“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.
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.’
This day proved to be perhaps the most enlightening conference day I have yet attended in my fledgling academic ‘career’, if it can be called that. I would particularly highlight Chris Smith and Joseph Oldham’s papers for their forensic detail and historical reach. I look forward to books by Nick Barnett and Oldham respectively on ‘First Cold War’ culture in Britain and the history of the spy and conspiracy genres on British television.
The Liverpudlian Cat Mahoney (Northumbria University) began proceedings with an analysis of the TV version of Marvel’s Agent Carter – is/was Peggy a new popular feminist hero? This ‘physically and mentally tough’ character was seen as becoming much more than just the love interest of Captain America; figuring in 1946 NYC in a Vera Lynn-like role, with an English accent. The focus given to Bletchley Park was mentioned, and Mahoney argued that Peggy was much more feminist than post-feminist, being very practical in nature. She has a John Steed equivalent in Edwin Jarvis. Mahoney mentioned the series’ ‘cautionary tale’ as regards the character Whitney Frost, pointing to a ‘Women in Refrigerator’ trope.
This paper was a closely argued case that Peggy ‘leans towards being feminist’, without any of the internalising of the male gaze that you see with post-feminism. Yet, Mahoney acknowledged Sarah Miles’ criticism that this was a Marvel ‘version of feminism’, with Peggy as the only truly significant female character with agency and who is also white.
Next was a connected paper: Laura Crossley (Edge Hill University, Liverpool), dissecting differing manifestations of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise character, from her origins in a London Evening Standard cartoon strip in 1963 (running thirty-nine years) to novels and film and radio adaptations. Pulp Fiction (1994) was later to allude to it, with Travolta’s character seen reading Peter O’Donnell’s 1965 MB novel.
Joseph Losey’s 1966 film was referred to as strongly ‘camp’ ‘oddity’ which has its pleasures. Crossley quoted Losey’s intent to make a film that would end all of the James Bond films – not a notably successful outcome there, Joe! She showed a few clips from the film, which looked unusual, proto-postmodernist and with some anti-imperialist political charge to it.
Crossley seemed to value the novel most highly; praising how Modesty is represented as displaying physical prowess and being better than a man: Kingsley Amis and his wife were fans of the Blaise books, and KA wrote a fan’s letter to O’Donnell – which Crossley showed. It seemed to me this was part of the cultural climate which had enabled Cathy Gale and Emma Peel to become ground-breaking televisual characters.
Crossley linked Willie Garvin – Modesty’s companion – with the previous day’s Bond – Palmer – Callan educational formulation, saying that Garvin was ‘lower’ even than Callan, having gone to a reform school. She explained how O’Donnell satirises the old-boy network, with colonialism open to some question in the strips and novel. Strip #3678 was said to include the interrogative: ‘We could appeal to the unions, maybe?’ It seems, unsurprisingly, that this was a strip from circa May 1975…
The Q&A revealed some interesting discussion of the film Spy (dir. Paul Feig, 2015) with Melissa McCarthy, which was argued as going beyond mere jokes about MM’s unusual physicality. Yet, there was a questioning of how so many of these sort of texts depict violence and killing people as the main focus of what these female characters do and are about. Are they then that different from the Bonds, or mere female ‘versions’ of an ethically questionable normative hero?
Crossley argued that Blaise is the dominant one in the pairing with Garvin, but that it is heteronormative, though no less progressive in the context of the 1960s. Mahoney referred to Dotty in Agent Carter, who has signs of some deviancy, possibly linked to Soviet training. This may just seem to us to be part of the constraining binary of Cold War ideological thinking. The discussion included Philip’s non-heteronormative activities as Soviet deep cover agent in The Americans and Norman Pett’s significant comic-strip Jane, which ran in the Daily Mirror from 1932-59. There was an attempt to update for the early-60s with Daughter of Jane by Roger Woddis running from 1961-63. Woddis (1917-93) is an interesting figure, a writer of one of my favourite episodes of The Prisoner, ‘Hammer into Anvil’ and Communist Party member who in the 1970s-90s wrote poems for the New Statesman and Punch. Also, curiously enough, Jane was adapted for TV with Blakes 7’s Glynis Barber as Jane for two series in 1982 and 1984 respectively.
The Q&A ended with some righteous focus on how Rosa Klebb represented the ‘monstrous feminine’ and also how the recent case of Star Wars reflected a lack of progress: none of the action figures were female.
