I hope you know what you're doing. All I have to lose is a husband. I can always get another husband. How easy is it to get another Home Office?" He doesn't listen, and loses the Home Office.

LINDSAY SAID: "It was easy for me, because it was a series of sketches. I just had to get the voice right."

OTHER NOTABLE APPEARANCE: Bernard Hill as David Blunkett, copying his accent, his strange eye movements, his durability and vulnerability to perfection.

JOHN RENTOUL'S VERDICT: This was a tragic waste of a comic opportunity. Lindsay hardly tries to copy Blair's mannerisms, while the script portrays him as henpecked and diffident. So the performance falls on the quality of the gags. "Who leaked the Mayan rebirthing?" is as good as it gets.


The Queen (2006)



STORYLINE: It is summer 1997. A Princess has died in a car crash in Paris. The Royal Family does not do public grief, and did not approve of the late Princess's way of life. But she was a star, and the public reaction is extraordinary. The royals do not know what to do, but the newly elected Prime Minister considers himself expert at riding the zeitgeist. He delivers a speech with the line: "She was the People's Princess." Some think it was unspeakably tacky and opportunistic, but most people love it.

SHEEN SAID: "I had to watch the footage of the speech over and over again to make up my own mind about what was going on inside him at that point, because that speech split people."

OTHER NOTABLE APPEARANCE: Helen Mirren as Her Majesty, the performance that won the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival and a Bafta nomination.

JOHN RENTOUL'S VERDICT: Same problem as in The Deal, only worse, because Blair now has added gravitas as Prime Minister, but Sheen appears smaller, more nervous and more obsequious than before. As so often, caricature renders a fascinating story simplistic and dull. Also - perhaps it should not matter but it does - Blair is tall and Sheen is, er, not.