A Very British Coup tells the story of Harry Perkins, a steel worker from Sheffield turned politician is elected as prime minister of a left-wing Labour government.
Though the book behind the screenplay was written by Chris Mullins in 1981, it is a peep into a parallel universe to see what might have happened if Tony Benn had been able to lead Labour to power when Margaret Thatcher went to the polls before she had a chance to “consolidate her grip on power”.
Perkins (played by Ray McAnally) was elected on a manifesto of open government, nuclear disarmament and a sentiment of anti-American feeling that included a policy of removing US airbases from UK soil. His chances of a smooth ride were further undermined by his policy of removing newspaper monopolies.
True to his work, he seeks to implement the will of the voters. That’s counter to the voting habits of the UK establishment – people who have walked the corridors of power and oiled the wheels of government departments for decades.
Despite reassurances that the UK intelligence services aren’t tapping Downing Street phones, the under-impressed US administration is sharing its files, databases and covert recordings with British players who operate an even more effective press machine than Perkins’ spin doctor (played by Keith Allen).
For two and a half hours the surveillance state battles the quick wits of the prime minister, leading up to what one character describes as “a very British coup”. Danny Birchall’s article on The British Film Institute website sums the drama up well when he says:
In the end, A Very British Coup is perhaps best seen not as a conspiracy thriller, but as a political fantasy: a story of politicians, not plotting amongst themselves, but trying to do the best for their country and its working-class population, in a world increasingly hostile to the will of the people.