Speaker 12 of the conference was via Skype, Claudia Sternberg (University of Leeds). This paper analysed whether WW1 screen espionage reflected female empowerment. Lang’s Spione (1928) and George Fitzmaurice’s pre-Hays Code Mata Hari (1931) were mentioned as films which reflected a sensationalising of the female spy as a glamour figure. Where, in fact, the female spy was subject to low-pay and low-status, with women being seen as ‘less able to feel patriotism; and being ‘prone to romantic sentiment’. Working-class women were left out of spy films. Victor Saville’s I Was a Spy (1933) was analysed as one of the key British examples of the sub-genre.
She gave an overview of many 1930s and 40s films, and stated that the cycle came to an end in 1945, to be replaced in a few years by the Cold War. The 1991 TV Ashenden re-adapts W. Somerset Maugham and incorporated much autobiographical material, and added a homosexual romance.
Historian Chris Smith (University of Kent, Canterbury) placed the WW2-related Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films in their historical context. This was an excellent paper, limiting much analysis of the film texts and taking the films as sources among many. He made good use of Monthly Film Bulletin reviews, and placed the films’ content and reception in the wider historical context. He discussed the ‘Fifth Column’ as a moral panic before Stanley Cohen had coined the concept. I spoke to the speaker later when we were on a boat trip.
Smith referred to the government’s failed ‘Silent Column’ propaganda campaign. This encouraged the telling off and prosecution of rumour-mongers, like ‘Miss Leaky Mouth’. He mentioned a Spectator editorial criticising the wasting of time that this all amounted to.
The combative Kent academic praised Ealing’s The Next of Kin (1942) as a superior propaganda film. When it was first shown privately, it showed the British commandos losing; Churchill insisted on the British commandos winning, so the ending was changed. Smith provided statistical detail which highlighted the importance of cinema: over 4000 cinemas were open in the UK with over 19 million cinema-goers – and the BBC, with 90% of homes having a radio.
In the Q&A, Smith had more chance to discuss left-wing Scottish historian Angus Calder’s The People’s War: Britain, 1939-1945 (1969). He argued that in Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror (1942), the people come to Holmes’ aid: that it isn’t just about the hero, it’s the British public who are agents and contributors. He made reference to Roland Barthes and myth, and said more important than debunking them is considering why the powerful are trying to create myths.
Among many films that got mentioned was Cottage to Let (1941) with Alastair Sim, a recommendation in itself! Toby Manning and Joseph Oldham made reference to George Smiley as being rather like Sherlock Holmes: both are essentially analysts of data, like historians. Oldham added that many WW2 spies were historians.
Second Scouse speaker and conference co-organiser Nicholas Barnett (Plymouth University) discussed the BBC’s retro spy-drama The Game (2014) and its representation of the 1970s. The cultural historian saw this 1972-set series as a period piece, and how it is looking back on the Cold War ‘with a sense of nostalgia’. The title contains the chess-like Cold War metaphor; a very blatant engagement with ‘the familiar’ by writer Toby Whithouse. Barnett referred to inter-textual references to George Cockroft’s novel The Dice Man (1971). In episodes 5 and 6, the game becomes poker. He described there being a subtler narrative of chess in the first three episodes, with its copying of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979), with the last three copying The Americans. This lack of originality prefigures what Manning was to say about Homeland on Sunday. The series becomes a game of chess between Joe and Odin, who makes himself more sinister through peeling apples.
The clichés have to be there for it to be a spy drama, and are part of a view of the 1970s as a ‘comforting’ time: the ‘sinister Russian enemy’, the mole within MI5, a fairground scene with the protagonist having a gun, signposting dialogue like “welcome to the end of our story” (episode 6), a dead letter drop (episode 2), Russian vodka, a clunky camera, reel-to-reel tapes and open-plan committee rooms in Birmingham City Library used as a set. In the show, the 1970s are where, while it less comforting than WW2, ‘we knew where we stood with the Russians’.
