U.K. Fans a Surprise Casualty of 'West Wing' Demise

Now that the Bartlett administration has come to an end, James Forsyth, assistant editor of Foreign Policy magazine, explains why British TV watchers are mourning the The West Wing.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

After seven years and many Emmy awards, West Wing, starring Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet, aired its final episode on Sunday. The show ended with the start of a new administration and the swearing in of newly elected Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits.

(Soundbite of show “The West Wing”)

Mr. JIMMY SMITS (Actor): (As Matt Santos) I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As Supreme Court Justice) And will, to the best of my ability…

Mr. SMITS: And will, to the best of my ability…

Unidentified Woman: …preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Mr. SMITS: …preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Unidentified Woman: So help me God.

Mr. SMITS: So help me God.

CONAN: The Santos administration will be very brief. Of course, the show is being cancelled. As fans here in the U.S. mourn the passing of a favorite television program, they might be surprised to find out about a powerful fan base just as devoted to the program across the Atlantic.

According to James Forsyth, a Brit and unabashed fan of the program, The West Wing enjoys cult status among the British political class. He wrote about this devotion in an op-ed in Sunday's Outlook section of The Washington Post.

How about you? Were you a fan of the show? What will you miss the most about it? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, or email us, talk@npr.org.

James Forsyth, in addition to wishing he could be Josh Lyman, he's also an assistant editor of Foreign Policy magazine. He's with us here at Studio 3A. And thanks very much for coming.

Mr. JAMES FORSYTH (Foreign Policy Magazine): Good to be with you.

CONAN: So what is it about the program that so appealed, do you think, to the Labor government in Britain?

Mr. FORSYTH: I think it's the dynamism. I think it's the fact it portrays people in politics as smart, good-looking, young, intelligent, people just trying to do the right thing.

And British political culture is very cynical. British TV shows always depict politicians as either sinister figures or incompetents, figures of fun. So to see politicians and political operatives being put up on a pedestal was, I think, very refreshing to them.

CONAN: And you say that curiously the show is also popular with the new Conservative leadership.

Mr. FORSYTH: Yes, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, is a big fan of Jed Bartlet. He says he likes the way he cuts through the bull and does the right thing.

I think in Britain, with the distance of the Atlantic, the kind of political edge was slightly taken off the show. I mean, in Britain, there are none of these left wing jokes.

CONAN: And it was interesting, in your piece you quote a British television producer of a show about politics there saying, look, we could never do this kind of a show in Britain. Americans are just different.

Mr. FORSYTH: Yes, I think the British public is just a lot more cynical. I mean, the British public, here there is still this idea of the noble politician. You might not think the incumbents of the White House or Congress are noble. But you still believe in the potential of politicians to be noble.

I mean, just look at the press coverage of McCain, say. In Britain, the people are much more cynical about politics just in toto. They find it hard to believe that there are any politicians who are really motivated by the desire to do good and do the right thing for the country.

CONAN: And, of course, we've seen a lot of coverage here in this town, in particular, about how when the cast of West Wing came to shoot their exteriors - the rest of the show was shot back in Los Angeles - but they were treated like rock stars when they were here in Washington.

And you say very similar treatment when they went to London.

Mr. FORSYTH: Yeah, when they came to London, Leo McGarry's character, played by John Spencer, was invited in to meet with Tony Blair's real-life chief of staff, Jonathan Powell. And when Sam Seaborn was in a play in London in the West End recently, the thing sold out in advance. Politicians were desperately calling up the theatre, trying to get meetings. I mean, very definitely have equally cult status in Whitehall as they do here.

CONAN: We're talking with James Forsyth about a piece he wrote yesterday about why British political classes love The West Wing, which, of course, aired its final episode in this country.

I think you've got a couple of weeks to go before it winds up in Britain.

Mr. FORSYTH: Yeah. There are several weeks to go before it winds up in Britain. The show is a whole bunch of episodes behind.

CONAN: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. Robert(ph), Robert with us from Tonawanda in New York.

ROBERT (Caller): Hello. I just wanted to say what I miss most about The West Wing is Josh Lyman and his position as the political strategist with the Santos campaign. There's nothing else quite like that on television.

And even though I'm not a Democrat or a liberal by any stretch of the imagination, I love this character. And I wish I had that job.

CONAN: I think a lot of people wish they had that job, though not necessarily what you had to do to get that job. But once you're in that job, it seemed pretty good. What do you think, James?

