Never has a show tried to cram so much into less than four hours of action. David Hare’s Roadkill abounds with themes and storylines that only get more complicated throughout this brief four-episode drama. Hugh Laurie is ever charismatic as the show’s lead, Peter Laurence, a characteristically ambitious Tory minister, revered by much of the public for his offhand remarks and blunt honesty. The series begins in the aftermath of a libel trial which Laurence has won against an unnamed newspaper that accused him of corruption. The chaos of the post-trial throng outside the courthouse sets the tone nicely for a show filled with moral ambiguity and high-stakes drama. No sooner has he left court than his spin doctor takes him to a women’s prison, where someone is claiming to be his daughter; so begins a high-octane series of events that never stops for breath.
Laurence’s visits to the prison hammer home the problems brought about by the mass privatisation of the prison system in the UK: the staff are poorly trained, the prisons badly managed and their organisation entirely focused on cost reduction rather than rehabilitation. The minister’s proposal to reform the prison system is one of his more honourable moments in the series, throughout which I was constantly torn between admiration and loathing for Laurie’s character. As beguiling as he manages to be, it’s hard to ignore his despicable contempt for his wife and daughters and the craftily calculated nature of all of his actions. He reveals his murky past early on, nonchalantly reminiscing about his string of affairs in Notting Hill, while we are also introduced more discreetly to his seedy political dealings.
He encapsulates the insidious ambition innate to so many modern politicians, whose charming man-of-the-people exterior is so often a mask for a latent craving for power. His interactions with the Prime Minister Dawn Ellison, (the excellent Helen McCrory), capture the scheming and volatile interpersonal dynamics rife throughout Westminster, while his fraught relationship with many of his ministerial staff demonstrates the personal disagreements that delay and frustrate political progress. The sexual liaisons that lie beneath the surface of government permeate the series, most typically in the case of Duncan and Julia, Laurence’s and the PM’s respective aides, through which we see just how quickly information can spread around Westminster. It is portrayed as a place where, above all, a mastery of interpersonal relationships and deceit allows you to hold the key to power.
The brief and slightly unclear way in which the show represents Laurence’s alleged dealings with an American think tank accurately portrays the shadiness of such institutions and the murky nature of Anglo-American relations in the current political climate. Earlier in the series, the aftermath of the contentious libel trial between the MP and journalist Charmian Pepper (Sarah Greene) brings to light the increasingly fraught relationship between the media and government and the precarious role taken on by journalists who seek to reveal parliamentary corruption. Despite the convincing nature of these particular plot strands, Roadkill is held back by its length, four episodes leaving very little room to make genuinely incisive political commentary, with Hare instead prioritising fast-paced, gripping drama.
On the whole, the sheer number of plot strands in such a short series and the increasingly implausible connections between them slightly mar an otherwise entertaining spectacle that is captivating in parts. I’m not sure if a reminder of just how seedy and sly our politicians can be is what we really need in these times, but if it’s slightly mindless entertainment you’re after Roadkill definitely hits the spot.