The West Wing for real

8th April 2016

Given the dismal state of television criticism in this country, I guess I should not be surprised that BBC Two’s Inside Obama’s White House has not attracted more thoughtful attention than it appears to have done to date. For the Guardian Mark Lawson wrote a typically thoughtful and well-informed piece about the series and access documentaries and Philip Collins contributed an appropriately enthusiastic piece for Prospect: ‘journalism of the highest calibre’. Daisy Wyatt in the Independent was won over but Christopher Stevens for the Daily Mail dismissed the first episode as ‘dull… no plot, no tension, no good lines’, and I can find little else that engages in any detail with what for me is a really remarkable achievement.

Episode 1, titled 100 Days, is on BBC iPlayer for another 6 days, and the other three episodes will be there for a little longer, and I can only encourage you to sample a series that is classically clear, compelling, and full of integrity both before and behind the cameras. Just as we would of course expect from series producer Norma Percy and executive producer Brian Lapping, given that they have been responsible for The Death of Yugoslavia (1995) and The Iraq War (2013). The format is much the same here: archive footage, an immaculate choice of photographs (many by the White House photographer), and an astonishing line-up of contributors including POTUS himself. Narration guides us through the events and offers valuable analysis, but it’s the anecdotal detail and its dove-tailing with the historical images that is truly remarkable.

100 Days begins with an extraordinary sense of optimism, and I don’t mind admitting that I teared up as I was watching via my iPad on my tube journey to work. The excitement, the belief and above all the hope of those heady days at the end of 2008 and right at the start of 2009 are once more wonderful to behold. Then reality bites, with the financial crisis, flooding, and fears that the automobile industry is doomed. We learn too about the fight to pass a major economic stimulus package and about the Copenhagen climate change talks.

There are probably few revelations here for the Washington junkie, but I got a remarkable sense of the compromises, the ego clashes, and the overweaning self-interest that runs through every debate and decision. Yet among Obama’s best and brightest there is a strong sense of trying always to do the right thing, in the face of recalcitrant, reactionary Republicans. The contrast with the unedifying spectacle of the current primaries of the Right could not be more pointed.

Perhaps the strongest sense one gets from this, however stage-managed it might be (and I sense that it’s far less so than many media manifestations) is how thoroughly good and genuine President Obama is. Funny, too, and sincere. How much will we miss him come January!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *