A vital corrective: A UNITED KINGDOM (2016)

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.[1]

a-united-kingdom-poster

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’.[2] 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.[3] Oyelowo has also spoken of the film being an attempt to tackle history that educational curricula choose to ignore.[4] He also commented that the recent rise in racist rhetoric has validated the reason for making the film.[5]

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.’[6] The film also pays close attention to power, politics and persuasion, as in what Stables refers to as Seretse’s ‘game-changing speech’.[7] 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.’[8] 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.

seretse-and-ruth

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’.[9] 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’.[10] 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.)’[11] 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.

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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.[12] 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.[13]

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.

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Rosamund Pike, also representing the sorely lacking British conscience in Made in Dagenham…

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.’[14] 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.[15] 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’[16] – 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.[17] 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.

a-united-kingdom

[1] Griffin, S. (2016) ‘The power of love’, Yorkshire Post, 25th November, np

[2] Stables, K. (2016) ‘Reviews: A United Kingdom’, Sight and Sound, December, p.89

[3] 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

[4] Loughrey, C. (2016) ‘Finding love in a time of division’, The Independent on Sunday, 27th November, p.89

[5] Anon (2016) ‘Film industry is ‘doubly testing’ of women, says Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike’, The Herald, np

[6] Clark, A. (2016) ibid., p.6

[7] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[8] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[9] Keatley, P. (1980) ‘A legacy of tolerance’, The Guardian, 14th July, p.6

[10] Keatley, P. (1980) ibid., p.6

[11] Calkin, J. (2016) ‘The true story of the first president of Botswana and the English woman he fell in love with’, The Daily Telegraph, 4th November, np

[12] Jacobs, E. (2016) ‘A change of narrative’, Financial Times Weekend Supplement, 12th November, p.18

[13] Jacobs, E. (2016) ibid., p.18

[14] 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

[15] Kermode, M. (2016) ‘A United Kingdom review’, BBC Radio 5, 25th November

[16] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[17] Calkin, J. (2016) ibid., np

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A question of values: Graham Greene, Britishness, Human Rights and communication

One_for_the_Road

This, the second of three Graham Greene-related pieces for this blog, concerns itself with national identity and what that might mean in terms of values. It will consider how Greene, in The Honorary Consul and elsewhere, treats issues of Britishness – or is that Englishness? The last piece addressed culture and political ideology, this will extend the discussion into areas of language and communication, and the growing 1970s focus on human rights. Recent Greene criticism from Crystal and Sinyard will be incorporated, alongside close textual analysis and historical contexts as various as: the execution of Robert Southwell, Lord Haw Haw, 1960s defence cut-backs, 1970s eurocommunism, Harold Pinter and ‘Uncle’ Ken Russell.

In The Honorary Consul (1973), Greene’s Catholic side comes out in his concern about meta-narratives of progress; after an outline of theological perspectives, Rivas assails the power of contemporary dictatorships: ‘But now people like the General make law and order. Electric shocks on the genitals. Aquino’s fingers. Keep the poor ill-fed, and they don’t have the energy to revolt. I prefer the detective. I prefer God.’[1] Plarr questions myths of meliorism and progress: ‘we managed to produce Hitler and Stalin in one generation.’[2] It is worth recalling again that the novel was received in the context of the Pinochet coup in Chile, that brutal lesson in brute power over democratic values.

Argentinian writer character Dr Saavedra outlines a credo that is relevant to Greene’s own approach with the novel: ‘Assassinations, kidnapping, the torture of prisoners – these things belong to our decade. But, I do not want to write merely for the Seventies.’[3] However, Greene’s novel is not universal in some detached sense; as Couto argues, it is specifically concerned with exploitation within the contemporary geopolitical world: ‘To say that the location of his fiction is Greeneland is to deny the reality of the post-colonial world, of political processes, and their consequences.’[4]

Plarr’s father locks his doors against ‘military police and official assassins’ of the Paraguayan regime.[5] He later becomes a ‘political prisoner’ of the General’s regime. Aquino mentions that, unlike himself, Plarr’s father has not been tortured due to being Anglo Saxon. Yet, ‘fifteen years in a police station is a long torture’.[6]

The Helsinki Accords of 1975. Erich Honecker and Helmut Schmidt.

