‘The television play is virtually the last place on the box where the individual voice and the personal vision is central to the experience.’
‘Play for Today ! Just for today !… Something easy, undemanding. It’s all part of the commercial ! It’s all “pass the time”‘ !
How do we reconcile these two statements from the 1970s, both from the pen of Dennis Potter ? Granted, the first is supposedly ‘fact’: the articulated views of the writer himself, addressing his peers at the 1977 Edinburgh Television Festival. The second is allegedly ‘fiction’ – a typical angst-ridden outburst from Potter’s fictional TV playwright character Christopher Hudson (played by Keith Barron). Hudson is venting his frustrations as he struggles to complete his latest TV play within Potter’s own self-referential Play for Today about the writing of a television play, Only Make Believe (12 February 1973).
This is the first of an occasional series of posts this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC1 drama anthology series, Play for Today.
In 2019, the Christmas Day episode of Gavin and Stacey drew an overnight audience of 11.6 million (growing to a seven-day figure of 17.1 million). Exactly forty years ago today, on Thursday 3 January 1980, the Play for Today ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ (dir. Giles Foster) was broadcast at 9:25pm on BBC1. 27 year-old Guisborough-born theatre playwright Robert Holman’s play is set in coastal Teesside and it concerns the military recruitment of teenage lads about to leave school. It gained 12.89 million viewers, according to BBC statistics: 24.7% of the UK population. This amounted to a 70.8% share of television viewers, a remarkable figure: over seven times as many as the average for ITV programmes from 9:25-10:40pm (9.4%). (1)
It is an excellent play, well worth revisiting; however, it is not only unavailable on DVD/BluRay or the new BritBox but has only been repeated once since its first transmission (BBC1, 03/09/1981). Don Shaw and Alan Clarke’s Wednesday Play ‘Sovereign’s Company’ (BBC1, 22/04/1970), a bitterly angry piece which centres on experiences in the military is available here. In contrast Holman’s play conveys a sad stoicism and inexorable sense of tragedy in how the Troubles impact on northern lives. David Daker is superb as the single-parent widower father Andrew Saville, an ICI worker trying to look after his sons Gordon (Martyn Hesford) and Philip (Richard Tolan). Shaw’s rebellious, uncompromising earlier piece gained a more typical Wednesday Play/Play for Today audience figure of 4.44 million, but was well received, gaining a strong Reaction Index of 63% ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ obtained an even stronger RI of 69% and the BBC’s Audience Research Report quotes viewers’ praise of Daker’s performance, the locations and its overall ‘authenticity’; ‘Viewers considered it well written and absorbing and welcomed this sensitive treatment of a contemporary and controversial issue, particularly as it appeared to be realistic and true to life.’ (2)
The audience may also have appreciated the warmth and tenderness within the unconventional family – when his girlfriend Jean (Madelaine Newton) hugs and comforts Andrew when he cries, to the accompaniment of old-fashioned, diegetic light music, it is a richly emotional moment within a blended family; which contrasts with the stark anomie that Shaw and Clarke portray in the platoon. The success of this play also gives lie to David Hare’s partisan pro-film assertions in an article he published in Frank Pike’s Ah Mischief! (1982); he claimed that practically all of the Plays for Today popular with critics and audiences were shot on film, not those using video within the studio. This PFT may prove Hare’s binary; it was shot on location on 16mm film, though the copy I watched was stored on tape and was in significant need of restoration. Yet, the film doesn’t seem to utilise its medium’s more mythical, distancing potentials; it may partially be the copy I was watching, but it seemed to me to have a steady, televisual immediacy. Instead of grandiosity, Giles Foster’s more subdued visual texture fits the muted stoicism of Holman’s script. It points the way to the aesthetic of later PFTs shot on VT on location as Outside Broadcasts like Maurice Leitch and Jon Amiel’s tense 1950s and Northern Ireland-set drama, ‘Gates of Gold’ (08/03/1983). (3)
The play is austere but not entirely gloomy. The characters’ mundane interactions feel like a more subdued xerox of the worldly northern identity depicted in TV dramas by Alan Bennett, Colin Welland and Peter Terson. This is also the era where Victoria Wood had only just come to prominence with the deft, humane satire Talent (Granada, 05/08/1979), which cast a perceptive eye on the world of northern ‘turns’ culture and the entertainment industry – influenced by New Faces (ATV, 1973-78), which had given Wood her first TV appearance as early as 1974. Richard Eyre produced ‘Chance of a Lifetime’, which in its way almost as thoughtful a cultural and political intervention as Eyre’s notable Play for Today productions of works by Trevor Griffiths and Ian McEwan: ‘Comedians’ (25/10/1979), ‘The Imitation Game’ (24/04/1980) and ‘Country’ (20/10/1981).
There is an evocatively nostalgic feeling to its classically inflected score from George Fenton; its winds and brass sounds feel and signify northern while the minor-key is prevalent. Holman subtly investigates the cultural present day. A nurse, in a telephone conversation with someone who is presumably a partner or friend, muses over the cultural options for a Teesside night-out:
“I don’t fancy the pictures. I certainly don’t fancy Black Emanuelle! Well, there’s a folk club in Middlesbrough…”
From the choice available, she favours the folk club over the Italian sexploitation film (dir. Bitto Albertini, 1975): a binary cultural polarity that notably neglects television – which, from the 1960s to the 1990s (Z Cars to Big Brother?), historically exerted its greatest appeal to the British people. Other sections reveal a fascinatingly conflicted, unresolved attitude to permissiveness while the play overall seems to insist on its characters’ dual traits of gentleness and hardiness.
‘Chance of a Lifetime’ has an non-showy feel of the ‘real’ to its often seemingly inconsequential dialogues. The cheery Major Ian Anderson (David Buck) commands his young Cadet charges not to skylark about on their excursion. He later bemoans the passing of Grammar Schools, which he links to the decline in funding and social will behind the ailing Cadet groups; intriguingly, Holman has this reasonable but firm sounding man self-identify as a “pacifist”. When Stephen asks him “Why d’ you do this, then?” Anderson replies: “To give lads like you opportunities you wouldn’t normally get…!” Stephen nods understandingly, which has inevitable sense of tragedy; there’s dramatic irony given what happens later in the play.
Viewers watching the schedule as a whole would have come to ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ after theNine O’Clock Newswith Richard Baker. COAL’s doom-laden latter act echoes Edgar’s Play for Today ‘Destiny’ (BBC1, 31/01/1978): Major Rolfe’s son dies in Northern Ireland. This play’s context was as fraught with geopolitical conflict as that earlier play’s was with domestic political conflict over ‘race’ and immigration: on 16/12/1979, Provisional IRA landmines in Counties Tyrone and Armagh had killed five British Army soldiers (and an ex-Ulster Defence Regiment volunteer). (3)
Eight days later, the Soviet Union ordered its troops into Afghanistan, to support its friendly secular regime the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against a fundamentalist insurgency. Exactly a week before Holman’s play was broadcast, the Soviets assassinated President Hafizullah Amin in Kabul. Much of 1980 was to be consumed by renewed fears of nuclear war – the ‘protect and survive’ culture detailed by Andy Beckett (2015) – as well as whether or not Britain should boycott the Moscow Olympics in the summer. In May, Kingsley Amis’s paranoid dystopian novel Russian Hide and Seek was published, depicting a Russian-dominated UK, due to what Amis perceives as cultural apathy and a lack of patriotic spirit. BBC2’s 20-part educational epic Russian-Language and People – which began at 7:35pm six days after ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ – was perhaps swimming against the tide, unfortunately broadcast just as the Soviet Union had commenced on its own destructive “Vietnam” against the Mujahideen. It got moved around in the schedules to a later time-slot but was also repeated in schools and colleges slots on BBC1.
