Who knows why it took Partygate so long to reach the screen, but it’s a drama that has missed its moment. No doubt Channel 4 thinks it’s being smart by screening this during the Tory party conference, but the conversation has moved on: immigration and HS2 are now consuming all the oxygen.
This one-off programme brings to life Sue Gray’s report about the behaviour of Downing Street staff during lockdown. We see events through the eyes of fictional rookie special advisor Grace Greenwood (Georgie Henley, once Lucy in the Narnia films). Like everyone else in Downing Street, she is besotted with Boris Johnson, voiced here by impressionist Jon Culshaw but only ever glimpsed from behind – a wise move, given how daft Kenneth Branagh looked when he played the former PM in This England.
It is Grace and a more experienced colleague, Annabel (Olivia Lovibond), who wheel a suitcase down to Tesco Express in Westminster and load it up with booze for “socially distanced drinks”. It is Annabel and her blottoed chums who break Wilfred’s swing in the Downing Street garden. Lines from the report appear on screen in quotation marks - “red wine spilled”, “one individual was sick” - and are re-enacted on screen. Phil Daniels plays a security guard trying in vain to police the events (“lack of respect and poor treatment of security staff”).
Many of these scenes involve a posh dimwit named Josh, played by W1A’s Hugh Skinner. Poshness is a theme. Annabel gives Grace a quick introduction: “That’s Josh - Eton, loves a party, he knows Alice from the Taxpayers’ Alliance, and from Oxford of course... Oh my God, Hermione Villiers, she is a complete bitch. She went to Westminster with Josh and goes on and on about how she’s a ‘Farback’ but she f—ing isn’t.” A Farback? “Says her family go far back in history but they don’t. My father, however, is a peer.”
But do people actually talk like this? And are we supposed to believe that everyone at No 10 was a shrieking toff? Writer Joseph Bullman aims for The Thick of It-style satire – and has stuffed his cast with comedy performers, including Ghosts’ Charlotte Ritchie and Fresh Meat’s Kimberley Nixon – but the result is more like a sixth form attempt at class-based comedy.
Of course, it’s enraging to know that these idiots were partying away - karaoke, DJ sets, vomiting, sex on a sofa - while everyone else was adhering to the rules. Shelley Walker-Williams - Johnson’s head of operations - smirks about her role as No 10’s party DJ. Helen McNamara - the government’s ethics chief, no less - belts out karaoke. But it’s a also a weakness of the drama that the killer lines are put in the mouths of fictional characters, as when Annabel declares: “It’s our job to make the rules but it’s not up to us to follow those rules.”
What will bring you up short are the cutaways to real people, such as the mother of Ruby Fuller, an 18-year-old who died of blood cancer during lockdown and who, in her final months, could see her friends only through a car window. We also see the glaring disparity in punishments: one man was fined £14,300 for holding a lockdown gathering in the garden to celebrate his niece’s birthday, while those who attended Johnson’s birthday drinks paid £50. Those responsible for the Downing Street parties deserve all the contempt that is heaped upon them, not a docudrama played for laughs.