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Have we achieved peak Peake? Over on ITV, Maxine Peake has been doing sensitive, heartbreaking work as a grieving Hillsborough mother in the worthwhile if tough-going Anne. Now, completing the Twin Peakes, she pops up on the BBC to star in Rules of the Game, a four-episode drama about an abusive workplace. I suppose we could call it an HR procedural.
It is a less obviously sympathetic part. She is Sam Thompson, a lifer at Fly Dynamic, a fictitious family-run sportswear firm in the north that the lawyers would no doubt insist bears not even a passing relation to Sports Direct. (The writer, Ruth Fowler, has said she was inspired by the Harvey Weinstein case.) Sam is an enforcer, hardened by battle, allergic to nonsense and protective of the senior men. The company is preparing to go public, or “go public and float on the stock exchange”, in its own preferred tautology. The IPO, with its attendant scrutiny from bankers, lawyers and journalists, means the firm cannot afford even a whiff of scandal. As part of this drive, she has hired a new HR director, Maya Benshaw (Rakhee Thakrar). Maya is sensitive, thoughtful and up to date with the latest jargon, a dollop of Guardian in a Sun porridge.
She has her work cut out. Fly Dynamic is riddled with scandal. As workplaces go, it is roughly as progressive and egalitarian as the Roman Army. The business is now run jointly by the founder’s laddy sons, Owen (Ben Batt) and Gareth Jenkins (Kieran Bew). Owen is slicker, Gareth more teddy-bearish, but they share an affinity for booze and women. It isn’t long before Maya can hardly have a conversation with an employee without them alluding to dark secrets. Troubled Tess (Callie Cooke) is caught having sex in the boardroom but explains that she can’t be sacked because she knows too much. Oh, and don’t forget the corpses. In the opening scene, someone has been found dead in the atrium, ostensibly having fallen from a high floor. Ten years earlier, a young female employee, Amy, also died, ostensibly of a drug overdose. In alternating timelines, we follow the police enquiry alongside Maya’s journey of discovery into what’s going on at the firm. She has her own problems to worry about, too, in the form of an abusive ex.
Peake holds Rules of the Game together. Sam is not as resilient as she seems and is obviously harbouring secrets of her own. Peake does what she can to display the conflict of a woman who is proud to have made her own way up the business, but is not blind to the wrongs. There is also a fantastic supporting turn from Alison Steadman as the Jenkins family matriarch, Anita, Owen and Gareth’s mother and the widow of the founder, Harry. She is a flint-eyed Thatcherite grand dame, the real force in the business.
But too often, the script and performances have all the subtlety of a boss’ hand up a skirt at the Christmas do. Owen’s wife, Vanessa, a Botox-injecting glamourpuss, sometimes seems to have wandered in off another programme. Footballers’ Wives, perhaps. In this black and white world, the men are all villains, and all the women are victims, even those who have helped enabled the abuse and protected the abusers. Workplace harassment is more nuanced and pernicious than that. There’s no shortage of drama about office politics, especially if we take a broader view of what we think of as a workplace: there’s Mad Men, or The Sopranos. HBO’s Industry hinged on HR procedures in a more specific and plausible way, showing how rules designed to protect employees can be weaponised and manipulated. In Rules of the Game, the misdeeds and dynamics are clunkingly obvious.
“How are you finding us,” Owen asks Maya, having poured her a stiff drink in the office. “Are we a lost cause?” The answer is “yes, obviously”. It doesn’t make her job any easier, but it lowers the stakes of the drama. This game’s over before it started.