Barnett went on to discuss a ‘lost politics of class in British society’. Waterhouse, the head of counter intelligence, pin-striped suited and has a servant; he was contrasted with Joe, state-school educated like Callan. ‘Daddy’ (Brian Cox) is referred to as a post-war masculine ideal: at once the war hero but also the family man – which Barnett compared with Lynne Segal’s analysis. Chloe Pirrie’s Wendy is presented as a voice of reason, and Waterhouse eventually follows her advice. Daddy talks of WW2 as a war ‘that made heroes’, feeling a nostalgia for the previous war; making the audience perhaps think that people like Daddy were heroes of the Cold War. This is described as an attempt by Whithouse to draw some lines of continuity between WW2 and the CW.
He mentioned the show’s depiction of working-class areas; the working-class comedian telling an Irish joke complete with a garish jacket and a comb-over, pubs with beer mugs with handles and smoking – that past that is within our memory but is just beyond us. I would have liked a bit more analysis of this, but this was no doubt due to time constraints…
The public information film Protect and Survive is used anachronistically – it was actually made in 1976, not in 1972. Barnett quoted historian Matthew Grant’s comments about oral history interviewees’ misremembering of the past: people saying they’d seen Duck and Cover (1951), which was never shown in Britain.
Barnett finished by summarising how The Game portrays the Cold War as a simpler time with its continuities with WW2, and its noble, familiar intelligence game, but also as part of the transition towards today’s less comforting world, with a more dangerous game with increasingly endangered civilians.
Justin Harrison (Learning Commons Librarian, University of Victoria BC, Canada) gave a rare power-point-less talk. He discussed the representations of Britishness in The Avengers. He discussed the confident, optimistic national identity, as projected via the lion on the shield in the Tara King titles sequence. He emphasised the ‘mutual respect’ between the generations conveyed by the series and its core audience being young women in the 18-34 age group. This discussion of Steed as an establishment gave rise to my thought that the agent might be an attempt to redeem the public-school spy following Philby and co…
Harrison argued that tradition and modernity co-existed; there’s the British lion, but then also Linda Thorson’s character is simply known as ‘Tara King’ without any marriage title. He discussed the inconsequential nature of much of the show’s narratives, with plot often being merely a justification for a champagne cork popping at the end. The last Tara King episode ‘Bizarre’ (TX: 22/05/1969) was used as an exemplar in its ‘preposterous’ plot. Writer on 1960s Britain Mark Donnelly was used to discuss how the show kept reality away.
Harrison concluded by mentioning the intriguing sounding ‘Two’s a Crowd’ (TX: 17/12/1965), one of very few Avengers stories to identify its villains as Soviets and thus more directly engage in the Cold War. On the long train to Plymouth and before bed following the first night of the conference, I had watched two Tara King episodes on my laptop: ‘The Rotters’, which partly fitted Harrison’s depiction of Steed as rural gent, with signifiers of ‘English oak’, ‘dry rot’ and a red-pillar box, and ‘The Interrogators’ with villain Christopher Lee backed by Chinese army uniformed helpers. This latter was rather better, and showed an at least tangential relation to the Cold War.
Joseph Oldham (Warwick University) said that his paper came out of the previous Spying on Spies conference. And reflected how little focus there had been there on the 1990s, basically between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror. This can be seen as a lost decade in spy fiction and Oldham wanted to question whether or not this was due to the lull in major geopolitical tensions. This led to his focus on Bugs (1995-99), televised in the ‘Doctor Who’ Saturday evening slot and which often gained 10 million viewers; a series which he said had been ‘written out of the academic narrative’. He focused mainly on the first two series’.
Its focus was on the ‘miniaturized wizardry and computer cunning’ and ‘excitement of technological gadgetry for good and evil’. Even Charles Jennings’ positive review in The Observer was patronising: Jennings viewing it as ‘light-hearted entertainment and not to be taken seriously’. The Radio Times spread to promote the first series placed it in the heritage of The Avengers (1961-69), The New Avengers (1976-77) and The Professionals (1978-82). Brian Clemens had been brought on board as ‘series consultant’.
Oldham used David Buxton’s analysis of The Avengers as a ‘pop series’, a historically specific thing that could only have existed the way it did in the 1960s. He mentioned Felix Thompson’s comments on Clemens’ 1970s works being different and then how the Radio Times spread positioned Bugs as ‘we are doing The Avengers again’. The 1990s background included the nostalgia boom of 1960s adventure series being repeated on BBC-2 and Channel 4, which fed into the ‘Cool Britannia’ moment which was heavily indebted to the 1960s style. He also mentioned the exaggerated use of such imagery by Austin Powers, and how Bugs didn’t go in for this sort of iconography.