Torture was a 1970s and 80s preoccupation for many, as Amnesty International and the Human Rights agenda emerged, due in part to the admittedly non-binding Helsinki accords, signed on 1 August 1975. As well as Pinter’s stark representations of brutality in his 1984 play One for the Road, there was Irish writer Brian Phelan’s Centre Play ‘Article Five’ in the mid-1970s, apparently not broadcast by BBC-2 due to not being up to standard. Yet, my recent viewing of this play revealed to have visceral impact and still-relevant representations of that British habit of keeping unpleasant practices out of sight and mind. Greene’s novel leavens the bleakness of torture with intricate use of popular and literary cultural references – from Perry Mason to John Buchan to Jorge Luis Borges; the tastes of Saavedra and Plarr inform their attitudes.

Perry Mason

The regime’s revolutionary opponents, who include the torture victim Aquino, are led by the elusive ‘El Tigre’. Aquino says to Rivas, of this shadowy figure: ‘He is not here, Father […] He is somewhere in safety eating well and drinking well […] Is he never going to risk his own life like he risks ours?’[7] This reflects a sharp critique of top-down, distant leadership styles in some revolutionary movements – for example, the adherence to ideas of a vanguard. But El Tigre doesn’t really seem to be that; he is directing actions and not to be disobeyed, yet is far from taking a clear lead: a passive figure, staying out of the way. The revolutionaries’ creeping realisation that ‘El Tigre’ has let them down is powerfully, subtly conveyed.

Che Guevara
El Tigre – less present than this fella…

The novel is infused with the British context of the early-70s, despite Greene having moved to France in the mid-1960s. This cultural connectedness may be down to him still reading The Listener at his Antibes home, as recorded in an August 1967 letter.[8] Belfrage refers to the ‘law and order’ agenda of the Heath government, reflecting its more authoritarian early trajectory, and also draws attention to how lurid and debased the likely newspaper stories about Fortnum and Clara would be. This reflects the ever increasing sensationalism of the tabloid press as evidenced earlier in reporting of the Profumo Scandal and Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun in 1969. The British Embassy even receives a telegram reporting how a Tory MP has criticised a film ‘by some man called Russell’, which was the British entry to the Mar del Plata film festival as ‘pornographic’.[9] Presumably this is Ken Russell’s The Devils, though the festival didn’t, in actuality, run from 1971, when the film was released, until 1996 when it returned.

THE DEVILS - UK Poster 1
“some man called Russell”…

A lack of flexibility comes across in the British characters. The hidebound British diplomat Sir Henry Belfrage, an orderly planner, is scornful of left-wing ideas, expressing materialist, worldly values: saying ‘Cooperatives! What can a Cooperative know about wine?’ following his hangover from drinking wine from a Cooperative in Mendoza region of Argentina.[10] There is a legalistic and detached response from the British Minister about Fortnum’s kidnapping: ‘you are aware that this Government is making every effort to economize in the Foreign Service.’[11] Crichton explains to Fortnum his decision to have him retired and not replace him: ‘Well, for more than a year, London has been pressing for economies.’[12]

Denis Healey

The patriotic Fortnum is critical of the ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ attitude of the politicians at home, who he sees as lacking in ‘national pride’ – ironic, considering he is Argentinian-born himself.[13] The ruffled and affronted resentments of this adoptive Briton are representative of deep concerns in the British right over the decline in national status and prestige, not just following US-implicated humiliations as Suez and Skybolt, but the immediate aftermath of Denis Healey’s cuts to Civil Defence and the ‘East of Suez’ military presence in Singapore and Malaysia. Healey was ‘proud’ of his new policy to put British military policy on a more realistic footing; while cutting 20% of the size of the forces, he proclaimed that Britain’s European responsibilities had not been affected, showing where the government thought Britain’s cold war responsibilities lay.[14] Healey faced significant opposition; for example, over the Civil Defence cuts, ending a ‘First Cold War’ product of the Attlee government. Mary Currie of Raynes Park, S.W.20, wrote to The Times in January 1968 to attack the disbanding of the Civil Defence Corps, not emphasising their usefulness in the aftermath of a nuclear war, but in helping after the Aberfan disaster and the Hither Green train crash.[15] She asked, voicing the sort of anger over loss of sovereignty all too prevalent in 2016 Britain: ‘Is “patriotism” a dirty word now? Is the saving of a few million pounds worth the loss of the ability to help ourselves?’ She doesn’t refer to the realities of European obligations or American power.

