The tribe of MPs is conditioned to expect all news to be bad. A couple of meetings with veteran BBC broadcaster Michael Cockerell and his crew left me with a heart-sinking fear that his four-part fly-on-the-wall revelations of Parliament would end badly.
During the 1990s, the revealed truth on the Royal Opera House crucified the institution. Jeremy Isaacs confessed he was naive to believe exposure would heal its damaged reputation. Had parliamentarians repeated the error?
Cockerell had surprising news at the preview of the first episode of his four-part series. A small band of right-wing Conservative MPs, known as the ‘berserkers’ (no, I’ve never heard of them either) had plotted to sabotage the documentary. Bill Wiggin was shown objecting to the presence of the cameras on safety grounds. Other MPs allegedly plotted an ‘accident’ in which an MP would fall backwards into a camera, providing a pretext to end the filming.
The berserkers probably worried in vain. This is Parliament in all its rich humanity, humour, idealism and serious intent. It’s a vivid, authentic portrayal of the warts and the glories.
Two exceptionally engaging new MPs starred in the first episode: Labour’s Sarah Champion and the Tory Charlotte Leslie nervously explored Parliament’s arcane rules and practices. Champion emotes after PMQs: “The behaviour in there is just disgusting, really embarrassing, juvenile! The offenders are men in their 50s.” Shocking!
Leslie says she went into politics because “I have always been angry. I feel like smashing brick walls down.” She was filmed smashing a punchbag in Parliament’s gym. She struggled through the terrifying ordeal of PMQ number one by repeatedly telling herself: “Don’t cock up.”
There is a tangible sense of family in the Commons community. Egalitarianism is rampant in the affectionate fulsome tribute by grandee Nicholas Soames to Gladys Dickson, who reigns supreme in the Members’ Tea Room.
Cockerell spices the narrative with flashes of endearing humour and gossamer-light malice. The spaniels sniffing and searching the green leather seats have “eyes to the left, nose to the floor”.
Viewers will also be intrigued by the grandeur and beauty of the buildings and appalled by their dereliction. Public opinion is being prepared for a massive restoration bill in the next parliament.
Cockerell has fought to create these programmes for the past six years. The innate conservatism of our institutions is formidable. One Commons committee was overruled this month after opposing the projection of an image of a ballot box onto Big Ben on National Voter Registration Day. Instead of members blocking Michael’s camera lens with their hands, they should have welcomed him as an advocate for the best of Parliament.
Served up with charm, humour, authenticity and humanity, the truth is less dramatic than the fiction, but engagingly admirable.