By Will Barber Taylor
Peter Laurence (Hugh Laurie) is a self-made, forceful and charismatic politician positioned in the cabinet as Minister for Transport.
Married with two daughters, and celebrating his win in a newspaper libel case, Peter is summoned to Downing Street to see the Prime Minister, Dawn Ellison (Helen McCrory) where she reveals she is looking to promote him to an office of state.
Meanwhile, as Peter celebrates, disgraced journalist Charmian Pepper (Sarah Greene) is fired from the newspaper by editor Joe Lapidus (Pip Torrens) and proprietor Lady Roche (Patricia Hodge) after mysteriously changing her story in court, leading to Laurence’s success.
Reeling from her dismissal, she convinces the newspaper to send her to Washington to prove once and for all that she has a case against Peter, just as his own barrister Rochelle (Pippa Bennett-Warner) receives a mysterious phone call from an anonymous contact, also claiming to have information on the Laurence case.
However a victorious Peter is soon bought back down to earth with a bump when his special advisor Duncan Knock (Iain DeCaestecker) reveals an inmate in Shephill women’s prison is claiming to have a secret about Peter’s past that could affect his future…
David Hare is one of Britain’s most notable political writers. From The Absence of War to Collateral, his work has examined the fragile human condition within the political system. A theme through most of his political work is one of failure – both The Absence of War and Collateral show a Labour Party struggling with its identity and unable to capture the public mood.
Roadkill is different in that in follows a successful populist Conservative politician in his attempt to climb the greasy poll. Peter Laurence is emblematic of the growing success of modern right wing populists and in the year that Donald Trump faces re election and Boris Johnson the challenges of governance, it is perhaps right that a drama focuses on a man like him.
Yet in Roadkill, Hare is not merely commenting on one particular type of political actor but rather the system as a whole. From the air of dodgy deals to arguments about privatising key elements of our society, the series is a rebuke of the sliding standard of discourse. Whether it be newspaper editor Joe Lapidus’ decision to publish salacious pictures of Laurence’s daughter or Laurence’s own regular appearances on All Talk radio, a lightly disguised version of Nigel Farage’s former slot on LBC, we see the ugly side of politics.
However, Hare attempts to persuade us as the audience into rooting for the elements that are coalescing around Laurence’s character. The drive of the series is about “getting Peter Laurence” that, we, like the Devil coming for Faust are here to bring down he who we set up.
This is both the drama’s strength and its weakness – on the one hand, the examination of the phenomenon of populists politicians is an interesting one by arranging the conflict to serve as a means of rebuking or seeing politicians get their just dessert but on the other it makes the various twists – such as the Prime Minister reneging on her promise to give Laurence a Great Office of State – seem all the more obvious.
Unlike House of Cards (by which I refer to the superior original adaptation) Roadkill does not question our assumptions about politicians. Rather if a viewer is on the left or right it will only serve to reinforce them. House of Cards was interesting because Andrew Davies managed to make the audience feel that they were almost accomplices to Urquhart’s actions. In contrast, Roadkill makes us feel more like passive observers who will not be disabused of our own internal biases by watching the programme.
That being said it is an enjoyable programme that utilises not just an aesthetically pleasing soundtrack but stunning performances by its principles to tell its tale.
Chief amongst these performances is of course Hugh Laurie as Laurence. Laurie brings not just sophistication to his portrayal of Laurence but also a certain avuncular charm that demonstrates why he has ascended as far as he has in the world of politics. Laurie doesn’t in this first episode attempt to make Laurence overtly sinister or in anyway threatening which helps to make the character seem more like a real person rather than a right wing caricature.
Helen McCrory brings a regal beneficence to her portrayal of the Prime Minister, Dawn Ellison. McCrory imbues the part with a mixture of apparent sincerity and ruthless Thatcher like edge. The scene in which she flips the tables on Laurence is masterfully done and McCrory clearly has a glint in her eye as she puts Laurence into an awkward position.
Roadkill is, overall, a show that keeps you engaged throughout even if it will make you question the basic reasoning behind the show’s perspective. Its first episode is strong enough to make you want to watch more but it does miss a trick by not being more playful with its central conceit.