TV review

The Tory Boys

The Times

October 8, 2009


When Boris Met Dave
True Blood
Generation Kill

There was no faulting the comic energy and intended mischief of John Dower’s When Boris Met Dave; the problem was the continued mystery veiling its main participants that Dower vainly, and only partly, penetrated. This drama-documentary was much more documentary than drama, although an impressively windswept Christian Brassington as Boris and Jonny Sweet as a slick Dave were brilliant. The film sought to place a significance on David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s membership of the riotous Bullingdon Club as students at Oxford in the mid-1980s.

The smoking gun was the now-familiar black and white picture of the group, in coat-tails, looking Brideshead-y and supremely arrogant, and the incident of a pot plant thrown through a restaurant window after one riotous night out. Johnson was arrested, Cameron slipped away before it happened.

If the Bullingdon boys behaved as they did on a council estate they would have been hammered by ASBOs.

The Bullingdon, in anecdote and re-enactment, was presented as rich and entitled young men misbehaving, with little respect for others. His membership made an utter mockery of Cameron’s attempt to cast himself today as a regular guy. At least Johnson doesn’t try.

Dower wanted to reveal the workings of the Bullingdon and to unpick the relationship of Cameron and Johnson and the source of their rivalry. He amassed an impressive array of talking heads who were at Oxford or intimately acquainted with both men: Rachel Johnson, James Delingpole, Toby Young (also a co-producer) and Cameron’s biographers. They spoke engagingly, although there were no shattering revelations.

Cameron was never really in trouble (a spliff incident at school was glancing). Johnson emerged as the pugnacious political animal, bowing in whatever direction the political wind was blowing to win the presidency of the Oxford Union. Cameron was the quiet one, playing the Smiths, remaining aloof from student politics and keeping his powder dry, possibly with an eye on an unsullied political future. He watched Going for Gold. He posed with his tennis racket.

Despite two Bullingdon members breaking their silence, the pot plant incident remained foggy high-jinks. The black and white picture was simply wincingly telling about how the upper classes see themselves. The surface story — Eton schoolboys with an all-consuming ambition and sense of entitlement go to Oxford and become powerbrokers — was hardly surprising. The best scene was dramatised: Johnson and Cameron sat in a launderette and “Dave” (Boris says this folksy shortening with real scorn) revealed to Boris that he was going to work at Conservative Central Office, not, he sneered, in management consulting like so many of their peers.

Boris meekly replied that that’s what he was about to do (only for a month, then he became a reporter at The Times). Johnson looked at Cameron with choking bitterness: this tabula rasa, with no fixed beliefs, leapfrogging him into the field of his true passion: politics. One contributor said that the two men are the Blair/Brown of the coming decade, although is their rivalry rooted in the same gritty resentment as the new Labour template? Perhaps it will warp and harden over time.

Shown the night before Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference today, what lingered most damagingly for Cameron was the sense that back then no one grasped what “Dave” really stood for or believed in — just as it remains today.

A rare incidence of believe the hype: True Blood and Generation Kill are fantastic. The former is worth the adulation just for its credits. Its creator, Alan Ball, originated some memorable ones in Six Feet Under. Now, with a theme that twangs muckily and a montage of images mixing the occult, religious extremism, vampires and civil rights, he has raised the credits bar. The drama focuses on a community in the Deep South, where vampires have “come out of their coffins” to claim a place in society.

This allows True Blood to interrogate, obliquely, how minorities counter bigotry (“God Hates Fangs” reads one banner) and enter the mainstream; obliquely, because this drama is compulsively rich enough without straining after metaphors. Sookie (Anna Paquin), a waitress with telepathic powers, falls for vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer). She can hear her friends’ silent disapproval, but saves Bill from thugs keen to drain him of his vampire blood. Her brother is a damaged sex addict, her best friend is caustic. Lafayette the cook is gay and naughty. Beautifully shot, cleverly scripted, moreishly soapy — everything great about Six Feet Under remains true here.

Generation Kill, from the team behind The Wire, follows an army unit as it rolls into Iraq. You don’t really know anyone’s names: the drama is less about the war and more about the relationships between the soldiers (and a reporter from Rolling Stone embedded with them). They wrestle, fight about race, talk about women, josh about gay sex. Park any liberal sensitivities at the door. When the men received letters from schoolchildren in America, saying how sorry they were that the men were fighting, the response was unenthusiastic. What hippy commune did this come from, one soldier asked. Another said: “I’m a f***ing Marine. I want to dismember the enemy. War is the motherf***ing answer.”