Bugs’ aesthetic has bold colours, indebted to the 1960s pop-futurism, but mixed in with glassy, chrome visuals which reflected what Oldham described as a ‘neo-liberal futurism’. By being largely shot on location in the London Docklands, formerly derelict, which had been massively redeveloped in the Thatcher era as a hub of the financial sector – the process which is incisively investigated by Andy Beckett in Promised You a Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain (2015). He mentioned The Observer’s commenting that ‘You will never see a pre-1990 building in Bugs’; Oldham said this was an exaggeration – it should have been pre-1980. The series sees this area (unnamed in the series) as ‘massively important and a key point of vulnerability’. Canary Wharf is said to appear in every episode of series 3. There’s an obsession with landmarks, and also innovations such as driver-less trains on the Docklands Light Railway.
The retro element is more to do with narrative than visual aesthetics. The common gripe of 1990s TV drama was articulated by Brian Clemens himself in the publicity for Bugs: ‘Normally when the BBC or ITV have a free evening slot, they stick in a copper, a vet or a doctor and they’re all so downbeat and depressing’. This was the idea of there being much ‘soapification’, issue-led stuff, and there being a need to return to the adventure show and ‘rollercoaster’ viewing. Oldham mentioned how there’s little ongoing narrative in Bugs and how most episodes end with a terrible joke and they all laugh!
Unlike in the 1960s TV adventure series’, Oldham described the spies in Bugs as not working for the state but working as a ‘small-business enterprise’. He placed this in the context of the 1990s dot.com boom and Thatcherite ideology. Key was the characters’ role as ‘surveillance experts’; this was before Big Brother and CSI were on British TV. He said that Bugs was part of the gadget renaissance of the 1990s, as in GoldenEye and contrasted them with older, Orwellian British TV drama series’ like 1990 (1977-78). Their company was called ‘Gizmos’ and their use of surveillance is portrayed as quirky, small and not as threatening as the archetypal Orwellian state surveillance operation.
Oldham concluded his excellent paper by arguing that Spooks continues the glassy aesthetic of Bugs and that the neglected 1990s series represents how we got from the 1960s adventure series and the Cold War to Spooks and the War on Terror. He plausibly argued fot it as a key text right in the midst of what we might term the 1990s interregnum.
The Q&A included a question by Felix Thompson about how serious was the focus on Canary Wharf and the banking sector. Oldham commented on the uncertainty of the tone between irony and seriousness. When Barnett asked about the villains, Oldham said that eco-terrorists tended to come up a bit.
Barnett said that nostalgia is usually linked to declinism but that that doesn’t seem to be the case with Cold War nostalgia, in the context of what is generally seen as the ‘relative success’ of the Cold War.
Catherine Edwards (ICCS Manager, Birmingham University) tackled narrative beginnings in John le Carré adaptations, though this also sprouted off into discussion of In Bruges (2008) with its bickering hitmen giving the names Cranham and Blakely when they check into a hotel: inter-textually referencing Kenneth and Colin, who played the hitmen in a mid-80s TV version of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. This got me thinking about how comparatively little explored is Harold Pinter’s relation to the Cold War – despite such plays as One for the Road, and also his manifest exploration of communication ambiguities, complexities of identity in so many of his other plays which were staged in the ‘intelligence’ and ‘spy’ era.
Edwards also discussed the problematic nature of ‘beginnings’, utilising the example of Coney theatre company’s immersive methodology, with their plays existing from before, to and after the ‘actual production’, living on afterwards in minds and in its influence.
Edward Biddulph (independent scholar) was next, describing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968) as his favourite Bond film and exploring some of the franchise’s memes. The reach and sway of JB was emphasised with the example of Allen Dulles’ claim that in recruitment he would look for people with Bond’s qualities.
Memes were defined as units of cultural selection, like genes. Among many examples were ‘Bond, James Bond’ and ‘Shaken, not stirred’. Biddulph traced the dominance of these, as well as ‘Bond Girl’: singer of Skyfall Bond theme Adele was asked in 2013 about whether she’d want to be a ‘Bond Girl’ and when interviewed used the collocation naturally herself. Biddulph used multiple examples of these memes amid newspaper and other cultural discourses from the 1960s until today.
Biddulph extracted probably the biggest laugh of the conference with his captioned image adapting the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ ape-to-man progress for Bond, including ‘Campus Rogerus’, a Safari-suit-clad Moore among the others!
Barbara Korte (University of Freiburg) discussed the agency of the agent in SPECTRE (2015), analysing surveillance and prevention concepts in today’s supposedly ‘post-heroic times’. The meme of ‘friendly surveillance’ was located in this recent Bond film, with MI6 being shown to be more transparent. This film and Skyfall (2012), representative of the technologically reliant era, were said to display nostalgia for the days of the field agent when there was a perceived greater level of agency and inventiveness. Cold War inter-textuality was present in SPECTRE, with M using the phrase “George Orwell’s worst nightmare”. Korte linked the location of a meeting in Rome to the Italian capital’s previous status as a fascist capital in the Mussolini era.
The Q&A included discussion of the anticipation before texts are released and reaction to texts after release, alongside a focus on the precise rhythm and timing of phrases in the Bond films. This, again, got me thinking of Pinter, with the precise, metronomic focus on pauses inherited from Beckett. Korte’s power-point slide of still images from SPECTRE was much focused on, with Craig’s Bond conveyed as a Romantic hero, bare-chested within sublime landscapes. One of them resembled Caspar David Friederich’s 1818 oil painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.
There was additional focus on how SPECTRE had a conservative ideology in how security is provided by the state, with the ‘responsible’ presentation of M. Someone mentioned the ‘disconcerting’ role of Lucas North character, played by Richard Armitage in seasons 7-9 of Spooks (BBC-1, 2002-11). This show interestingly involved firebrand leftist writer Howard Brenton in its early series’.
Rosie White (Northumbria University) was the conference’s 20th – and the day’s ‘Keynote’ – speaker. White gave an interesting talk, comparing and dissecting the screen personae of Leslie Howard in the title role of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine. Power-point included an evocative use of a gif animated image of Howard that showed his expressive quality and eyes. She spoke of being both seduced and discomfited by early 2016’s ratings success The Night Manager, with its narrative of the arms trade mingling with cinematic glamour. Mention was made of how JLC’s ethically engaged tone was downplayed in this BBC international co-production which marketed itself as ‘Quality British Television’ and encouraged press discourses of Pine being an audition for the role of James Bond.
White was eloquently uncomfortable at the ‘exotic, saturated colour contrasts’ and what she saw as the fetishisation of the lives of the “super-rich”. Indeed, I would support this – remembering how much The Guardian in a Saturday edition played on the series’ popularity to pitch its locations as holiday destinations: for its presumably more affluent readers. While I did enjoy the series, its pleasures were somewhat out of place in the light not just of the arms dealing narrative, but also the Austerity Britain we are living through.
She spoke of the contrast between the mythical Englishness shown in Howard’s gentle features and Hiddleston’s more studied and manufactured projections of English identity, which showed a lot more conscious ‘work’. White argued persuasively that the myth of Englishness today is spread via more globalised cultural industries, and is increasingly hollow. Howard was once the subject of an old Jeffrey Richards Listener article I chanced on in the British Library; Richards portrayed him as a national phenomenon comparable to Priestley and Churchill. White alluded to this same idea of the Howard as a powerful myth, even more so due to his premature death.
She referred to the film’s use of John of Gaunt’s ‘This Sceptred Isle’ speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. As I mentioned elsewhere, Graham Greene was intensely critical of how this speech omitted reference to Robert Southwell’s execution and the turmoil experienced by Catholics in England.
Pimpernel Smith (1941) was analysed for how it demonstrated Richards’ description of the national characteristic of the English ‘sense of humour’ as a ‘redoubtable bulwark against tyranny.’ Smith, in rebuke to our present-day ideas, always has a book on him – rather like Niven’s jovial renaissance-man Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Another consciously ‘elegiac’ Jeffrey Richards essay from the Aldgate-Richards collection Britain Can Take It was quoted from: ‘a mystic England’, ‘an England of the soul’ and so forth…
With the ethereal gif of Howard playing, I thought of how indexical the two terms “English” and “gentleman” always seem to be… I also thought of ‘The News in English’, Graham Greene’s story of a Lord Haw Haw figure, but who has the tones of ‘a typical English don’. I thought also of how excluded the working-classes have been; an area Greene touched on with Purves, the poacher, getting a key role in his short story, ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’. Interestingly comparable to Howard is David Niven, not least in The Elusive Pimpernel – a Powell and Pressuburger curio that I have never seen and is damnably tricky to track down.
