Sir David Hare Plays Politics In His New Drama

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Sir David Hare plays coy when asked who the slick MP Peter Laurence is meant to be in contemporary British politics. “I’ve drawn a politician who is charismatic, popular, forward-looking, and highly intelligent,” he says, and Hare struggles to find such a figure in politics today. Hear more about the inspirations for Roadkill in a new interview.

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

It’s election time in the United States, but as always here at MASTERPIECE, we’re looking across the pond, taking a peek at party politics of a different color.

CLIP

Peter I’m proud of being one of the few politicians who actually comes from the same background as the majority of the people I represent. And I never forget that. So I fought, and I won.

Jace Peter Laurence is an up-and-coming MP, a man of the people, with an eye on the Prime Minister’s seat at 10 Downing Street. Laurence, in contrast to most of his colleagues in Parliament, is a self-made man, a tradesman as comfortable in the corridors of power as he is on conservative talk radio.

CLIP

Mick You’re not going to give us a scoop then, Peter, you’re not going to tell us where you’re gonna be next?

Peter I am not Mick, I’m going to leave that to the Prime Minister.

Mick This is AllTalk Radio, you’ve been listening to Peter Lauence and me, Mick The Mouth Moury.

Jace But make no mistake — Laurence is slick, and layered — with piles of secrets lining his pockets. With one wrong move, the Tory MP might end up political roadkill himself along his path to power.

CLIP

Duncan She’s getting worse.

Peter Tell me about it.

Duncan You can’t get rid of her. Under any circumstances. Joy knows everything.

Peter You don’t have to remind me.

Duncan She knows what you did.Jace While Laurence and his colleagues aren’t explicitly based on any real-life politicians, series creator Sir David Hare found inspiration in contemporary British politics, of course — and he reveals what scandals are still to come in this buzzy new political potboiler.

Jace And this week, we are joined by Roadkill creator, Sir David Hare. Welcome.

Sir David Hare Thank you.

Jace There’s a Dickensian feel to Roadkill, which takes us from the corridors of power to the cells of a women’s prison, following characters who feel initially disconnected but whose stories slowly weave together. What was the genesis for the initial idea for Roadkill? What ideas were you looking to explore with this project?

David Well, I’m glad you say, Dickens, because that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I love things that go from the top of society to the bottom of society and show the interconnectedness of things. So that was one stylistic feeling. But the real thing I wanted to do was to talk about Conservatism, about, you know, in this country, we’ve had Conservative governments now for 10 years. I think if I add it up, then it comes to over forty five years of my life has been lived under Conservative governments and only, you know, Liberal or Socialist governments have only 25, 30 years something. And, you know, very, very little fiction, extraordinarily little fiction is written about Conservatism, about what it is, what its future is, what motivates it, who Conservatives are, why they’re Conservatives. You know, classically, the West Wing, for instance, would be about a Liberal president. And that’s not untypical of a lot of fictional movies. And there are also films about fanatics of Left and Right. But I really wanted to explore the idea of, if you do put freedom first as the most important thing in life, what happens?

Jace And I do want to talk about the rule of Conservative governments, both in Britain and in the States. To you, what is the appeal of the Tories, does it offer its adherents a similar allure to, say, the Republican Party in the States?

David I think it’s going the same way as the Republican Party. In other words, I think, you know, I’m a tremendous admirer of Anne Applebaum’s new book, Twilight of Democracy. And that is really asking the question, why in the US, in the U.K., in France, in Hungary, in Poland, in Spain, has the Right moved so far to the Right? What you traditionally call the Republican Party barely exists anymore. There is simply Trump’s party, and that is something completely new. And I think Johnson similarly is taking the Right in an extreme direction, which is characterized by authoritarianism and strong anti-immigrant rhetoric. In other words, the idea that there is something pure about the history of your country, it’s pureness, is represented by its whiteness. And anyone who comes from outside to pollute that purity is contaminating it. And that you need to, in other words, to build walls literally in order to preserve your culture. Now, I’m not writing about that kind of extremism. What I’m writing about is traditional rightwing feeling, which is quite noble in its impulses, and that that is a feeling about freedom, that people should be free and most of all, that they should take responsibility for their own lives and not be dependent on others. And Peter Laurence, who is a self-made man, my hero, played by Hugh Laurie, and he is a man who comes from a working class background. He’s been selling furniture in Croydon, which those of you who know England, is a particularly, you know, unattractive suburb of London. And it’s you know, he’s of the people that he’s been motivated through his whole life by the idea that you will have dignity, nobility, and your life will be rewarding if you take your own responsibility for it.

