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Special relationship not very special film

Posted on 18 September 2010 | 8:09am

‘The Special Relationship’ goes out tonight, and in the build-up publicity, the promoters, as with The Deal and The Queen, have been keen to talk up how much research they did, and therefore how historically accurate it is.

I would love to see the ‘research’ papers. As it’s going out on BBC2, perhaps someone could try Freedom of Information. Because however much research they did, they did not get an accurate picture. Far from it.

As I am heading to the Great North Run post Palace v Burnley tonight, I won’t see it as it goes out. But Radio Times kindly sent me a copy a few weeks back, and the review I did appears below.

But I saw this morning an interesting quote from Michael Sheen, the actor who plays Tony Blair. ‘Whenever I talk about him, I’m talking about the character, rather than the actual person, because I don’t have any idea about the real person. Ultimately it’s supposition. I don’t know for definite. I don’t know Tony Blair … but I know this character that I play. How much similarity it bears to the actual Tony Blair, I’ve no idea. And I don’t really care.’

All very different to the ‘historically accurate’ claims of the writing, production and research departments.

Radio Times piece follows …

The Blair government has spawned more films, plays, docudramas, even musicals than any other, and The Special Relationship is the latest in that long line.

 Interviewed recently for a Radio Four programme on the dramatisation of New Labour I told the story of a chance encounter ty with one of the makers of The Queen. He wanted to know if I had seen it. I had. He asked how accurate it was. I said the news clips were clearly accurate. For the rest, I put it in the four or five out of ten category. As for research, he explained that well, we wrote to everyone involved, most of you told us to get lost so we went away and made it up.

Here is the trouble with dramatised accounts of real events, especially when mixed with real footage. People start to think both are real.

Yet the gap between what actually happened and what is portrayed is even bigger in this one than in The Queen. What’s more, there is enough material out there for that to have been discerned, which makes me think the makers simply decided facts would not be allowed to get in the way of a good story.

 The ‘story’ is of young Tony Blair essentially using the weakening of Bill Clinton via Monica Lewinsky, and TB’s genuine revulsion at ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, to make himself the main man on the world stage. And it ends with Clinton watching on as Blair talks on the phone to George Bush, and then telling his young heir that he always had doubts about him and wonders now whether he was ever a progressive at all. Somewhere between fanciful and preposterous.

A few facts. Kosovo was difficult. There were real pressures on both leaders from different directions. As he acknowledges in his book, TB put considerable pressure on BC over ground troops. Clinton did at one point think – wrongly – that we were building up TB at his expense. There was one particularly angry phone call. There was one particularly difficult meeting in Washington. In real life, it ended with everyone having a drink and agreeing to talk again tomorrow. In the film Clinton asks Blair to ‘step outside’. And at one point he says ‘what a tough son of a bitch you are … Stabbing me in the back in my own backyard.’ Never happened. Nothing like it. Period.

 I watched the film with my 16 year old daughter. Put to one side her irritation that ‘Dad, why do they always do you like a yob?’ …her main interjection was ‘that wouldn’t happen would it?’ Like journalists applauding at press conferences, us not knowing before arrival at the White House what sort of meeting was planned, TB having to be told what POTUS (President of the United States) stands for, TB walking into the Oval Office and nobody being there, or cutting off President Chirac on the phone, Clinton not knowing how long a presidential term is, TB walking out of the Commons while William Hague was speaking. Ludicrous stuff.

As before, Michael Sheen does a technically good Blair. Dennis Quaid does a good Clinton voice even if he does not quite look or move like him. Helen McCrory and especially Hope Davis catch something of Cherie and Hillary. But the film gets nowhere near the truth about the Blair-Clinton relationship, and the closing scenes expose the real agenda, Clinton being used to warn TB in lurid terms not to get close to Bush.

It will not make it into the same league as The Queen. Watching it, I realised why that film was so successful. It was only partly the story. It was actually the fact of someone playing a figure who is as well known as anyone in the world, yet rarely heard or seen in anything other than formal settings. Whereas she has been dramatised so little, TB has perhaps been dramatised too much. When the makers go to Michael Sheen asking for another one, he might be better off making Brian Clough the sequel.

  • Benc77a

    I went to a preview screening of this a couple of weeks ago and was struck by how uncomfortable Peter Morgan was talking about it. On the one hand he said he was basically made up but on the other he and his people kept on saying they had researched it thoroughly. Then there is the style of his films, which tread a line very close to documentary. I think this is the main problem I have with them, that they are done so well in terms of the “realism” but what is going on doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to the reality, which makes them misleading.

  • Bob Maples

    Good point re The Queen. Amazing to think how long she has been high profile and yet she still has an air of mystery about her. I think you’re right that it was quite bold to portray her while still living and that was the real interest. Also the human story and stories aroused by Diana’s death were perhaps greater than the story of a political relationship

  • Harriet King

    I imagine the gap between reality and film gets ever greater as time goes by. So many great historical figures are now as much identified through cinematic versions of their lives as through real history as I would see it. Not a good way to go. Essentially these modern day docudramas are exploitative

  • Dana Crowley

    I see there is also a Milibands docudrama planned, which mixes interviews and fiction. I see also from the Guardian that Neil Kinnock is having another go at David in it. Is that the same Neil Kinnock who said that all the old timers should stay out of it?

