Daytime TV: The enemy within

Gary Day is moved by Julie Walters' superb portrayal of Mo Mowlam but finds Hamlet leaves him cold

February 4, 2010

Two Elizabethan tragedies this weekend. The first was Hamlet (BBC Four, Saturday 30 January, 7pm) and the second was Mo (Channel 4, Sunday 31 January, 9pm). Together they illustrated the truth of one of Margaret Thatcher's most famous remarks: "In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman."

Hamlet famously does nothing but talk, while Mo, as Marjorie Mowlam was affectionately known, sorted out everything from an old man's boiler to Northern Ireland and still had time to make plenty of whoopee. Hamlet, you will remember, is more inclined to suicide than sex. He wishes his own "too too solid flesh would melt", a line that is harder to believe than a politician's promise when uttered by David Tennant, a skeleton in a suit. And because he had frozen the currents of his own blood, so must others. He tells his girlfriend to go to a nunnery and gives his mother a lecture on having needs at her age.

"God, I need a fuck," Mo exclaims, flopping down next to her husband, Jon, on the beach. "It's a bit tricky", he says, "in broad daylight." Oh, I don't know - at least you can see what you are doing. The "sand in your cracks", though, is another matter. But Mo could probably sort that out too. Frailty, thy name is most certainly not woman.

The dazzling Julie Walters as Mo and the equally impressive David Haig as Jon gave hope to middle-aged lovers everywhere. The touch, the tender look, the sudden rush of joy. They clinked glasses under a blue sky and leant back to gaze at the sea. You almost expected to hear Lou Reed's Perfect Day. Instead a bomb went off in Manchester. Mo was in the kitchen fetching a bottle of wine, which unaccountably slipped from her hand and shattered on the floor. And then the phone rang. It was Tony Blair.

We were plunged into the politics of Westminster, but we could have been in Elsinore. The whispering in corners, the brief encounter on the stairs. Mo bustled through the building, entertaining her entourage with quips about the size of Tory willies. The sound of laughter in that place made a change from the sound of knives being sharpened.

The divinity that shapes our ends gave Mo a malignant tumour. It was that which made her drop the wine. She was diagnosed just before the 1997 election. And she decided not to tell Blair. Should she have? Subsequent events have shown him to be a man not given to full disclosure himself. The truth can be a terrible inconvenience when you are trying to do the right thing.

Mo kept mum and became the first woman to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Clips from old newsreels - rubber bullets dispersing a crowd, a petrol bomb streaking across the street, a building collapsing - showed the immensity of the task she faced. "What do I have to do to convince you that there is no hidden agenda?" she asked a hostile David Trimble, brilliantly played by Adrian Dunbar. She put a leg up on a stool, revealing her underwear to the moderate voice of unionism. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were similarly discomfited when she whipped off her wig and sought their assent to the proposition that sometimes all you needed was a good scratch.

Mo's profanities, her sense of fun, her bravery in going into the Maze prison and her willingness to draw the fire of both sides in the conflict helped bring about the Good Friday Agreement. Unlike in Hamlet, reconciliation triumphed over revenge, but only just. Discontent over the decommissioning of weapons meant Mo had to go, replaced by Peter Mandelson, whom she variously referred to as "dick" and "bastard". What a shame she can't see him as we do.

Neil McKay's script was earthy, incisive and deeply moving. One such moment was when Mo returned, as she had promised, to Struell Lodge, a centre for people with learning disabilities. By then her condition had deteriorated and one inmate, in a flash of insight, remarked "you're one of us". It was also profound. Mo's tumour could have been responsible for her personality, raising Shakespearean questions about the nature of man. The very thing she fought against was the very thing that made her what she was.

The acting was superb. The same, alas, cannot be said of Tennant's Hamlet. It couldn't have been flatter if he'd had the part dry-cleaned and steam-pressed. Haig's face, when he saw the extent of Mo's hair loss, went through more changes in a moment than Tennant's did in three hours. Jon died not long after Mo. Make of that what you will. Both were deeply disillusioned with new Labour. What a falling-off was there, as the ghost of John Smith might say.

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