Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Key (2003)

The Key is a sweeping and ambitious three-part drama from 2003 that is a paean to 'the Red Clyde', the strong trade union movement and Labour support that existed in Glasgow for decades but which is now a thing of the past since the independence referendum and the 2015 election that saw the SNP become the overwhelming majority party for Scotland.

Written by Donna Franceschild (Takin' Over The Asylum, Donovan Quick) The Key is a very human story which focuses on three generations of one family, taking in events of the twentieth century from World War One and the Bloody Friday strike of 1919 to Blair's Labour landslide victory of 1997. At the heart of the story is the militant Mary Corrigan (played by Dawn Steele as a strong young woman and June Watson in later but no less impassioned years) whose life mirrors the century, and the mystery of the titular key she habitually wears around her neck.

Refreshingly, and perhaps what I like the most about The Key is that the story is told pretty much exclusively through the eyes of its strong female characters. There's not just Mary, there's also her daughter Helen (Anne Louise Ross) who enters the world of work when her husband (Ewan Stewart) is crippled by an accident at the shipyard and rises to the ranks of regional organiser with a public services union, and her granddaughters Jessie and Maggie (Frances Grey and Ronnie Ancona); the latter is a determined and ambitious young woman who is standing for parliament as a Labour candidate, whilst the former is the families dreamer, a wannabe writer, worn down by life and working in a dog-eat-dog call centre.

The other thing I really like about The Key is that, six years into the premiership of Tony Blair, it dared to point out that New Labour wasn't the utopia we had all hoped. Its depiction of the importance it puts into market forces and its betrayal of the old left and the unions is something that was pretty verboten to say at the time - so perhaps it could only be a Scottish drama that had the balls to make such a statement, sowing the seeds for the disillusion we have seen since the referendum. With that in mind, the main message of The Key is that change comes not from politicians, but from honest, hard working people who stand up and say enough is enough, things are unfair and they need to improve. These people are therefore the likes of Mary, Helen and Jessie rather than Maggie, whose decision to become a 'Blair Babe' is based on her having fully embraced the ethos of New Labour simply because she doesn't want to be on what she perceives to be the losing side like her parents or Mary before her. Throughout, The Key remains authentic to the story of people being caught up in the wider power struggle occurring around them, rather than those in positions of power in the first place.

Unfortunately it's not without its flaws. Some of the dialogue and performances veer into spoof territory (it's really difficult to spout political soap box rants without them appearing a little cliched) and overall  it's perhaps too epic a story to be told in just three one hour episodes. The budget doesn't really stretch to illustrating the canvas in full either, with scenes depicting Bloody Friday and The Battle of Orgreave looking a little unrealistic because they can't really match the numbers. It's the kind of story that deserves a cast of thousands, so it naturally suffers a little on a small BBC budget. Nevertheless, it does boast a solid cast and it is good to see the likes of Ken Stott, Kevin McKidd, Katy Murphy, John Sessions and Paul Copley in relatively small parts in the broader brushstrokes of history, whilst Dawn Steele and Frances Grey impress in the stories biggest and somewhat parallel parts.

The Key seems curiously largely forgotten for a programme that only aired thirteen years ago (not all that long ago in TV terms) so it's good to see that it has been released by Simply Media, a DVD company that is doing a great job of releasing some treasures from the BBC archives, with a good many productions from the '80s, '90s, and early '00s finally seeing the light of day. 


  1. I'll have to check that out. I think the only drama to
    really pull off it's political message in recent(?) years
    was Our Friends in the North, which for me was must-watch

    1. Hey stranger,
      Our Friends...remains one of my favourites. Nothing compares to that, and that brings us to The Key; it would love to be Our Friends...but it's not in the same league, alas. Still, its heart is in the right place.
      White Heat from 2012 was another attempt at invoking the spirit of Our Friends...but for me the most recent successful dramas to explore politics have been The Village and The Mill (cruelly cancelled after 2 series and on a cliffhanger) Funny how commissioners only feel comfortable rocking the boat when its in period costume I guess. Where's this generation's Boys From The Blackstuff I ask