Mr. FORSYTH: I think the appeal to me is that ability to walk down the corridor at a million miles an hour while making policy and jokes at the same time and sounding smarter than most of us do.

ROBERT: That's exactly, that's exactly true. That's the quintessence of Josh.

CONAN: Did - you write about a couple of instances where, in fact, tactics used by some of the political operatives on West Wing were adopted by real politicians.

Mr. FORSYTH: Yeah. In Britain, just a few months ago, there was a vote in the House of Commons, and the tactics - and on the show, when Matt Santos has the Democrats hide away and pretend to have left Congress before a vote is called, was copied ironically by Blair's opponents. And they managed to inflict two very rare parliamentary defeats on him using these tactics.

CONAN: And said, this was purely West Wing.

Mr. FORSYTH: They said - yeah, they came out and boasted to the newspapers: directly inspired by The West Wing.

CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for the call.

ROBERT: Thank you so much. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Mr. FORSYTH: Bye.

CONAN: Let's talk now with, if I can find the right button, Angela, Angela in Kansas City.

ANGELA (Caller): Hi. I was calling just to let you know I started watching West Wing just the last couple years. But last night I was, it was almost like I was in tears. And I turned to my fiancée and I said, I am going to miss this show because I wish we had a President Santos in real life.

I mean, I understand it's a character, but I got so drawn into the characters. And I'm going to miss it terribly.

CONAN: Angela, thanks very much.

ANGELA: Thanks.

CONAN: Are re-runs as much of a way of life in Britain as they are in this country? I mean, The West Wing will live on forever in this country.

Mr. FORSYTH: I think in Britain it's more the boxed sets than The West Wing. I mean, Peter Mandelson, who is the architect in New Labour, is said to keep a boxed set of the entire show on his bedside table. I mean, it's very popular.

And I think it will be more the DVDs than the re-runs.

CONAN: And I also have to ask, I mean, there are other American television presidents. And was Dennis Haysbert in 24 a popular president in Britain?

Mr. FORSYTH: 24 is popular. But I don't think it attained the - I mean, it's more popular with a more general audience. The West Wing really spoke to the British political class.

CONAN: Let's go to, this is Vic(ph). Vic with us from Livermore, California.

VIC (Caller): Great topic. I really miss The West Wing. And the Democrats are what I will miss most. The only way we seem to be able to get Democrats in important spots is on television.

CONAN: Yes. To elect them on TV where, in fact, scriptwriters get to control the votes.

VIC: But it was a very entertaining show. And hopefully there will be something similar to replace it.

CONAN: All right, Vic. Thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

VIC: Bye.

CONAN: Moments like that, I mean, I think the moment has, in a way, passed. But it was interesting to say, when you were talking about the difference in political culture, that, you know, outside of the Republican/Democrat sniping, when you could watch it from overseas, that in fact this show had a way of promoting America amongst the British political class.

And at a moment when so many people in Britain are very highly skeptical of American policies, you end up with the leadership of both political parties being very pro-American.

Mr. FORSYTH: I think what the show did was it enabled people to see issues from an American perspective, an American point of view. And once you're seeing things from that position, everything that America suggests sounds a little bit more reasonable.

CONAN: Hmm. All right. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Ruth(ph), Ruth with us from Portland, Oregon.

RUTH (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

RUTH: Well, we had one other actor as a real president. And I'd like Martin Sheen to run, because I knew about him before West Wing started. He's a good guy. He is a liberal. And I think he'd do a good job. And he certainly got some good training on The West Wing program.

CONAN: Ruth, thanks very much. And Martin Sheen's certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to politics. He makes his opinions widely known.

RUTH: Yes. I just wish he'd run. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Of course, really running for politics is a little different from doing it on TV. And at one point I think one of the actors, Brad Whitfield, who played Josh Lyman on the show, somebody asked him the question. He said, You've got to be crazy. You know, I'm an actor. I have a favorite moisturizer. You can't possibly be asking me these questions.

Mr. FORSYTH: Yeah, I mean I think that the actors and the people who played their parts, they might have had an interest in politics. But I think playing a president on TV doesn't quite qualify you to be one in real life yet.

CONAN: All right. James Forsyth, assistant editor of Foreign Policy magazine, thanks very much today for joining us here in Studio 3A.

Mr. FORSYTH: Bye now.

CONAN: His op-ed titled When Whitehall Meets The West Wing appeared in Sunday's Washington Post. And he was kind of enough to be with us here in the studio.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in West Wing-less Washington.

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