One of our most enduring modern fantasies is that of the common person thrust into politics. Once there, in a seat of high power, this average citizen can bring a more down-to-earth perspective to things. After all, our leaders seem so far removed from reality that the very notion of common sense itself is foreign to them. Jefferson Smith brought honesty and integrity back to the Senate; Dave Kovic rescued a corrupt White House.
Now comes "The Amazing Mrs Pritchard," the 2006 BBC mini-series finally arriving Stateside on DVD. (It also premieres this month on PBS.) To "make a point" about the embarrassing state of politics today, and to publicly complain about the disturbing position of having to vote for a lesser of two evils, supermarket manager Ros Pritchard (Jane Horrocks) decides to run for Parliament. Her decision turns her into a media darling and public favorite literally overnight, and soon the independent is forced to create a new political party - the Purple Alliance - when dozens of other non-politicos (almost exclusively women) opt to stand up themselves and also make a run for office. To everyone's surprise, including Ros', the party wins in a landslide, and Ros is thrust into the role of Prime Minister.
It sounds rather far-fetched, to be sure, but series writer/creator Sally Wainwright ("At Home with the Braithwaites") uses a very common sense of disappointment with political figures to show how the right person in the right circumstances could indeed trump the fatcats. Ros' enthusiasm, sincerity, and sharp tongue make her instantly lovable, the sort of strong personality that could very well indeed capture the public eye.
What Wainwright does with her heroine is use her to challenge the very notions of righteousness we all insist we would carry with us into such a situation. When Ros says in an inauguration speech that she would never lie to or mislead the public, it's a bold statement, one we're sure we'd love to make ourselves. Better than those dirty liars in power, we'd think. But what happens when reality slams headfirst into Ros' ideals? Will Ros stand firm by her promise, or will she break it, if only once, if it's for the greater good?
It's an ethical dilemma that truly challenges Ros' notions of life at 10 Downing Street. Ros' husband Ian (Steven Mackintosh) has a dark secret Ros' aides work overtime to keep buried from Ros herself. If she were to discover the truth, would she be forced to resign? Or should she remain in office while hiding the secret, a solitary instance of dishonesty toward the public? When does "not bringing it up at all" become a form of lying? And if every Prime Minister, even the good ones, had at least one skeleton in the closet, shouldn't Ros be allowed the same?
Between this, we get a steady blend of domestic drama (Ros' family struggles to adjust to the new life) and "West Wing"-style political intrigue (each episode presents a new challenge for Ros - and yes, we even get a recycling of Sorkin's trademark "walk and talk" staging). Wainwright uses the series as a platform for unabashedly liberal ideas, some of which deliver a peek inside the national mood of the U.K. While some of these ideas remind us of the series' mere fiction-ness (Ros pushes to move the capital out of London and into a working class town in the center of England), and others come across more as clumsy rhetoric than workable drama (Ros keeps mentioning Bush and Blair's screw-ups in Iraq, yet the series never forces her to deal with the subject beyond a line of two of dialogue), there is a steady supply of crises and ideas put forth a notion of just what's on the mind of a nation. Ros asks the public for their input into a major policy-making speech, and we get a montage of citizens offering a wide variety of solutions.
Again, we drift heavily into liberal territory here. Ros implements "Green Wednesday," a permanent law banning most car usage one day a week as a means of curbing global warming. It's met with stern opposition (I'm curious what conservative viewers would make of the series' cartoonishly villainous Tory leader; while the script works hard to present a more balanced view of most political ideas, the intelligent rebuttals to Ros' ideas come from within her own party, leaving the Tories to rant and rave with scenery-chewing buffoonery) but becomes a success. It's a common theme in this series, these wildly optimistic points of view that earn mild counter-arguments before ultimately proving Ros right. At least Aaron Sorkin had his liberal president lose a few fights, just to keep the balance.
Wainwright does manage to find more grey areas in the plotting than the above paragraph suggests, yet she still finds a way for Ros to win out. Consider the episode in which a plane explodes over London. The knee-jerk Tories scream of terrorism, while Ros and her allies demand we step back and not rush to judgment. Wainwright offers an alternate solution, complete with grey area intact: the plane itself, a foreign model, was faulty, but such faults have been allowed by sloppy legislation by the British government. Such a solution highlights concerns with British dealings with the European Union while simultaneously pointing fingers at a Parliament that's asleep at the wheel - and yet Wainright still manages to make her heroine flawless, both in our eyes and in those of the fictional public.
Despite this push to keep Ros and her political beliefs above reproach, the series succeeds wonderfully, thanks to some sharp writing (it's liberal fantasy, sure, but it's exceptionally written liberal fantasy), a spotless cast (Horrocks is downright brilliant throughout, while a set of supporting players, including Janet McTeer and Jodhi May, handle the subplots elegantly), and the decision to take the title character into increasingly darker corners as the series progresses. The further we get into her term as P.M., the more complex the stories become, as if Ros' initial naïveté gets washed away as she becomes more comfortable with the office.
By the time we reach the final episode, Ros is neck-deep in political intrigue, locked in an inescapable ethical quandary - to resign or not to resign? - that challenges our notions of the character, and her notions of herself.
Not-quite-a-spoiler alert: The series ends on a heavy note of ambiguity, with a key plot point withheld from the viewer. It's the perfect final note, really, as it allows us to project our own ideals onto the lead character, asking ourselves what we would do in the same situation, or, at least, asking what we're we so certain she would do.
Unfortunately, international releases of the series, including this DVD, tack on a text epilogue, explaining what happens to the characters - and promptly ruining the very ambiguity the series deserves. It's a pitiful move on the part of the BBC, done either to avoid the chance of a second series (the show's low ratings last fall virtually guaranteed the lack of a sequel) or out of some lame-brained notion that American audiences wouldn't know how to appreciate an open-ended finale. Or maybe both.
Acorn Media collects all six one-hour episodes of "The Amazing Mrs Pritchard" onto a two disc set. The discs come in two single-wide keepcases which are then housed in a single cardboard slipcover. The artwork showcases a fairly awful portrait of Horrocks as the title character - she does an amazing chameleon job in the role, and the publicity photo used for the slipcover art doesn't do her performance justice.
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer and Dolby 2.0 soundtrack both come across as your typical modern BBC production - clean, clear, if fairly unimpressive. Grain pops up occasionally during nighttime sequences, but that's as close to an issue as we ever get. The stereo track makes solid use of the dialogue-heavy series. No subtitles or alternate tracks are provided.
Sadly, only a set of cast filmographies is included.
Set firmly and unashamedly in the land of fiction, "The Amazing Mrs Pritchard" is a fully engaging peek into the British political landscape, marked with terrific acting and highly memorable characters. Recommended to anyone who likes a little bit of wishful thinking with their political drama.