White reflected on just how dominant the Dragon School in Oxford and its ‘Eminent Dragon’ alumni have been in British politics and culture: Alain de Botton, John Betjeman, Hugh Gaitskell, Rory Stewart, Tim Henman, Dom Joly… This was followed, of course, by reference to the casting of Eminent Dragons Hugh Laurie, Toms Hollander and Hiddleston in TNM. She referred to Laurence Fox’s defensive reaction (“Shut up!”) to Julie Walters’ comments on the now-entrenched class divisions in British acting. White finished pointedly with an oppositional image that made an unarguable case for the situation of the advantaged vs. the disadvantaged in the British arts today… During the Q&A, Laura Crossley helped tie some of the threads together by saying she’d read that Hiddleston had been quoted saying he’d love to play the Scarlet Pimpernel…
Thus, Day 2 concluded; relaxation ensued, but ghosts and images of the past and present stayed very much in mind.
‘A band, or a brand, that was quintessentially British’.
We can start with discounting this utter nonsense about The Beatles; for Dominic, a ‘quintessentially British band’ actually formed through Scouse, German and American influences, and whose art apparently can be reduced to export figures and business jargon: ‘brand’.
Several reviews of this unaccountably BBC-promoted historian’s book and TV show spin-off have been ill-informed. No, Daisy Goodwin, Sandbrook doesn’t ‘ingeniously’ find a link between the region’s metal-work industry and the growth of heavy metal. Jeremy Dellar has previously made exactly the same link but did not use it to make a simplistic and convoluted neo-liberal argument. He also, as Matthew Cooper states, uses ‘the foundries of the West Midlands to stand for all industry in the area, much of which was far lighter work’, and that of the band only Tony Iommi worked in engineering.
For Julia Raeside in The Guardian, it was an ‘enjoyable gallop through Britain’s pop-cultural output’. For ’Andrew Billen in The Times, it was ‘the brainiest clip show ever’. For Matt Baylis, ‘Dominic does us proud’. Sally Newall in The Independent said that she ‘enjoyed the focus on the business side of things’. Well, that’s just as well as that is all that Sandbrook is ultimately concerned with – his materialistic analysis gives Adorno’s ‘culture industry’ thesis a positive spin.
The TV show only has a very brief segment on Catherine Cookson, which Sweet regards as the most perceptive section of the book. This inspires Sweet to say that her work ‘may one day be rediscovered, as a portrait of a world as grindingly cruel as anything experienced by Winston Smith.’ This should have figured much more deeply in what was a scattershot TV series. Sweet implicitly critiques Sandbrook’s focus on money being the primary driving force behind culture by using the example of electric shock-baton technology, worth £59m a year to the British economy, just £18m less than the cultural industries (£76.9m.) as was reported by the government in January. Far be it from Sandbrook to face our significant export, not of Harry Potter, but of cluster bombs and arms. Cooper explains that even on Sandbrook’s stat-based terms, he is wrong to state the economic case so strongly. While creative industries have been an increased percentage of our economy and exports since 2008, they are significantly exceeded by manufacturing areas such as aircraft, machinery and pharmaceuticals, while computers, gaming and advertising are the ‘creative industries’ sector’s strength.
Boyd Tonkin ruefully sees Sandbrook’s work as neglecting the Port Talbots of this world, siting it in the context of current steelworks closures. Sandbrook is even criticised by Charlotte Heathcote in the UKIP-supporting Express for his parochialism: ‘Early on he suggests that France has offered nothing to “the global imagination” aside from Asterix and Le Petit Prince.’ He is defended by Simon Copeland of The Sun, who laps up the smug nationalism of Sandbrook’s argument: ‘there is no French equivalent of The Beatles. No Jean-Paul, George and Ringo, if you like’. Heathcote, however, acidly critiques Sandbrook’s tendency to ‘measure artists’ worth by how they would stand up to the values espoused by Victorian writer Samuel Smiles’.
Sandbrook’s series does not dissect the ‘conservative anarchism’ that Alwyn W. Turner identifies as a focus of the book. Indeed, the series tends to venerate a buccaneering capitalism with minimal if any focus on the more chaotic consequences of business values, and co-opts all manner of texts in the service of a docile ‘traditional’ Britishness rooted in Victorianism. Turner rightly focuses on how Sandbrook’s hatred for John Lennon leads him into a simplistic biographical reading of ‘Imagine’, not allowing for how audiences may interpret it, as with a recent pro-democracy usage of it in Hong Kong protests.
