”Sometimes you have to do bad things to get into power, in order to do good things when you get there”
18 years may have passed since Paula Milne wrote The Politician’s Wife so it was something of a surprise to hear that a companion piece called The Politician’s Husband was in the works. Shown on BBC2 last year, it followed the same 3 episode miniseries format as its forefather and directed by Simon Cellan Jones, had a splashy cast in David Tennant and Emily Watson as a high-flying political couple forced to navigate tricky ground when her career starts to outshine his. But for all the expectation that may have surrounded this, it sadly didn’t feel like a worthy follow-up, satisfyingly excellent performance from Emily Watson aside.
It’s not immediately clear why Milne decided to write this sequel of sorts. The surnames of her characters pay homage to the West Wing (Hoynes, Gardner, Babbish…) and the Machiavellian manipulations of those in power and those who would be speak of many a political thriller gone by. But it is a very British kind of politics that is being interrogated here, the expenses scandal looms large in the public disillusionment with the establishment. And though no affiliations are made with any particular political parties, it is hard not to see echoes of an imagined Balls/Cooper household here, though it is a universal truth that the power-hungry are not restricted to any one ideology.
But as it is, David Tennant’s senior Cabinet minister Aiden is left floundering when an abortive leadership attempt goes awry due to a back-stabbing colleague, Ed Stoppard in excellent slimy form. Emily Watson as his wife Freya is also a politician albeit one who has taken a back seat as primary caregiver for their two children but when she is asked to take her husband’s former role, her star becomes firmly in the ascendancy, utterly shifting the dynamic of their marriage. Life is complicated by their son being diagnosed with Asperger’s, their au pair (the wonderful Anamaria Marinca) having a wandering eye for Aiden and his ageing father being a keen jogger.
There are aspects of the story that are interestingly done – the frank declarations of how hard it can be to parent a child with Asperger’s, the sexually adventurous chemistry they’ve maintained, and the enormous integrity that Emily Watson brings to Freya as she is finally given the chance to realise her personal ambitions but finds she must balance them with a husband and home unused to her not being at their beck and call. Watson truly is excellent but is let down somewhat by the predictable script – sexual jealousy manifesting itself viciously, the ridiculously over-telegraphed health issues that befall a character, the moment of clarity from a child that unleashes the floodgates.
The lack of nuance in the characterisations (essentially (most male) politicians = bad people) by Milne make it hard to really engage with the vast majority of the dilemmas contained within. It just doesn’t feel that this portrayal of grasping ambition (and concurrent disdain for constituency affairs) in the political classes has anything new to say and at times just ends up being unpleasant. There’s some shafts of light: aside from the delights of Roger Allam being devilish as the Chief Whip, there’s brief cameos from Sylvestra Le Touzel as a deceptively innocuous journalist and Sarah Woodward as a canny undercover journalist but all told, this was a fairly disappointing piece of drama.