Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "On Expenses" from 24.2.2010
This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2010
"This film is based on real characters and events. Some scenes have been imagined, some dates have been compressed. But mostly, you couldn't make it up"
BBC 4's hot streak of wry-yet-punchy dramas recapturing the recent political past continued last night with "On Expenses."
A stellar writing, directing and acting team - of Manchester City or Chelsea proportions - was assembled to very good effect.
Written by Tony Saint and directed by Simon Cellan-Jones, the film dramatised the struggle of Heather Brookes, an American journalist, to secure full public disclosure of MP's expenses under the Freedom of Information Act.
Heather's American perspective was a key to the drama. She demonstrated horror and indeed shock that so many at the heart of power in this country could be so rapacious in feathering their nests and yet so smug and self-righteous in doing so.
As a woman and an American Ms Brookes was the ultimate outsider, but she also represented all of us standing outside the glib luxurious world of the British Establishment.
Anna Maxwell Martin played Heather Brookes with verve and energy. The last time I saw her was as Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" a few years ago. She mesmerised now as then and was the focus of attention whenever on screen.
Her character was driven and pushy. She was a bundle of nervous energy which she just-about kept under control. Channeling this potentially explosive inner turmoil seemed to be crucial to her well-being and she found outlets in campaigning, journalism and even creative dance.
She was ambitious in a competitive American way and sometimes almost exhibitionist in her iconoclasm. One is never entirely sure how much this need to puncture the pompous balloon of petty officialdom was pure activism or bloody-mindedness or her sense of humour. To be sure, she was amused by the lunacy demonstrated by the jobsworths with whom she crossed swords.
Whatever the precise motivation, she was feisty, combative and effective - as demonstrated by her lengthy but ultimately successful campaign to improve lighting in subways in her neighbourhood which had become a haven for muggers.
Heather's drive and work ethic saw her decide upon and complete her book upon the Freedom of Information Act and apply the same commitment and organisation in the subsequent battle before the Tribunal and in the High Court to defeat her parliamentary opponents - just as she had overcome her local council.
On one occasion she literally stood in front of the Speaker's procession in a vaulted hall in Westminster before shuffling stubbornly out of its way like a sulky teenager being difficult, just to show she could.
Many of Tony Saint's trademarks in "The Long Road to Finchley" were evident: you may recall the almost schoolboy jokes with the Thatcher twins and droll references to the jungle and desert.
Here, with topical and not very subtle jokiness, an MP leafs through a magazine - "The Mortgage Guide" and Speaker Martin drinks his Irn Bru and tells his wife on the telephone to be sure to get receipts. In truth however there was no need to devise such humour, however artfully. The truth was far too grotesquely comic.
Fairly or not, most of the ills of this rottenest of parliaments is reflected in the characterisation of Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, played with uncanny accuracy and considerable insight by Brian Cox.
Speaker Martin is presented in some depth with occasional lapses into caricature, as with the Celtic scarf over the back of his chair and bagpipe playing in moments of stress.
We see an ambitious politico scheming to achieve the office, using his connections to get the job "out of turn" and winking conspiratorially at his cronies when emerging from the key meeting when he has swung it with the all-important party whips. Contrary to established protocol, he is shown to set out expressly to make his selection "tribal."
We see the emphasis upon his lowly origins when it suited, as when an upper class civil servant inquired about his tailor. This contrasts with a self-important insistence to a lowly member of staff on being accorded his full title.
The split in his personality is reflected in sniffyness over wearing the full Speaker's regalia yet wanting the best that money can buy and apparent extravagance over the Pugin wallpaper for the Speaker's lodgings.
Speaker Martin and his MP cronies are presented in an unflattering light. Tim Pigott-Smith's sweaty characterisation of Labour MP Alan Keen is particularly telling.
Almost more shocking than the crude materialism, is the complacent failure of men in public life to grasp the way the tide of public opinion was turning and the manner in which they underestimated the challenge that was brewing.
The proceedings in the Tribunal and High Court are lucidly presented with a lightness of touch, helped by excellent performances by Neal Pearson as Hugh Tomkinson QC and Alex Jennings as the hapless head of the Fees Office, Andrew Walker.
The end of "On Expenses" has some of the quality of Shakespearean tragedy: hubris abounds.
There is to be no Pullitzer Prize for Heather Brookes. Much of her thunder is stolen by the detailed expose in the "Daily Telegraph" leading her to wail poignantly, "It just pisses me off that they've gone and done it so....brilliantly."
For Speaker Martin it is arguably worse. Immediately after quoting Burns in his resignation, he was shunned and ignored by those he protested he sought to protect and to whom, in the 'elfnsafetyspeak beloved of New Labour, he had "a duty of care." Alone, in an empty corridor in the palace of Westminster, he railed at "the bastards" who have deserted him like Richard III bewailing his fate on Bosworth Field.
At that moment and at other times, the brilliant subtlety of the performance by Brian Cox tempted one to feel some sympathy for this fallen Icarus that had dared to fly too high. He had been deserted by a privileged clique to whose interests he had dedicated himself.
In reality however he could look forward to retirement on a substantial index-linked pension and the honour of elevation to a peerage. In 2010 it is hard to see the tragedy in that.
The real tragedy occurred for the citizens of this country who obey the law, listen to the posturing of the politicians about ethics and all that public life entails and in good faith elect their MPs.
The so-called "expenses scandal" demonstrated that many of our representatives do not have the personal qualities of integrity and judgement making them fit for office. Some compound the irony by lecturing the rest us of us loftily about standards in public life. The real victims in this tragic story are the British people. Depressingly, it seems that our rulers still don't get it. You really couldn't make it up....