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Five days, fifty eight minutes

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Matthew Solon Matthew Solon 18:25, Friday, 5 November 2010

The front door of 10 Downing St, London. Residence of the Prime Minister.

Seismic events. An upheaval in the British political landscape. Radical change in the destiny of parties and political careers. The challenge - to capture the complex, fast-moving, five-day narrative of those events in just 58 minutes.

There was no shortage of material. Transcripts of the many hours of interviews that took place with the protagonists - with Cameron, Clegg, Mandelson, Balls, Ashdown and many more. Many more hours of recorded interviews with the people who were there, in the room as the negotiations that led to the formation of the coalition took place.

As a writer, as you absorb that mass of material, what you have to have is a filter. A way of selecting from that mass of messy reality the things what will help you most in the creation of your script - that artificial construct you have promised to deliver in three weeks time. In my filter there were four layers.


This is the easy bit. The must haves, the things that have to be there. The resignation of Gordon Brown. David Cameron's acceptance speech on the steps of No 10. The big events give you the milestones. That moment as your plane taxis from its stand and then turns to align itself with the runway - when, for a few moments, you see those long lines of lights that lead from where you are to the vanishing point, to the climax of that thundering charge down the tarmac.

Essential inessentials

I know. An oxymoron. A statement carrying an internal contradiction. But they exist. These are things that are utterly inessential to the forward progression of the narrative - but that carry an emotional, dramatic or symbolic meaning that makes them absolutely essential to your script. Gordon Brown about to face the cameras to make his last ever speech as Prime Minister. He borrows a red tie from Alistair Campbell. Peter Mandelson gives a final piece of advice. Sue Nye, Brown's faithful assistant, puts the advice into action - and adjusts the knot of Brown's tie. How many layers are there? The need, in these final moments to wear, like a badge of honour and an assertion of identity, the party colour. That last service from Mandelson, the ultimate, Machiavellian courtier. And then that moment of intimacy as the errant knot of Brown's tie is straightened.


Dangerous things for the dramatist. The seductive allure of bringing to the centre of the stage that big bass drum marked 'issues' and then banging it hard with the biggest blunt instrument you can find. In writing drama there are commandments, carved in stone, etched with awesome authority, stern injunctions you ignore at your own peril. One is simply this - show don't tell. It's for the audience to decide what the issues are. Your job is to embed the ones you think are important in the story, the actions, the characters.


The infinite variety of human behaviour. Even better, human behaviour in extreme situations, under huge pressure when the things they do and the decisions they take will have massive implications for themselves, for the people around them and for the future of the country. David Cameron facing the Conservative Parliamentary Party knowing he must bring them with him into a coalition that, only months before, would have seemed inconceivable. Paddy Ashdown deciding to put his weight behind the deal. William Hague making jokes to defuse the tension in the negotiating room. Brown insisting on calling his potential partners 'the Liberals' and not the Liberal Democrats. On these brief fragments of human conduct does the destiny of nations hang. And what delicious drama it all makes.

Matthew Solon is writer of Five Days in May


  • Comment number 1.

    This was a brave decision to attempt so soon after the real events, and I hope it might signal a BBC that is not afraid of tackling the dramatisation of contemporary political events. (Remember the equivocation within the BBC over the Falklands Play?)

    At 60 minutes, although it caught most of the pivotal events as they unfurled at the time, it was far too short, and I felt it was too hurried, too squeezed. Where were the longeurs of terrified uncertainty as characters were wondering whether they'd be stabbed in the back or cast off for the sake of expediency? I longed to hear more of Mandelson's measured slipperiness, and I missed the background machinations of the Malcolm Tuckers and the party apparatchiks beating their troops into line.

    Great cast, and it was sad to hear of Gerard Kelly's recent death.


  • Comment number 2.

    It was a useful reminder of the unexpected events of those five days.

  • Comment number 3.

    Thanks for your comments. It's interesting to read your thoughts Russ about the length. In fact, we recorded a lot and the first cut of the drama was about 88 minutes! There was much more set inside the meetings - all of which had been meticulously researched by Anne Dixey our researcher. But cutting it down was good for the drama I think. It made it about the journey of those five days rather than the detail of what was discussed. And I think (and hope) you get a sense of the detail happening "off screen". We wanted it to feel a bit like a documentary - as if lots of stuff was happening before and after the beginnings and ends of scenes, and underneath the voice of the narrator. And that was partly why we recorded so much - so moments could be cross faded between each other and slipped under the narrator's voice to give a sense of lots of things happening and time passing. With hindsight it seems that a a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition was inevitable - One of the things we wanted to capture in the drama was the uncertainty, tension and excitement of those five days when it really could have gone either way. Tension, uncertainty and excitement is, of course, what drama does best.

  • Comment number 4.

    Fair enough, John - I don't think any two people would always agree on the cutting length, but your 88 minute first slice sounds spot on to me. Any chance of the, how shall we call it, err, the "Director's unCut" version, or did you genuinely prefer the shorter one? I accept that more 'detail discussions' in itself might not have added much to the piece, but a bit more space could have ramped the tension I reckon, and somewhere where that background music track could have worked to greater effect. I suppose what I'm saying is that I would have liked to have seen a slightly bigger canvas, but that too has its problems with extra characters etc. Oh dear, I'm rambling now - anyway, cutting to the chase - in my view you should have been given a 90-minute slot, and let's face it, no one in their right mind would have objected to replacing the awful Any Answers for once, whose regular overrun ("and we've just got time for another four e-mails" blah blah blah) of 3 minutes every week owes the drama slot an extra 150 minutes each year...

    Ms Williams please note, he says, facetiously, and running off to do some shopping.


    P.S. Steve - the preview button has gone walkabout again.

  • Comment number 5.

    The most enjoyable bit of radio output from any source for many a long day.

    A great sadness to hear of Gerard Kelly's recent passing.

    A fitting epitaph for his friends and relatives.

  • Comment number 6.

    Russ, you're right. I'll see if I can find it! Thanks,

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog


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