When fiction interweaves with fact – the West Wing tv series

He’s the best man I know. He’s a disciple of goodness. I think the man has greatness. And the irony is, here, I don’t know whether I’m talking about Jed or I’m talking about Martin.

– the late John Spencer, quoted from the ‘making of’ dvd that comes with the complete, boxed, seven-season series of the West Wing. Spencer played Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff, and was talking about his onscreen boss and colleague, Jed Bartlett, the American president played by the actor Martin Sheen. I find this fascinating, how a work of fiction can be so inspirational such that the fiction and reality become interwoven. (Of course, Jed Bartlett wouldn’t be Jed Bartlett without Martin Sheen.)

I’m particularly intrigued about the role that the West Wing has and will have in real life politics. If someone is making the definitive documentary on this, I’d love to know about it. John Spencer, for example, was invited to No.10 Downing Street in London, to meet Tony Blair’s real chief of staff. Here’s the Washington Post from 2006 on the thrall the West Wing has had amongst UK politicians:

The British political class’s love affair with “The West Wing” won’t end after tonight’s series finale, or even when New Labor leaves office. Under new leader David Cameron, the opposition Conservatives are big fans, too. Cameron has told interviewers he likes the way Bartlet “cuts through all the bull and does the right thing.” The very American language he uses attests to how far up the Thames the Potomac now flows — and helps explain why, at a time when the British public is increasingly skeptical of U.S. ambitions, the leaders of Britain’s two main parties have never been more pro-American.

If American politics really would be like it is in the West Wing, I suspect more than just Britain’s political leaders would be pro-American. Interestingly, political drama in the UK tends to be cynical, as the above Washington Post article picked up on.

I’d go so far as to say television was made for the West Wing. What with its blinding scripts, lavish sets, stellar performances – and portrayal of ideals, inspiration and humanity in politics – I found the series both nourishing and educational.

It would be silly not to include this picture of my brother and me with Richard Schiff – actually, stealing his limelight – another star of the West Wing, in London last winter with his play Underneath the Lintel.

When I fawningly told Mr Schiff that I had been watching the series on a continual loop, he, true to the character of Toby Ziegler whom he plays, said, poor you – or words to that effect.


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