The Trial of Tony Blair
Review by Fiona Harrington
This feature-length television drama screened on Tuesday 16th January on digital TV channel More 4, purported to be a "satirical comedy drama... set in a future where Tony Blair is facing a war-crimes tribunal." Written by Alastair Beaton and starring Robert Lindsay as Blair, Peter Mullan as Gordon Brown and Phoebe Nicholls as Cherie Blair, it was mildly entertaining, slightly comedic and satirical only in a heavy-handed, very much sub Rory Bremer sort of way. It could have been so much more if the writing and direction had pointed it in a more straight-forwardly serious direction or in a savagely satirical direction. As it was it flip-flopped awkwardly between comedy and attempted pathos.
Robert Lindsay's portrayal of Tony Blair was only convincing in a superficial way in that he mimicked the voice and mannerisms of the by now ex-Prime Minister competently but didn't succeed, in my view, in capturing the personality of the man in a way that made one care about the character. Who cares about Tony Blair anyway you may say, or what his fate might be in the real world? But the essence of good drama surely, serious or comedic, is that one should be a little bit conflicted and have some sense of sympathy, even if only to want to continue watching it to the end.
It opens with Tony and Cherie Blair leaving Downing Street for their house in Connaught Square in 2010 - yes he hangs on for another three years! Hillary Clinton is in the White House and Gordon Brown is preparing to move into No. 10, but not before Cherie removes all the light bulbs - she hates the Browns you see. Gordon Brown is portrayed, badly, by Peter Mullan, he simply tries too hard or he was miscast, because just looking fierce and gloomy and speaking in a Scottish accent is not sufficient to bring Brown truly to life.
Blair's cynicism and compulsion to play to the crowd is well done though as he grasps hands and plunges into the throng on vacating No.10. The crowd obviously consists of a carefully selected band of New Labour supporters; there are still enough around even by 2010 apparently. However a wicked war protester manages to sneak into Downing Street somehow, giving the enraged Blair the chance to splutter "one protester is one too many" and demand to know how he slipped past security.
Beforehand we see him inside the prime-ministerial residence rehearsing his exit, asking his assistants if he should shed a tear like Margaret Thatcher for instance, or remain brave and upbeat. In the event he chooses brave and upbeat combined with just enough regret. Soon however his emotions take over and the facade crumbles.
Once out of the public eye and with the prospect of a war crimes trial on the horizon, he goes through a breakdown. Over the course of the next few weeks in his new residence and in his huge, rambling office space where he is engaged in dictating his memoirs, we witness him experiencing extremely disturbing hallucinations, the stress of which causes the return of his heart problem, for which he is treated, humiliatingly, in a dirty, short-staffed, NHS hospital. He seeks consolation in religion and applies for admittance to the Catholic Church - it is safe for him to do that now since he no longer has "focus groups to consider" as he explains to Cherie.
Almost as disturbing as his visions of dead Iraqis and ragged, wounded children, is the appearance outside the Blair home of none other than war-protester-in-chief, Brian Haw, complete with his full display of posters and banners! A funny moment, but highly unlikely since what would be the chance of him being allowed to remain opposite No.14 Connaught Square week after week with flask and sleeping-bag and not once be apprehended by the ever present police guard and duly removed? Haw instead remains to taunt him and Cherie every time either of them enter or leave the house; perhaps by 2010 he's become a national treasure even to the security forces!
There's a good moment when Tony is invited to the American Embassy. Actually it's more like he is summoned, but unaware of the significance of this we see him preening as he prepares for the visit completely under the impression that he is about to be asked to give a speech on Capitol Hill in the presence of the president and her staff. His future is mapped out, he's going to be a great elder statesman, respected around the globe, flying off to trouble spots, salving the sufferings of humanity and generally doing good and wise things. The shock is all the greater therefore when he meets the ambassador and discovers that the real reason he is there, is to be advised that he is now something of a liability to Hillary Clinton in her quest for a second term and furthermore that the possibility of him being hauled before the International Criminal Court may not be avoided. The embarrassment of this encounter is palpable.
There is well done embarrassment too in the 'meet the ordinary people' scenes of Brown and the cycling and lycra clad Cameron as they attempt to get down with the kids - blunt speaking school-children in Brown's case and teenagers in Cameron's. Neither of them is as clueless as portrayed however (unfortunately) and furthermore by 2010 one would imagine both will be polished to perfection to fit their respective roles.
Brown's position is not secure however as he gains a majority of only two votes, causing Peter Mullan to outdo himself in portraying big, bad, gloomy grumpiness with much frowning and lip twisting. Blair is ecstatic! His delight at Brown's discomfiture quickly evaporates however as he is brought to the realisation through one difficult encounter after another, that he is now merely an ordinary citizen, having no command on anybody's respect and remarkable for all the wrong reasons. A few more guilt induced hallucinations and his arrest and appearance before a hearing to examine whether he should face charges of war crimes, complete his disintegration. A broken man he is bundled into a police van straight from the church where he was attempting, and failing, to confess his sins and flown off to the Hague.
That is where the drama finishes, we do not get to see any tribunal proceedings, it was not about the trial of Tony Blair at all, at least not in the legal sense. The 'trial' which actually took place, partly within himself and in the events prior to his arrest could have been riveting, even in the absence of any actual legal proceedings. The psychological torment he is shown enduring could have been much more realistic and even sympathy inducing, to an extent at any rate and while Robert Lindsay was the best of the cast, his characterisation and those of the others came across as simple caricatures, which were not enough in the end to give us anything more than an hour and a half of reasonable entertainment and a few laughs.
I suppose what the screening of this drama demonstrates really, is that there is now a climate in which the idea of Tony Blair being tried for war crimes is becoming increasingly acceptable, whether it is likely is another matter but if so it would take far longer, years possibly and be far more difficult, teams of top lawyers would see to that. Also the impression given was that the problem was just Blair and with him out of the way justice would be done. The complicity of other politicians and of various civil servants and agents, the state in other words, not to mention Bush, was not even remotely touched upon. The other thing is that Blair himself would be unlikely to experience the guilt and resultant breakdown portrayed; he seems insufficiently self aware for that, though that view may be mistaken. Time may tell. Watchable but unsatisfactory.