First, there were rumours of parties. Then, there were news stories. Then, there were photos – followed by an extensive report that ultimately brought down Boris Johnson’s government.
That’s right, we’re talking about Partygate, the subject of a brand new Channel 4 docudrama. Airing on October 3, it’s about the affair, and tells the story of Grace (Georgie Henley), a young Special Advisor at Number 10 Downing Street during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
As she discovers, what happens at Number 10 stays at Number 10 (like the world’s worst fight club) – and that means keeping quiet about the fifteen or so parties that happened there while people were being told to stay indoors and social distance. Outside the gates of Downing Street, meanwhile, people were isolated from friends and family, and some even missed huge events like births, deaths, weddings, and funerals due to restrictions.
So many headlines have come out since then that it’s hard to remember them all, but the most bonkers ones definitely linger in the memory: filling a suitcase up with wine at the Westminster Tesco Express; the ‘cheese and wine’ evening that was dismissed as a work event; then-Downing Street Press Secretary Allegra Stratton’s leaked video where she joked about making excuses about a Christmas party. Which was then followed by the tearful resignation speech.
These have now all been dramatised in glorious detail – and many of the more excoriating details have been ripped straight from the Sue Gray report.
“We’ve used Sue Gray as a roadmap,” creator Joseph Bullman says at a recent Q&A. He’s not wrong: this must be one of the first docudramas to use on-screen footnotes and page numbers to back up what they’re showing on screen.
“And we learn all kinds of things from [that], we learn that people were sick, that people spilled wine on the walls, that they broke a child’s swing, that there was a party they invited 200 people to, that security guards were called, that the police came, [and] that there was a minor altercation, variously described in newspapers as a drunken brawl.”
Going from there, the Channel 4 team drew on interviews and research to create a version of Number 10 where hedonistic raves were the order of the day and the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Mark Sedwill, came in one morning to find that people had trashed his office and danced on his desk.
As shocking as these antics might seem, what’s arguably worse is the casual attitude Johnson’s aides adopted towards these parties, despite the fact that there was a national lockdown. In the show, many of them are from well-off families with country houses; they’ve all been privately educated.
“When you have kind of been on that conveyor belt of privilege that a lot of those people have in their lives, I don’t think that they’re used to being told what to do,” Henley says.
“I don’t think they like being told, ‘You’re not supposed to do this.’ And I think, for me, the most chilling part of the show is that there really is one rule for us and one rule for them.”
Leading the pack is English actor and comedian Jon Culshaw, who plays Boris. He’s been portraying Boris for a long time – since he started appearing on Have I Got News For You – and as a result, his impression of the man has changed, too.
“There [was a] sense that he wasn’t like other politicians because he was rather like jolly japester, the Beano annual, all of that kind of thing: that was the joke in itself. And the impression was just focused on that,” Culshaw said at a Q&A.
“As time went on, and especially when he was Prime Minister, if you’re going too far down that line, you’re sort of helping,” he says, of wanting to move slightly away from comedy. “You’re reinforcing this image of comedic distraction and deflection that Boris liked to use to get him through – not just a tough interview, but as we see in the scenes in the machine of Number 10, to get the staff onside.”
For Partygate, he adopted a more naturalistic Boris – one you could plausibly imagine living at Number 10 – who never makes an appearance at any of the parties in person, save for the infamous birthday drinks (and a Christmas quiz).
As for the million-dollar question: do the panel think that Boris will be watching? Henley doesn’t hesitate. “I do. He’s a narcissist,” she says. “The thing about narcissists is that they tell stories, they have to be the hero or they have to be the villain.”
It’s clear that Johnson sees himself as the hero – but will history judge him as kindly? As far as Partygate is concerned, he might be in for a rude awakening.
Partygate will air on Channel 4 at 9.30pm on October 3