Mandelson: The Real PM? is not so much a fly on a wall as a bluebottle buzzing round a dunghill. Hannah Rothschild invites us to join her on the trail of the gastropodic slime, littered with the rotting corpses of political roadkill, that is Peter Mandelson’s life. It is as gripping as it is depressing. Whether the Beeb thought they were being ironic by calling this ‘Storyville’ we will never know. But it does just sound uncannily similar to the League of Gentlemen’s dark and twisted comedy, Psychoville. There may be no one-handed homicidal clown in Rothschild’s work, but Peter Mandelson, the real PM, is much scarier.
Rothschild’s gift is in the edit. In one hour and 14 minutes she has spliced weeks of footage into a skilful montage which tugs at our emotions from unexpected angles. You admire the man for all his ruthless determination. You loathe him for his arrogance and bully boy tactics. And you end up feeling desperately sorry for him when Rothchild asks him if he has a hinterland. ‘My mind goes blank when people ask me that. I can’t imagine doing anything else.’ And then we follow him into an empty function room as he bids farewell to the camera. But we know that it is a farewell not just to Rothchild, but to the only life he knows.
How strange, that this man with more titles than Cardinal Wolsey, and who probably wielded more power, may suffer the fate of which most career politicians have a creeping dread: being old, alone, unloved and, most terrifying of all, forgotten.
What makes this psychodrama so compelling is that it reveals the chameleon qualities of the man. He shows brilliant comic timing when Jon Sopel interviews him with Ken Clarke: ‘Well you were a wonderful chancellor, as you keep on telling us, and you’ve been trading on your past history forever.’ But the old beast of the jungle just wearily turns to him and says, ‘Well Peter, I don’t think anyone will be trading on your past.’ Quite so.
And then we flash back to a young, slim and sinisterly oddly moustachioed Mandelson looking like a cross between Oswald Moseley and Sir Roy Strong, wallowing in the reflected glory of Neil Kinnock.
It may be unfair, but ‘sinister’ is a word that readily comes to mind in almost every shot. That and ‘reptilian’. He regally holds an empty yoghurt pot aloft until a flunky disposes of it. Not a please, not a thank you, not even an acknowledgement of the poor girl’s existence. He humiliates a Number 10 spokesman who dares to criticise a Mandelsonian press release. And, most chillingly of all, when a look of revulsion and murderous contempt briefly flashes across his face as the Director of Strategy tells him not to interrupt. If I were the police I’d be dragging the Thames for that poor boy’s mutilated body.
This film provides us with some revealing and quite scary moments. First, when he and his cronies taunt and bully George Osborne in a way that would make a Bullingdonian blush. And when he turns on a young journalist who is asking about Duffy: ‘Nobody tolerates bullying’, he thunders, all finger-waggingly tempestuous, ‘Zero’.
The Mandelson / Brown relationship is intriguing. It is if he was the man’s carer rather than an advisor. On Brown’s rages: ‘No, no, not a rage. It’s more “hear my pain.”’ Which was not the view of a freshly Nokiaed aide, nor a civil servant hurtling down the Downing Street staircase. When he is on the phone to Brown, there is a chilling aside: ‘You people have always underestimated me.’ How true. None of them realised that whilst boosting Brown’s confidence and singing his praises he was secretly trashing him in his diaries.
There are some memorable moments. Like Hannah Rothchild comparing the workings of Number 10 to being ‘like Grange Hill meets Lord of the Flies’, and a poker-faced Mandelson, when a policy wonk tells him that they have discovered a £3.8 billion hole in the care budget.
There are some prescient moments, too. On the manifesto: ‘All threats and no opportunity; what we need is a credible fiscal passage’. Too bloody right. And, finally, when he assumes that the quote ‘He is half geniality and half venom’ is about him. Sadly not: it was Churchill on Mandelson’s grandfather, Herbert Morrison.
How cheering to see the family genes are still coursing through his veins.