Ekow Eshun notes Sandbrook’s avoidance of more ‘serious, popular and contentious’ currents in British culture – from Nick Drake to Peter Greenaway to Pop Art to Brutalism to rave to Madchester – along with an ignoring of black and Asian creative figures. Eshun identifies Sandbrook’s privileging of a bland, exclusive culture: ‘It’s a picture of Britain the Victorians would surely approve of’. He also tellingly chides Sandbrook’s price of everything, value of nothing attitude: ‘The impact of the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ is dismissed because it was outsold by Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ in the summer of 1977, as if chart position is the inviolate marker of cultural influence’.
Erstwhile Euston Manifesto signatory Nick Cohen mounts a persuasive critique of Sandbrook’s neglect to mention the dearth of quality theatre today: ‘The post-war generation produced three great playwrights in John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Now, Britain has no great playwrights.’ He also criticises Sandbrook as ‘he does not explain why the hunger has disappeared from so much of television or worry that we are becoming mediocre and predictable.’ Sandbrook is indeed Panglossian in his populist optimism, with Cohen pointing out that of Sandbrook’s ‘success stories’, only J.K. Rowling is contemporary and producing original work.
In LUEY, a vast range of examples is shoe-horned into a banal, wrong-headed argument: from J. Arthur Rank to Twiggy to Chris Blackwell to T.H.White to McGoohan’s The Prisoner to Monica Ali to that purveyor of an ‘outstandingly pessimistic view of human nature’, Agatha Christie. All are pressed into the service of The Argument. Fictional characters from Billy Bunter to Billy Fisher are cajoled into daft concert, into discordant tune. Indeed, schoolboys Brown, Bunter, Jennings and Potter are all conflated, as if there is basically little difference between them. Episode 2 doesn’t even have an argument, just a fawning admiration for the public school and country house in British culture. There is much to be said on the entrenched conservatism of British intellectual culture, 1945 onwards, with Waugh, Smedley, Hayek and others keeping alive the old Conservatism or forging new Liberal Right tendencies. But Sandbrook doesn’t say it. You may just want to consult Robert Hewison or Dick Hebidge on such issues, as DS simply shows a fan’s adulation for the Granada Brideshead Revisited.
He entirely glosses over the serious tensions there have been between Burkean, nationalistic conservatism and the sort of free market, anarchistic capitalism unleashed by Thatcher. There is no focus on conservative anarchism, beyond a weak reprise near the end of episode 2 of Jonathan Coe’s arguments in the LRB about satire. Thatcher-favoured historian Martin J. Wiener’s arguments around the loss of the technological and industrial spirit from 1850-1980 are neglected, other than a reference to Tolkein’s negative portrayal of factories corrupting the Shire at the end of Lord of the Rings: “their [the Hobbits’] pastoral Eden has gone”. David Edgerton’s counter-argument that we were technologically advancing, but only in the direction of a bloated, militaristic ‘Warfare State’, are ignored to an even greater extent.
He misses the vast debates this country has seen over Americanisation. His examples of British success stories, the games Grand Theft Auto and Elite, are, as Cooper has noted, far from being culturally British, unless that it is to say that British has been Americanised. Another major shadow cast is the influence of Europe, which may as well have had no impact in terms of food and fashion; for example, no reference to the Beatles as wearing German or, indeed, American fashions.
No, for Sandbrook, it’s all ‘quintessentially British’. He does not face the impact of Suez, or of Britain’s becoming a country uneasily adapting to its status as a de facto satellite of the USA, with war debts not to be paid off until 2006.
Sometimes, he does focus on significant moments; he rightly hones in on the Rolling Stones’ landed gentry aspirations and business acumen. And he highlights the 2002 Jubilee event at Buckingham Palace, where the likes of Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams and Madness in effect genuflected before monarchy. He rightly identifies that this was not monarchy debasing itself but pop neutering itself. However, typically, Sandbrook celebrates this ‘triumph of privilege over pop’. It is a fitting he does, such is his fetishizing of data and blandness; such is his utter neglect not just of global contexts but also of the less comfortable, edgier nature of British culture. He simplifies what he likes; he ignores what he doesn’t.
