On Expenses Review: Receipt Deceit

February 23, 2010 by  
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ON EXPENSES: Tuesday 23rd February, BBC4, 9pm ALERT ME

If you’ve read the news at all in the last 12 months, you’ll be familiar with the expenses scandal.

MPs were being faithful to the letter but not the spirit of the law, claiming a litany of ridiculous freebies – tennis court repairs, moat cleaning, £8000 flat-screen televisions, porn…

Almost makes you want to start a career in politics.

The great unsung hero behind the investigation was Heather Brooke, an investigative journalist, who wrote a book about the Freedom of Information Act of 2000. But when she tried to use it to force MPs to release details of their expense claims she ran into stiff opposition. On Expenses is a 60 minute dramatisation of Heather’s long struggle for transparency in Whitehall.

Sitting in opposition to her request is the Speaker Of The House, Michael Martin, whose initial offhand dismissal of the request becomes an uphill battle to retain control of his position as the details of the scandal are slowly leaked.

It’s a great piece of modern investigative journalism – a testament that dogged persistence and tenacity can still prevail in a culture of secrecy, but what prevents this from being another trite summary of Middle England’s favourite news story is it’s heavyweight casting and an effective balance between drama and humour.

Brian Cox is excellent as Michael Martin; blusteringly affronted that someone could even have the audacity to question MPs who he believes are “above suspicion?, first seen playing the bagpipes in his office and drinking Irn Bru with his whiskey.

But he’s not just a straw man – his character is well rounded enough to make you feel strangely sorry for him at certain points. Anna Maxwell Martin also plays Heather extremely well – feisty and tenacious, it’s hard not to get as fired up about her cause as she is.

As it’s a dramatisation of events, things have to be “sexed up? a little bit. Her conflict with her husband is put under the spotlight a few times when her obsession with the case takes priority, but he’s relegated to the sidelines like some kind of cheerleader fairly early on.

And there’s a bit before a major trial where we see Heather doing some interpretive dance to Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, which is frankly a little bit weird.

But primarily, this is the story of an extraordinarily tough woman who stood up to the system and won and it’s good to see her long struggle behind the scenes finally have it’s day in the limelight.