They say all political careers end in failure. Watching this drama on Channel 4 about Mo Mowlem, it seems she herself believed her career to be a failure. And yet, five years after her death, a brilliant drama has been produced about her life. Few politicians’ lives are deemed interesting enough for that.
Mo Mowlem was swept into power along with Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997. Hoping for a top job such as Foreign Secretary, she was actually given an impossible brief. She was to sort out Northern Ireland, a province that had been in conflict with itself for at least 400 years. She took it on with gusto even though there were other pressing matters on her mind – literally.
The drama starts with Mo, wonderfully played by Julie Walters, gearing up to fight the 1997 general election. She has noticed a few unusual symptoms and a consultation with her doctor confirms the worst – she has a brain tumour. She is determined not to go public about it for fear of losing her job. On the telephone to Blair, who she addresses as ‘Babe’, she tells him it is a benign tumour, her treatment has been successful and it will not impair her ability to do her job. She is lying.
The chemotherapy means she starts to lose her hair and has to wear a wig which, of course, the press notice. When Blair wins and he gives her the Northern Ireland job, she moves with her husband John and his children to a beautiful Government house in the province. The peace process has stalled and she faced an uphill struggle. But she plays the ‘woman of the people’ brilliantly, getting out of her car in this very dangerous province and meeting and greeting the ordinary folk. They love her.
The script, written by Neil McKay, is wonderful in bringing to life Mo’s colourful personality, her very bad language, her warmth and her courage. In Northern Ireland she has to talk to terrorists and murderers of both political groups – Protestant and Catholics - but she treats them like ordinary people. Offers them tea, calls them darling, even insults them when necessary. She goes into prison to talk to the hardest men in the place – men who have murdered innocent people. In one scene when she meets humourless, charmless Catholic leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, she suddenly pulls off her wig to reveal her sparse hair and says, rubbing her scalp, ‘ Aren’t there times when all you want is just a bloody good scratch?’
With perfect dramatic timing, just as peace is within her grasp, she is replaced in the job much to her anger and disgust. But the Good Friday Agreement bringing lasting peace to Northern Ireland is achieved.
There are some brilliant lines in this drama however the ‘strong’ language means I’m not able to quote the best of them. The story ends with her death aged only 55 as she rages against Tony Blair for sacking her, against fate for giving her cancer. She even worries that her personable character and charm are in fact the result of the tumour, which could have been present for decades, pressing on her brain. ‘How much of me is me?’ she asks her doctor.
All political careers end in failure, but for Mo Mowlem the lasting peace in Northern Ireland after generations of violence, is a fitting epitaph.