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Monday 20 August 2018

Michael adds Sheen to Blair story

THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP (BBC2, SATURDAY)

Michael Sheen must be fed up playing Tony Blair. Tony Blair must be fed up with it too, since Sheen is generally doing a better job of portraying Blair than Blair is these days.

The Special Relationship, Sheen and writer Peter Morgan's third Blair collaboration after The Deal and The Queen, entertainingly traced the shifting friendship between Blair and President Bill Clinton.

It opens in 1996, the year before New Labour won its first landslide election, with Blair making his first trip to Washington to meet Clinton. In the limo from the airport, he learns he's to be received through the front, rather than the back, door of the White House for a one-to-one with Clinton -- unheard of for an opposition leader.

"Why?" he asks spin doctor Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazely). "It's obvious: they think you're going to win," says Campbell, suggesting they hastily change seats so Blair can get out of the car on the left side.

Morgan's script made a point -- maybe TOO much of a point -- of portraying Blair as gauche, naïve and more than a little starstruck in these early days.

When Clinton's super-efficient secretary says, "POTUS is in the building," Blair is baffled. "Who's POTUS?" "President of the United States," whispers aide Jonathan Powell (Adam Godley).

Clinton (the excellent Dennis Quaid, perfectly nailing the drawl and mannerisms) initially treats Blair with a mixture of charm and condescension. "We keep a pretty close eye on things over here and my money's on you," he tells him, paternally.

Even a month after Blair's victory, it's clear who's the master and who's the disciple. The ground shifts, though, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks.

"There's going to be something in the news today you should know about," Clinton warns Hillary, played with icy accuracy by Hope Davis, giving probably the most subtle performance in the film.

"Twenty-three? She's a child!" splutters Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory, resisting the urge to tip over into caricature). "I don't think it's the best time to be paying a trip to Washington."

Blair, though he finds the whole business "excruciatingly embarrassing", travels anyway and stands shoulder-to- shoulder with Clinton at a press conference.

This, of course, was before Clinton was forced to come clean and eat his words. In Morgan's take on things, Clinton lying about what he'd really got up to with Lewinsky was the deal breaker for Blair.

It's Kosovo, however, that presents Blair with the opportunity to seize the upper hand. When Clinton refuses to commit to sending in ground troops, thereby ensuring Nato won't budge, Blair takes the initiative and makes a rousing speech in Chicago.

"Let no one ever doubt the moral justification of invading another country on humanitarian grounds," he thunders, in what turned out to be prophetic words. The American newspapers are dazzled, calling Blair "Churchillian".

"In terms of public approval," Campbell coos, "you're the number one leader in the world right now." Clinton is less impressed. "Who would've guessed what a tough little son of a bitch you are, stabbing me in the back in my own front yard."

As Morgan sees it, this was the moment when Blair fully realised the capabilities of his power. The final scene is telling. Blair, with a newly-minted US President to court, can't wait to get rid of the Clintons. The presidential helicopter is barely off the ground at Chequers, the PM's weekend retreat, and he's on the phone to George W Bush.

Peter Morgan has said he'd like to write one more drama about Blair. Sheen is apparently reluctant to fill the role again. That's a pity. It could be the best yet.

STACEY'S STARS

THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP ***

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