‘Chance of a Lifetime’ is an especially telling play of its day in 1980, in its portrayal of working-class northerners as forming an undemonstrative, stoical heartbeat of a besieged nation; as well as fears of international entanglements, it subtly conveys internal dread at the high regional unemployment and redundancies to come. On 2 January, just a day before the play’s transmission, a national steel strike had begun, which was to last 14 weeks. While the outcome was not as conclusively preferable for the British Right as the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, it presaged some of Thatcher government’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics of that crucial dispute. On 12 September 1980, the Consett steel works in North West Durham shut for good, as the government refused to step in to save what it perceived as unproductive jobs.
Ultimately, ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ is just as much a play for today, 3 January 2020. Its foreign policy and domestic concerns seem pressing on this day when our ’emboldened’ Prime Minister is on holiday and has left Dominics Raab and Cummings,unelected adviser and fetishist of scientific “weirdos” and Mafioso mavericks, in the hot seat. On a day when the US has assassinated a powerful Iranian general. Then, the threats were a new Cold War, possible nuclear war, the Troubles and concentrated unemployment. Now, there is the central threat of climate change, the rise of a populist right, possible nuclear war, the challenges posed by “Brexit” to the UK, as well as intense regional inequality within the UK following project austerity (2010- ).
Now, we don’t seem to have a topical drama strand like Play for Today to dramatise important contemporary issues that are stake, to include dissenting voices and portray all manner of viewpoints – as in Edgar’s ‘Destiny’ (1978); see my three-part article on that PFT here. We don’t just need panoramic Plays for Today like ‘Carson Country’, ‘Destiny’ and ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ made publicly available; we need Play for Today itself back as a going concern, to help us make sense of our evolving, threatened world; it is one of the BBC’s crown jewels, along with Match of the Day, dinnerladies and Doctor Who.
If you have memories of experiences working on this fascinating production, or have any memories of watching it, please post below, or get in touch – my email is email@example.com. I’d be very interested in hearing from you! If you are from BBC Enterprises or BritBox, please consider enabling more people to see this successful but neglected highlight. Many thanks to the BFI and Kathleen Dickson who supplied me with a viewing copy of this play, the North East Film Archive who kindly housed my viewing in earlier 2019 and James Leggott and Northumbria University who enabled it all.
(1) It is worth noting, however, as W. Stephen Gilbert (1980) did, that the opposition was five minutes of ITV’s news and then from 9:30pm HTV’s 125-minute studio production by the Welsh National Opera Company of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Don Pasquale. As WSG notes, perhaps Play for Today could only ever be hegemonic when its social realist aesthetic was the only alternative to Welsh-inflected high culture. Or, indeed, BBC2’s Peter Ustinov and Natalie Wood at the Hermitage – in which, according to the Guardian (03/01/1980: 20), ‘Witty Mr U and Pretty Miss Wood’, both of Russian ancestry, visited the famous Leningrad museum to open the channel’s Russian season. This, and the following first-half of a celebratory concert for French-Italian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, gained an average of 3.6 million viewers, more than double ITV’s figure.
(2) Graham, Clive – An Audience Research Report: PLAY FOR TODAY – CHANCE OF A LIFETIME, 28 January 1980, VR/80/10 [BBC WAC Caversham]
(3) In originally specifying that ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ had been shot on videotape (and, in particular, 625 line PAL colour 2” videotape) I hadn’t been 100% certain and had been relying on TV Brain, Available [online] at: https://www.tvbrain.info/ [accessed: 03/01/2020] and the Kaleidoscope Guide to BBC Drama (2011) – both of which claimed its ‘source format’ was 2″ VT. Billy Smart has kindly pointed out that ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ was in fact shot on 16mm film in a Loachian vein, but was edited on 2″ VT – correction made 03/01/2020.
Beckett, A. (2015) Promised You A Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain. London: Allen Lane.
Gilbert, W.S. (1980) ‘The Television Play: Outside the Consensus’, Screen Education 35, Summer, 35-44
Pike, F. ed. (1982) Ah! Mischief: The Writer and Television. London: Faber and Faber.
le Carré’s position on communism was considerably closer to that of the British state than is critically acknowledged or popularly understood. (Manning, p.11)
This book is an important intervention in JLC studies, analysing six George Smiley-centric novels in considerable depth. Manning places the novels in historical context and employs rigorous close-reading in order to shed light on political ideology within the novels. He focuses not just on what is there, but is also what is not there; developing an argument that JLC fundamentally elides any deep discussion of communism as an ideology or cause.
Whether central or ancillary, Smiley has always embodied, contained and ‘resolved’ these novels’ ideological dilemmas: he is the perennial lodestone of liberalism. (Manning, p.183)
Where many writers in Britain ignore liberalism and capitalism as powerful ideological forces, Manning carefully defines and inteprets them. This is especially the case with liberalism: he teases out the contradictions between the individualist, imperialist and often authoritarian Hobbesian strain and milder, twentieth-century social liberalism. Indeed, he locates these as tensions in the ‘national ego’ which are embodied by George Smiley, who is contradictorily portrayed as sometimes a humanistic arbiter and at other times as a forceful, illiberal agent who brings victorious closure to the narratives. GS’s knowledge empiricism is also identified and placed in an intended binary with the unbending, ideological communist enemy, represented by Karla.
Manning makes a powerful argument that JLC’s Cold War fiction fundamentally backs the hegemonic Western Cold War position of ‘containment’, and does not, as many critics have argued, posit a moral equivalence between liberalism and communism. There is typically some acknowledgment of ‘our’ side having to do bad things, but these are invariably shown to be necessary to contain an ‘other’, alien communism. Where communism is mentioned, it is always with emotive language such as ‘evil’. Manning identifies this treatment of the communist enemy as Manichean and not all that far from Ian Fleming’s presentations of the eastern foe. In this argument, he builds on Andrew Hammond’s wide survey of British Cold War Fiction in 2013. As I have argued previously, one of the few writers to seriously question the West’s geopolitical position was Graham Greene. Manning locates Greene alongside Eric Ambler as being fundamentally influenced by their experience of the 1930s and the ‘Popular Front’.
Manning’s other advance is to find references in the texts to the contemporary domestic politics; while there is generally denigration of working-class geographies in the novels – such as the municipal blocks of flats in The Looking Glass War (1965) – Call for the Dead (1961) is said to differ. This occurs in its climactic action, where Smiley kills Dieter Frey and Smiley’s remorse is said to incorporate ideas of ‘home-grown radicalism’, with textual quotations from an 1830 folk song. Manning describes JLC as usually endorsing ‘an essentially establishment England’ of public-school and Oxbridge; just for a brief moment, here in the first Smiley novel, are glimpses of the domestic political alternative of the Diggers, the Jacobins, John Ball, Williams Blake and Morris. This implicit alternative emerges when Smiley doubts his own ‘gentlemanly’ status, having carried out the brutal act of murdering Frey. Manning’s attention to detail has certainly made me want to go back and read this novel again; exactly what you want from any such academic study.
Manning also deftly interweaves Britain’s post-colonial angst with its Cold War geopolitics; explicitly avoiding the sort of compartmentalising that too many scholars engage in. The main novels where Britain’s colonial legacy features are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).
