The Politician's Husband

Paula Milne's new drama for BBC Two starring David Tennant and Emily Watson

Interview with writer Paula Milne

Category: BBC Two; Drama

When The Politician’s Wife came out in 1995, many people asked me if I would write a sequel. But I never wanted to. My instinct was that it was best to leave a good piece of work alone.

As the years passed, however, I found myself starting to think about it again. The whole premise of The Politician’s Wife was to use marriage as a kind of prism through which to look at contemporary political life. At the time there was a lot of talk about family values; John Major had launched the Back to Basics campaign the year before, and so on. I began to think that if that template had worked then, perhaps a similar one could work now. But this time I wanted to reverse it, so that it would be about power within a marriage. I wanted to explore the way that men feel about their wives becoming more successful than them – that’s an interesting dynamic to set against the power games in Whitehall.

To some extent there are autobiographical elements to the story. I have been married twice myself, and sadly both times they ended in divorce. It’s impossible to say whether my own success played a part in the breakdowns. That’s a very difficult thing for a man to admit. But without wanting to sound overly paranoid, I think it did. I don’t think it was the only thing, but I think it was the most constant thing. And that in itself is quite interesting; how men feel that disempowerment. That’s certainly something we see in Aiden, the main character in The Politician’s Husband.

At the very start of the drama, Aiden is attempting to run for the leadership, with his wife’s support. So, initially, Freya seems like the dutiful wife who is stepping back to allow her talented husband to take the crown. The resentment she feels only becomes clear as the story unfolds. There’s a scene in episode one where she walks into the Cabinet Room. I wrote in the stage directions: “She puts her hands on the table and feels, for the first time, the thermals of power...” And I think that scene puts the audience in advance of Aiden. Because then they know something he doesn’t: that, suddenly, she feels it. She wants it. She gets sucked into that vortex of wanting power.

Even in the first sex scene, you can see that there’s a kind of gamesmanship between Aiden and Freya. It’s mischievous, but it’s also combative. The director and I talked a lot about that, because we felt that what happens later between them shouldn’t come out of nowhere. As viewers, you should feel that there has always been an element of competition buried underneath this marriage. I don’t want to give too much away, but just as the sexual journey of the characters in The Politician’s Wife reflected the deterioration in their relationship – anger, disappointment and revenge – a similar device is used in this series. And, yes, it is quite shocking in places.

From the beginning, I was very keen that the drama shouldn’t be associated with any real-life political party – because then it would just have become about the Tories, or the Labour Party, or the Coalition. I think there’s something in the bear pit of the Commons that causes all politicians to behave in rather similar ways, whatever side of the divide they’re on. On the whole, I think they go into it to do good, but somehow that gets diffused. The combative, competitive, party-line aspect of politics seems to suck out their ideology. The system seems to brutalise them. Towing the party line, subduing their own doubts for the sake of the Party, perhaps seeing their constituents suffer because of it... it’s all about the quest for power. To get power. To stay in power. Aiden says at one point, “Sometimes you have to do bad things to get into power in order to do good things when you’re there.” The problem is, if you do bad things long enough you may forget how to do good things!

I wouldn’t say The Politician’s Husband is a totally damning portrait of politics. That’s certainly not why I started to write it. But I did want to mirror how many people feel about the current political climate. And I think in this country there is a deep-rooted cynicism about the political system. Writing the drama was an opportunity to refract those feelings of disappointment, I suppose, and to bed it into a story. Everything is of its time and I just felt this was a good time, particularly after the expenses scandal. At one point Aiden uses the expression, “If you lie down with dogs, you get fleas...” So it was really about depicting that, and also seeing how it affected Freya.

In any case, for me, writing about politics on its own could feel a bit dry. The previous generation of dramatists who wrote about political themes were inevitably blokes. And they wrote wonderful stuff – people like Jim Allen and Trevor Griffiths and so on. As a woman, though, I think I write about politics in a different way. For instance, I once wrote a BBC drama called Die Kinder (1990); it was a story about marital kidnap, but in the end it turned into an examination of Bader Meinhof and terrorism. So you can use the emotional engine of a marriage to drive the narrative. You have to engage the audience with the heart as well as the mind.

I think it’s possible some MPs were a bit wary of talking to me after The Politician’s Wife; when I wrote that, I was a rather unknown factor! So I didn’t speak to a great deal of MPs during research. This time round I spent more time with special advisers. I also read an awful lot of books. I wanted to get the statistical background of it, if you like. To cross-refer between all the shades of political ideologies. To make sure that things would hold up. Understanding the mechanics of politics is to some extent even more important than talking to individual politicians – because often they can’t put their heads above the bunker to see the overview. I found the same thing when I was researching a medical drama called The Fragile Heart (1996). I talked to heart surgeons and brain surgeons but they couldn’t give me the overview. They couldn’t be the Deep Throat of the health service because they were so preoccupied with their own bunker. Talking to people who were once political researchers, or people who are no longer in power, is more interesting because they have that slight sense of distance.

One of the most important characters in the drama is Freya and Aiden’s son Noah, who has Asperger’s. He has a particular obsession with flight paths. He also doesn’t like to be touched. And you quickly see that Aiden, particularly, doesn’t know how to handle him. Even Freya admits at one point that she goes to work to get away from Noah’s endless obsessions and rituals. Neither of them wants to admit, or even believe, that they don’t love him enough. Dramatically, I think that was important. It makes them a bit bruised by life. They aren’t just the ideal family in an ivory tower. They are a family who have to deal with something – at the same time as trying to do their jobs and have political aspirations. So Noah’s place in the story was to make them seem oddly ordinary, in a way.

I did quite a bit of research into Asperger’s before writing the drama. In fact I already knew quite a bit about it from writing something that didn’t come to fruition. My nephew has it, too, so I knew something about it firsthand. One of the interesting things about Asperger’s is that it doesn’t mask the personality as autism does. So when you’re sitting round a table with those with the condition, you see that one would be obsessed with lifts all over the world and how they worked, another was obsessed with cartoon characters, another with the history of fountain pens – but they all manifest it in different ways. I found that very interesting.

I think David and Emily are brilliant in the main roles. The most fantastic thing about them is that you would completely believe they are married. When people say that actors have great chemistry, very often you want to yawn and say “Well, what does that really mean?” But, my God, you know when it’s not there, don’t you? And when I first saw David and Emily together, I completely believed them. I also think that David’s performance is particularly brave, because Aiden is a pretty irredeemable character. And for an actor like David who carries such a legacy of goodwill and love from an audience, it’s quite a brave thing to play a character like that. Emily’s natural gravitas gives her amazing credibility as a politician... Yet you also believe she's a mother... A tricky hire wire act!