Radio: Absolute Power

Charles and Martin in their element.

Alison: Surely one agency can’t possibly represent two people going for the same job. There must be rules about this sort of thing. Like, I don’t know, estate agents not acting for buyer and seller.
Charles: Not only can you represent the buyer and the seller, but you can steal all the light bulbs, pee in the sink and then go and live in the house after they’ve bought it. PR means never having to say you’re wrong.

Absolute Power, a BBC radio comedy about PR firm Prentiss McCabe, began as a Spin-Off of an adaptation of a comedy whodunnit. The radio series was subsequently adapted for television. The two main characters are Charles Prentiss (a man with no scruples whatsoever) and Martin McCabe (who has scruples, but is usually too lazy to apply them). In the radio series they were assisted by Sandy, a sensible young woman on a training scheme, and later by Clive, a total incompetent. Another recurring character is Archie, their regular government contact.

Stephen Fry and John Bird reprise their radio roles for the television series, which also gives Prentiss McCabe more staff, particularly the efficient but honest Alison and the natural-born liar James. In the radio series they mostly handle government work, but in the TV series they are more likely to be representing celebrities. Both series are nonetheless satires, one on politics, the other on the nature of celebrity.

The radio show lasted from 2000 to 2004, plus one special episode broadcast in 2006. A total of 22 episodes in four seasons. The television series lasted from November, 2003 to August, 2005. A total of 12 episodes in two seasons.

Not to be confused with the book by David Baldacci, which was made into a Clint Eastwood film, although both are based on Lord Acton's observation that "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Charles Prentiss would probably add "And the problem with that is?"