This book is the culmination of wide reading, with skilful reference across a range of secondary texts used to place the six primary texts in a rich historical context. There’s a precision in dating the novels’ publication and in identifying the major world and UK events surrounding them. He also utilises contemporary UK and US book reviews to highlight how JLC has previously been denied canonical status by taste arbiters.
Manning is a le Carré enthusiast and scholar who has also written popular music journalism.* He astutely situates these novels in post-WW2 cultural context while elucidating their explicit and implicit politics. Even adherents of the view that these novels are ‘just’ exciting thrillers will be convinced by Manning’s comprehensive investigation of their politics. He convincingly establishes just how wedded to the ‘establishment’ status quo these novels are, always giving us Smiley’s or other upper-class characters’ perspective and barely ever allowing working-class or communist characters a hearing.
Manning places this ‘repression’ of other voices within the context of the mid-1970s. With developments in Vietnam, Portugal, Jamaica, Laos and Angola, the West’s Cold War ‘victory’ seemed far from assured. He also identifies just how anti-American The Honourable Schoolboy is, with JLC again endorsing Smiley’s urbane, traditional but muscular liberalism as the prefered way. The Circus’s intractable bureaucracy is analogised to the Russians’, with Smiley often criticising it, only to himself ultimately steer the UK state bureaucracy to notable victories.
The careful elision of the concept of social class only proves its very power within these fascinating novels, with JLC using a ‘mythic register’ in presenting Oxford, Cornwall and spies’ training centre Sarratt as the true England and Smiley’s liberal, gentlemanly habitus as justly leading to victory in the Cold War.
* I really hope Manning gets his planned ‘folk-spy hybrid’ novel Border Ballads published! He can be heard mentioning this and discussing his JLC book here.
“Somewhere in Northumbria, there is a herd of Guernsey cows barred from their favourite pasture because of intense radioactive contamination.”
Espionage was a 1963-64 series made by Lew Grade’s ITC; it featured a range of historical and contemporary stories. The former is represented by the Irish Easter Rising story ‘He Rises on Sunday, and We on Monday’ and the China-set period piece ‘The Dragon Slayer’. It’s an interesting mixed-bag of a 24-episode series, with no fewer than three episodes directed by the great British film director Michael Powell. ‘The Weakling’ (dir. Stuart Rosenberg) is the best of those Espionage episodes I’ve seen: Arnold Perl’s taut WW2 tale with the brilliantly cast pairing of Dennis Hopper and John Gregson.
Also good, if not quite as gripping, is the more contemporary Episode 4, inspired directly by acts of the British Committee of 100. ‘The Gentle Spies’ was shown in ITV’s prime-time Saturday night schedule at 8:55pm, followed by The Avengers at 9:50pm. Directed by 42 year-old Mancunian David Greene and written by 38 year-old New Yorker, Ernest Kinoy, ‘The Gentle Spies’ is a typically US-UK collaboration, but with a reasonably sure grasp of UK Cold War concerns; for example, there is reference to a recent protest against Polaris in Scotland. Greene was to go onto direct a mix of trashy and cult films, all rather neglected today: Sebastian (1967), The Strange Affair (1968), I Start Counting (1970) and Madame Sin (1972). The first of those is of Cold War relevance, while the preposterous, Bette Davis-starring last is one of the most absurd of all nuclear weapons scenario films.
This was broadcast exactly three weeks after the Soviets, Americans and British signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on 5th October; this marked a certain relaxation following the Cuban Missile Crisis-related tensions in 1962. The Treaty was one of the more tangible signs of Nikita Khrushchev’s policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’.
The episode depicts a civilised, largely urbane discourse between the UK government and the anti-bomb CND insurgency. While the peace campaigners are shown as able to commit the direct action of publishing sensitive details of nuclear policy and perform sit-ins, they are also represented by Lord Kemble (Alan Webb), a Bertrand Russell-esque Nobel Prize winner. The group’s breaking the Official Secrets Act by printing details is shown as an understandable move in the campaign to stop nuclear war: “GET YER OFFICIAL SECRETS ‘ERE!”
The establishment is embodied by Godfrey Quigley’s Grimsmith and he-of-the-brilliant-audio-book-voice Michael Hordern as an unnamed Conservative party ‘Minister’. They use Gerry Paynter (Barry Foster), who insinuates himself with the protesters by donning a duffle coat and a CND lapel badge.
Grimsmith says of the protesters, “I suppose they’re all communists […] beatniks, dupes, anarchists, perverts, theatre people?” Paynter responds by explaining that “a lot of them come from universities”. One amusingly RP-voiced hooligan declares: “I am a follower of Gandhi in international affairs only… In my private life, I’m as violent as the next man”. This evokes thoughts of the Mods and Rockers ‘moral panic’ that was to be stirred the following year in 1964.
However, the main spokesperson of the youth wing of the movement is Sheila O’Hare, a 23-year-old protester played by Angela Douglas 26 years before she’d play Doris, the wife of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart in Doctor Who.
A protesters’ social is shown, wherein Sheila explains how they’re a decentralised group, without a leader: “There isn’t any head […] We’re very democratic…” Sheila also acts as lead vocalist in a jazz protest combo, singing ‘Who Cares’, a TW3-style satirical attack on the bomb: “There’s a big grey mushroom in the sky, why cry?” Its ironic sarcasm works on a different level to the more earnest folk music that you might expect from such a gathering. Other significant jazz contributions to the anti-nuclear theme include Charles Mingus’s ‘Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me’ (1961) and Sun Ra’s ‘Nuclear War’ (1982).
Sheila’s sardonic lyrical points are supplemented by her emotional arguments to Paynter and, later, the Minister and Grimsmith. Towards the episode’s climax, she is given a scathing speech:
“All we want is a future… A future world to make something decent out of… Something that looks like our dreams, our ideas… Not a radioactive wilderness with a lot of dying politicians muttering ‘I’m sorry’…”
Her sincerity and passion is also shown in her claim she would go to jail for “ten years” for this cause. This possibility gets to Dr/Lord Kemble, the patrician reasoner, who is referred to by the Minister as having “always” been “an odd bird”, from his days teaching his son through to his current status as dogged protester. Kemble offers to be locked up himself if the others would be allowed to go free.
Sharp note is taken of changes in language brought on by the age of the Bomb; as Kemble says, “I believe it’s what you call ‘Mega-kills’. Your estimate of the number of innocent people who will perish in a nuclear attack.” Use of this compounded neologism stresses how the lexicon has been infiltrated by a violent new lexis.
The core of the debate is shown to be, unsurprisingly, between a ‘responsible’ government and ‘idealistic’ protesters (living in a “dream-like world”) with Kinoy’s drama granting neither side an outright win. However, the Ban-the-Bomb lot do gain a moral victory, as it is revealed that the Minister’s wife is the one who has leaked the sensitive material. Sara Forsythe (played by Joan Hickson in pre-Marple days) has apparently read Lord Kemble’s arguments in the Times and been swayed enough to break the Official Secrets Act. There is the implication at the end that it will all be hushed up, so as to avoid the Minister’s embarrassment.
Overall, Sara isn’t really given enough agency or characterisation to be a substantial figure in the narrative, but she does say, “I think I got quite a thrill out of it all… Very cloak and dagger stuff”. And Angela Douglas is eloquent as the Voice of Youth. The episode does enough to be a solidly dramatised time capsule of arguments in its early 1960s era: which says much about what could be expected in prime-time ITV drama then.
