Christopher Collinson (Tony Britton) is a Member of Parliament for the ruling Labour Party, husband to book editor Alice (Ann Firbank) and father to two sons, the elder of whom, David (David Wilkinson), is attending university and has become as politically engaged as his father, even if they do not see eye to eye and frequently row when David is home from the campus. Collinson is making an express effort to get into shape, as if aware of what his allies in the party have in mind, for as his colleague Peter Richards (Ian McCulloch) points out to him, they feel he is wasting his obvious talent for leadership in a ministerial position. Should he mull over the opportunity that has landed in his lap - should he lead the country?
The Nearly Man started life as an episode of ITV Playhouse in 1974, but the powers that be at Granada decided there was great promise in the premise writer Arthur Hopcroft had concocted and commissioned a series, with him penning the scripts and guiding the production as a result. He would, at the end of the decade, become best known for adapting John Le Carré's Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy for television, as it became a national obsession even among those who had read the book and knew who the mole was, but it was instructive to go back a few years and see what Hopcroft created under his own steam rather than an version of someone else's work, no matter how accomplished that had been judged.
Here there was no less attention to detail about what drives a politician - or more specifically, what drives a politician to aim for the top, and whether it is essential to be so ambitious to be good at your job; indeed, are you a failure as a politician if you do not do so, however successful you may or may not be? But the public's perception of what makes you leadership material was important as well: in the first episode Collinson's younger son dies in a road accident which generates a lot of sympathy for him across the country, and makes up his mind and that of his backers that he has it in him to stake a claim for the Cabinet, and possibly further. However, Alice turns out to be rather more sceptical, and the title of the series may provide an inkling as to his overall triumph.
Alice's lack of faith is a prime reason for the couple splitting up in episode two, whereupon Collinson meets a lecturer, Millie (Kate Fahy) at a university talk and they get along famously, to the extent that they become a couple themselves. Meanwhile, they try to keep this arrangement away from the ever-prying media as he makes an enemy of teacher and party activist Michael Elphick, who resents Collinson's middle class background when his constituency is working class, and he doesn't even live there, as a salt of the earth councillor, Wilfred Pickles, tries to bridge the gap between the left and right of the Labour party in a development that mirrored the increasingly fractured nature of socialist politics in Britain for years, even decades to come. All the while the big opportunity Collinson needs remains frustatingly just out of his grasp.
If you enjoyed Hopcroft's work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Nearly Man would provide the same quality, very much in the same vein with lots of speeches and a mixture of the personal and the professional in conflict. However, modern audiences might be caught up in the sheer nineteen-seventies-ness of it all, from characters ordering actual chicken in a basket for a pub meal, to the town hall dance featuring the rock band dressed in matching suits, to the amount of alcohol consumed: seriously, not ten minutes goes by without someone imbibing, to the extent that you begin to wonder how anyone got anything done back then if they were mostly pissed at the time. Fahy provided the requisite nudity, though so does Britton, if not as much, just so you knew this was a programme for grown-ups with their adult conversations about politics and relationships, and if you may find that heavy going, there was a sincerity in the material that demonstrated at least it was taking its weighty concerns with the proper importance. Although the theme tune was one of the worst you'll ever hear (nice Gerald Scarfe animated titles, however).
[Network's DVD in its Forgotten TV line has the original one-hour television play this was based on and an image gallery as extras.]