Tropes common to the radio and TV series

  • A Simple Plan
  • Black Comedy: Quite often. For example, Season 4 of the radio series opens with Clive insisting that his campaign to rekindle interest in an overweight supermodel by having her and her husband climb Mount Everest naked was a success. Charles points out all the things that went wrong with the plan, leading slowly to the revelation that the client died.
  • Breakout Character Charles and Martin were Ensemble Darkhorses only tangentially attached to the George Cragge stories. The firing that lead to their own business - and series - happened in the last one.
  • Brilliant but Lazy: Martin doesn't feel he was put on this earth to earn a living, and was rather looking forward to Prentiss McCabe folding in bankruptcy because it would mean he could spend more time at his club. He's successful mostly through his association with Charles Prentiss's lust for money and shark-like killer instincts. Once he does decide to do something, however, there's apparently no stopping him. Charles puts in long hours and tries to make it look effortless, Martin lazes about for days on end but is able to come up with the perfect marketing solution at a stroke. And he did get a first at Cambridge.
    Martin: I decided to stop proving myself when I was eight. I came top in a spelling test, I thought "well, that's good for 70 or 80 years, I think I'll put my feet up."
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Martin, a bit. He sometimes has very, very good ideas, which explains why Charles keeps him around.
  • Butt Monkey: Clive in the radio series, and Alison in the television version. The board with the firm's strategies often includes lines like "blame Alison" or "make Alison do it".
    • To a lesser extent in the radio series, Maurice, the apparently French waiter at Martin's club - constantly referred to as "Morris" and the subject of many a withering, unprovoked insult from Charles.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Most of the celebrities are made up, but real ones are referenced all the time.
  • The Chessmaster: Charles.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander/The Ditz: Clive in the radio series, Alison in the television adaptation.
  • Consummate Liar: Charles; James.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Martin, whose opposition to Charles' unethical ideas is usually limited to sarcastic sniping.
  • Eagleland: Of the second flavour. The ambassador in the television series. Also Martin's view of the United States, hence his deep-seated anti-American sentiment.
  • Expy: Charles Prentiss reminds one quite powerfully of a certain Sir Humphrey Appleby.
    • In-franchise example: Clive's radio characterization seems to have been transferred to Alison in the telly version.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Charles, usually with a Cheshire Cat Grin.
    • "At Prentiss McCabe we care deeply about the little people. Unless they get in our way, and then we hurt them."
  • Flanderization In the radio series, Charles is a cynical, skillful schemer who isn't averse to occasional threats and blackmail, but glimpses of a softer, more romantic and idealistic side sometimes peek through. (For instance, he has some sympathies with social reformers.) In the TV version, he's absolutely diabolical and revels in it.
    • Martin's character goes through this between In the Red and Absolute Power. Martin is shown in the mother series to be a rather attentive, conscientious manager in the BBC hierarchy, though he doesn't share Charles's boundless, bloodthirsty ambition. By Absolute Power, he's quite possibly the laziest man in London.
    • Alison is much smarter in the earlier episodes. Charles says of her in the first episode, "Most of the young people here don't know their arse from their elbow. But at least with Alison you know she'll join The Royal Arse Society and get out a book on elbows from the library." By Series Two, he's referring to her as "the fifth form girl".
  • Friendship Moment: A small one between Martin and Charles in "Crash and Burn", but not at all sappy. More a celebration of magnificent bastardry.
    • A small moment from Charles, in the radio special: "I miss you, Martin."
      • And then he hangs up. "And that's all of that you'll be getting for the next twenty years."
    • The radio series proper ends on a cozy note. Charles has finally been given his chance in America, working on the Bush re-election campaign, while Martin stews in London. But they're reunited in the end:
    Charles: The Downing Street retainer?
    Martin: Ah... ah.
    Charles: The flurry of 'We want Gordon' press stories. They wouldn't have anything to do with you, would they? Only — and I mean this in the nicest possible way — you do, on occasion, go peculiar. I'm not impugning your sanity, stability, or taste in trousers, but you do, once in a while, go peculiar.
    Martin: I'm not denying it.
    Charles: They were you, weren't they?
    Martin: To some extent.
    Charles: And the Downing Street retainer?
    Martin: Is not actually being retained at the moment. Or ever again, in fact.
    Charles: Martin, why?
    Martin: Because! ...I don't know quite how to say this without being sick, but I thought if I went just a bit peculiar, Archie might, might feel impelled to call you back.
  • Glad I Thought of It: Martin's ideas usually become Charles' ideas by the time the client hears them.
    • This was a bit different in the first series of the radio show. Normally Martin would say something that inadvertently became Charles' inspiration. Only during later series did Charles begin to deliberately take Martin's ideas.
  • Grammar Nazi: Charles, mostly. Martin as well, depending on how snarky he's feeling at any particular moment.
    • Charles has also demonstrated a tendency toward this in Latin.
    BBC 3 Director: Et tu, Brutus?
    Charles: Brute! Brute! It's vocative, for God's sake.
    • And he's quite merciless about Archie's poor French pronunciation. ("Try that accent in Paris, and you'll find whole new vistas of loneliness opening up...")
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Charles and Martin. They'll be spinning and scheming until death parts them. Well... Charles will. Martin will be comfortably along for the ride.
  • Humphrey: Charles.
  • Jerk Ass: Jamie and Charles.
    • However, Jamie does get one somewhat redeeming moment in "The Nation's Favourite" of season 2, when it turns out that he convinced Joanna Lumley not to sign up with the firm because it would "rip out her soul" and gain her nothing.
  • Magnificent Bastard: Crisis management PR is essentially Xanatos Speed Chess, so there are a lot of them about. In-universe, Charles gets plenty of recognition as one.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: While some major clients will be fairly obvious expies of real people, the show frequently averts this for throwaway gags. Often only first names are used, so it's perfectly obvious who they're talking about but the lawyers have nothing to get upset about.
    • The radio series had the recently appointed bureaucracy-slashing BBC Director-General Reg Drake, an obvious reference to the then-DG Greg Dyke.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Martin. There's a lot more going on in his head than he lets on. He has a practiced vacant stare to lull people into a false sense of security. His slovenly appearance puts clients at ease (and sometimes actually builds confidence: clients figure any man willing to go around London looking like Martin does must be something special).
  • Oxbridge: Martin read Philosophy at Cambridge. And got a first, has he ever mentioned that he got a first?
  • Phrase Catcher: Martin, who is "brilliant, but fundamentally unsound."
  • Professional Slacker: Martin, whose motive in any work seems to be to do less work.
  • Pungeon Masters: Charles and Martin's speech is liberally peppered with puns.
    Charles: Martin, do I detect a soupçon of ennui?
    Martin: A whole bowlful.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: Charles and Martin have their own term for it: "irrelevant mental meandering". Martin is the only one who can shut Charles up when he gets on this tack, much to Archie's annoyance.
    • Martin likes to wend the conversation this way to take the piss out of Charles, usually when Charles is feeling very keen and uptight about some business opportunity. There's a particularly triumphant example in "Mayor of London", as Martin articulates his theory as to why there is pan-fried plaice on the menu, while the haddock is only fried...
  • Separated by a Common Language: A meta-example, demonstrating the perennial difficulties of writing dialogue even in other English dialects. The occasional characters from the United States speak in slightly off ways. One uses "nous", British slang, and another claims she spent time "reading" a subject at university and describes Al Gore as "standing" for election, phrases uncommon in mainstream American English. (It's possible that the latter studied in the UK, which would account for the trans-Atlantic phrasing. But it's never mentioned in the episode.)
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Martin and Charles, mixed with Sophisticated as Hell.
  • Smoky Gentlemen's Club: Martin's club is a benign version of this trope. It's an ossified place full of old men snoring loudly under their newspapers, which is just how Martin likes it.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Charles.
  • Waxing Lyrical: Frequently, usually cited as "a quotation from the classics."
    Charles: I didn't take you to dinner in Islington and say 'Look here, I ought to be the senior partner, but I'll buy you a squid ink risotto.'
    Martin: No no no, it was more a case of 'let's get together the two of us, over a glass of champagne'.
    Charles: Your command of popular culture always has done you credit.
  • Wicked Cultured: The nearly-villainous Charles Prentiss.
    Cat: (on lending Charles her flat) There's a corner shop to the right, and a great kebab place next door. There's also a good bus route into town...
    Charles: We've all died and gone to our own personal hell.
  • Zany Scheme