Series 01.06 ‘The Russians are Coming’
TX: BBC-1, Tuesday 13/10/1981
Knowing our luck, there won’t even be a bloody war…
In 1981, Only Fools and Horses… wasn’t yet a “national institution”, or the “best-loved” British sitcom, as Samsung’s November 2017 poll indicated. (1) This first series of the sitcom averaged 7.7 million viewers and the audience’s Reaction Index had a mean of 70, increasing from the first episode’s 62: emphasising how John Sullivan’s sitcom was gradually finding its audience. (2) The finest episode of its first series was an unusually focused look at domestic implications of the Cold War.
The episode was shown in the midst of the ‘Second Cold War’; the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, while Reagan had been elected as a more bellicose US President in November 1980. In the same year, Cold War ‘doom’-pop had included Kate Bush’s ‘Breathing’, UB40′ and ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ and The Fun Boy Three’s ‘The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)’ was due in November 1981. The BFI filmed a poetry performance at Chelsea Old Town Hall on 15th April 1981 named Poets Against the Bomb, capturing anti-nuclear poems from the likes of Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, Judith Kazantzis, Harold Pinter and a drily humorous Ivor Cutler. Panorama had addressed the subject ‘If the Bomb Drops’ very early (TX: BBC-1, 10/03/1980).
Only Fools… got to the topic sooner than The Young Ones (‘Bomb’, TX: BBC-2, 30/11/1982), or, indeed, the science-fiction spin-off from Play for Today, Play for Tomorrow – Caryl Churchill’s opening episode ‘Crimes’ (TX: BBC-1, 13/04/1982) featured Dave Hill as a mendacious seller of nuclear shelters. It also got there sooner than Q.E.D.‘s ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ (TX: BBC-1, 26/05/1982), which was followed by The Underground Test (TX: BBC-2, 28/05/1982), where two London couples each volunteered to carry out a ten-day ‘consumer test’ – underground in a nuclear shelter. The programme showed the results of this experiment, which had taken place in the cold Winter of 1981/82.
In ‘The Russians Are Coming’, the Trotter household self-assemble a nuclear fall-out shelter – using stolen lead worth £1,000. The notably all-male family dramatise arguments about nuclear weapons, with Del the voice of complacency and Rodney articulating the explicit and bleak official ‘guidance’ people were being given, as in the public information film, Protect and Survive (1976).
As with Steptoe and Son (1962-74), the lack of women is tangibly felt. We are presented with now-retrograde, then-typical dialogue outlining sexual fantasies (leading to Del describing Rodders as a “sicko” and “pervo”) and nationality stereotyping (“Paddies”). It can be argued that this roots such a sitcom in the naturalistic flavour of its times.
Both Del and Rodney question how they’d know the “four minute warning” was starting, considering that no-one had been informed what the sound was. This reflects how much of the official advice and guidance on nuclear war seemed insufficient and even pointless, considering the cataclysmic main effects of such a war.
However, Del Boy argues for the character-building nature of war, paraphrasing Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854): “Mine is not to reason why / Mine is but to sell and buy”. He argues that British youth have always needed “a decent war” and that the current younger generation are starved of a war, in this age of computerisation; “they’re doing their National Service on the Space Invaders!” Computer games provide a poor surrogate, in his view. He then speaks of “real war”, using wholly film examples: of Errol Flynn and Kenneth More.
Grandad responds to Del Boy’s claims of these film wars as “Glorious, valiant war, that!”: “Don’t talk like a berk, Del Boy”. He speaks of how, as a “nipper”, he saw soldiers marching off to serve in WW1 and how his brother George was at Passchendale. He brings in personal reminiscences and facts to challenge Del’s second-hand culturally-formed view of war: “Nigh on a half million allied troops died there all for five miles of mud”. He explains the reality of soldiers returning home as maimed, gassed victims.
They promised us homes fit for heroes… They gave us heroes fit for homes…
Grandad is allowed ample time to make his points here: a sign that sitcoms were willing to countenance straight, serious monologues as part of their arsenal. At no point in Lennard Pearce’s long oration does he try to elicit a single laugh. This monologue is used as a centre-piece of the episode, stating harsh truths about war in the twentieth-century. The episode’s dominant mode of fatalistic gallows humour is immeasurably strengthened by Sullivan’s decision to make the episode just not funny for such a long stretch.
Rodney, who’d silenced Del to allow Grandad to speak, presses home the assault: “I’d never wear a British uniform on principle”. This elicits the first laugh for a while, as he explains the reason; not due to high ideals, but that he’d want to avoid being shot at by Russians. However, Rodney sports a UK Decay band t-shirt; his affinity for this Luton post-punk band, with links to the radical likes of the Dead Kennedys and Crass, does connote his broad sympathies for the counter-culture. He reels off knowledge of the scarcity of resources a nuclear war would bring, and shows awareness of the effects of Strontium 90 and of radiation: causing mutations.
Rodney and Del seem to take comfort in their alone being safe; a sense of exceptionalism that rings increasingly hollow as the final shot depicts the location of their nuclear shelter as directly annexed to their tower-block. The sense that Sullivan is aiming for Oh! What A Lovely War bleakness Grandad’s “War is Hell”. Jingoism is rooted in film representations indicated to be false; the Falklands War was still half a year away. Ironically, however, both Grandad and Rodney can only recall the “War is Hell” quote as being from cinema, speculating on whether it was Alan Ladd, Audie Murphy or Rock Hudson who said it.
“An ideology red white and blue in tooth and claw”
I am delighted to announce that I have a three-part epic essay about David Edgar’s 1978 Play for Today, ‘Destiny’, currently being published on British Television Drama website. This is a significant TV play (currently viewable here) that dramatises the insurgent far-right and British national identity in the late 1970s. I have been researching this TV play for eight months and have included e-mail interviews with the writer and producer, as well as extensive use of the BBC WAC in Caversham (thanks to Matthew Chipping). I have strong memories of studying the original play during my English degree at Cambridge, supervised by John Lennard – among many texts on the Post-1970 unit, this was the one that fascinated me the most, and it has been wonderful to delve much deeper into how it was adapted for television.
Thanks go to David Edgar and Margaret Matheson for their detailed e-mails with their memories of the play and conscientious answers to my questions. Thanks also to David Rolinson for his tireless work in editing this juggernaut of a piece (originally 20,000 plus words!), as well as Mark Sinker*, Justin Lewis**, Ian Greaves and John Williams who have assisted with queries and research.
Queen Mary to Elizabeth II, The Crown: “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty… you are answerable to God, not the public.”
Peter Hitchens: ‘it should not have been made, and should not be made for another 20 or 30 years when the actual facts are known and the papers available […] Like all such productions, it exploits the real people it pretends to portray […] I am told King George VI, that improbably decent monarch, is shown using the c-word. I doubt he did. Naval man though he was, and so familiar with the whole range of filthy language, I think he would have regarded it as impossibly crude.’
Peter Morgan: ‘I could not care less about the royal family; it’s absolutely scandalous that they should still exist in an egalitarian society.’
Tom Nairn: ‘During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the prime mover had to at least look like the rest of nation-state normality. Contrived timelessness was the answer.’
The Crown is visually lavish; an example of expansive, spectacular television, with imperious casting and locations, which yet contains the depth that ten hours affords. A £5m per episode – or mini-movie, as Trevor Johnston has it – budget augments and does not overwhelm thoughtful screenwriting from Peter Morgan. Its strength is its polysemy: that it can be taken plenty of ways. And, also, that it is a television series and frankly not a series of ‘mini-movies’, whatever Sight and Sound might want us to believe…
The LRB described its total budget as £100m., but this isn’t an expensive jaunt that leaves no trace: I strongly recall images and scenes, such as the elegant foreshadowing of Prince Philip in a private members’ club with a decidedly right-wing atmosphere, watching a newsreel film about Nasser, several years before Suez. I recall Lithgow’s hunched frame and craggy features, the actor embodying that problematic national avatar Churchill.