CLIP

Dawn Ah, yes, of course Croydon.

Julia You can’t take it away from him. All that stuff about the tough background is true. He’s authentic.

Dawn Retail. Retail, selling furniture, property, oh! Then politics.

Julia And with all those think-tanks in between.

Jace As you say, Peter Laurence is a self-made man. He’s not an old Etonian. How would you categorize Peter as a politician? Is his more humble origin one of his strongest selling points? And does that background go hand-in-hand with that level of charisma?

David I tried to make it a point that he is genuinely popular and, you know, people stop him in the street because they like him. And, you know, when I’m being facetious and people say to me, you know, “Who is this meant to be?” Then I say, “Well, it’s not meant to be anybody because I’ve drawn a politician who is charismatic, popular, forward-looking, and highly intelligent. If you know anyone in the current Conservative Party who matches that description, I don’t know their name.” OK. At one level, that’s funny. But at another level, it’s true. I’m trying to make best case. I’m trying to say, OK, let’s take somebody. And he’s got all these extraordinary qualities. And he really does feel like he’s one of us. And not at all someone from the old elite And that’s because I actually do want to explore Conservatism and put the best possible case for it during the series. Of course. I’m not a Conservative. People know that. And people come to the series knowing that. But I want to write with a level of sympathy for this point of view.

Jace You mentioned freedom, you previously took on the British legal system and looked at the notion of justice within your 1991 stage play, Murmuring Judges. Nearly 30 years later, has the criminal justice system improved at all in Britain?

David No. I think there was a moment under an enlightened Home Secretary, You know, I remember Douglas Hurd, who was a Conservative Home Secretary, and one of the most enlightened Home Secretaries that we have ever had. And he famously said, “There are 25,000 people in Britain who we need to defend ourselves against. They are dangerous, unpleasant people and society can’t function with those 25,000 people among them.” He said, “Unfortunately, at this point we have 45,000 people in prison. Only a Home Secretary who is reaching the end of his career will dare to do anything about this because it will be so unpopular.” Well, now we have 85,000 people in British prisons. We’re not as crazy about incarceration as you are in the United States. But we are European champions  at locking people up who don’t need to be locked up. And if you look at the women in British prisons, and this is something I feel terribly strongly about, over half it’s probably near 60 percent of them, have themselves been victims of abuse, mostly violence, mostly domestic abuse, that they are women who are struggling in society, they’re struggling to survive at all. And what do we do with them? We throw them in prison. And I just I just feel it’s wrong. And anything I can do to draw attention to this, just as in Collateral. I tried to draw attention to a detention system for immigrants which almost nobody knew anything about. People were amazed in Collateral just to discover that these places exist where we stick asylum seekers and anything I can do to throw light into dark corners, I’m very happy to do that.

Jace We first meet Peter Laurence after he wins his libel case against a newspaper who accused him of selling his expertize as a minister. Because libel laws are different in the US than in Britain. What does this moment of Peter winning represent as a reckoning for the media?

David Well, you know, I mean, it’s always said that people come to come to Britain in order to pursue their libel cases because this is sort of the libel playground of the world. In Britain, it is regarded as very bad sport for serving members of a government to sue. It’s taken for granted that whereas, you know, if you’re a private citizen or if you’re a backbencher and something untrue is said about you in the newspaper, you can try your luck in trying to trying to do something about it. But members of the government are meant to put up with any misrepresentation that is thrown at them.

