My Dad's the Prime Minister Review

Ian Hislop pops up all over the place these days, in all sorts of guises. One minute he’s tracking down his ancestors on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? the next he’s commentating on who should win the Booker prize or presenting a show about hymns on Radio 4. Of course, he’s most well known for Have I Got News For You and editing Private Eye, but he has certainly spent recent years broadening the range of his media appearances. Perhaps slightly less well known are his contributions behind the camera which are equally (and, perhaps surprisingly) wide-ranging. From the expected contributions to shows such as Spitting Image and the 1997 commentary on the Mad Cow Disease crisis Gobble, through to such fare as Harry Enfield and Chums and Dawn French vehicle Murder Most Horrid he has written more than you might expect (including contributions to an early Comic Relief), all of which he has co-authored with writing partner Nick Newman. Their latest offering, My Dad’s the Prime Minister, is a curious show that mixes politics with children’s television, featuring the antics of a very Blair-like family residing in Number Ten. Father Michael Phillips (Robert Bathurst) is an amiable buffoon of a Prime Minister who is pushed around by both his Campbell-like spin doctor Duncan (Jasper Britton) and his own family. Son Dillion (Joe Prospero) and daughter Sarah (Emma Sackville) attend a local grammar school, while his Cherie-Blair-like wife Claire (Carla Mendonca) works for a multi-national corporation. The allusions aren’t exactly subtle, and sadly neither are the jokes.

The problem with any show like this is that it will inevitably be compared to the great Yes, Minister (and follow-up Yes, Prime Minister) and regrettably this current example isn’t even in the same league. Whereas the satirical targets of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn were many and wide-ranging and had an acute political sensibility underlying them, Hislop and Newman prefer to go for quick, one-line gags, jokes that ironically would be more appropriate as a cartoon in a newspaper rather than a television series. Lines such as “This calls for decisive action. I’ll call the American President,” and “Bring me Michael Foot so I can ignore his advice” would work so much better with a word bubble around them and, while some of these are momentarily funny, there is a lack of depth in them, ironically the very complaint the show has against the administration it is portraying (see the joke about Duncan holding up a tshirt with the slogan “Substance not Style”). They also feel a bit outdated now - while the notion of a Prime Minister being pleased with the idea of being “the first PM to wear jeans” might have been cutting edge two elections ago, we have moved on a bit since then. The joke that Labour is ruled by spin is hardly a new target (or, dare I say it, as relevant anymore with the departure of Alastair Campbell) and this series has nothing new to say on the subject.

This surface-level satire is perhaps a side-result of the fact that the show does not seem to be completely sure of its target audience. While it would be nice to think that a show about a Prime Minister and his son could appeal to both generations, the elder enjoying the satire while the younger enjoying the son’s antics, it instead falls between the two stools, and comes out as not particularly satisfactory for either side. Adults will find the relentlessly childish plotting tiresome – as much as I try, I can’t find any clever point behind seeing the Dalai Lama on a scooter – while children will find references to the economic climate and spin doctoring dull. That said, the basic plots of the episodes are far more suited to afternoon children’s television and a lot more time is spent in Dillon’s company than his father’s. Unfortunately, at times, it feels like children’s television as written by an out-of-touch Dad. One of the running jokes on Have I Got News For You is how out of touch Hislop is with modern youth culture (lucky old him) and this is blatantly apparent here, with lines such as “Shut up durbrain,” sounding exactly like a forty year old trying to sound like a sixteen year old. It could be argued he’s having a pop at the uneducated mutterings of some of our young, in which case it also misses the mark, as the lines don’t sound even remotely authentic. (Likewise, in the episode on celebrity, his faux names of celebrities, for example Janine and Yaz, just don’t sound right). The writers seem yearn for times past, with there being almost a touching old-fashionedness about the series, despite its cynicism. The children go to a public school with bullies straight out of a 1950s Boy’s Own Paper yarn, while episode titles such as “Sports Day” and “School Play” reflect almost a nostalgia for times past, when such things mattered much more than they generally do nowadays. Could it be that the editor of Private Eye is at heart a sentimentalist?

Characterisation, too, falls squarely into the children’s show category. All characters have one defining mannerism: Dillon is lazy, his sister is sarcastic, while their parents’ relationship is shown to be a series of squabbles and attempts at one-up-manship, with none of the love or support such a marriage usually has. This reflects the cartoon-like nature of the series, and only on a couple of occasions does the series try to break through and show the family as a more realistic unit. There’s a scene in which all the family sit around a table and reveal secrets to Dillon in the hopes of drawing out of him why he's depressed which is quite nice, while another has the PM sitting on Dillon’s bed worried about him which has potential but doesn't really go anywhere. That said, all the actors involved throw themselves into their limited roles with vigour. Bathurst has a Hugh Grant-ish charm about him, flopping along from one crisis to another with a “dash it all” air more akin to someone who has lost his car keys rather than worrying about the affairs of state. At no point is the viewer remotely convinced he could even get elected, let alone rise to the top of his party, but he’s entertaining to watch. The kids, too, are good if unremarkable – Prospero manages to hold the series together well despite his diminutive size while Sackville as his sister has her one-note teenage girl down pat. Of the other regulars, Britton as spin doctor Duncan maintains exactly the same aloof expression throughout the entire series, while Mendonca’s wife is slightly too cold on Cherie (if we are to read the Phillips as substitutes Blairs). Brian Bovell, on the other hand, as security officer Andy, is less starchy and it would have been nice to have seen him given more to do than just shuttle the children around in the car.

Originally intended for a prime-time slot, the official word from the BBC was that the show was moved to Children’s BBC because at time of broadcast the Iraq War was in full flight and the Beeb didn’t want to offend any sensibilities. Much was made of the fact that the second series transferred to prime time, but really it’s not entirely suited to either slot. Although sporadically amusing, My Dad’s the Prime Minister doesn’t manage to quite pull it off, and makes for an ultimately disappointing series. For writers who have spent their entire adult life poking fun at the government and its inner-workings, this is pretty weak stuff. Not having seen the second series, I don't know if they resolved their own conflict about who the series is primarily aimed at, but one thing comes across abundantly clear from this series - years of television punditry have softened Hislop up, and made him as susceptible to a pithy soundbite as those he mocks, which is a shame as when he puts his mind to it he can be really quite piercing. In this case, let's just hope we get more from a second term of office.

The Disk
The six episodes are presented on a single dual-layered disk. The main menu has an optimistic “Play All” option or an option to go to an individual episode submenu. To play the individual episodes you have to first click on the episode title and then the first chapter in the chapter menu, which is a bit of a clumsy design.

The Video is a generally nice widescreen transfer which does suffer occasionally from pixellation and blurring. The Audio is unremarkable but functional, although it does give the theme a strident, almost grating quality which is tiresome, as the music also features on the menus.

There are no subtitles of any description to be found on the disk, a major annoyance that automatically loses the disk one point.

A disappointing show from a normally reliable pair, this series might satisfy a younger audience but fans of Private Eye need not apply. Unsurprisingly there are no extras, but why oh why are disks still released with no subtitles?

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Last updated: 26/06/2018 02:52:32

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