Despite decades of blatant incompetence, flagrant racism and repulsive arrogance, somehow the shaggy-haired jester of 10 Downing Street remains in office, making a mockery of British democracy every day he remains in charge. Much like a petulant school boy who refuses to bow out until he gets his own way, Johnson’s embarrassing result in the recent vote of confidence shows that he is the least popular cabinet member, making him a dead man walking in Westminster, with his days surely numbered.
Though, as the Prime Minister has demonstrated time and time again, he is willing to cause a public outcry and turbulence in his own conservative party, as long as it means he is able to keep the big, comfy seat at the head of the tory table. As a result, we are being led by a man with one of the worst public approval ratings in modern history, and a politician who brazenly disregarded his own strict Covid rules to enjoy wine in the flourishing Downing Street gardens whilst the citizens of the UK were deprived of visiting their dying loved ones in the hospital.
If the incompetence and self-absorbed circus of British politics wasn’t obvious before, it certainly is now.
British cinema has long picked holes at the inner workings of Westminster, from the scathing criticisms of Ken Loach’s social realist projects like 1966s Cathy Come Home all the way to Armando Iannucci’s 2009 film In the Loop, a feature-length adaptation of his own TV series The Thick of It that exposed the lunacy of everyday life in the British government. Of all the genres, it is satire that best dissects the delusions of government for the scalpel of criticism, with the forgotten 1970 classic The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer doing this better than most.
Telling the story of an amoral media man who rises the ranks to politics by manipulating polling data to reach the status of Prime Minister, the satirical plot of Kevin Billington’s film isn’t too dissimilar to the ascendency of Johnson himself. Played by comedian Peter Cook, the titular protagonist is an ambitious figure who prefers to work smarter, not harder, as he uses his sway in the media to pull the strings of parliament to his liking.
Despite dragging in parts and suffering from its own playful slapstick comedy, Billington’s film is also an ambitious piece of work, unfortunately failing to reach its potential in the 1970s, partly due to its release shortly after the general election, with producers fearing that releasing the film before would sway the vote itself. Of course, in hindsight, releasing the film before the general election would have been the perfect time to capitalise on the film’s scathing criticisms of contemporary government, with its forecast of a Conservative victory seeming a little obvious after the tories gained a majority in the spring of 1970.
With its comments on the 24-hour news cycle, political spin-doctors and even an unstoppable virus, however, the prophetic narrative of The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer shares far more comparisons with the reality of modern-day than it ever did in the 1970s. As Billington told The New York Times in 2020, “Rimmer was somebody who wasn’t left or right; he didn’t represent anything at all. He was, in a funny way, the future…He was very good-looking, but there was nothing there”.
Removing the suggestion of dashing good looks and Billington’s suggestion that his film’s protagonist represented the future of British politicians is a depressing truth, particularly when the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has thrived off similar forms of media manipulation. Michael Rimmer manipulates videos and presents them as truth and flagrantly lies to his fellow politicians and voters with such confidence that his arrogance is blindly supported.
Just as the collaboration of media and politics led Michael Rimmer to success, so too did the same system help both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to power, with the surprising foresight of Billington’s movie being prime satirical content in the surreal truth of modern Britain.
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer is available to watch in full in full below.