First Among Equals

The West Wing meets Desperate Housewives.
Who Wants to be a Prime Minister?


Typically in America, when you talk about a “red box,” you’re usually alluding to the increasingly popular, inexpensive DVD rental company RedBox, which — operating like a vending machine — dispenses discs on the cheap in and around major shopping centers. Moreover, the American version of the RedBox privately doles out offerings you may not want to walk into the public Blockbuster to rent such as Meet the Spartans, Witless Protection, National Lampoon Presents Cattle Call, and Blonde and Blonder (actual films listed on their website). However, in England, a “red box” is something far more prestigious — namely instead of James Bond DVDs, these bad boys contain top secret documents worthy of James Bond himself.

Carried by members of Parliament and colored red to “signify British state ownership,” these official red boxes which are filled with highly sensitive governmental information were initially lined with lead and made of wood, “originally so that they could be thrown off the side of a ship in the event of capture.” However, now these locked and hinged, bomb- and disaster-proof ultra-briefcases “designed to survive any catastrophe that may befall their owner,” are still “a mark of prestige and high office,” not to mention most likely hell to pass through our post-9/11 airline X-ray security checkpoints, where you would probably be told next time to bring a RedBox’s The Hottie and the Nottie instead of the Parliamentary version.

Near the beginning of the brilliant 1986 British televised ten-part miniseries adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s internationally bestselling novel, First Among Equals, we’re introduced to four very different, yet equally intelligent and ambitious newly elected members of Parliament. While of course, their very own red boxes are acquired easily as they climb the ranks from the backbenches in 1964, this riveting tale follows the same four and spans more than two decades as each one tries in their own unique way to become Prime Minister. Filled with secret alliances, sex scandals, shady financial dealings, infidelities and divorce, terrorism, death, sabotage, and power struggles, this politically charged soap opera may seem daunting at first given its 494 minute running time spread across the three-disc DVD set (hitting stores on September 16) but I found it so gripping that I was hooked within the first episode and managed to squeeze in the entire set within days.

First Among Equals draws significantly on Archer’s own firsthand experience as an MP (Member of Parliament) from the Lincolnshire constituency of Louth, following his election at the age of twenty-nine to the conservative party. And in fact, “several situations in the novel,” chronicle some of the events in his “own early political career in the British House of Commons” as well as the numerous controversies which have followed him throughout his life’s work.

Although the text was released as two distinctly different versions with a dropped character and changed ending for American readers additionally adding greater explanation of the British political process, screenwriter Derek Marlowe and directors John Gorrie, Sarah Harding and Brian Mills made a wise decision to not only use the UK version of the book but also retain all four characters. Wisely changing some of the names of actual politicians like Margaret Thatcher (to Hilary Turner), Harold Wilson (to George Bainbridge), Edward Heath (to Henry Lindsey), Reginald Maudling (to Christopher Morland), and James Callaghan (to Kenneth Hollander), it’s the ideal miniseries soap opera for thinking audiences. Despite an absence of any real print restoration which would’ve helped with the dated transfer, First Among Equals stands alongside my very favorite miniseries, including The Thorn Birds and Roots.

While initially — unfamiliar with Archer’s work — I feared that it would completely slant towards the right given his own political leanings, Wikipedia explained that “in Parliament, Archer was on the left of the Conservative Party, rebelling against some of his party’s polices,” and in his very own words once said, “I’m what you might call centre-right but I’ve always disliked the right wing as much as I’ve disliked the left wing." And indeed, he illustrates the hypocrisies of both parties and manages to put his emphasis first and foremost on the characters themselves rather than making them mouthpieces for any strict political rhetoric.

Featuring a nicely divided plot line centering on two members of the Labour Party and two from the Conservative, the title is derived as the “literal translation of the Latin term Primus inter pares,” which can refer to “either the most senior member of a group of equals,” or most likely in this case, “someone who claims to be just one member of a group of equals when in reality he or she completely dominates said group.” While each member of the cast of characters does get their turn to dominate, some are more obvious than others such as the staunch and unscrupulous schemer, Charles Seymour (Jeremy Child), an old-fashioned conservative in every sense who puts his career before everything else, alienating his surprisingly hilarious and unceasingly perceptive wife Fiona (a remarkable Jane Booker) who always sees through Charles’s tricks.

While on the surface everything about Seymour seems like the epitome of old-England and monarchy is practically stamped on his forehead, he gets a remarkable run for his money from the earnest, idealist Simon Kerslake (James Faulkner). Arguably the most likable character of the series — and perhaps one who shares Archer’s own centrist view — Kerslake represents a new face for the conservatives. Not wealthy by any means — he’s the opposite of Seymour in every sense — as one of the few non-lawyers in the house with a background studying literature at Oxford and a wife who is a top doctor (Joanna David) instead of a party-planning socialite, Simon takes his work seriously, although he makes some foolish financial decisions along the way.

And although one would assume that his greatest ally would be a member of his own party, Kerslake realizes (almost far too late) how ruthless Seymour can be in competition. Indeed from his earliest days on the backbenches, he befriends an equally unlikely member of the Labour Party, the Scotish Andrew Fraser (David Robb), who disappoints his wealthy conservative family in running on the other ticket. Passionate and impulsive, in the first episode Fraser further goes against his predetermined course in life by dumping his fiancé (on the night their engagement was to be announced) when he falls in love at first sight with a beguiling woman he makes his wife (Diana Hardcastle). The only problem is that his ex’s father is a superior Member of Parliament and may want to use his power for familial revenge.

Even though he’s incredibly bright, the exceptionally blue collar worker turned hard-working lawyer Raymond Gould (remarkable two-time Academy Award nominee Tom Wilkinson from In the Bedroom and Michael Clayton), initially appears as the Atticus Finch of the Labour Party. With his devoted wife Joyce (Anita Carey) at his side, this uncommonly gifted speaker and author rises steadily through the party; however he realizes with an increase in status just how different everything (including Joyce) is back home in Leeds. Soon unwilling to admit he’s ashamed of his roots, Gould spends more and more time away from home, indulging in extramarital flings including one that turns into true love as a heartbreaking triangle develops.

Although it’s a bit light on the extras, perhaps given the fact that the original production is more than twenty years old, the DVD set includes a biography of Jeffrey Archer (known to Generation Y for his Bridget Jones movie cameo) as well as the rest of the cast. Using real life situations and political figures for the backdrop, this incredibly authentic miniseries seems as realistic as those red boxes the men carry back and forth, which owes as much to Archer as it does for the studio behind the production. Originally filmed for Granada Television, the studio “constructed a full-scale replica set of the House of Commons Chamber… which for many years formed a central part of their Granada Studios Tour attraction, where visitors could see mock debates being performed on the set by actors,” although it has since been placed into storage after being purchased for usage in the recent acclaimed miniseries State of Play by Paul Abbott.

And indeed, far more entertaining than the dry business order of the day viewable on CSPAN, the scenes in the House of Commons are filled with intensity, shouting, demonstrative applause and boos, making it no wonder that there’s footage of John McCain falling asleep in the house on CNN as I think, much like their far cooler versions of the red boxes, we could definitely learn a thing or two on how to bring things to the floor with style from the dear old Brits… although perhaps we could skip the wigs.

However, for the time being, First Among Equals makes for a nice escape of too much campaign coverage and repetitive soundbytes, political infighting that — much like a great political story on cable news channels — doesn’t skimp on sex scandals, intrigue, and ever-changing events throughout the decades. Needless to say, this set is highly recommended — of the “buy” not “rent” category — so skip the RedBox (they don’t carry it anyway), do not pass go, and surf right over to Acorn Media or Amazon.