In 2011, left-wing writer on matters of state Tom Nairn referred to how ‘the overblown came to counter-posed to an understated essence’. This phrase aptly describes the mix of absurd yet public-captivating pomp is deliberately balanced by the media image created of a ‘real’ family with dutiful, modest values. Peter Morgan’s series manages to show convincing individuals embroiled in a bizarre spectacle, following constitutional imperatives that they seem to have no control over. Nairn also described ‘Crown mythology’ as ‘an instrument for holding such a ‘united kingdom’ together’. In 1961, Henry Fairlie had described it as ‘threatening to become the sole prop of the weak, the sole provider of emotional security, the sole cohesive force in society’. At its best, Morgan’s series is a questioning take on what it would actually be like on a human level to have to symbolise a ‘united’ nation and its traditions. One’s daily life as a crucial part of how national ‘unity’ and ‘traditions’ are manufactured.
The strongest episode for me is the Julian Jarrold-directed ‘Act of God’, a whole hour of television based around the now slightly less obscure Great Smog of London in December 1952. This episode dramatises the political scene of the last ‘Churchill era’, a neglected area other than by your Kynastons, Bogdanors and Hennessys and places Attlee and Churchill at the centre. It reveals both just how out-of-touch Churchill was, and yet how much residual media-savvy he could deploy with his back against the wall. This is the episode which most places the monarchy and the establishment among the wider populace. Hopefully, there will be more such edgier episodes in future series’. The series is at times limited by its Great Men & Women focus on history, and many episodes feature little sense of those who are ruled over. The smog episode is the one to truly create some sense of the view from ‘below’.
I had been convinced by Peter Morgan’s interview in Sight and Sound that this series would be worth a go: and not at all like Hallmark’s ridiculed William & Catherine: A Royal Romance (2011), which has Prince Charles saying “Puff Daddy”. There is leisurely, but often tense, character-based drama in The Crown rather than arrant stupidity. Its daring is shown in its depiction of tensions within Elizabeth and Phillip’s marriage, and Morgan’s skill in characterisation is no surprise given his previous handling of British history like The Deal (2003) and Longford (2006). In an insightful article for the LRB (15/12/16, p.15), Andrew O’Hagan acclaims Morgan’s writing for how it subversively ‘exposes the royals by undressing their silence with words’. They are made more human by their various uses of language and are thus inserted into history as actors.
They are made more human by their various uses of language and are thus inserted into history as actors.
Peter Hitchens, writing in early October – presumably without having seen the series – lays into its seeing the past through the present’s perspective. Bizarrely, he seems to think a drama series could hope to truly capture another era; historical dramas have always been just as telling about their own times they were produced in as the eras they depict. He accuses Smith and Foy of being representatives of the younger British generations he regards as essentially foreign: ‘They are too knowing about trivial things, and too innocent of important ones.’
Having watched all ten episodes, I don’t think this is borne out – I am convinced by their accents and the attitudes and bearings they convey. I agree with O’Hagan about royal historian Hugo Vickers’ nit-picking article in The Times; it is not important how accurate it is, it is whether it is good drama: ‘fibs are fine, so long as they tap at the human problems underneath.’ (p.16) While I partially accept Hitchens’ point that they don’t look like they’ve lived through WW2, such a deep background will be difficult for any actor to suggest without being unsubtle. And, thankfully, Smith and Foy haven’t lived through WW2, however much that might anger our Peter!
More convincing than Hitchens’ perennial obsession with an imagined 1950s are Harry Leslie Smith’s reservations, Smith having lived through the times depicted: ‘The Crown is like an expensive painting in which the only subjects in focus are the rich and privileged. Everyone else, people like me or your grandparents if they came from the working class and even the middle class, are considered no more than background scenery. We are the undefined face in the crowd waving religiously at our so-called betters.’ Smith accurately notes how little we get in The Crown of the struggles to establish the Welfare State. This perhaps show some commercially rooted compromise from the ‘egalitarian’ Morgan. Though I feel this lack is counterbalanced by the uniquely in-depth human picture we get of this strange family…
A weak link is the eighth episode, ‘Pride & Joy’, which depicts Margaret stepping in and fulfilling the Queen’s duties. It also contains the utter tedium of the Queen Marm’s trip to Scotland where she ends up buying a castle. While episode #6 ‘Gelignite’ managed to capture something of the tragic in Margaret’s predicament, both episodes veered close to the blander, glossier kind of soap opera. The final episode, however, proved an enticing set-up for series 2, which will deal with the epoch-defining Suez Crisis. Morgan has discussed the similarities of Brexit vote to Suez, with ‘a country mortgaging its international respect as a stable democracy’.
Margaret’s newsreel appearance at the pit is a foretaste of Diana. But Margaret doesn’t seem quite as adept at the media business, wanting to get closer to the people – in this case, the miners – and show some individuality and conscience. Phillip is something of an ally to her, as frustrated moderniser of an institution that stubbornly, imperiously demands it stay above the human fray. We get some sense that the public sympathise with Townsend and Margaret, but not nearly enough depth on the public attitudes.
Brilliant performances include Alex Jennings, imperiously arch and acidic as the Duke of Windsor, ever ready with tart, cutting asides. Jared Harris is affecting as his brother, George VI; as Cooke argues, Harris ‘turns in one of the most subtle and weirdly moving performances I’ve seen this year, perhaps this decade’, plus he gets to use the word ‘cunt’. Pip Torrens has the requisite ruthless, barbed edge as royal fixer Tommy Lascelles, who is at the heart of the heartless operation. Matt Smith does a fine job with suggesting the buffoon, the malcontent and the moderniser within Prince Phillip. At times, he comes across as like a proto-Blairite, at others he channels Bertie Wooster, or even Mr Toad. It’s an intriguing, subtle portrait of a foreigner, affected by his own experience of Greek class conflict, playing at essentially eccentric Englishness… This is one of many examples supporting Johnston’s argument that this ‘quality and prestige’ production manages to avoid being pitched to ‘a broader common denominator’.
Matt Smith does a fine job with suggesting the buffoon, the malcontent and the moderniser within Prince Phillip. At times, he comes across as like a proto-Blairite, at others he channels Bertie Wooster, or even Mr Toad.
John Lithgow is magnificent as Churchill, enabling viewers to love or loathe him, often simultaneously. His personal arrogance, entitlement and humbleness towards the crown all come across, as does the sense that this is a man clinging onto office due to delusions of grandeur and personal preeminence. We see how he struggles with changing times, yet oddly there’s no mention of his preoccupation with writing history himself. The final volumes of his A History of the English Speaking Peoples were published in 1956-58 – which led to BBC’s absurdly expansive, reviled 26-episode Churchill’s People dramatization of 1975, so this infirm, drink-addled eighty year-old must have been working on these books alongside his painting hobby, not to mention the small matter of his prime ministerial duties…
The excellent episode #9 ‘Assassins’ balances a necessary, representative picture of the Queen’s horse-racing milieu with compelling scenes of Churchill being literally depicted by his fellow but more modernist artist Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane). This shows how out-of-time Churchill has become, and how culturally divided and torn the country was between a metropolitan elite that questioned and liked avant-garde art, and the older, more traditional establishment represented by the likes of Churchill and the Queen Mother. Churchill engages in dialogue with the modernising times, in surprising ways, even if this all leads to a focus on Churchill and Sutherland’s lives and not explicitly to wider socio-historical issues. This writer hopes Lithgow has the occasional contribution to the story as it is told of the mid-50s to mid-60s…
As Peter Wilby has argued, it is ultimately an unflattering portrait of the monarchy: ‘The Crown shows something cold and inhumane – almost a moral vacuum – at the heart of monarchy. Is this really an ideal that “ordinary people” should strive towards?’ That hasn’t stopped a lot of the coverage and ‘criticism’ being entirely preoccupied by the show’s trinkets, trappings and costumes. It often avoids the problem with historical dramas identified by New Left Marxist Colin McArthur in 1978: that they so often entirely personalise historical events and are prey to the British culture’s cult of the individual, with Jenny (1974), Edward the Seventh (1975) and Lillie (1978) among the exemplars. McArthur stated that ‘the category of the individual is regarded as a natural structuring category in the milieu of television (historical) drama.’ However, this show’s title is The Crown, and this entitling does reflect its focus being on a specific institution rather than sole ‘key players’. While, as Cooke remarks, it tends to select events from 1947-55 which best ‘illuminate the personalities involved’, I would argue we get a strong sense of how it works as a systemic structure. The individual stories illumine the deeper power structures.
