Her life less ordinary
At some point, almost everyone thinks he or she could do a better job running the country than those pesky politicians, making the conceit of an ordinary citizen suddenly propelled into the halls of power an evergreen. From “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to “Dave,” Americans love to believe that there’s nothing wrong with the system that a little real-people common sense and integrity couldn’t put right.
And now, it seems, the Brits agree. In “The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard,” debuting Sunday night on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre,” a brightly brisk grocery store manager, played winningly by Jane Horrocks, watches in horror as Tory and Labor candidates come to blows outside her shop. She decides she could certainly do a better job than “that lot” and, after a well-timed display of televised outrage, gathers enough public support to form a third party, the Purple Alliance. With the deep-pocket support of the grocery chain owner and the insightful murmur of a top political advisor in her ear, Ros Pritchard gains key defections from both Tory and Labor, the Purple Alliance sweeps the nation and next thing we know, Ros is settling in at 10 Downing Street as prime minister.
There, she spends the next four episodes learning that there’s a bit more to running a country than she once thought; that no one, including herself, is quite what they seem; and that power is a complicated and mercurial suitor.
As an argument for the citizen-politician, “Mrs. Pritchard” is not terribly persuasive -- the innovations she introduces, the stands she takes, are not earth-shattering by any means, particularly to an American audience. The personal conflict she finds herself embroiled in is not terribly believable and, as far as plot lines dealing with inter-party power plays and the price a world leader’s family pays, there’s nothing here that wasn’t already done much better on “The West Wing.”
What “Mrs. Pritchard” does have going for it, what makes it worth watching, is terrific acting from its rather astonishing ensemble. Horrocks, best known here for her title role in the film “Little Voice,” as well as a turn as Bubble, the ditzy secretary in the British television cult classic “Absolutely Fabulous,” goes completely against type. Yes, there are times when the voice gets high enough, and the Lancashire accent broad enough, to remind us that she also gave voice to a particularly dim-witted hen in “Chicken Run,” but she manages, without fanfare, to portray the metamorphosis of perky grocery store manager to prime minister in an organic, very physical way.
The wonderful Janet McTeer appears as Catherine Walker, the former Tory representative who becomes Ros’ deputy prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer. Catherine gives “Mrs. Pritchard” whatever grounding in actual politics it may have. Smart, tough, unblinking and unapologetic, she is the sort of woman you would like to have as prime minister, or president, for that matter. Even when given a fairly ridiculous romantic story line to sort out, McTeer, who was also just seen in the amazing “Five Days,” manages to lend the whole thing a complexity and maturity it might not actually deserve.
Likewise, Jodhi May creates, rather than plays, Miranda Lennox, the political advisor who steers Ros through her campaign and into the treacherous waters of politics. With her soft, fair face and enormous dark eyes, May is an actress who moves easily through time, showing up in costume dramas and modern narratives with an almost archetypal presence.
As Ros’ elder daughter, Emily, Carey Mulligan (Ada in “Bleak House”) is a caldron of adolescent emotions, and Frances Tomelty makes a powerful and inscrutable Kitty Porter, the millionaire who smooths Ros’ way.
It’s difficult to imagine a similar ensemble of American actresses, mainly because in the U.S., even on television, only a relatively few get enough work to achieve this level of craft. Those who do find themselves corseted, sometimes literally, by our narrow standards of beauty, which too often involve Botox, plastic surgery and eating disorders.
Perhaps in deference to the queen, Britain is kinder and wiser with its women -- there has already been a female prime minister, after all -- allowing all manner of womanhood their personal beauty. On British television, you don’t have to have legs that go on forever or visibly toned arms or a face that miraculously never ages to land a significant role. Down to the wardrobe -- most of the politicos wear a few outfits over and over, just like real women do -- “Mrs. Pritchard” takes American television to task. It may not be the most revealing portrait of political leadership available, but it is a reminder of how important real people are. Not just to politics, but to the cultural tapestry as well.
‘Masterpiece Theatre: The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard’
When: 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)