The Key is a programme of a kind no commercial channel would make these days – a socio-political drama focusing on three generations of working-class Glasgow women, told in non-linear format (i.e. it jumps around) from World War One to the turn of the 21st century. On ITV it would star Amanda Burton in her underwear, while on Hallmark the Glaswegians would have American accents and exemplary personal hygiene. But on the Beeb it’s done straight, in a way that’s seldom seen since the tide of instant-thrill ‘tec and medic shows engulfed the schedules.
It has a simple message; bosses exploit workers as ruthlessly as they can get away with, and the workers can’t rely on politicians to help them. We see it in 1917, as the government sends men off to die in the trenches while mill-owners work women to death on the looms. We see it again in 1997, as New Labour embraces private finance initiatives run by firms which operate sweatshop call centres and understaffed care homes. The women’s story is cleverly woven in, showing Mary, the central character, as a fiery but consumptive mill girl in 1917, and as a stroke victim in 1997, interred in a short-staffed care home run by the firm which also runs the call centre where her grand-daughter works. Meanwhile her other granddaughter, Maggie (effectively Mary Mk 3), is a socialist councillor who is accommodating New Labour principles in order to become an MP.
Surprisingly, the non-linear format works very well, despite jumping almost scene-by-scene around an 80-year timespan. It is dramatised (complete with background music) but not over-dramatised, and if some of the dialogue comes across like a worker’s rights pamphlet, it’s because that’s how the people who fought for worker’s rights actually spoke. There’s also a refreshing absence of cheap-shot gender politics, with working-class men portrayed as the women’s co-victims, rather than as their oppressors.
Dawn Steele is almost too captivating as the young Mary, but this enhances the sense of ageing as we see her, worn down, in later life. Ronni Ancona, as Maggie, didn’t say much in part one, but will no doubt say more in the other two episodes. And John Sessions is pretty good as the smoothly threatening call centre manager.
The Key is designed to make you angry, and it does, for all the right reasons, while remaining highly watchable and in places quite heartrending. It’s one-sided, but in a world where politics and corporate interests seem joined together again, it’s a side that needs airing. These days we simply wouldn’t get it without the licence fee.