Cooke is perceptive on how this epic historical drama captures the addictive expansiveness of monarchical tradition:
‘Morgan explains us to ourselves. We’re all Russian dolls, products of our parents’ times as well as our own. Think of what your grandmother might have felt in 1952 on seeing three generations of queens – Mary, and two Elizabeths – in their mourning veils. The eldest of these three was born in 1867, and the youngest is on the throne still. Morgan understands that this is mind-bending and potentially revelatory, and if you don’t, that is your loss.’
This stimulating reading chimes with my hope that the series will become as much a portrait of the wider public as the royals. Hopefully, Morgan will investigate how the country failed to become the egalitarian society that would have put an ornate, bloated monarchy behind it.
Liverpool Edge Hill academic Hannah Andrews has commented that ‘conflict between duty to country and to husband remains the only dramatic narrative afforded a married queen.’ She is right that the Queen is often sidelined. While there is a strong scene where she ticks off the public-school politicians for their Machiavellian meddling, like ‘nanny’, virtually all of her narrative seems to be based on the familial vs. national duty trope. Her hiring of a private tutor (Alan Williams), in a bid to become more informed following her unchallenging education, doesn’t really lead anywhere. Or hasn’t yet… Episode 9’s focus on her friend Porchey only really serves to highlight her alternately tense and distant relations with Philip.
As Wilby argues, the monarchy is depicted as a cold, inhuman, manipulative institution, with the Queen Mother, assorted Archbishops and Lascelles in particular as individuals perpetuating the systemic chill. Claire Foy does a good job of showing how Elizabeth Windsor is compromised and has to be crushed in favour of the unchanging, symbolic ‘Elizabeth Regina’.
We are given a picture of what Robert Lacey referred to in 1977 as the Queen’s ‘insistent grasp of normality’. Crucially, she ultimately decides against developing her intellect beyond the limiting ‘constitutionalism’ dictated her by printed and spoken mentors Bagehot and Churchill. She opts for duty, restraint and blandness: to best preserve the institution of the monarchy; questioning is out of the question. This portrayal of the Queen gets more subtle and perceptive as the series develops. Nothing in the portrayal of the Queen Mother makes me warm to a woman I have always regarded as dodgy, an expert waver from balconies, yes, but with objectionable qualities behind the smiles.
What future instalments of The Crown need is to show more of its ‘subjects’: a wider tapestry of the ‘united kingdom’ that the institution of the crown aims to unify. However, this ‘long-form’ series does succeed in portraying the royals’ essentially trapped nature; as Morgan reflected, ‘We the people don’t know what we want from them, whether they’re our gods or our slaves, and so they’re trapped in a hellish predicament.’
Following an enjoyable, inevitably seafood-including meal near Plymouth Harbour and drinks til late, I must admit to being very tired open entering Day 3 of the conference, but just about made it through…
Filipa Moreira (I. U. de Lisboa, Portugal) placed Bond in the context of Portuguese cultural history. She mentioned how Fleming had stayed at the Palacio Estoril Hotel – to the west of Lisbon on the coast – in 1941, also using its casino, which yielded some of his later writing. During WW2, Portugal was officially neutral, which reminded me of Rui Lopes’ paper from Spying on Spies last year. Moreira explained some further influence of Portugal on Bond, with Guincho Beach proving a setting in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).
Moreira located Bond as ‘the most popular figure in entertainment’ with repetitive narrative structures important to how Fleming established his archetypal hero. She identified product placement as a significant part of the series’ persistent appeal. Using Galician and Bordeau’s four category model (2004) of how product placement is used in films (1. Verbal/hand placement, 2. Implied endorsement, 3. Signage, 4. Clutter), she argued it allowed the series to develop throughout time and adapt to changing tastes.
We were then treated to some revealing cultural history in the shape of the Whicker’s World ‘James Bond Special’ (TX: BBC-1, 25th March 1967). This documentary was of Pinewood Studios in the time of You Only Live Twice’s making. Whicker’s phrases – such as “a modern fairy tale”, “space age gubbins”, “the Bondwagon”, “Bondiana”, “no message to sell” and “like Kleenex!” – amounted to a smugly indulgent, supercilious reveling in the trivial nature of pop culture and Bond’s amorality.
This documentary didn’t just reveal that Cubby Broccoli’s grandfather introduced broccoli the vegetable, but indirectly showed a stark difference to 2016 in sexual mores – pre-1970s ‘women’s lib’ – with women marginalised or patronised in the show’s preferred reading. A particularly telling section saw YOLT screenwriter Roald Dahl drily responding to Whicker’s eager ‘wink-wink’ question about how Bond “gets through women”.
Connery’s appearance showed how comparatively low-key the nature of celebrity was in 1967, compared with 2016; he comes across as down to earth and mildly embarrassed by the absurd level of media attention he was experiencing. He also focused on how the books ‘lack humour’ and how he liked how the films increased it.
There wasn’t time to watch the whole programme; then, a Q&A pertaining to Moreira’s paper and the Whicker programme. Alan ‘Gus’ Burton referred back to his own paper – the lineage of 1964-73 British spy films – and how Hammerhead included location usage of Lisbon to signify the exotic.
Mention was made of the democratising impact of brands on culture, from the 1960s onwards. This appearance of luxury could be compared to the supposed ‘privileging’ of audiences’ being able to vote for ‘talent’ on Hughie Green’s TV shows in the same era, as Joe Moran has detailed in his excellent article for History Workshop, ”Stand Up and Be Counted’: Hughie Green, the 1970s and Popular Memory’.
A delegate highlighted that items like Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green in the 2006 Casino Royale)’s necklace will set you back £2000, showing money’s lack of democracy. There was discussion, linking back to Felix Thompson’s Day 1 paper, of how the programme showed a pre-mass tourism age – with Whicker’s formulaic parade of wealthy people and foregrounding of luxury. The almost parodic silliness of Whicker’s persona perhaps chimed with the fact that YOLT was more negatively received, with many film critics discussing the formula as growing ‘stale’. Cultural change was commented on: casinos are now seen as tacky. There was juxtaposition of the worldly, urbane Roger Moore with Daniel Craig in CR – ‘the first Bond to be drunk on screen’. This was seen as influenced by the Bourne films, with Jason Bourne’s ‘grim and gritty lifestyle’ – at least in the early films – being anti-Bondian. Some anticipation was evident in the room for the new Jason Bourne (2016).
