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A British Channel 4 mini-series, and one of the finest political thrillers
ever made. From the first shot of the opening titles, a molotov cocktail
striking the ground in front of Big Ben, this film moves with breathtaking
speed and energy, and is guaranteed to push the emotional buttons of any
It is sometime in the early 90s, and the Conservatives have been tossed out of power by the Labour Party in a landslide- not led by Tony Blair, but by a charismatic and unapologetically socialist steelworker and union organizer, Harry Perkins. Ray McInally plays the canny, unpretentious Yorkshireman to perfection. The vultures of the upper-class Establishment, the gutter media, the MI5 and the CIA gather to try to undermine Perkins' effective and popular government.
The show is witty, fast-paced, and deliciously paranoid. Acting, dialogue and editing (almost MTV-like compared to the usual sober pace of British TV dramas) come together perfectly. Even if the cold-war setting is a bit outdated and even if you don't share the film's left-wing politics, you will be moved to man the barricades by the time the last chilling image fades.
This film deserves video revival, as a true masterpiece of television craft. Search the web regularly for re-releases- you won't be sorry!
Very fine underrated british drama released in 1988 and now sadly passed
into oblivion. Alas by all accounts there are no copies on video or
The story focuses on one Harry Perkins. Former coal miner and popular left
wing leader of the british parliamentary labour party. Following a
landslide election he is soon to be sworn in as prime minister of Great
Britain and Northern Ireland, first lord of the treasury and the Kings
minister, with whom he appears to get along fine. Others however take more
His arrival to say the least causes consternation amongst the mandarins of
the civil service and their underlings, a few media barons not to mention
the white house, britains NATO allies, the head of the BBC and a few others
besides. It is not an auspicious beginning. Their main concern of course is
how far left the Kings new first minister is going to take them. Old Harry
has a few radical policy changes in mind which is sure to rattle a few
established institutions and practises of whom he is quite prepared to
ignore. He has a manifesto to follow, promises to keep his electorate and
more important matters to ponder over.
It is then that a few partisan members of his own intelligence service
together with a powerful media baron(shades of R.Murdoch) decide to take
matters into their own hands and initiate measures to ensure that Harry
Perkins is brought back into line. They do this in the most unsubtle ways.
Like opening his mail, prying into his past life and even manipulating his
bank accounts to show unaccounted deposits. To a wider degree and on a more
machiavellian scale they also manipulate the head of one powerful union and
there is suspicion about their involvement in the unexpected death of the
PM's chief scientific adviser on the eve of an important meeting. Most of
this is accomplished through the old boy network within the civil service
and other organs of the government where the 'old school tie' comes into
prominence. It is the start of a very british coup...!
Harry of course is not entirely ignorant of this skullduggery behind his
back and pretty much knows who is behind it. He bides his time and with
a few trustworthy helpers in his inner circle including the blunt spoken
chief of his security detail, he ponders over how to foil their plans and
pinpoint the traitors in their midst. Enough said.
This is an amazingly good drama as only the brits can produce these days. Ray McAnally shines in his portrayal of the politically savvy and down to earth Harry Perkins. It is one of his best roles and sadly one of his last. Alan McNaughton stands out also as Sir Percy Browne the treasonous MI5 chief and Tim McInerney as his able but weasley paranoid assistant Fiennes. It is a story of excessive political manipulation at its worst and written by Chris Mullin at the height of the Thatcher years when despite the economic upturn only a few people were actually benefiting from it. It was also a time when Great Britain had never actually been so close to the USA in their foreign, defence and economic policies. Thatchers close working relationship with Reagan outlined all that very clearly. Hopefully the drama will be released in video form so that others can also appreciate this low budget but very canny political tale.
A left wing candidate is elected after a hard fought campaign by his
right wing rivals. No I am not talking about the 2008 U.S. Presidential
election. That is the in fact the beginning of A Very British Coup, an
excellent and all too plausible miniseries about a left wing British
Prime Minister who radical policies lead to members of the right wing
establishment trying to bring him down. In fact it for interesting
viewing especially in today's world.