  • Olli Issakainen

    In my opinion you were portrayed as a stand-up comedian in The Queen.
    What interests me is how much actor-politician Tony Blair in office resembled the real Tony Blair.
    Bill Clinton, of course, told Blair at Chequers to hug Bush close and make him a friend in order to have influence.
    Give the boys a good backing at CRYSTal Palace!

  • Scott

    Well if you lot bothered to be honest at the time or since then people wouldn’t have to make it up, would they?

    • taurus43

      Scott, the ‘truth’ has always been out there, so much so it’s been written often and from different sources.
      “The Accidental American” – James Naughtie

      ‘Hug Them Close” – Peter Ridell

      “The Blair Years” – Alastair Campbell

      “Servants of the People” – Andrew Rainsley

      Its all there if you care to read. It’s only the Press that make it up. And the present government. Go find out for yourself.

  • torieboy

    how about a film on glinys Kinnock who request diplomatic talks with cuba every year for her favourite months of the year January or February .

    carry on glinys

  • Pagliascat

    I watched ‘The Special Relationship’ and found it an engrossing piece of ‘faction’ (obviously, Clinton did ‘have sexual relations with that woman: Miss Lewinsky’ etc… However, the veracity of certain of the events and discussions portrayed are doubtful.). The thing I’d like to have clarified is: did Bush and Blair share the same tube of Colgate..? LOL :). Anyway, notwithstanding the many and varied errors of judgement, disingenuity, and, sometimes, sheer dishonesty of New Labour (what a misnomer..!), I still think bloody well done re. Kosovo and Northern Ireland (how unlike the Americans to get involved when there isn’t a resource (for eg, oil) to ‘protect’/exploit. I bet you miss it all, Ali..? X

  • Testyfly

    Who wrote that crap Micheal Moore?
    Thinking about it it is more in the style of Jeffery Archer.
    The last part with Blair and Clinton after Bill lost the election is utter rubbish.
    Shame for the makers that history showed them to be completely stupid when Clinton honoured Blair with a medal for his peace efforts in NI.
    Lets see what they make of the Clam and Keg story…flat packs and six packs at Chequers could be a working title

  • Richard

    What a dreary film. An hour and a half to tell a story which could have been told in a page of well written commentary.

    The New Labour obsession with celebrity was the key. They brown nosed the “successful” from the City of London via Hollywood to Washington: poodling to Presidents like the small town, small minded, unprincipled power seekers you all were. The result, “three terms” was a record and that was all that mattered.

    Your coterie of self serving book promoters should stick to fiction in the future. The Labour party is dead. You killed it.

  • taurus43

    No denying that Peter Morgan makes a good drama, but drama is the operative word. The Clough family were less than happy with Morgan’s treatment of the late Brian in Damned United. Similarily, a policeman who worked on the Yorkshire Ripper case was hurt by the portrayal of the Yorkshire Constabulary in the acclaimed drama series Red Riding. Bith Admittedly, the ‘mis-charactirisation’ and interpretation of events came in both cases from source material of David Peace’ brilliant novels. Good reads all, but not the truth. but, Any good writer will tell you, the facts never get in the way of a good story.

    The problem, and danger is the value these drama’s have for historic record. Oliver Stone was accused of defining the JFK assassination with his film, and lets not forget the service Shakespeare played to Richard III. Drama is smoothly digestable in a way that requires less effort than sifting verasity of facts from books or editorial comment.

    I think it valuable that ITV drama is addressing matters of current political interest.

    it’s a problem when

  • I thought it was excellent. A long overdue re-balancing of the anti-Blair rhetoric. I should think the top dogs at the BBC must be heaving huge sighs of relief. They can get back to claiming they “provide balance over an appropriate timescale”. After all the “war criminal” jibes without an “allegedly” in sight they must have been getting very nervous.

  • Jacquie R

    Dramatic licence allowed this film a lot of rather clumsy and irritating content, which was certainly a destraction. Meanwhile the mixing of fact of fiction can create a very misleading picture. This was after all a film, and not a drama documentary.

    On the other hand, I think a lot of people will find the central message rings true. Clinton may never have said it, but WAS Tony Blair ever a left of centre progressive?

  • I thought the film was rather harsh on Tony Blair, at the end of the day a UK PM has to have a Special Relationship with the American President, they have the money and the power, after your lot in power for 13 years we have neither!

  • I’d have thought Blair supporters would generally like the film. It wasn’t a hatchet job on Blair, though it was written as a kind of tragedy.

    To many viewers they will have interpreted it as follows: A good man tries to use his relationship with Clinton to fight evil. He has success in doing this, but we all know it will end in tragedy when he tries to do the same with Clinton’s successor.

    I found it hugely entertaining.

    But I was really annoyed with the final scene between Clinton and Blair. There is no way Clinton would accuse Blair of not being progressive – Clinton’s domestic policies were far more rightwing than Blair’s. And, as I understand it, Clinton didn’t warn Blair to keep his distance from Bush. He did the opposite.