Documentary series Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution arrived with a BBC Two synopsis that begged to be read out by the voice guy who does Hollywood trailers: “From idealistic political hopefuls to battle-scarred political veterans – this is their story.” Just add a stirring Hans Zimmer score and a few explosions.
On the face of it, a series about internecine struggles in the Labour Party doesn’t sound like something you’d settle down to with a glass of wine and a bowl of peanuts. If that sort of thing floats your boat, you don’t have to look back to the Nineties for it. But my goodness, it’s an interesting watch.
There is politics, of course, but at heart it’s a character study of two men and their flaws. The opening scenes pulled off a neat little trick of contrasting archive footage of the pair being interviewed as young politicians with them sitting down for this programme. Brown still pensive and carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders; Blair chirpy and grinning, settling into his chair with a takeaway coffee in hand. But there’s something different about Blair now, and it’s not just that his boyish looks have long gone. It’s in the eyes. He looks uneasy.
The series is by the people who brought you Thatcher: A Very British Revolution and it has the same feel: what we’re getting here is the unvarnished and sometimes painful truth, often told in gossipy anecdotes. Sir Christopher Meyer recalled a Blair-Brown trip to the US to woo the Democrats, when Blair went full-beam while “Gordon Brown just sort of sat there”. Meyer mused: “If God had picked up Tony Blair and put him into the American political system, Blair could have become president of the United States.” Blair, ever the global leader, said he saw Bill Clinton as a “soulmate”.
This first episode dealt with the death of John Smith and the fight to succeed him (although Blair was on manoeuvres while Smith was still alive). Both Blair and Brown thought it was their destiny, but Blair had the showmanship. Brown was left “hurt, disbelieving, almost inconsolable”, recalled Peter Mandelson, in a manner that suggested he relished the drama.
“If it had been obvious that the public had preferred him to me, I would have been happy enough to step back. But it really wasn’t, that’s just the way it is and there’s no altering it,” Blair shrugged. He was correct, of course. “Well, it could have been me,” said Brown. One wonders how this documentary would have turned out if the two of them had been asked to recount events while sitting side by side, like a couple in therapy airing their deepest grievances.