Wednesday, 11 March 2009

TV Archive: Meet the 'Party Animals...

So there I was, casually channel-surfing a couple of weeks ago, when I chanced upon BBC4’s repeat screening of the first episode of the 2007 BBC2 original drama ‘Party Animals’, a show which had rather underperformed on its terrestrial debut but was now being exhumed, presumably, on the back of renewed interest in one of its stars. His name’s Matt Smith and in a few months time he’ll be taking up his duties at the controls of the TARDIS in ‘Dr Who’. So yes, I paused at BBC4 just to get a look at this bloke and maybe try to get a broad idea of how he might fare as he prepares to step into David Tennant’s formidable Converses. But after a few minutes I’d forgotten I was there just to see one bloke; I quickly became engrossed in this slick, fast, sexy drama set in the potentially-fusty world of the modern young politician. By the end of the episode I was gripped, I was hooked, I was online bagging myself a copy of the three-DVD set of the series (nabbed for a few pence over a tenner – bargain!)

Now I’m not really a political creature. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit you could probably jot down my political knowledge on the back of a stamp – I’m fairly confident we’ll see no female Prime Minister in my lifetime – but I like to think I know a good drama when I see one. ‘Party Animals’ is literally light years away from my preferred diet of fantasy/adventure series but, having now watched all episodes of the series (and that in itself is no mean feat as I’ve lost count of the number of chunky boxsets I’ve bought over the years only to leave them sitting unloved and barely watched on my shelves) I can say that this series is probably the best modern real-world drama series I’ve seen since ‘This Life’ back in the 1990s. And thereby hangs a tale...

Back in the mid-1990s BBC2’s ‘This Life’, the story of a bunch of free-wheeling, free-loving, sexy young lawyers sharing a house in South London and setting out on their careers in the legal profession, was very much the defining drama of its time. Shot almost documentary-style it combined racey storylines, in-your-face depictions of drug culture and casual sex to create unmissable landmark watercooler television and launched the careers of its cast of unknowns – specifically Jack Davenport, Jason Hughes, Andrew Lincoln – who are still regular faces on film and television today. TV has been crying out for a new ‘This Life’ ever since the series ended after two series and it’s quite clear that ‘Party Animals’, created by independent production company World Productions and with a snappy (if brief) guitar-riff theme tune, was intended to be just that. In fact, ‘Party Animals’ wants to be ‘This Life’ so much it almost hurts. Who knows, then, why ‘Party Animals’ failed so badly where ‘This Life’ soared? Maybe smug young policitians in the 21st century – when we’re all bit jaded and cynical about our clueless political leaders – aren’t as attractive a dramatic proposition nowadays as smug young lawyers were in the more affluent 1990s? Maybe back then young people actually aspired to being lawyers whereas the world of politics is about as appealing a prospect to today’s young adults as the latest Will Young album (ie not very appealing at all).

It’s a damn shame because ‘Party Animals’ is gripping, compulsive telly. Like ‘This Life’ (and it’s hard not to keep making the comparison) the show focuses on a tight group of characters. The core of the show are Scott Foster (Andrew Buchan) and his brother Danny (Matt Smith). Staunch Labour men, Scott’s a charismatic lobbyist and Danny’s an edgy, intense junior researcher working out of the office of minister Jo Porter (Raquel Cassidy) and carrying a torch for feisty fellow-researched Kirsty (Andrea Riseborough). Over in the Tory camp sleazy shadow minister James Northcote (Patrick Baladi) is engaged in a furtive affair with the glamourous and ambitious Ashika (Shelley Conn). As the series opens Jo loses a Commons debate when Danny accidentally leaves her speech in a pub toilet and it finds its way to Northcote who sabotages her arguments and demolishes them. The culprit Danny is in the firing line and in the space of one tightly-written episode relationships and characters are deftly established and the shock episode ending – the death of Scott’s drugged-up flatmate – sets the series off at a right old pace.

The remaining seven episodes see Ashika moving away from James as she puts herself up as a candidate in a fiercely-Labour constituency at a local by-election and comes into the orbit of ladies’ man Scott. Danny’s battling with his own career and ambitions and the fact he can’t make any headway with Kirsty and Jo Porter finds her life unravelling as her family life comes a very distant second to her professional life. Elsewhere there’s political plotting and back-stabbing, trendy drug-taking, conspiracy and intrigue stalking the sacred halls of Westminster. It all sounds like dry stuff but it’s never dense and unfathomable and it’s shot through with the same dry wit and compelling narrative which worked for ‘This Life’.

‘Party Animals’ is blessed with a terrific cast. Yes, Smith is great – I’m excited to see what he can bring to ‘Dr Who’ as he’s a supremely talented young actor – but kudos must go to Buchan as Scott and Shelly Conn as the determined Ashika whose continued attraction to Scott threatens to be her downfall. Especially good are Patrick Baladi (still best remembered from his turn as Neil, the Swindon boss in series two of ‘The Office’) and the brilliant Raquel Cassidy, so good as Jack Dee’s long-suffering partner in ‘Lead Balloon’.

Like the first series of ‘This Life’, ‘Party Animals’ ends on something of a cliffhangar. Ashika’s coming to terms with the result of the by-election and what she sees as Scott’s betrayal when photographic evidence of her affair with Northcote reaches the Press and threatens to scupper her political career before it’s really begun, James is scurrying back to his wife and Scott and Danny are reunited despite their differences. Oh for a series two... But sadly it was not to be as the show failed to find a substantial audience on BBC2 and failed to achieve a much-deserved recommission.

I’m so pleased I’ve belatedly discovered ‘Party Animals’ and am just a bit miffed I avoided it at the time because, like much of its potential audience, I didn’t think I’d be interested in a stuffy political drama. So whether you track it down because you fancy a look at this Smith feller or because, like me, you stumbled across it on BBC4, you could do a lot worse than get stuck into this little gem of a series because, as ever, it’s so refreshing to watch intelligent television drama which credits its audience with more than a modicum of intelligence. If you loved ‘This Life’ you will love ‘Party Animals’ – and that’s probably the strongest commendation I can give it.

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