Tropes in the radio series

  • Biting-the-Hand Humor: The episodes "Radio 3" and "The BBC", in particular.
  • Destructo-Nookie: Charles and Gayle spend a night in a hotel room and the firm is billed 2000 pounds for a new bed.
  • Fish out of Water: Charles, in "US Presidential Campaign". He's long wanted to take Prentiss McCabe international, and finally gets his chance when he's recruited to spin for the Bush reelection campaign. Unfortunately for Charles, it seems his methods and ideas are "too crude and simplistic" for US politics. For all of Charles's A PR God Am I self-assurance, he's a bit hopeless everywhere but the Westminster village.
  • The Ghost: Sir Harold Dixon, who exists only as phone messages that Martin refuses to take because he hasn't done any work on the account.
  • Jerk Justifications: Charles proudly declares, "If there's one thing better than a first-class mind, it's being a first-class bastard."
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Not often, but when John Bird corpses while Martin is speculating on the election of Iain Duncan-Smith as PM, it's Stephen Fry rather than Charles who asks him to repeat it: 'It's my birthday!"
  • Malicious Misnaming: Maurice the waiter, whose name Charles always pronounces "Morris".
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: Clive doesn't notice:
    Charles:Gentlemen. And Clive.
  • Mythology Gag: Martin's ex-wife is a crime novelist whose books are based on finding a profession everyone hates (plumbers, executives, medical receptionists) and then creating a Serial Killer who bumps them off. This was the format of the comedy whodunnits Charles and Martin first appeared in, with the victims being bank managers (In The Red), dentists (In The Chair) and journalists (In The End).
  • Running Gag: Charles would always meet Archie (his government contact) in a deserted location, such as the campaign headquarters for an unpopular politician.
    • In the first radio series, the Harold Dixon account. It's already lying fallow in Martin's pending tray in episode one, and escalates to a series of lawsuits by episode six. All off-camera. When his unseen antics become too intolerable, Charles bankrupts Sir Harold and gets him arrested by the fraud squad. Because he can.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Gayle Shand, Charles' ex and owner of a rival PR firm.
  • Springtime for Hitler: In the radio episode "Healthy Eating", Martin's friend Roger is a tax lawyer who opens a restaurant in Devon to lose money. Out of sheer mischief, Martin neglects to mention this to Charles, who surprisingly decides he wants to help (he thinks) a decent, honest man with a failing business. It's only after the wheeze is successful that he learns the truth.
    Charles: Let me get this straight. I've been slaving my guts out to get customers into this restaurant, and I've been wasting my time? You swine!
    Roger: You! You're responsible for these ghastly punters and peasants all over my tax dodge? You swine!
    Both: Martin!!
  • Vehicular Sabotage: In "Radio 3", Archie has the blueprints for the brake cables of a Nissan Sunny, which he explains as being for a 'project' involving Ken Livingstonenote .
  • Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names:
    Charles: ... I had a 'phone call last night from Jay Washbrook III. He's an American.
    Martin: You amaze me.
  • Woman Scorned: Gayle in the radio version, who's determined to see Prentiss McCabe fail because of her former relationship with Charles. (He left her when she told him she was married.)
    • Also a Subverted Trope in the case of Martin's ex-wife. She seems scorned, but she wasn't very bothered, and mostly wrote a very slanderous story based on him purely for the money.

Tropes in the TV series

Gentlemen... and Clive. A toast, to Prentiss McCabe.