Regional, class or gender identities are all neglected in favour of Sandbrook’s adherence to the myth of the mighty, autonomous individual. You could have a drinking game based on how many references there are to Richard Arkwright and Samuel Smiles. You could also do serious damage to your health by taking a drink every time he brings up a tenuous connection or misses the point entirely about a cultural item: to say the Beatles saw things entirely in business or monetary terms is idiocy, to discuss Bob Marley’s music without reference to ideology is grotesque.
There is no sense of the idiosyncrasies of different eras – there’s a somewhat Marxist sense of historical inevitability about his narrative of us as a nation perennially defined by popular culture and hard graft, with any uncomfortable contrasts kept out of the story. He misses the richness of British culture. For Sandbrook, subcultures may well never have existed. You will wait in vain for the following: pre-1910 music hall, post-punk, the music print culture around Melody Maker and the NME, early Channel 4, Play for Today, social realism on TV and film, besides tokenistic reference to Billy Elliot and Trainspotting (both used in service of The Argument). Art schools are tellingly downplayed by their only mention in a critical broadside against his bête noire, John Lennon. There is no sense that we might have produced artifacts as interesting as The Ipcress File, 7-Up or Rock Follies.
Sandbrook absurdly associates Kate Bush with the BRIT school; the soundtrack crassly uses Nick Drake over footage of the country house and public school ‘ideal’. He claims that 1970s audiences preferred Upstairs, Downstairs to the 3 Day Week, without analysing why this latter political event occurred, or acknowledging that LWT’s period drama is a lot more nuanced and complex than the traditionalist Toryism he takes it as embodying. This was a series which took in the bleakness of WW1, as well as issues like the General Strike in its final 1920s-set series. Its heart is closer to Hampstead liberalism than Grantham conservatism, yet Sandbrook seems to assume that it is more Hudson’s story than Rose Buck’s story, which is simply not the case. The preferred reading is increasingly critical of Hudson as the series develops and is not uncritically supportive of social hierarchies.
He takes Doctor Who and the Doctor to represent ‘liberal interventionism’, as if the mercurial Patrick Troughton or the often countercultural Sylvester McCoy can be so easily pigeonholed… Even Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is rather more a haughty, clubbable conservative than a Tony Blair-style crusader-come-shyster… The Third Doctor’s preaching is more varied than DS allows; he knows Mao Zedong as well as Francis Drake and an overarching tendency to moan about bureaucracy in that very 1970s way. Philip Sandifer has identified the 1977 Tom Baker serial ‘The Sunmakers’ as ’punk’; heaven forbid that Sandbrook considers fringe or subcultural influences!
And, oh, is Sandbrook proud of his ‘facts’; he would have done better to focus his study of British culture on the very obsession with empiricism and mistrust of ideas he shows. Yes, one third of the population visit a country house; however, unlike a Perry Anderson or Raphael Samuel, he doesn’t go on to interrogate the myths or quite why there is such a cult of the old in the UK. LUEY isn’t so much the ‘history of great men’ or ‘history from below’, as history from the wallet. Or, from the noggin of Thomas Gradgrind.
He relishes phrases like ‘like all good populists’ and ‘missionary spirit’ and contestable assertions such as ‘we make stories better than anyone else’. While only offering that we have one basic story that is grindingly banal: social aspiration and hard work pays off for the individual. Mantra-like, this Daily Mail narrative pervades not just Conservative party neuro-linguistic propaganda but four full hours of BBC TV ‘history’ here. This programme may as well, as David Lichfield has said, been commissioned by David Cameron. For an organisation that has Adam Curtis, Jonathan Meades and Matthew Sweet at its disposal to allow this is genuinely saddening. It is a long way from Ways of Seeing (1972) and The Shock of the New (1980) to here.
At one stage in episode 4, he raises a salient point – ‘the growing power of individualism has come at a cost’ – but then doesn’t go on to say any more on the matter, like the Torian he is. For this historian equivalent of Cameron in politics and Cowell in entertainment, it always returns to the theme of a ‘land of opportunity’, British culture represented as a Smilesian Opportunity Knocks.
 Goodwin, D. (2015) ‘Britain’s got talent – How the ‘workshop of the world’ turned into its most successful purveyor of popular culture’, The Sunday Times, 4th October
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.