Dodgy politicians, crusading hacks, spooks, civil servants, big themes, famous cast, authorial grandstanding: it can only be a new David Hare. Two years after the four-part BBC state-of-the-nation drama Collateral, he’s back with a new four-part BBC state-of-the-nation drama, Roadkill. We get the idea. Presumably the next one will be called Bystanders.
After Carey Mulligan’s starring turn in Collateral, this time it is Hugh Laurie in the lead as fictional Conservative minister Peter Laurence. I say fictional, but Laurence is obviously a kind of Farage-Gove-Johnson mashup, self-made, shifty and popular, with an LBC-style talk radio show and a complicated love life. His boss, the prime minister Dawn Ellison (Helen McCrory), doesn’t know quite what to do with this maverick, who goes off-message but remains beloved for his straight talk.
The first episode starts with Laurence triumphantly leaving court, having sued a newspaper and won. The key witness on the other side, a journalist called Charmian Pepper (Sarah Greene), changed her testimony halfway through. But Laurence’s life is about to get more complicated. The humiliated Pepper is determined to bring him down. A woman in prison claims to be his lovechild. Another daughter, Lily (Millie Brady), is living a wild life at university. Why are events conspiring against him? For someone who is apparently so popular, he has a lot of enemies.
Not known for hiding his leftie leanings under a bushel, Hare has said in interviews that this time he wanted to take Conservatism seriously. As far as the script goes, the arguments Laurence & co offer still seem cynical rather than truly felt, but the casting of the leads helps. You can’t help but warm to Laurie and McCrory, venal as their characters are, because they project such intelligence. Laurie’s Laurence is articulate and charming, and you can see why people forgive him the odd lie, even if he lacks the swagger of Richard Roper, the villainous arms dealer Laurie played in The Night Manager.
McCrory’s Ellison is smart, sharp and knows exactly how to handle her disruptive male underlings. If they were politicians in real life, those two would make a formidable ticket. An honourable mention too for Olivia Vinall as Ellison’s slippery private secretary, Julia. If you’ve just finished watching Us, you’ll recognise at least two of the actors, Iain de Caestecker and Saskia Reeves, who turn up again here as Laurence’s Spad, Duncan Nook, and Peter’s long-suffering and loyal wife, Helen. Not to fault either of their performances, but it’s unfortunate scheduling, which makes it look as if the BBC One is a kind of repertory company.
Roadkill’s pedigree is obvious. It’s competently put together and the plot draws you in. It yearns to make a statement about double standards and hypocrisy in public life, exposing these Tories who will do one thing in private, be it lining their own pockets or forgiving errant children, and then apply another rule to the rest of the country. For all its post-Brexit aspirations, though, this feels like a drama from an earlier time, with a traditional left-wing heart. However outlandish the fictional scheming on display, the real world is crazier, and we’ve seen this kind of conspiracy too many times before.