White House Plumbers: An agreeably preposterous retelling of the Watergate scandal

Television: Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux star in this screwball comedy that happens to be based on actual events

History relived as farce is the vibe throughout White House Plumbers (Sky Atlantic, Tuesday, 9pm), an agreeably preposterous retelling of the Watergate scandal. Here is a screwball comedy that happens to be based on actual events, with Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux enjoying themselves as the Richard Nixon lackeys E Howard Hunt and G Gordon Liddy.

Watergate was a series of unfortunate events that led to the collapse of the Nixon presidency. In the new retelling, Hunt and Liddy are a duo of political extremists whose loyalty to the commander-in-chief leads them to conclude that breaking the law in service of the Oval Office is perfectly acceptable.

There are obviously modern-day resonances, with Donald Trump inspiring similar fervour among his supporters. But White House Plumbers doesn’t go overboard joining the dots. It instead serves up a Boogie Nights tableaux of 1970s trash culture, full of vast collars and corduroy leisurewear.

The plumbers were covertly hired to break into the headquarters of Nixon’s political foes in the Democratic Party during the1972 re-election campaign. But while Liddy and Hunt talked a good talk (Liddy also enjoyed listening to Hitler speeches in his spare time), they weren’t cut out for a life of espionage.


The Watergate break-ins were comically inept. One of Hunt’s plans involved hiring a banqueting room at an adjoining hotel and, after stuffing their faces, attempting a smash-and-grab raid on the offices (in full formalwear).

Domhnall Gleeson pops up as Nixon’s creepy legal counsel, John Dean. He’s the one pulling the strings. But he is ultimately revealed to be as clueless as the plumbers.

The series also taps into class divisions in the post-Vietnam United States, with Liddy envious of Hunt’s waspy life with his wife (Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey). There are generational divides, too: one of Hunt’s daughters is ejected from a fancy club when she confronts a grandee about his racism towards the staff.

Watergate is regarded as ancient history nowadays. But White House Plumbers vividly brings to life the story of how Nixon took a popular presidency and, for no reason other than his paranoia, flushed it all away. It’s a heady hoot from start to finish.