The next panel included myself and was all a little rushed, with lunch on the way! Both papers made use of video matter. Toby Manning began by showing clips from Smiley’s People (1982) and US drama series Homeland (2011 – date). His clips proved that dialogue in the latter was practically lifted from the former, eliciting belly laughs from conference goers… He contrasted the former’s advocating of détente with the latter’s anti-Iranian ‘terrorist’ hawkishness. Manning argued that the JLC TV adaptations provide a ‘source book, a template’ used by what he described as the ‘trashier’ Homeland. The adaptations reflected the ‘posh end of heritage’. He commented on the oddity of a ‘hate-fuelling’ Homeland using as its template the humanist hero Smiley and also considering that JLC was very critical of the ‘War on Terror’.
Manning described Saul Berenson as the best thing about it: possessing probity and Smiley-like moral scruples. By season 3, JLC was being channeled ever more explicitly, as an attempt by the show to lend itself ‘legitimacy’. Enhanced by his opposition to the Iraq War, JLC is often seen as the great liberal conscience; Manning commented that Homeland gets to seem liberal while being hawkish. Saul increasingly gets given Smiley’s lines. Carrie is said to enact all of the mad and bad stuff, with Saul being scrupulous initially but ultimately endorsing her actions. Season 3 channels The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and also quoted several other plagiaristic lines. He unfavourably contrasted Berenson’s ultimate concern being with his own career with Smiley’s wider sense of duty.
Manning began to conclude by criticising the Manichean idea that ‘the enemy’ is peculiarly inhuman and brutal. He said that it was one thing to portray Communists as barbaric – “You can argue with that and I do” – but that it was quite another to argue that Muslims are inherently barbaric and stated that there was a racist element at work in Homeland… He closed by saying that Smiley was a liberal hawk as early as in The Honourable Schoolboy; heexecutes Dieter Frei in Call from the Dead, is implicated in Liz and Leamas’ setting-up in TSWCIFTC and allows Bill Haydon’s death in TTSS. His ruthless pursuit of Karla is due to his loss of faith in détente. Manning’s excellent long conclusion ended with how the spy genre works to reassure us that the threat is real and to give us avatars like Berenson and Smiley, doing the job ‘as decently as possible in the circumstances’. These ‘reassuring hawks’ wring their hands on our behalf but ultimately enact the dominant ideological impulses.
Next was my own paper, available here. I argued, akin to Manning about Homeland, that the Christopher Hampton-scripted film version of The Honorary Consul ultimately endorses hegemonic politics, ignoring much of the notable counter-hegemonic discourse of Greene’s original 1973 novel. Unfortunately, the timings in the schedule were slightly off so there was no specific Q&A just for this panel. Though there was another good cold buffet lunch to go straight into! Wherein I discussed Greene with Felix Thompson, who mentioned how comparatively forgotten oppositional representations to the NATO hegemony now are…
Then, it was onto the very final panel of the day; this was delivered by three gents from King’s College London, with complementary papers on recent James Bond texts. Edward Lamberti began with analysis of the ‘shortest’ Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), using Judith Butler’s performativity theory and – as more of a curve-ball – J.L. Austin’s Speech-Act Theory (1955). This was the only mention in the conference of this theory that language brings things into being: “It’s a girl!” “We find the defendant guilty”. Some use was made of Sandy Petry’s Speech Acts and Literary Theory (1990) as a framework.
He developed an analysis of Bond in QOS as conveying a sense of loss and melancholy, mentioning how Cinema Paradiso (1988) reflecting a sense of the past as better. “A newly Bourne secret agent” elicited a groan or two! This grittier Bond’s isolation and alienation was argued to contain insight into the structures of society. Lamberti asserted that a ‘productive melancholy’ on Bond’s part reflected a rebelliousness seen as a threat by M.
The next speaker Christopher Holiday (KCL) focused on recent portrayals of London on screen seem fixated on showing it battered into oblivion. Use was made of Charlotte Brunsdon’s London in Cinema (2007) to develop his thoughts on a ‘London has fallen’ cycle of films, which included some recent Bonds. The US-made The Day the Earth Was Stopped (2008) was derided. A clip was used from G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013). These films were more broadly contextualised in a lineage of British science fiction cinema: The Giant Behemoth (1959), Konga (1961) and Gorgo (1961) – the titular monster of whom was to some the ‘English Godzilla’ – and I.Q. Hunter was quoted on this tradition.
The true ‘London sequence’ was argued to have started with the relatively politicised V for Vendetta (2005) and Children of Men (2006), though key scenes in this latter film are in the UKIP-terrain of ‘Bexhill’*, East Sussex, though the detention camp scenes were actually filmed in Aldershot. PD James-adaptation COM is a very notable film, with satirising of nihilistic post-modernist neo-liberalism and an against-type casting of Michael Caine as a romantic hippie.
London was being used more, not just for British films, but by others – as British crews were experienced, now generally non-unionised and there was greater studio space. Mention was made of a 2013 Telegraph article by John Hiscock, who seems to have written about the subject since at least the late-90s.
The SIS Building (1994) was used in GoldenEye (1995). Holiday discussed Craig’s Bond as being strongly aligned with London through his unveiling as Bond on a Royal Marine speedboat on the Thames on 14th October 2005. He showed this clip and it was undoubtedly powerful iconography, no doubt intended to counterbalance Craig’s more working-class, northern origins with patriotic ballast.
Ethical issues were discussed, with relation to the criticism London Has Fallen (2016) itself had received from 7/7 victims’ families for its ‘insensitivity’. Holiday referred to the most recent JB film SPECTRE (2015) as ‘haunted cinema’, a sort of prelude to the next paper.
Speaker 26, the last of the Conference, was Alexander Sergeant (again KCL) who discussed the function of the “Bond girl” as a Structuring Archetype in SPECTRE, according to Jungian spectator theory. He said he wanted to steer away from the common – in the 1970s-90s, anyway – field of Lacan/Metz/Freud psychoanalytical approaches to film. Can’t say I blamed him, really!
His paper focused on individuation and how archetypes have roots in the collective unconscious. Dr Madeleine Swann – a psychologist working in the Austrian Alps – in SPECTRE is referred to as a contradiction to the ‘Bond Girl’ archetype, who along with Bond will have to return. Proust was referred to.
The Q&A incorporated all three KCL speakers, Toby Manning and I. Sadly, I can remember little of it but that I made a point about social class and the poacher character in Went the Day Well? It only remained for me to make my way to the station with some other delegates and go through a grueling nigh on nine-hour journey back to the north east!
Four days after the end of the conference came the Brexit vote.
*Bexhill and Battle UK parliamentary constituency is a rock-solid Tory seat, which even had a Tory majority of 11,100 in 1997, and is now over 20,000 with UKIP in second place. Both Stuart Wheeler and Nigel Farage – two of the most reprehensible influences in our body politic in the last 20 years – stood here and got in excess of 2,500 votes.
Rosamund Pike: They were sitting side by side, the two of them close up to each other. It was like someone had flicked on a switch […] I felt tears streaming down my face. Something about them moved me so much […] It bore out everything I’d hoped for […] I find their story incredibly inspiring and moving, and that’s what I ask for in movies I go and see. I want to see movies like that. I want to see movies that make love heroic and the act of love courageous.
The hit Netflix’s series The Crown – in many ways admirable stuff – almost entirely omits non-whites from Britain’s story; Kenyans feature more as backdrop figures than as agents themselves. British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga has recently presented Black and British: A Forgotten History on the BBC. Oxford-born black British actor David Oyelowo pronounced: ‘People of colour have been expunged from Britain’s history’. Oyelowo has acted on this imperative by starring in A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante, best known for 2013’s acclaimed 18th-century-set Belle (2013).
