The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard: "Masterpiece Theatre" miniseries. Starring Jane Horrocks, Janet McTeer. 9 p.m. Sunday, with subsequent episodes 9 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 18, and encore broadcasts, on KQED.
Back in 1923, F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to maintain the early momentum of his literary success with his play "The Vegetable," which was subtitled "From Postman to President." Later on, Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" appeared, and remains perhaps the best-known American treatment of the ancient fantasy that the average Joe can make it to the higher echelons of power and change the world.
The latest treatment of the subject comes with the new "Masterpiece Theatre" miniseries "The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard," starring the equally amazing Jane Horrocks, who plays a supermarket manager who gets fed up with the antics of politicians during one of Britain's national elections and suddenly finds herself running for Parliament. Ros Pritchard is a thoroughly modern woman who balances a career and being wife to her bean-counter husband, Ian (Steven Macintosh) and their two daughters, Emily (Carey Mulligan) and Georgina (Jemma McKenzie-Brown). One day, while breaking up a brawl between two competing politicians in front of her market, Ros is caught on TV camera expressing exasperation at the prevarication and deceptiveness of most politicians and offering that she could do a much better job in Parliament than either of the clowns she's just sent packing.
Soon enough, Ros finds herself running for Parliament. And quicker than you can say, well, "Gordon Brown," she's managed some major defections from the Tory and Labor parties and has succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister. On taking office, she vows to the British people that she will never lie to them and, with the support of her Purple Alliance party, she tries to bring a populist program to government. Most of her ministers, for example, are women, a point that is subtly but effectively made in Sally Wainwright's exquisitely detailed, character-driven script.
Soon enough, she begins to understand both Lord Acton's observation that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" and Kissinger's view that "power is the greatest aphrodisiac." Who is out to get her? Someone on the inside, it seems. Could it be formidable Catherine Walker (Janet McTeer), a defector from the former dominant party who's become the chancellor of the exchequer and is viewed by Pritchard detractors as the real power behind the front bench? Or the home secretary, Hilary Rees Benson (Geraldine James), whose altruism may have driven her to betray the boss? Maybe it's Kitty Porter (Frances Tomelty), the reptilian owner of the supermarket chain, who's dumped a frightening amount of money into Ros' campaign.
What gives "Mrs. Pritchard" a good deal of verisimilitude is that writer-creator Wainwright has freighted the series with a good many real-world details, including Ros' distrust of George Bush's influence on British foreign policy, her belief that Blair erred in getting the United Kingdom involved in the Iraq war, and the very real threat of terrorist attacks on Britain.
Meanwhile, very human dramas are playing out all around her. Ros' elder daughter is enticed to pose nude for a racy magazine, a member of Parliament from Ros' party goes out drinking when her marriage falls apart and is caught by a photographer from a sleazy tabloid, Ros' husband has a secret in his past that, if known by his wife, could topple her government, and, to top it all off, Catherine begins bedding down with her much younger speechwriter and finds herself both in love and preggers.
The performances are extraordinary, from the starring roles on down. Horrocks, best known for playing the addle-headed Bubble in "Absolutely Fabulous" and the lead character in the wonderfully quirky film "Little Voice," is so good in the role, you'll wish she'd been born in the United States and could toss her hat into the American presidential race. Wisely, she never plays Ros in an over-the-top way. The same decisiveness and capability she shows when Ros is "only" managing the supermarket characterizes her style of running the country. McTeer, another actress we'd watch in virtually anything, is superb as Catherine - tough as nails, but then, in the face of real love, not so much. The rest of the cast is equally great, in part because of the performances, of course, but also because of the care Wainwright has put into the details of their characters.
The three directors on the series - Simon Curtis, Declan Lowney, Catherine Morshead - clearly share a unanimity of vision. And there's no doubt that vision comes primarily from Wainwright's script and concept of the story. In the end, the action comes down to certain choices that, depending on their resolution, will have inevitable consequences for some of the major characters. My one quibble with the series is that the resolution is not played out, but rather comes in a printed afterword. Regardless of how we might have wanted things to turn out at that point, Wainwright undervalues her audience a bit here by not giving it the satisfaction of seeing the finale dramatized.
No matter. "Mrs. Pritchard" is still amazing and great fun. Of course, something like it could never happen in real life. And that makes it rather wistful as well.