Half an hour into “On Expenses”, Heather Brooke, the American journalist living in Britain who exposed the scandal, asks herself “Why do I live here?!”. I’d been wondering that myself for the previous twenty nine minutes.
So infuriated is she with the British culture of privacy, so disillusioned with the blinkered, Orwellian manner in which we poor Brits have to live, it was a marvel she didn’t just jump on the first plane back to the Land Of The Free. But no, she wanted a Pulitzer.
As the Freedom of Information Act is made law, Brooke publishes a book on the kind of information that is now publicly available. To prove her point, she tries to gain access to the more detailed accounts of MP’s expenses. Time and again, she is refused her request on the grounds of privacy.
Her main obstacle is the then Speaker Michael Martin. Here he is shown as trying to do what he feels is his job, protecting the House’s integrity, although the fact they enjoy their cushty lifestyles maybe had an impact on his decisions. “On Expenses” takes us through from his election as Speaker by his fellow MPs, to his resignation against a wall of disgust from the same people who chose him, as their dirty laundry is hung out to dry.
Anna Maxwell Martin portrayed Brooke as a pushy, determined, no nonsense type. She did it so well I found myself rooting for the MPs. Frankly, from the opening moments in which she is seen dancing to “Fame” in front of a mirrored wall, I could tell we weren’t going to get along.
It was only when Neil Pearson as her barrister Hugh Tomlinson held the Commons Administration to account that her argument held any sway, but even that scene only lasted two minutes.
The whole programme plays like a comedy, almost an extended episode of “Yes, Minister”. Everything from the absurd claims, to the pathetic attempts by the Administration to justify their stance, to every prophetic word uttered by Martin proving to be completely wrong made me laugh. I had a smile on my face all the time watching it, although it turned into a grimace whenever Brooke opened her mouth.
Brian Cox made for a marvellous Michael Martin. Perhaps they went a bit over the top when he is first shown playing the bagpipes with a Celtic scarf laid neatly on the chair behind him. He’s Scottish, then? The thick Glaswegian accent was also a clue.
Director Simon Cellan Jones manages to get some beautiful and different shots of the Palace of Westminster. The best being a close-up of Martin’s office window as he plays his bagpipes at night, the lights on the outside of the building throwing the detail of the architecture into stunning contrast.
Shame this programme was relegated to BBC4. It could have had an airing at least on BBC2, for those without digital television. Certainly it made for a diverting, if not baffling hour’s entertainment.