Casualty nurse Robyn Miller (Amanda Henderson). Image: BBC
All it took was one gentle tweet from Gary Lineker to have the government’s attack dogs out in force. The usual lines were dutifully regurgitated. While immigration minister Robert Jenrick called for Lineker to “be shown a red card”, Tory Party deputy chair Lee Anderson went after the BBC. He tweeted: “You would think the Beeb is the official opposition in this country”.
Despite evidence of the questionable cosiness between the Tory Party and the upper reaches of the BBC, this was a none-too-subtle warning to the corporation: pull your punches or charter renewal will be back on the agenda.
But if the government had been paying attention, they would see much harsher criticisms, in full view of even bigger audiences. Not in current affairs, but mainstream drama. And this should cause real alarm.
Because when you’ve lost mainstream TV, you’ve lost the public. And when you’ve lost the public, the next election is not going to be fun. Some films and TV series have their politics factored in. Whether that is a state-of-the-nation film unpicking the impact of austerity (I, Daniel Blake) or a BBC drama showing the long-term fallout from the use of spycops during the Miners’ Strike (Sherwood). But when ratings busters like Unforgotten and Call The Midwife get involved? That’s when a government is in even bigger trouble.
Popular Casualty nurse Robyn Miller (played by Amanda Henderson) was killed off recently. The cause of death might as well have read ‘13 years of NHS budget cuts’. Following a car crash, Miller’s life hung in the balance. A crucial delay to her treatment because of an ambulance shortage was as damning as it was dramatic. There was still a chance for Miller.
But first there was no theatre for life-saving surgery, then no surgeons were available. An under-resourced NHS unable to save one of its own? Talk about death by a thousand cuts.
This is not BBC bias. It is an honest depiction of the state of the nation’s health service. People are dying as a direct result of government failure. And a drama writer’s job is to reflect reality. Giving the false impression that all is well? Now that would be bias.
Cold case cop drama Silent Witness is another BBC1 favourite sometimes dismissed as formulaic, despite its subject matter. A recent two-parter focused on people trafficking. Another hot-button issue. Another mainstream drama. And another critical mauling for HM government. Not just on policy, but on morality, as a transplant patient was denied medical help because of her country of origin.
It’s all very well espousing divisive ideas at the Despatch Box. But when seven million people see the tragic results on a Monday night? It’s a different ballgame.
One of the UK’s most watched shows, Call The Midwife has always hidden its political light under its wimple. But recent storylines are easy to read as government criticism. Alongside a new scooter-riding nun, series 12 highlighted the life-changing importance of free school dinners, the battle for LGBT+ rights, male violence and the devastating impact of anti-immigration rhetoric via Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech.
The implication is clear. The government’s lack of support for struggling families, cynical stoking of culture wars, poor record of prosecuting rape cases and heartless treatment of refugees would not attract the votes of god-fearing midwives.
They might as well have put Suella Braverman’s picture on the Nonnatus House dartboard.
The whole starting point was to write about the effect austerity had had on the country
Chris Lang, creator of ITV’s Unforgotten
But it is not just the BBC. Unforgotten returned to ITV with a new partner for Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar). New gaffer, DCI Jessica “Jessie” James (Sinéad Keenan), arrived with plans to curb investigations due to budgetary restrictions. Subsequent discussions contained a simmering rage unseen in the show’s four previous series.
Writer Chris Lang confirms this. “The whole starting point was to write about the effect austerity had had on the country, and how it has profoundly exacerbated existing inequalities within our society,” he tells The Big Issue.
“To me it feels as if this is not ‘an opinion’. It’s just stating the facts, which are palpable. The police force is struggling with huge cuts,” he adds. “Again, my research told me they have never been more demoralised.”
One suspect, disdainfully dubbed “the Tory Lord” by the officers, was, we learned, an architect of George Osborne’s austerity programme. Episode three included the line: “What about our community – our schools, hospitals, social care? All the things your party defunded for so many years.”
For Lang, this was personal.
“I have experienced the effects of austerity through my son (he is disabled) and the difficulties we have had accessing help, and my late mum (who had Alzheimer’s), who died the day after an ambulance took eight hours to get to her when she fell and banged her head,” he reveals.
“You can trace her death directly back to the catastrophic under-investment in social care for the elderly, which leads to bed blocking, which leads to ambulances unable to offload patients, which leads to eight-hour waits for ambulances.”
More than eight million people watch Unforgotten – a number similar to Gary Lineker’s Twitter followers.
Similarly, Maternal presented itself as a classic ITV drama following three doctors returning to work following maternity leave. But beneath its accessible exterior was a radical heart as the underrated series showed the pressures on over-stretched doctors, the lack of facilities and capacity, and the impact of the pandemic.
Importantly, it aired just as junior doctors and NHS nurses prepared for their largest strikes in history.
When the mainstream bares its teeth, politicians feel the consequences. Ant and Dec went way further than Lineker in 2021 when they took aim at Boris Johnson while presenting I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!.
“Evening Prime Minister… for now!” sneered Declan Donnelly, straight down the camera lens, after a skit in which campmates denied having a Christmas party.
Johnson staggered on as PM for six months. But his days were numbered once he was named, shamed and ridiculed by national treasures in front of a mainstream audience of 9.7 million (plus millions more as clips went viral).
So tune in, and pay attention, Rishi Sunak. The mainstream has had enough and is going to challenge you at every turn. You will hear them knocking at No 10.
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