What is it about Meryl Streep and this current Parliament? The actress swept into Westminster three years ago to watch a session of Prime Minister’s Questions, ahead of her own prime ministerial performance in The Iron Lady (2012). And then she returned during this year’s Easter recess, this time as Emmeline Pankhurst. The forthcoming Suffragette was allowed to shoot some of its scenes inside the Palace of Westminster. It is the first commercial film ever to do so.
The absence of politicians, the second time around, may have been a relief for Ms Streep. In 2011, not only did she have to humour certain excited parliamentarians who asked for her autograph, but she also witnessed a particularly insipid exchange between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. As the pages of Hansard will testify, the two men managed, with platitudes and bloodless insults, to reduce the meaty subjects of youth unemployment and NHS reform to a thin, unsatisfying broth. There was little passion, fury or Thatcherite zeal on show that day.
Not that it mattered much for Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher. By my count, almost six minutes of The Iron Lady’s 104-minute runtime are set inside a Hollywood recreation of Parliament – and they are some of the most energetic parts of the entire movie. This may not sound like much, but it’s considerably more than many other films manage. Most filmmakers tend to avoid Parliament with a vengeance. It’s as though they realise that for every “Frit!” there are a thousand discussions about water pipes in the South-East. For every “Weak! Weak! Weak!” there is a decade’s worth of mumbling by backbenchers. The place just isn’t particularly cinematic.
Of course, there are countless movies and television shows that use the building itself – and especially its tower – as a backdrop; a sort of cinematic shorthand for “we are in London now”. (I am particularly taken with the ghostly shots of Parliament, from across the Thames, that open Jules Dassin’s 1950 film Night and the City.) But few bother to take their cameras through its doors, so to speak, and shoot its inner workings and idiosyncrasies.
If you require proof, then just fast-forward through some of the most brilliant fictions there are about British politics. The television adaptation of Chris Mullins’ novel A Very British Coup (1988)? In its three-hour running time, it features only half a minute of parliamentary debate, and that in a voiceover. The three series of Yes, Minister (1980-84) and two series of Yes, Prime Minister (1986-87)? The Commons dispatch box is shown not even once (although Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey do appear in parliamentary tea rooms and before a select committee of MPs). Much the same could be said of The Thick of It (2005-2012).
In truth, the laws of entertainment aren’t the only reason why these shows stay outside the Houses. There are other restrictions too. Thanks to Parliament’s filming rules – imposed so that film crews do not get in the way or accidentally record secret conversations – even news organisations must jostle for a few square feet of tightly regulated camera space. For those who aren’t news organisations, the only way around the issue was often to construct expensive sets. That, or don’t have scenes inside Parliament at all.
Even the government’s own film-makers have had to abide by the rules. The Central Office of Information produced a short film about a fictional parliamentarian, called John Turner MP, in 1962 – and very elegant it is too. Or, rather, it is very elegant until this MP has to go anywhere near Parliament. A scene in which he leads some constituents into the building has to stop abruptly at the door. A debate in the Commons shuffles awkwardly between stock footage of the chamber and close-ups of the actor playing Mr Turner speaking in an entirely different venue. “Here, in this debating chamber, freedom of speech is a fundamental right of the Member of Parliament,” intones the narration, seasoned with unintentional irony.
This, however, could all be changing. Starting with Suffragette, the Parliamentary authorities have decided to relax their regulations. And the reason? Hollywood’s money, naturally. The chairman of the Commons’ Administration Committee, Sir Alan Haselhurst, told the Sun that it is a “respectable source of income”. And he reassured the traditionalists: “Films will only be allowed if their subject matter is appropriate.” I guess that means there’ll be no MPs’ Expenses: The Movie.
For now, we will have to make do with the television shows that have already captured Parliament convincingly, even if it is an ersatz Parliament. Chief among them is House of Cards (1990) for conveying both the drone and drama of Commons debate – not least in its very first episode, which features a prime minister boasting, during PMQs, about “real terms increases” in health spending. But honourable mentions must also go to The New Statesman (1987-1992) and even the relatively lurid Party Animals (2007), which is quite convincing until it starts linking The Spectator with a sex scandal. Whoever heard of such a thing?
When it comes to cinema, the best parliamentary scenes have generally been dressed up in period garb, in productions such as The Madness of King George (1994) and Amazing Grace (2006). But now one man has the chance to top them all and Meryl Streep. That man is Tom Cruise. His fifth Mission Impossible movie starts shooting inside Parliament later this year.
> This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in The Spectator’s pull-out supplement Parliamentarian of the Year 2011, which is no longer available online. Here, it serves as part of ConservativeHome’s Film Club.