Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Lavender List (2006)

The Lavender List is a BBC4 political biopic from 2006 that sought to look into the final premiership of Harold Wilson between 1974-1976 and, more specifically, his curious relationship with his personal and political secretary Marcia Williams, Lady Falkender. 

From the pen of Private Eye's Francis Wheen, and based on autobiographical accounts and memoirs from both Joe Haines - Wilson's press secretary - and Bernard Donoghue - head of Wilson's Policy Unit - the play caused controversy in suggesting that Marcia Williams compiled the PM's infamous resignation honours list as a way of paying back all those who helped set her up with commercial interests prior to Wilson's resignation. It also repeated the oft circulated rumour that both Wilson and Williams had been lovers in the 1950s; an assignation that Williams blackmailed her employer over. As a result the play has only been screened once and subsequently banned from ever seeing the light of day again following Lady Falkender's successful legal battle against the BBC which saw her awarded £75,000 in libel damages and a 'no repeat/release' assurance. 

All that makes it sound thoroughly salacious and gripping doesn't it? 

Well sadly it's not. Much of The Lavender List's shock tactics and secrets spilled will already be known to any keen political follower or cultural observer of the time - though it's always good to be reminded of the allegation from both Haines and Donoghue that Wilson's private medic alluded to a discreet assassination for the troublesome Marcia! - so what you're really left with is the usual reliable and pleasing attention to detail any BBC period drama has coupled with some first rate acting. Gina McKee takes centre stage as the mercurial Marcia, though she's far too delicate a beauty to truly convince in the role. Thankfully her acting is always first rate and this performance is no exception. Kenneth Cranham plays an embattled, weary and witty Wilson but its a great shame he doesn't attempt to convince in the role - beyond being a grey haired and somewhat portly and ageing man, there's nothing he has in common with Wilson. My own personal favourite performance is the ever reliable Neil Dudgeon as the cynical Joe Haines, though even he seems little interested in conveying the Rotherhithe accent Haines truly has.

In the end I think that BBC4 shot itself in the foot. Not in being bold enough to depict such allegations in a drama format, but in doing so when a far superior drama/documentary was being produced for BBC2; The Plot Against Harold Wilson - which would look at the same years and specifically concern itself with the belief that secret armies set up by a British established elite of former high ranking and right wing soldiers were grouping to stage a coup which would overthrow the Labour PM, place Lord Mountbatten in charge of the country and quell the militant tendencies and civil unrest in the working classes - remains a far more satisfying watch.

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