Any good production needs a good cast and A Very British Coup has an excellent cast. Ray McAnally gives the greatest performance of his all too short career as Prime Minister Harry Perkins. McAnally captures perfectly the plain-spoken, charismatic leader in both good times and bad. As Perkins, McAnally makes you want to stand up and cheer for him especially with his final speech. McAnally of course is just the tip of the cast. As Perkins biggest enemy is Alan MacNaughtan as Sir Percy Browne, the almost and quietly threatening head of MI5 who sits at the center of the web of conspiracy to bring down Perkins. The supporting cast is made up of some Britain's finest actors from Keith Allen to Tim McInnery, Philip Madoc, Marjorie Yates, Geofrey Beevers, Jim Carter and Oscar Quitak amongst others. Even in small parts like Inspector Page (Bernard Kay) and Annette Newsome (Caroline John) are filled with terrific actors.
The real star of A Very British Coup is its script. Alan Plater takes Chris Mullin's novel and crafts it into a fascinating study of a government under siege from within. Often in political films or series the plot takes head over the dialogue which leads to stifled dialogue. Plater doesn't let that happen and the dialogue never seems stifled but real and urgent. In fact the whole script seems real and urgent despite some of the issues being dated (such as nuclear disarmament). The fascinating thing about watching this is that change an issue or two and this could be today. The result is a story that has the ability to fascinate some twenty years later.
Another important aspect of the productions is its visuals. Director Mick Jackson and cinematographer Ernie Vincze use the camera and screen time wisely. The result is that A Very British Coup is as much a visual feast as anything else with moments in parts two and three that stand out even today. The miniseries is, as a result, a dark and grainy world full of enemies and thinly veiled threats. This even truer when combined with the music of John Keane and the performances of the cast.
The result of all this from the exceptional performance of Ray McAnally, the performances of the cast, an excellent script that's all too plausible and a visual feast makes A Very British Coup a first rate political thriller. It may be twenty years old and somewhat dated at times but it makes a fascinating viewing that still carries weight today. For at its heart A Very British Coup carries an important and time less message: the greatest enemy of a democracy is not from without but from within. It's a message we shouldn't ignore.
"A Very British Coup" was a turning point in my life. Aged about 18 and
having spent much of that time in Mrs Thatcher's Britain, this mini-series
illustrated what might have happened had a Michael Foot, Tony Benn or a Ken
Livingstone been elected Prime Minister.
Ken Livingstone wrote a book called "If Voting Changed Anything They'd Abolish It". Harry Perkins the new socialist British Prime Minister, like all the best idealists fighting a hopeless cause, simply doesn't know when he is beaten, or rather he chooses to carry on regardless of the storm clouds looming.
Shortly after his election he receives the traditional congratulatory phone call from the US president. A formal script is placed in his hands which he refuses to follow much to everyone's consternation and the scene is set.
The Americans cannot risk losing control of their huge static aircraft carrier off the coast of France (it used to be called the UK). Big Business tries to starve the Perkins government of funds. Harry responds brilliantly surviving on low cunning and simple honesty in this capitalistic, high-brow, dishonest world.
There is no way his government can survive, it will not be allowed. There are dark forces gathering......
I'd like to think that this isn't particularly credible, but, allowing
for that, this is a well made and gratifying piece of television drama.
It's all built around a towering performance from Ray McAnally, who simply doesn't put a foot wrong. The blend of kindness and steel we see in his portrayal of Harry Perkins is perfect. He is ably supported by a cast of British stalwarts, of whom Keith Allen and Marjorie Yates deserve special mention.
Whatever your politics, it's impossible not to be swept along in the sheer exhilaration of the opening twenty minutes or so as Perkins wins a landslide victory in a General Election and becomes Prime Minister at the head of a radical Labour government. After that, the pleasure comes mainly in some clever scripting and interesting use of Mozart's music.
The conclusion is pleasingly ambiguous. Too many dramas these days wrap up everything neatly, giving us nothing to think about. That's not the case here.
Excellent effort all round then. Rating: 8/10.
Firstly, I should perhaps counter the two negative reviews by pointing
out the novel this was based on was written in the early 1980's when a
left wing Labour government could have been a distinct possibility.
Thatcher was VERY unpopular as Chris Mullin was writing his novel. But,
had Tony Benn replaced the ineffectual Michael Foot as Labour leader -
again very possible then -he would have been no Harry Perkins. Lacking
the fictional characters street smarts and possibly, wider appeal. But
this is fiction after all.
By 1988, when this superb drama was made, Thatcher was still there but the adaptation, with now great foresight as current events show, made more of Perkins rise being due to uncovering massive scandal and criminality in big finance.
