Ballot Monkeys | TV review by Steve Bennett © C4

Ballot Monkeys

Note: This review is from 2015

TV review by Steve Bennett

The two problems that topical TV comedies have is thinking up punchlines that top real-life – and not having the internet beat you to them.

Channel 4’s new Ballot Monkeys tackles the second by being recorded just hours before transmission, with writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin dropping in hot-off-the-presses references, as they pioneered with 1990s sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey.

It meant plenty of in-jokes to keep the political wonks happy, from Paddy Ashdown’s ‘bastards’-laden speech to the Ukip candidate who called migrants who survived the Mediterranean catastrophe ‘Labour’s new floating voters’. But viewers don’t have to be across every election headline to keep up, since the comedy revolved around the broader – and very well-known – image problems of the major parties.

The acute embarrassment the Labour activist felt about Ed ‘happy warrior’ Miliband seemed to hit home particularly strongly. Daisy Haggard, as campaign chief Christine Proctor, gave a priceless comic look when told the party’s ‘tactics module’ (led by her Episodes co-star Kathleen Rose Perkins) had decided: ’People need to see the real Ed.’

On the purple bus, one Ukipper (Miranda’s Sarah Hadland) made Katie Hopkins look like a lily-livered liberal in ill-advised calls to the press while speculating that their black bus driver might be a terrorist as he handed out the Hobnobs. Meanwhile in the Tory camp, Hugh Dennis briefed his doorstep warriors with a ‘things not to mention’ list that catalogued Eric Pickles twice. ‘There’s a reason for that’. While his rant about Teflon Boris Johnson was particularly apposite.

Among a stellar comedy cast, Ben Miller impressed as the Lib Dem trying, with limited success, to convince himself the party was still relevant. He mused that before the Coalition, ‘people sort of liked us. We were fair, sporting, unsullied by success. We were like the Tim Henman of politics.’ And when reassured that the Lib Dems were a calming influence on Tory excesses, suggested the relationship was more like a ‘hamster trying to restrain a rottweiler’.

The setting her was not the majestic corridors of power or glitzy TV studios, but grubby, claustrophobic coaches, grandly called ‘battle buses’, as they hit the marginals. You could almost smell the mix of stale sweat and coffee in every scene.

Keeping each political tribe entirely separate, not interacting at all, meant all the humour came from the internal machinations of each campaign team. Essentially each political party was a classic sitcom character, hamstrung by its flaws but unable to do anything about them. On a more practical level, the set-up presumably makes filming quicker since producers can run four units at once.

As the spads and volunteers firefight the daily crises of the campaign trail, comparisons with the The Thick Of It are inevitable. With less swearing (Lord Ashdown notwithstanding) and less cynicism, Ballot Monkeys doesn’t have savage bite than Armando Iannucci’s classic, but can still boast plenty of sharp lines as well as the ability to reflect the realities of campaigning, from the frustrations with party high command to obsessing about Twitter trends that change in a millisecond.

And just as the fictional Labour camp was leaking vicious viral campaign images online, real-life Tory chairman Grant Shapps was accused of repeatedly editing Wikipedia pages to make himself look better and his rivals look weaker. He denies the claims, but it probably won’t be the first time that the savvy scripts will resonate in real life. There’s an astuteness in the writing that’s refreshing compared to the vacuity of ITV’s Newzoids.

And to complete the accuracy, the Greens – as in so much election coverage – are invisible.

Review date: 22 Apr 2015
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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