Don’t we know it all already? Those Number 10 parties under Boris Johnson during Covid now have a shade of Cluedo or Agatha Christie to them: who was it with the wine suitcase in the Downing Street briefing room? Nearly all of them, it turned out. But yes, old news.
Until you watch Partygate. This is the genius of television: to bring the parties we read about in newspaper articles or the clinical Sue Gray report to pulsating, hair-swinging, beer-chugging life. Even more importantly, it adds something newspaper journalists can only dream of. Where their readers must imagine the context of the partygate stories, viewers here have nothing left to the imagination – they see it all (almost) as it happened.
Channel 4’s docudrama, released the night before Rishi Sunak’s speech at Tory conference, follows the journey of a young, idealistic Downing Street staffer as she lives through the party era and grows increasingly disillusioned. The show is a mixture of actors portraying the parties (think songs like Freed From Desire, Bonkers, Shape Of You – it’s a very particular student house vibe), contemporary news footage and interviews with ordinary Britons about their experiences of the Covid pandemic. Those parties seem very accurate, not least in the light of footage of Nigel Farage and Priti Patel singing and dancing at the Conservative Party conference, in footage that emerged last night. That could be a scene from this show.
When it comes to summing up what’s going on at the Conservative Party conference, phone footage of Priti Patel and Nigel Farage dancing and singing along to ‘Can't Take My Eyes Off You’ could hardly be more on point.pic.twitter.com/mSDiau2gGt
— Nicholas Pegg (@NicholasPegg) October 3, 2023
When we first read about the parties, Britain was already a different country to the one in which they had occurred. By the autumn of 2021 we were out of the harsh world of lockdowns and tough social distancing – and keen to move on and forget. You had to work to remind yourself why a beer at work was so bad.
Not here. That’s why the clunking fist of this TV show is so brutally effective. We cut from the raucous, juvenile bacchanalia (one of the fights sounds like two rutting public school boys clashing on their gap year in Peru) to harrowing contemporaneous shots of empty streets, or ashen faced government ministers delivering the latest death toll. You will find you recall it powerfully.
The juxtapositions are absolutely gut-punch stuff. You can’t believe it. Then you get to the real life interviews, and accompanying footage. It is hard not to despair at hearing the story of Ruby, a child who died of cancer in 2020 and had to say goodbye to her grandparents on Zoom, having just watched that fight at a Downing Street party the same night (the ‘altercation’ really did happen).
Though there are points where you think – ok, was this that bad? Holding a Christmas quiz? Yet then you see that awful footage of a man, trying to comfort a crying relative at a socially distanced funeral, and being ordered away by a staff member. The anger rushes in: How could they do this? Ask for such sacrifice from ordinary people, and not from themselves?
The filmmakers have a point to make, obviously. They make it well. Performances from the cast are enjoyable, but all secondary to the argument. You may not agree with it. There is not much of the pro-party side of events.
Perhaps this will convince no more people – this battle is over and the antagonists have almost all left the stage (and their jobs). Yet it is a stark reminder of what moral outrage was allowed to carry on in the house that, as Partygate reminds us, was the most fined house in the whole of the UK for breaches of lockdown laws: the heart of our government.
Partygate will stream October 3 on Channel 4 from 9.30pm