The Politician's Husband
Paula Milne's new drama for BBC Two starring David Tennant and Emily Watson
Interview with David Tennant
Paula Milne was really the first thing that drew me to The Politician’s Husband. I mean, she’s sort of television royalty, isn’t she? I just think she writes characters assiduously well, and she puts them in situations that are so dramatically delicious.
Also, I love a bit of political drama; The West Wing is probably my favourite television series of all time. There’s just something about that world. There are very few areas in life where the stakes are so high; where the power struggles influence not just the lives of the people involved, but also the lives of everyone they represent. It’s almost Greek in that way, in terms of the stakes being so monumental and the power struggles going on in that world being so petty – and yet so universally important.
I also remembered The Politician’s Wife being a really big deal when it came out in 1995. I came back to it before we started filming The Politician’s Husband and it was fantastically juicy to watch. Paula really caught that moment in time when a certain echelon of the ruling classes began to realise, perhaps, that they weren’t able to get away with whatever the hell they liked anymore. It was the beginning of the end for a certain type of politics – or at least of a certain type of public life, anyway. And I think she told that story very well. The Politician’s Husband isn’t a straight sequel. It’s inspired by similar territory, I suppose, but the story is very much drawn from today’s world.
The character I play in the drama is Aiden Hoynes. He’s a member of the cabinet and he’s very well regarded. He’s clearly seen as a potential leader of the future. It’s probably not helpful to find real-life political candidates to cast him as – I didn’t base him on one particular individual (which is probably just as well because I don’t think that would have done anyone any favours!). But he’s certainly a man who’s doing very well for himself.
So at the start of the story he feels that his moment has come, that the Prime Minister of the day is not performing as he might, and that this is his moment. He stands up in the House and argues that the Prime Minister’s immigration policies are xenophobic and that the PM’s position is effectively untenable. How much of that is driven by ideology, and how much of it is a power play? That’s a very grey area, really – it’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins. But the policy may be slightly less important than what he’s trying to achieve by wielding it.
Aiden has a very solid marriage with Freya, played by the magnificent Emily Watson. She’s also an MP and doing quite well for herself, though she’s playing second fiddle to Aiden, who is the high flier. But they work very well together and they’ve always supported each other. In fact we learn quite early on that she writes Aiden’s speeches. They have two kids, Noah and Ruby, and a very happy family life. It’s made slightly difficult by the fact that Noah has Asperger’s and struggles a little bit with his parents’ public, high-stress lifestyle, but they manage to cope and they have a support network around them. But when the wave of support they expected to carry Aiden to his coronation evaporates in front of him, the roles are reversed. Aiden loses his frontbench job and Freya finds herself brought into the cabinet. And a marriage which had seemed so strong and impregnable suddenly finds that its fault lines have been exposed, and they have to cope with this very different power structure within their relationship.
There is an aggressive streak in Aiden that emerges too. But then again he’s a man who is pushed quite far. He has had everything, and suddenly he has nothing. So I think it’s quite understandable that when he’s pushed into a corner, he comes out snarling and biting. As things go on, however, we find that Aiden and Freya aren’t quite the golden couple they believed themselves to be, and that comes out quite violently within their relationship at one point, and in quite a shocking way.
Another key character is a politician called Bruce Babbish, played by Ed Stoppard. He and Aiden have known each other for many, many years. They’ve come up through the ranks together, though Aiden is certainly seen as the senior of the two. And Bruce is apparently right behind him, fully expected to serve in an Aiden Hoynes cabinet and to be part of his inner circle. So at the start of the story, it’s very much Bruce and Aiden who are preparing for this big moment – this moment of assassination. But, as with many things in politics, Aiden quite quickly discovers that Bruce’s friendship and loyalty aren’t necessarily all they seem. It becomes clear quite quickly that Bruce has leadership ambitions of his own, which have been subsumed in the wake of Aiden’s much more obvious route to power. It all happens within the first few minutes of the series so I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that Bruce ends up backstabbing Aiden.
Before filming began, I tried to do as much research as I could. There were a few different elements to delve into. Firstly, there was Noah’s Asperger’s condition. We were helped brilliantly by people coming and talking to us. I wouldn’t want to betray any confidences by going into that too much, but people were very honest with us, which was hugely humbling, actually, and very helpful for the roles. When you have a child with Asperger’s, you can’t always communicate in the way that you would normally expect. It can rob people of a normal life – and that is a huge part of the story here.
And then of course there was the political world. Over the years I’ve talked to many politicians about what their lives are like. But for this I just decided to let the production team gather our sources. I didn’t want to use or abuse any social links, I suppose. So we had some people come in to talk to us, and they were very honest about their experiences. What I found fascinating to imagine was the sheer stress of that life – the burden of it, I suppose. But at the same time you could sense the buzz that people get out of it, too; the high that you get when you deliver something well in the House is like having a fantastic first night on stage and getting all the best reviews. It gives you that kind of a hit. And that’s what they’re chasing, a lot of the time. There’s something quite egotistical about that. But if it comes from a sense where they’re trying to change things for the better, I suppose it can be a pure and virtuous thing as well.
I had a certain amount of say in Aiden’s look. Looking at a lot of the political faces we see regularly on the news, I was struck by how coiffed they are. They often seem to go for a sort of Eighties soap star kind of look. But then of course that’s what is expected, isn’t it? You’re expected to look sleek and slick. And I guess you also need a look that you can contain through a day when you’re doing four different things at once. So I wanted to find something that gave a sense of that.
Filming the drama certainly gave me an insight into why politics appeals to people – particularly that sense of the intoxication of power. And the fact that you’re making decisions that will change people’s lives. I can see why people are drawn to it. I can see why people devote their lives to it. There are such huge opportunities there, and such crushing disappointments, too. It’s sort of Shakespearian in that way. It’s like a history play in the making.
What will real MPs make of the drama? I think they’ll love it. They’ll love it because at the end of the day it’s a great bit of drama. It’s got all the hooks and surprises of a thriller, but with the depth and the texture of a quality character piece – because it’s written by Paula Milne, and she knows what she’s doing. So I think everyone will love it. But I dare say politicians will love it all the more because they’ll see their own world reflected back at them. It’s a really fascinating and intriguing series.
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