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Catch up with the best President the US never had


BARBARA GOULDEN revisits The West Wing, all episodes streaming on All4

It seems to go on forever, but I've finally finished watching the last episode in the seventh series of The West Wing, the multi-award winning American television drama that ran from 1999 until 2006 and is now back on our small screens courtesy of All 4.

It has to be said that this imaginary political saga does go on. And on. And on.

But it has helped me stay sane during the long dark nights of lockdown and seems particularly pertinent to the real-life administration just starting in the White House.

If nothing else it helps you get your head around exactly Who's Who in US politics as Martin Sheen (of Apocalpse Now!), first takes his seat in the Oval Office.

Naturally he has to be one of the good guys, a man of integrity - a John F. Kennedy type without the sex scandals, although a well-mannered call girl does feature in episode one.

Sheen is President Josiah Bartlet (pictured above), leader of the free world surrounded by a witty staff of high-minded Harvard and Yale-educated over-achievers.

There's a lot of occasionally irritating, fast-talking, high-powered conversations as speechwriters, anaylists and press officers race up and down the same corridor. And yes, they do have a giggle at us Brits when a Bertie Wooster-style M'lord puts in the occasional appearance as our Ambassador over there.

But that's all right. We can stand the joke as nuclear powered submarines get lost in dangerous waters, enemy troops mass on borders, and astronauts up on the international space station appear to be running out of oxygen.

In much later episodes there's the gruelling reality of the campaign trail which leaves both actors and viewers exhausted.

However, long before all that there are moments of sheer dramatic poetry.

Like episode 10, series one, when Toby (Richard Schiff), the idealistic, ill-tempered White House head of communications is called to a Washington park because his business card is found in the overcoat of a dead homeless man. If you watch nothing else, try that one. Take a bow Aaron Sorkin, creator of the series.

Then there are all the predictions of things that are to come. Like the need to sort out a Medicare programme - later fulfilled in real-life Obama-care and still disapproved of by so many Republicans who feel its better to keep the dollar in your pocket, lower taxes and keep an ever watchful eye on the religious sensitivities of some of their more extreme evangelical supporters.

And although the Democrats have most of the high ground they don't have it all their own way as the Republicans are represented towards the end of the seventh series by a wonderfully ageing Alan Alda (Hawkeye in M*A*S*H), who offers a devastating appraisal of why offering too much aid to developing countries leaves them unstable and with debts they can never repay.

Then there's the issue of illegal immigration. Even back in 2006 the scriptwriters knew the Democrats wanted to offer illegal immigrants the opportunity to become full US citizens, and the same thoughts echoed in the latest announcements of 2021 President Joe Biden, who was, of course, in politics at the time.

Talking of real life, if you do make it through to the end of series seven, you get to hear the views of actual former occupants of the West Wing with interviews with Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, along with a host of former special advisors including Henry Kissinger.

For those long, cold winter evenings still ahead, I just might watch it all again.