Blockbusting the Election

By Benedict Seymour, 10 July 2001

Benedict Seymour on the evolution in televisual aesthetics in the UK’s Party Election Broadcasts.

“There now follows a Party Election Broadcast by...” Words to make any cineaste’s heart beat faster and ones which, in the past month or so, have introduced a riot of visual experiment to British television screens. While elections have ceased to function as an arena for the bracing clash of policies, they remain the party political equivalent of Cannes. PEBs offer a feast of aestheticised politics, with even the less affluent players now able to rustle up some kind of a show, from the humble ‘indie’ parties with their earnest discursive fare to the high concept offerings of Downing Street.

New Labour made a big fuss about their main offering, an ironic pastiche of disaster and horror movie trailers. Joining up their series of slick billboard ads riffing on the danger of a Conservative return to power (‘Towering Interest Rates’; ‘Economic Disaster 2’; ‘The Reposessed’) they aimed to create a summer blockbuster. However, with borrowed stars (William Hague and Michael Portillo on loan from Conservatives) and a series of po-mo one-liners in place of a plot, this was the PEB equivalent of Naked Gun 3, smartarsed and pseudo-subversive. The Conservatives’ own flicks were even less dynamic, content to reprise the look ( and much of the action) of TV crime shows – anything, presumably, to avoid the task of making William Hague into a credible male lead.

With a merger of the major studios apparently imminent, it fell to the indie newcomers to enliven this year’s competition with their punkish low-budget productions, even if they did less well at the box office. Ken Loach directed the Socialist Alliance’s TV film in precisely the style he used to use for (old) Labour Party broadcasts back in the 1970s. His PEB dispensed with story, suspense and semiotic spin, to concentrate on ideas, argument and that old standby of the pre-Kinnock election broadcast, People In Crowds. As in traditional art cinema, the auteur was the real star, and his cool, almost Calvinist refusal to elicit conventionally ‘good’ performances from the film’s cast made one wonder if Loach conceived it as a ‘Dogme’ work. It observes the spirit if not the letter of the Vow Of Chastity which all Dogme directors are supposed to take (“I promise not to fool the audience”), although zealots might complain that the use of captions and tripod shots diminish its authenticity.

The same cannot be said for that other rogue offshoot of the old Labour Party studios, Socialist Labour. Their film subjected realist conventions to a relentelssly self-conscious neo-Godardian interrogation, adhering to his maxim that a film must have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Introducing the film’s two stars in ‘backstage mode’ – Arthur Scargill (relieved of his iconic comb-over in a shocking concession to Blairite hair policy) and Ricky Tomlinson (loveable TV proletarian with a Trade Union history, best known as the dad in The Royle Family) – we glimpse them hanging out at the studio and informally discussing Issues. Scargill enthuses about Ricky’s appeal to working class audiences – surely a deconstructively self-reflexive touch, not a Stalinist strategy of self-congratulation – then, after running through the policies and panning over the autocue speeches that they will read, we finally get Scargill and Tomlinson’s ‘actual’ speeches to camera. Systematically alienating even the most mystified of viewers, this film managed to echo Socialist Labour’s workerist and pro-industry position by foregrounding the technological means and process of its own production. Fusing Brecht and Brookside, it proved that cinematic modernity and political atavism can be fun.

Benedict Seymour <ben AT> is a writer, journalist and filmmaker. He is currently working on a film about regeneration in London. He wrote about the ICA's CRASH: Culture and complicity in Mute16.