CLIP

Peter Serving ministers are advised never to bring law suits. If you’re in office you’re supposed to put up with anything, that’s the deal. But I knew very well that lies were being told about me not because of what I’d done, but because of who I am.David So he’s done something that’s a very high, risky gamble for a serving politician to do. And I think that is probably the same in your country. Going to law is very dangerous for a serving politician in an administration. And that’s part of Peter Lawrence’s character, which is always to press on. Always take the gamble. Always move on. And most of all, what you asked me what the films are about. They’re about the fact that the idea of disgrace no longer exists. In the 20th century, the idea was always that, you know, if you are caught out doing something — Nixon is the obvious example in your country, John Profumo is the obvious example in our country — if you were caught doing something iniquitous, then you would have to pay a price. Now, nobody resigns. Nobody apologizes. And there is no such thing as shame. And, you know, your President has said that if he shot someone in the street, he would get away with it. And that feeling in 21st Century politics is new, because there are no longer prevailing norms of behavior that politicians are expected to adhere to. And that applies, obviously, about telling lies again on both sides of the Atlantic. Being caught out in a lie is no longer a source of disgrace.

Jace Before this next question, a quick word from our sponsors…

Jace Peter Laurence escapes scot free, but it’s Charmaine Pepper who’s disgraced by the legal case. Her reputation is toast. Her career is in tatters. Looking at the first episode, are we meant to feel that she’s the roadkill of the title, or that Peter Laurence could be, or both?

David Well, that’s the ambiguity. You’re meant to decide as you go along. What about the title means that it’s hanging there as a possibility, isn’t it? And if you’re just watching the first episode and my hope is you won’t know which way the story’s going to go.

Jace No sooner does Peter win his case, is he thrown into yet another situation. A prisoner is claiming to be his biological daughter. How much are we meant to think that Peter is a magnet for scandal? And how much of this is a statement that politicians, like any people, might have secrets they’d prefer to keep buried?

David Well, that’s a great friend of mine who’s an American writer of my age, whose name you would probably know, who said to me in the current climate. Oh, my hope is my hope is to get to the grave without my secrets being revealed. And I think as you get older, you do feel that, really, because you know who is without guilt? Absolutely nobody. And so, no, what I love is the roller coaster. I’m trying to represent politics as something where people do live. It’s an extraordinary level of intensity. And that’s perhaps why many of them make such terrible decisions. And so, yeah, it’s a Dickensian conceit that at the very height of his fortune, he is again threatened. And, you know, that was always what when you say what started me off on the road kill series. I love the idea that a man who was right at the top of his fortune and appeared to be now looking at a clear blue sky. No sooner did he look at a clear blue sky than another thunderstorm broke. That is the political life. There is always a thunderstorm around that corner and you don’t know where it’s coming from.

Jace Rose won’t meet Peter face to face, but instead uses Steff as an intermediary between herself and her biological father. Why does she choose to use a go between to conceal her identity from Peter Laurence? What is her aim here?

David I suppose because she at some level, for reasons that will become clear, does not believe that he would agree to see her if he knew who she was.

Jace We talked about freedom briefly earlier. I want to come back to the notion of freedom and incarceration that hangs over Roadkill. There is obviously the literal incarceration of Rose and the privatization of prisons, yes, but there are a number of metaphorical prisons that play within the drama. The Laurence household, for one. What does Roadkill ultimately attempt to say about personal liberty?