Mullin himself was a left winger, though he moderated his views with maturity and, as he himself admitted, the changes in the political landscape. As a well respected MP for Labour from 1987 to 2010, he would vote for Tony Blair as leader in 1994 but against the Iraq war in 2003.
Mullin represented a seat in Sunderland in NE England which suffered terribly under the Tories. He was a very effective Parliamentary Select Committee Chairman then had a series of junior ministerial appointments, the often 'Yes Minister' or even 'The Thick Of It' like events he had then are recounted with his trademark humour and self deprecation in his dairies,
The Novel and this adaptation crop up in these widely acclaimed dairies of his life, political and personal, that have been published over the last few years, he kept them from 1994 to 2010.
If there was a 'Mullin' character in the book and TV show, it's 'Fred Thompson' played by Keith Allen, like Mullin when he wrote the book, a campaigning journalist, though as described in the book as rather more physically like the author than in the TV film, not to take anything away from Allen's performance.
I cannot add much more to the mostly positive reviews, that this was shown in 30 countries, won a stack of awards, was cited by Mullin's political allies and opponents years later, is testament to the novel and this excellent, so well made and acted drama.
I will add that though I'm left of centre, I would not have supported Harry Perkins anti nuclear, anti NATO policies. Not that this in anyway reduced my enjoyment of this drama which I've watched and enjoyed many times.
The quality of the acting is very high. The pacing is excellent, there are no slow moments. It is interesting to watch the interplay between the Americans and the British, especially regarding the Blair government's position on Iraq, even in light of the famous Downing Street memorandum. One must listen to the interview with the author of the original book, who now serves in the UK government, to see how chilling this story is. I would rank it along side the excellent film The Siege, which was a prescient view of NYC under attack pre-9/11. Several years later there were BBC/Masterpiece Theatre stories about UK politics which starred Ian Richardson. This work ranks with those productions. American films, like The Manchurian Candidate or Seven Days in May have some of the same power but seem much simpler in their construction. One could make a fascinating film about the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, or the 2000 Florida recount drama.
Harry the Steelworker... it could have happened... discontent was
growing with Maggie and her ilk. Where would be now? I for one would
have voted for Harry.. totally believable in almost every respect,
including the scenes with our American "friends". Harry could be as
hard as steel (excuse the pun) but his heart was totally in the right
place. Ray McAnnaly was born to play this role. And the musical
score... what more could be said... I believe it won a major (well
deserved) reward.. and quite rightly so...
This must rank as one of the best Dramas in British Television History. I have no hesitation in calling this a classic. Totally deserved.
Ray McInally stars in a three-part miniseries, "A Very British Coup,"
The story is set in the 1990s, when the Conservatives are ousted from power by Labour, and the new Prime Minister, Harry Perkins (McInally) is one of the common folk, a steelworker and union organizer. One of the common folk, but no dummy. He plain-speaking, down to earth, and his heartfelt speeches and ambitions for the country are met with a large mandate from the public. The Conservatives, of course, are miserable. Harry for one thing isn't part of the good old boy network, and his socialist policies are viewed as disturbing. The other side, the Establishment, goes to work with the help of MI5, the CIA, and the tabloids, to bring him to his knees.
Excellent three-parter done with a wonderful performance by McInally, who died shortly after this. His character displays both political and street smarts, as well as a sense of humor and a keen understanding of how he is viewed by the Establishment.
Very, very enjoyable, and could easily have been filmed a day ago. That's one thing about films and TV shows about politics going back to the classic film days -- it seems that nothing has changed in the world of political chicanery.
Director Mick Jackson who also created other classic flicks, Volcano
1997 and Threads 1984 has created another gem in A Very British Coup.
Starring Ray McNally who has also been in other classic flicks, My Left Foot 1989 and The Mission 1986.
Also starring Majorie Yates.
Also starring Geoffrey Beevers.
I enjoyed the whole game of "Politics" on display.
If you enjoyed this as much as I did the check out other classic political flicks, Salvador 1986, Nixon 1995, JFK 1991, In the Name of the Father 1993, Gandhi 1982, Bob Roberts 1992, Clear and Present Danger 1994, The Battle of Algiers 1966, Vantage Point 2008, Shooter 2007, Safe House 2012, The Devil's Double 2011, A Good Day to Die Hard 2013, Tough and Deadly 1995, White House Down 2013, London Has Fallen 2016, Big Game 2014, Unthinkable 2010 and The Defender 2004.
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