News Analysis: Westminster split over BBC drama

The BBC's Party Animals, which launched last week, has been eagerly viewed by the public affairs community. David Singleton asks the show's producer - and four PROs - whether it reflects real life across Westminster.

The public affairs community is a small world. It is also one – if a new BBC drama is to be believed – in which ambitious young lobbyists flirt with political res­earchers, sleep with reporters and take class-A drugs in trendy nightspots.

Party Animals, now in its second week, depicts the high-octane life­styles of twentysomethings working in the Westminster village. There is the earnest male researcher for a junior ‘Blair babe’ who stays in to watch Newsnight.

There is the glamorous female researcher who works for (and sleeps with) a Cameronite MP.

And there is the lobbyist who fled Labour and is now attempting to join the Tories. Already we have seen this fine representative of the PA community bedding a posh hack, flirting hero­ically with a Tory researcher over a boozy lunch, and snorting cocaine.

The programme’s creators insist that the show is a realistic take on life in the Westminster bubble. Producer Elena Greene tells PRWeek: ‘As part of the research, myself and the writers went to last year’s Labour Party conference. We hung out with various members of think-tanks – but we always told them we would never mention their names.’

Martin Bright, political editor of New Statesman, played a role as a programme consultant, introducing Greene and her colleagues to various MPs, lobbyists and researchers.

‘We did lots of research’
Greene hopes the end product strikes a chord with those at the sharp end in Westminster.

‘I’d be very, very disappointed if everybody was saying it’s nonsense,’ she says. ‘We did lots of research, and we did use a lot of the stuff that people told us, weaving it into the fabric of the show.’

So, do the real-life lobbyists and researchers recognise themselves in Party Animals? PRWeek spoke to four people who have experienced both sides of the political fence (see below).

Luke CHAVEAU, director, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs

WAS: Researcher at Conservative Central Office (1990s)

Party Animals bore no resemblance to the real world of lobbying. In fact, it showed the industry in a pretty bad light, especially if anyone believed it was true. Ministers and researchers, as well as lobbyists, were shown in a stereotypical way and there was some very questionable acting.

‘The scene with the lobbyists wanting to engage with the Conservative Party, much to the incredulity of the Labour-sympathising consultants, raised a smile. But what struck me was how the image of lobbying portrayed in the programme fits perfectly with the media view of the industry.

‘Overall, I’d say this is a gritty, relatively entertaining watch – but if you believe the programme, how could I be at home to watch it? The lobbying industry has become dull with a very strong focus on share price and competitive advantage – not really the stuff of compelling drama.’

Andrew HOBSON, account manager, Insight Public Affairs
WAS: Researcher for Labour backbencher Ivor Caplin (2001-2004)


Hobson

‘The first episode was total trash, but good trash, and wasn’t too far off the mark. Obviously the actors are all better looking. Also, the writers understandably airbrushed out anything that isn’t about high-level power brokering, or trying to sleep with one’s intern.

‘They’ve done a remarkably good job of capturing the essence of the Westminster bubble. But in real life, people around Portcullis House spend much more time trying to sleep with the interns, and less time power brokering.

‘The sets were spot on and anyone who has worked in parliament will know it’s a total gossip mill. I can confirm it is also common­place to high-five your MP after a successful speech.

‘On the other hand, why is the government minister in the programme speaking from the back benches? Where are the constant phone calls from complete nut cases?’

Katie PERRIOR, director, In-House PR

WAS: Media adviser to shadow home secretary David Davis (2003-2004)

‘Exciting? Yes. Deman­­d­­ing? Yes. Glamorous? Not always. Party Animals is great entertain­ment but off the mark in terms of the reality of Westminster.

‘The long hours, low salaries and the commitment meant I was more likely to be glued to the news than doing what most twentysomethings do at night.

‘The focus on the well-dressed, beautiful young things (how do they afford to look so good?) and the affair between the adviser and the Tory MP (it really doesn’t happen that often!) means we see little of the grittier side to the job.

‘There were some good scenes though. I was impressed when I saw how well they had recreated the insides of Portcullis House. Also, the scene where one of the characters leaves his minister's speech in the loo rang true - luckily in the past, I have been the one to find it, rather than loose it.'

Peta CUBBERLY, policy and parliamentary officer, 4Children

WAS: Researcher for Liberal Democrat children and families spokesperson Annette Brooke (2001-2006)


Cubberly

‘Party Animals portrays a little-known profession in a positive light. Of course, the lack of Liberal Democrat representation and the focus on two-party politics simply reinforces the stereotype of Westminster politics.

‘As for the storyline, I did have to laugh at some of the similarities to my experi­ences, including losing vital pieces of work (though fortunately not confidential policy papers), working with interns, liaising with lobbyists (who absolutely always do try to ply you with wine over lunch) and dealing with moody MPs.

‘However, surely the civil servant officials, not resear­chers, write ministerial speeches on government policy launches? And I have definitely never heard of any researcher who has slept with a (married) boss, or associated with whisky-swilling lobyists.'

 

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