David I’m asking whether freedom really is the greatest virtue. I think as the series develops and again, I don’t want to give too much away. You know, you can see that this philosophy of freedom is extremely convenient for Peter Laurence, for Hugh Laurie’s character. You know, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to say to everybody, take responsibility for your own life. I’ve taught you to stand on your own two feet. You know, I am not responsible for you. You are responsible for yourself. Yeah. It’s at one level, it’s very bracing and liberating philosophy. And it may be invigorating and good for you at another level. There are other human virtues of which I would have thought. Loyalty and solidarity are two. And how do we balance out freedom and loyalty and solidarity and responsibility? Does anybody really believe that freedom is the only virtue? If you believe that. You’re mad, aren’t you? Because you don’t then believe that you have any responsibility for other people’s lives. And obviously, for any Conservative, any serious Conservative. And I’m not talking about authoritarians because life is very simple for authoritarians, their priorities are very you know, that that kind of authoritarian, it’s very, very simple to decide what’s important. But for any serious Conservative, someone who actually wants the welfare of society through spending individual freedom, then balancing out freedom and responsibility is a very difficult thing to do. And that’s what the series tries to show from a distance.

Jace Roadkill would appear to revolve around Hugh Laurie. His Peter Laurence is a central figure. But the truth is, it’s very much like collateral before it. A true ensemble drama representing various interwoven strands of the same story. How do you approach writing a mini series of this type? How do you keep all of these balls in the air?

David What is very, very difficult. You know, we did we in England, we don’t have the American system, which we don’t have a writers room. We don’t have a place where people go and decide plots. I do it entirely by trial and error and then by compression. In other words, I have a way overwrite. And all these stories, you know, could originally have taken eight episodes. But what I try and do is compression, compress and compress so that they feel like life itself. Just as in life, you meet somebody, you know, the postman knocks and the postman has a story, and then the next person comes to the door, who is the Amazon delivery girl, she’s got a story as well. And you you sort of, on a rich day, you’re taken aback by how many stories are intersecting all day. And that feeling is a feeling I love in drama. And indeed, it seems to me the only justification for a series. I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial in saying that most series nowadays are far, far, far too long. You know, I mean, when I watch things that go on for eight, 16, 24 episodes, I am aware of a single narrative being strung out to no purpose except, of course, to, you know, fulfill the eight part slot that they’ve been put in. What I’m trying to do is take a 16-part series and compress it into four hours, so that you really feel, you know, you’re getting your money’s worth, but also that you’re getting something like life. And at the moment, I’m finding, you know, people talk about this being a golden age of television that, you know, you might equally well call it an overextended age of television. Everything lasts too long. And I’m trying in this really tricky, this four part form to get as much into the bottle as I possibly can.

Jace Roadkill’s Prime Minister, Dawn Ellison, is a fascinating character, she’s desperate to hold on to power even as she’s beset by scandal from all sides.

CLIP

Dawn Everyone knows these have not been easy years. My three years in office have coincided with a period of extreme turbulence in Western economies. But what’s pleased me is that since we inaugurated this access scheme at Number Ten, how British business and finance has really stepped up to help the Conservative cause. And we’re very grateful. We are always want to hear your legitimate concerns, and to help enterprise to thrive. That’s our job. Thank you.

Jace  How would you describe Dawn and how does she fit into a power structure held by conservatives in Britain for, as you say, most of the last century?

David She’s an old fashioned pragmatist. She’s somebody who has lived her life by dealing with problems as they come up and trying to deal with them. And that figure, the pragmatic figure. The figure who simply deals with things as they come along would be familiar to you as somebody like George Bush senior. He simply tried to deal with whatever was on his desk that day. Again, I feel in the 21st century, those people are not doing so well because the big philosophical questions and the questions of how you fight a renascent Right Wing. You know, David Cameron was. Let’s just deal with what’s in front of me everyday kind of person. And he he’s the person who gave way to Brexit and to allowing a referendum, which, you know, has had the very opposite result to the one he wanted. He wanted to keep Britain in the European Union, but he granted his Right Wing a referendum simply because he was kind of tired of arguing about it. And, you know, Helen McCrory is playing a pragmatist who just deals with everything that comes across her desk every day, without any overarching philosophy at all. And I must say, it really amused me that playing Dawn Ellison, was Helen McCrory, who just said to me, “Well, I’d like to play this character for the rest of my life. I’d like to do it as a stage play that I’d just like to go off playing her whenever I play anything,” she said, because somebody who’s this firm, and this strong and this unapologetic and just goes, ‘This is what we need to do and we’re going to do it,’ she doesn’t seem to suffer self-doubt, that, you know, that she’s the kind of person Helen would like to be playing.

Jace Why does Dawn stick Peter, in justice and not as promised into a Great Office of State? Is it meant to be a punishment?

David Yes, it is indeed. And until meant to trip him up. Episode one it is revealed that Julia, in fact, has already sneaked to Dawn that Peter has a someone who claims that she’s his daughter in prison. And so, you know, Dawn Ellison thinks it’s a delicious joke to stick him in charge at the Ministry of Justice. It’s to trip him up. She doesn’t really trust him. And, you know, it’s it’s part of the real politic of jostling. That goes on in every cabinet, in every senior administration, left or right. You’re simultaneously running the country. But you’re also trying to, as it were, bargain your own position into something better every day. She’s dealing with somebody she fears. And she’s dealing with Peter, because she knows he’s authentic and she knows that, you know, she. She says in episode one, the stuff where he pretends to be a man of the people. He’s not pretending. He is a man of the people. And that’s what she fears.

Jace As a note for American viewers: Peter views his appointment to Justice as a slight. But in America, the Justice Department is thought to be a Great Office of State. How does Justice compared to the other great offices of State, say the chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary? Why is it an inferior cabinet position?

David Because you are not in charge of prosecution. That is not part of your duties. You are simply in charge of the administration of the legal system and that in the last 10 years, depressingly, that’s just meant saving money. It’s meant closing. It’s meant closing a whole load of courts in order and trying to expedite trying to think up ways of expediting the huge numbers of cases that an underfunded legal system is trying to deal with. And so it is in English government. It’s a middle ranking position, not a top position.

Jace Without spoiling anything, what can you tell us about where Roadkill might be going over the next three episodes?

David Well, I deliberately won’t tell you anything. And, you know, my hope is to get you to watch next week because that’s to me is the fun of it. And as I say, the thing I promise is that lots will happen in the next episode. There will be no episodes that are there, just to mark time. There will be no flashbacks to the youths of the characters. You will not go back to see them at high school, I can promise you that. Which is a sort of classic time-wasting device now over a long series. It will keep pushing forward and events. You know, we had a very famous saying by a Prime Minister called Harold Macmillan, who was Prime Minister in the 1950s, and he said what was the most difficult thing about being prime minister? And he replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Jace After watching this first episode. What questions to the audience be asking not about Peter Laurence or the world of Roadkill, but perhaps about our own complicity in the political world of the 21st century?

David I’d like them to be asking about, do I take responsibility for the people around me, or do I use independence and self-reliance and good old love of freedom as a way of not really dealing with the responsibilities of looking after the people around me? Because that’s really what Peter’s setting sin will be seen to be in the coming episodes.

Jace Sir David Hare, thank you so very much.

David Thank you.

Jace Peter Laurence may now be Justice Minister, but it’s his special advisor, Duncan, who believes he has the real handle on power.

CLIP

Duncan We need to deal with this before it gets out of hand.

Peter We are both dealing with it. In different ways. And my way’s cleverer than yours. I would never have gone if you hadn’t caught me off-guard.

Duncan Minister, have you read any classic literature? Don’t you know there’s something called justice and it always wins in the end?

Peter Justice isn’t a notion, Duncan. It’s a department of state, and a badly run one at that. What’s the one thing you and I have learnt? You get away with anything if you just brazen it out.

Jace Actor Iain De Caestecker looks at the power behind the ultimate power broker, and he joins us here November 8.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Rebecca Eaton is the executive producer at large for MASTERPIECE. The executive producer for MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.

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