On Expenses: the story of a scandal

Al Senter
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As the BBC prepares to air a timely drama about the MPs’ expenses scandal, Al Senter talks to director Simon Cellan-Jones about the project

On a day of weeping skies in Soho, director Simon Cellan-Jones is immersed in the post-production process of On Expenses, BBC 4′s controversial new drama about the MPs’ expenses scandal.

It’s a race against time since Cellan-Jones is due to fly to New Orleans within days to shoot an episode of Treme, a new HBO drama series co-created by The Wire’s David Simon about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

On Expenses promises to wreak equal havoc on the tattered reputations of our parliamentarians. It’s a bold move by the BBC to venture into such choppy waters so close to the calling of a General Election.

Written by Tony Saint, whose The Long Walk to Finchley detailed Margaret Thatcher’s early adventures in politics, the film follows the crusade undertaken by journalist Heather Brooke to use the Freedom of Information Act to uncover the mysteries of the MPs expenses system. Her dogged, five-year campaign would eventually lead to the opening up of a secluded corner of the Palace of Westminster and to the resultant public outcry when the Daily Telegraph laid its hands on such explosive material.

The film marks the continuation for Cellan-Jones of a fascination with the workings of the British Establishment, as evinced in The Queen’s Sister and The Trial of Tony Blair, pieces of work that examined in turn Princess Margaret and the former Prime Minister. Is it correct to see something of a theme connecting these films?

“Very much so,” agrees Cellan-Jones. “It’s about prodding and poking at things that make me angry. It’s about encouraging a debate. I wouldn’t call myself an anti-royalist but I’m suspicious of any institution which thinks that it doesn’t have to explain itself. I don’t want to dethrone the Queen but I’d argue that she should be accountable for what she does. I would hope that On Expenses, like those other films, will provoke an audience into thought – to look at its opinions and perhaps reassess them.”

Like all of us, Cellan-Jones had been following the developing saga of MPs’ expenses with “fascination, anger and humour” – qualities which he says are all included in On Expenses.

“The production came together very late – we didn’t even have a script,” he explains. “But the BBC were keen to make it and show it before a General Election was called and because of the speed at which everything was put together, the film acquired a particular kind of energy. Tony had been researching the story for a year and suddenly he only had a matter of days to write the screenplay.”

For understandable reasons, the authorities at the Palace of Westminster were reluctant to grant access to the production, although scenes were shot outside Parliament and on College Green.

The film inevitably is seen through Brooke’s viewpoint and implicitly supports what she was trying to achieve.

“Perhaps it was because she is an American and so she didn’t possess that British reluctance to make a fuss,” says Cellan-Jones. “Nor was she overawed by the Mother of Parliaments. And it may be precisely because arrogant people kept saying no to her that her ears pricked up. She wanted to be a successful journalist and she was in pursuit of a very good story. The Gothic splendours of the Houses of Parliament are designed as much to intimidate as they are to celebrate – the traditions which they embody can be wonderful but they can also be cancerous. I do have a certain sympathy for those MPs who now claim what’s become known as the Nuremberg Defence – that they were only going by the rules.”

Given the BBC’s current mania for dramatising the lives of famous people – from Enid Blyton to Winnie Mandela – there is even greater scope for the blurring of fact and fiction. Isn’t Cellan-Jones uneasy about cultivating this problematic hybrid?

“We were very up front of what we were doing,” he explains. “We weren’t bringing in a Trojan Horse that was masquerading as a documentary. Some scenes inevitably had to be conjectured but we had done a lot of documentary research that supports our interpretation of events. The film has satirical elements in it but who needs a satirist when MPs, having passed the Freedom of Information legislation, then vote to make themselves immune from it? It’s the best example of satire since Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. You could argue that On Expenses will undermine the electorate’s faith in parliamentary democracy but surely MPs have already done a pretty good job of doing that themselves. Besides, should we shut up about a scandal because of the harm its exposure will do to the political process? Not in my opinion.”

Considering the haste with which the film came together, Cellan-Jones managed to attract a Grade A cast with Anna Maxwell Martin as the persistent journalist, Brian Cox as the beleaguered Speaker Michael Martin and Alex Jennings, Neil Pearson and Tim Pigott-Smith featured as various key figures in the drama.

“The film is not a hatchet job on Michael Martin but nobody is claiming that he played the game as well as he could have done,” Cella-Jones says. “It would be much too simplistic to cast him as a baddie. In fact, some people argue that he was made a scapegoat by MPs. Brian Cox is, of course, the busiest man in showbusiness, and so there had to be a certain amount of juggling to fit in with his other commitments. Anna Maxwell Martin, as well as being a brilliant actress, often plays rather downbeat, victim-like characters and so it was good to offer her the part of somebody spiky and in-your-face.”

Cellan-Jones underlines the point that On Expenses is strictly non-partisan.

“The film does not have a party political agenda and I don’t think that the BBC is trying to influence people politically,” he maintains. “We had very little interference from the BBC and any contribution from editorial management has been very discreet. Remember that we’re focussing on something that went across all the main political parties. The film doesn’t necessarily have a message. What it does say is that we should not automatically trust our elected representatives.”

In his distinguished career, Cellan-Jones has worked in both fiction and faction and seems equally at home in both.

“One of the credits I’m proudest of is Our Friends in the North,” he says. “That was fiction but because it told a story that was set against a background of police corruption and the miners’ strike, it also took the temperature of the ages it passed through.”

On Expenses also applies a thermometer to the spirit of the age. Time will tell if the patient recovers or sinks into a further malady. But thanks to this film, it should be fun finding out.

* On Expenses is broadcast on BBC4 at 9.00pm on February 23.

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