REVIEW: The Politician's Husband Episode 1

'Corruptio optimi pessima' reads the motto at the beginning of episode one of of The Politician’s Husband, the new series from Paula Milne: the corruption of the best is worst. The three part drama explores what happens in a political marriage when a hitherto passive partner starts to get the upper hand. We are certainly promised three hours of Machiavellian plotting in a twisting storyline of power and betrayal set against the backdrop of UK politics.

The  career of cabinet golden boy and potential Prime Ministerial candidate Aiden Hoynes crashes and burns even before the title sequence in this first part. David Tennant’s minister is so convinced of the support of his party colleagues that he has taken an audacious step and resigned with an inflammatory speech which barely conceals his own lofty ambitions. However, what he has not counted on is the rising tide of adverse reaction to his act and the very public betrayal by his friend of twenty years, Bruce Babbish (Ed Stoppard).

Until that moment, Aiden and wife Freya Gardner (Emily Watson) have it all – a beautiful house, two children and solid careers in politics. They are supported by Aiden’s father Joe (Jack Shepherd), upon whom Aiden also relies on as a sounding board. Freya supports Aiden, even writing his speeches, and protects him from the stresses of home life. But almost as soon as the dust has settled after Aiden’s dramatic departure from office, he is further humiliated when Freya is contacted by the chief whip Marcus Brock and offered a cabinet role. The sly Aiden. after a sleepless night, suddenly sees how this can be used to his advantage; if Freya accepts the post then she is perfectly placed to denounce the Prime Minister at a later date.

It means that the couple’s roles are reversed, and the self-assured Aiden who had been so certain of his place in both his professional and domestic worlds, finds he has to reposition himself. Gone are the days of highly charged, passionate rhetoric in the House and that place of pride at the Cabinet table; instead he fills his day with the school run, MP’s surgeries full of disgruntled pensioners and pondering what to cook for the evening meal. More importantly, he is forced to spend time with his son Noah (Oscar Kennedy), who has Asperger’s syndrome, and Aiden finds the obsession with airports and the dramatic outbursts at the slightest change in routine very hard to comprehend. In reality, Noah is just trying to exert some control over a difficult and bewildering world, and in his way so is Aiden, and his actions that follow and his demands on Freya come partly out of his need to make sense of what has happened to him

What Aiden hasn’t counted on, though, is Freya’s own ambition. Reeled in by Chief Whip Brock (a wonderfully louche performance from Roger Allam), whose own ambitions and motivations are somewhat suspect, she is readily seduced by the power that is now laid before her, and you can almost feel Emily Watson tingling with anticipation as Freya first sets eyes and then hands on the Cabinet Office table. So, when put under pressure to support her husband or support her party, she chooses the latter. It’s another betrayal for Aiden and one that might topple a weaker man. He’s wounded, both spiritually and physically too, from the wine glass that he shatters in a convulsive grip.

Aiden Hoynes is never going to be a lovable character. He’s too ruthless, too ambitious and too smug, but it is still possible to feel a tinge of sympathy for him at his fall. David Tennant digs deep to find the human side to him, in his hurt and disappointment at the loss and support of his best friend, at his barely veiled jealousy as he waves Freya off on her first day and at his attempts to connect with Noah. We feel that this is a man on a cusp, and he can either accept his lot and try to move off in a new direction, or he can follow his darker instincts and try to claim back what he believes is his. David could have played him as an irredeemable scheming bad guy, but you do feel his pain, even though his method of fixing things is dubious morally. He's a man that has had the greatest power in the country in his hands and has let it slip through and he's determined to do all that is possible to get it back again.

Emily Watson’s Freya, again, is another ambiguously played character. It would have been easy for her to be the little woman who suddenly gets her chance to shine, but Emily gives her an edge and there is a sense that there has, always been something simmering below the surface: perhaps a resentment of Aiden, perhaps her own sense of entitlement. Did she even play a part in his fall? His misjudged speech, which she wrote, was integral to his rejection by his peers. Freya is certainly shown to be relishing her taste of power and shows that power can transcend even the most loyal of promises. What it will ultimately do to her has yet to be seen, but already we see that Freya is treading her own path and no longer that of the Hoynes as a couple. She has been forced to be the secondary partner in their relationship for many years but has certainly had plenty of time to plot her own rise.

David Tennant and Emily Watson make a believable married couple, and you can see, together with Ed Stoppard’s vulpine Bruce Babbish, that they would have made a formidable team in Parliament. There is a sense that the Hoynes work as a well-oiled machine, from the loyal and professional front they put on for the press to the sexual power games that they play behind closed doors. There are cracks already, though: you can sense Freya’s disappointment as Aiden choses to ignore Noah in favour of daughter Ruby (Lucy Hutchinson). But with Freya very publicly joining the ranks of those who have declared their disappointment in Aiden’s bid for the top job, the cracks are starting to widen and the lead in to episode two promises dramatic repercussions. 

The Politician's Husband continues on BBC Two at 9pm on Thursday 2nd May