Biopics of British politicians are few and far between because British politicians like Mo Mowlam are few and far between. In five or ten years, deep into the next Tory decade most of the current crop of politicians will have been forgotten, but Mo Mowlam will be one of the few that will be remembered, helped in part by Channel Four’s excellent docu-drama, Mo. Starting in the months before the 1997 general election, we are shown her discovering and dealing with cancer, seeking peace in Northern Ireland, and her decline after her retirement from politics.
I’m not sure if there’s any higher praise than saying that Julie Walters looks and sounds exactly like Mo Mowlam. She gets the high-pitched, prissy voice, the distinctive back straight, tits-out gait and her straight-talking political style all almost absolutely right. Walters is supported by an excellent cast; Steven Mackintosh is a wonderfully slippery Peter Mandelson and Walters’ Billy Elliot co-star Gary Lewis takes on a deservedly prominent role as Mowlam’s deputy, Adam Ingram. David Trimble, Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams are cardboard cut-outs, but at least they looked and sounded like who they were supposed to be (with the exception of Adams, who appears to be played by Groucho Marx).
The most disappointing part, especially for someone who came to it mostly for the politics, is how politically sparse it is. The bulk of the programme is devoted to her work in Northern Ireland, but she doesn’t appear to do anything. She seems to have been little more than a court jester; whipping off her wig and opening her legs in order to unnerve the delegates, but not seeming to do much that contributed to the success of the peace process apart from the occasional inspiring speech. This does her a tremendous disservice, vastly underestimating what she did to bring the two sides together. She was a joker, and she was unorthodox, but she was also a highly skilful negotiator, but this does not really come across because Walters spends most of the time running between rooms batting her eyelids at all and sundry.
There’s a fair number of clumsily-directed scenes: one in which she watches a child with Down’s syndrome singing karaoke, and another near the end when she re-visits a care home for young adults she’d opened. These come across too cheesily when compared to rest of the programme, which, by and large, is very shrewdly and sensitively put together. Nevertheless, there’s some extremely harrowing moments that are beautifully done. Not previously knowing what radiography involved, watching Walters having a transparent plastic mask fitted onto her face, and then hearing the menacing electrical buzz of the machine alongside the strains of pop music played to relax her was really quite unnerving and brilliantly executed.
More than one national newspaper reviewer has described Mo as ‘hagiographic’ (portraying someone as a saint). This, though, is very unfair to director Philip Martin. Yes, one of the biggest potential problems with dramas like these is that the central character’s flaws are ignored and the whole thing turns into an hour-long canonization, but Martin manages to avoid this quite well. He shows how she lied to the country about the seriousness of her disease (her cancer was malignant, but she told the media it was benign) despite the potentially perverse influence it could have had on her judgement. More than once, Mo shows that no matter how much she genuinely cared about the future of Northern Ireland, she was a politician first and she aimed for success for what it might lead on to in her career.
It is largely faithful, both to her and to history, and gives us an insight into her life (though perhaps not her work) without cheapening her by laying it on too thick, a balance which other biographies don’t strike nearly as well as Mo does.