It’s eerie watching Servant of the People (Channel 4), the Ukrainian sitcom that helped propel a comedy actor and all-round popular entertainer by the name of Volodymyr Zelensky to the top of Ukrainian politics. As is now well known, it is one of the most notable examples of life imitating art. Zelensky plays Vasily Petrovich Holoborodko (I imagine a fairly proletarian name, that), a put-upon bicycling schoolteacher still living with his mum, dad and niece, and fed up with the way the country is being run. One day he goes off on a rant about the useless politicians who just “steal and steal and steal”. They’re ruining the country and no one gives a damn about it. A historian, Zelensky/Holoborodko declares that “politicians are mathematicians – the only thing they understand is how to divide, add and multiply their fortunes”.
One of the pupils secretly films his eloquent, passionate, sweary speech on his smartphone and puts it on the internet where it goes wild. His class of him decides to crowdfund a presidential election nomination, and YouTube and social media do the rest. After he wins the election, much to his surprise, his predecessor, a self-confessed old-school “wolf-politician” refuses to believe that Holoborodko won fair and square and starts to try to inveigle him into the usual corrupt ways – the motorcade , queue jumping, bribery and scripted press conferences. There’s a nice moment when he’s given an expensive Hublot wrist watch, because it’s the same model as Putin’s got. His father of him is on the phone offering ministerial posts to his best mates of him, and the odd stranger.
The three oligarchs who run/own Ukraine each believe that Holoborodko must be the stooge of one of the others. When they realize he isn’t, we fear that the diminutive Vasya is in trouble. Meanwhile, taking power, our hero starts to see first hand exactly what is wrong with the way the government has been run: Which is more or less what happened “IRL” when Zelensky came from nowhere to be elected president of Ukraine in 2019.
Servant of the People – now also the name of Zelensky’s political party/movement – is pacy, satirical, wry, earthy and honest. It’s also a recognisably “European” production, particularly in the way it sends up the kind of pompous Soviet/Russian style of habitual deference and pretence we see all too often on our screen these days. In spirit, it’s a genuinely egalitarian comedy. Now, in real-life wartime conditions, Zelensky is still weaponising satire – he makes sarcastic pleas to the invaders, and when he and his team turn up in combat fatigues for their talks with the Russians in their suits and ties, he is making very much the same point, gently mocking the gerontocrats without them even realizing it.
Of course we are all familiar now with Zelensky as the inspirational, heroic Churchillian leader of plucky Ukraine, and the world is rooting for the little guy. It is smart of Channel 4 to schedule the seven-year old show now, so we can better understand what Ukraine and its leader are all about (would be if they were left alone). It is fascinating to see how and where things started, and not in the sense of the made-up history that Vladimir Putin spouts during his angry but wooden propaganda lectures on him.
Servant of the People have shades of being there (1979) and Peter Sellers’s fine turn as Chauncey Gardiner, accidental economic guru, and of Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Frank Capra’s classic starring Jimmy Stewart. Servant of the People has earned its place in cultural history. In the show, Ukraine is lucky to have Holoborodko, and, at war, Ukraine is lucky to have Zelensky.
Anyway: Slava Ukraini!
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