This new film dramatizes the controversy surrounding heir to the throne in Bechuanaland getting married in 1948 to a white British woman. Oyelowo first came across the story via Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar (2006) in 2010 and began developing the idea for a film with producers Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason, who acquired the rights. Oyelowo has also spoken of the film being an attempt to tackle history that educational curricula choose to ignore. He also commented that the recent rise in racist rhetoric has validated the reason for making the film.
The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa.
The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa. As Asante argued: ‘Why wouldn’t we show the beautiful sunsets? I remember waking up in my mother’s African village to beautiful sunrises and beautiful sunsets.’ The film also pays close attention to power, politics and persuasion, as in what Stables refers to as Seretse’s ‘game-changing speech’. Where Peter Morgan captured some of the paranoid psychosis of Idi Amin’s Uganda in The Last King of Scotland (2006), screenwriter Hibert fashions a story containing many political tensions, but also an inexorably buoyant narrative. Such an avowed love letter to social liberalism feels embattled in ever less tolerant and pluralistic 2016. I would agree with Kate Stables in Sight and Sound that it is a ‘laudable retelling of a less than glorious chapter in British history.’ Sadly, far from the last ignominious such chapter…
The film ends with independence on the cards, using captions to convey the rest of Seretse and Ruth’s story. It seems it wasn’t, as some might expect, particularly sanitised. It leaves you wanting to find out more about the real situation in Botswana from the 1960s until today, which is a good thing.
In real life, Seretse Khama took a brave gamble and renounced his chieftaincy, and stood for election, winning in 1965: leading to independence for the renamed Botswana in 1966. On that Independence Day, Queen Elizabeth II conferred a knighthood on him. He kept to Westminster style political arrangements, avoiding a one-party state. His economic policy was more free-market than socialist; as Keatley states, ‘He insisted on a strict balance of payments and a sound currency’. This economically ‘Victorian’ figure was, however, defiantly anti-Apartheid and towards the end of his reign he established free universal education in his country. Keatley praised Khama’s ‘legacy of tolerance and stability that have made Botswana one of the happiest countries in Africa’. One of the better researched articles on the film from Jessamy Calkin confirms the positive picture of Botswanan culture and society: ‘Historically, it was less heavily colonised than much of the continent […] Good management and wealth brought by the discovery of diamonds have ensured that its citizens are entitled to free healthcare and education, and each can claim a piece of land, 40m by 40m, once they are 21, for which they don’t have to pay. (In two days here, I have met many people who have done so.)’ Calkin also comments that Seretse Khama’s personality has impacted on the culture’s genteel and courteous nature today, where it is ruled by his son Ian Khama.
Director Asante, 47, Streatham born with Ghanaian roots, has had a notable life: her parents ran a shop that sold African cosmetics and then groceries; she experienced racism in Streatham while growing up, was in Grange Hill (“it taught me that I could not act”), met Nancy Reagan as part of the “Just Say No” campaign and is a massive Prince fan who had a private meeting with him. In 1998, she wrote and directed the Liverpool-set Brothers and Sisters which featured the then 22-year-old David Oyelowo. Asante has spoken eloquently on ethnic minority and female under-representation in British cinema and has claimed that the Brexit vote wouldn’t have happened without class inequality.
Its 66-year-old screenwriter Guy Hibert, a veteran of 1990s BBC film-drama strands Screen Two and Screenplay, comes up with a concise, focused film celebratory of liberalism: cross-racial romance, democratic values. Seretse is conveyed as similarly eloquent in his use of rhetoric to Martin Luther King, as depicted in Selma (2014).
Acting-wise, Jack Davenport is particularly assured as Alastair Canning, a sadistically bland British government functionary who offers sherry while giving Seretse the absurd offer of a posting to Jamaica. Tom Felton is a little more cartoonish – reflecting some of the occasional unsubtlety picked up on by Stables. Jack Lowden, with Nikolai Rostov, Oswald Alving and Thomas Wyatt already under his belt at 26, gets to play a heroic, twenty-something Tony Benn. Rosamund Pike continues her specialism in enacting post-WW2 characters; following An Education (2009) and Made in Dagenham (2010) with a sensitive and humane portrayal of middle-class clerk Ruth Williams.
Local and international power politics are well conveyed, as highlighted by Davis: ‘Since South African uranium was a key ingredient of the West’s Cold War nuclear arsenal, Britain was reluctant to antagonise the Pretoria regime.’ While Khama’s own people are won over quite quickly by the couple, the British led by Attlee are unwilling to jeopardise key economic assets in the geopolitical context of the Cold War. In the 1951 General Election campaign, Churchill – unseen, sadly and not played by John Lithgow – promises that Seretse will be allowed to return to Bechuanaland. Once in the power, the old ‘statesman’ – or is that grandiose rogue? – reneges on his promise and extends Khama’s exile. Kermode has argued it successfully blends the personal and political and is necessary in being crowd-pleasing, working well with a large audience. It seems the ideal film to appeal to this critic’s liberal-left Christian sensibility.
In a Live Q&A in November 2016 following a film about his diaries, Alan Bennett bemoaned Britain being a less ‘tolerant’ country than it was in the 1950s. A Britain that is now lacking in Ruth Williams’ – hailed by Stables for ‘her stoicism and community efforts’ – and drowning in boorish Farages and Johnsons. A United Kingdom sketchily depicts some of the underlying racism of the late 1940s, but has a powerful sense of its romantic leads both being outsiders in each other’s cultures. It also balances the Attlee government’s compromises with ‘Anthony Benn’ figuting as a morally crusading advocate for Seretse and Ruth. As Calkin commented, the couple named one of their sons after Benn. To me, it feels like empathy within British society and support for the Welfare State has eroded and we are less tolerant. Our younger British generations are generally past racism, but the media keeps fermenting it, especially successfully among older citizens, who vote more and are more susceptible to such a message.
In the context of 2016, A United Kingdom forms a vital corrective to our severely disunited kingdom, by showing and understanding the follies of the past and presenting an inspiring story of love as a progressive, necessary force.
 Griffin, S. (2016) ‘The power of love’, Yorkshire Post, 25th November, np
 Stables, K. (2016) ‘Reviews: A United Kingdom’, Sight and Sound, December, p.89
 Clark, A. (2016) ‘Amma Asante: ‘I’m here to disrupt expectations’ – As her movie A United Kingdom opens the London film festival, the British director talks about her new membership of the US Academy – and why the whole industry needs to change’, The Observer, 2nd October, p.6
 Loughrey, C. (2016) ‘Finding love in a time of division’, The Independent on Sunday, 27th November, p.89
 Anon (2016) ‘Film industry is ‘doubly testing’ of women, says Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike’, The Herald, np
 Davis, C. (2016) ‘THE SECRETARY AND THE PRINCE – Their relationship scandalised 1950s Britain but Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama had a happy marriage, as a new film reveals’, The Express, 17th November, p.13
 Kermode, M. (2016) ‘A United Kingdom review’, BBC Radio 5, 25th November
The blog of Robin Carmody. Liberal humanist, reformed ex-Stalinist and former anti-anti-anti-Semite, melancholy Europhile and romantic-ruralist socialist. Londoner by birth, Kentish Man by upbringing, Portlander by adoption. "More like Roy Harper than Fairport Convention" - Simon Reynolds, 2003. May be the horsiest Leftie in the Anglosphere, but there are many horsier ones beyond.