OBE

The film version removes the part-absurd, part-deserved OBE that Fortnum is awarded by the British government, given to him to placate his anger over the US-trained paramilitaries’ killings of Rivas and Platt being officially whitewashed: as he says to Crichton: ‘Colonel Perez is a bloody liar. It was the paras who shot Plarr’.[16]

The novel is often deeply concerned with language and communication. As in much of Greene’s work, communication can be suspect: the telephone is described with a simile of it as a ‘venomous object which would certainly strike again.’[17] David Crystal argues that a lack of shared language codes and understandings are a sign of trouble in Greene’s narratives.[18]

crystal2l

This can be seen, for example, in Clara’s confusion of tenses when speaking English.[19] Or, in how Plarr mentions his preference for Latin, as a dead language which has no room for misinterpretation or ambiguity and which he can exert control over.[20] Fortnum and Clara’s distant relationship after Plarr’s death is shown through a lack of dialogue between them; the ending, one of, has language at its heart: ‘At last a sort of communication between them and he tried hard to keep the thin thread intact’[21] While the adjective ‘thin’ adds an uncertain, provisional note, it is one of Greene’s happiest endings; in stark contrast, say, to ‘The News in English’ (1940), which evokes a similar sad romanticism to Brief Encounter (1945).

Fortnum acclaims English as ‘the tongue that Shakespeare spoke’.[22] Greene himself was deeply critical of Shakespeare in ‘The Virtue of Disloyalty’, a lecture he gave, ironically, upon receiving the Shakespeare Prize at the University of Hamburg in June 1969. In this, he uses John of Gaunt’s ‘This happy breed […]’ speech from Richard II as an example of complacency: written in 1597 when Robert Southwell had been disembowelled for ‘so-called treason’.[23] He refers to a composite character of ‘Timon-Caliban’ as the only characters voicing outrage in Shakespeare: ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.’ He argues that Shakespeare would have defected to the side of the ‘disloyal’ if he had lived a few more years, but is ultimately rueful of the path the ‘Bard’ took: ‘Perhaps the greatest tragedy Shakespeare lived was his own: the blind eye exchanged for the coat of arms, the prudent tongue for the friendships at Court and the great house at Stratford.’[24]

Robert Southwell

He develops an elegant argument of the writer being fundamentally a devil’s advocate, seeing the ‘virtues of the Capitalist in a Communist society, of the Communist in a Capitalist state.’[25] Disloyalty, Greene suggests, ‘encourages you to roam through any human mind: it gives the novelist an extra dimension of understanding.’[26] He attacks the simple utilitarianism of being ‘loyal’ to your immediate social surroundings. This can be related to how disapprovingly the abstract noun ‘duty’ figures in this key passage in his short-story, ‘The News in English’ (1940):

Duty, it seemed to Mary Bishop, was a disease you caught with age: you ceased to feel the tug-tug of personal ties; you gave yourself up to the great tides of patriotism and hate.[27]

This ultimately sad, minor tragedy of a short-story associates the RP public-school accent with untrustworthiness: ‘All over England a new voice was noticed; precise and rather lifeless, it was the voice of a typical English don.’[28]

Lord Haw Haw accents telegraph

But then, in typical Greene style, the narrative confounds the obvious expectations of treachery. The story becomes a critique of the ‘People’s War’, with ignorant, unquestioning attitudes to official propaganda being exposed. However, there is also an ambivalence about the necessity for states themselves to ‘keep mum’ about what is really going on in wartime. Greene shows how questionable the British myths of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’ are, while more strongly admiring the ingenuity of a double agent and his sophisticated, very human, coding.

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Neil Sinyard

Greene was formed by Britain, but had no loyalty to it. He followed fellow underdog champion Chaplin to Europe: settling in France in the mid-60s – while Chaplin moved to Switzerland following his decision not to stay and fight the Un-American committee in the USA. Greene assisted Chaplin in writing his autobiography. Greene visited Chaplin during his Swiss exile in the late-1950s and he encouraged the film legend to write his autobiography, eventually published with the support of Greene by Bodley Head in 1964.[29] Sinyard compares the dark, early Cold War visions of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and The Third Man (1949)[30]; as well as describing Greene and Chaplin in his introduction as ‘two of the most universal and cosmopolitan artists of the twentieth century’, who were curiously both buried in the same region of Switzerland.[31] In a 1984 interview, Martin Amis reported that ‘Greene’s accent is ‘now thoroughly European and the ‘R’s are candidly Gallic’.’[32]

He saw political Europeanism as having potential. Again, in the 1980s, Greene said: ‘I can only hope that Europe will be strong enough to stand between the two rather similar cultures – Russia and the United States.’[33] He went onto speak of wanting a ‘neutral’ Europe, which could stand up against and modify the imperialism of the US.[34] The Ostpolitik agenda of Willy Brandt in the 1970s and French departure from NATO were examples of independent moves within the détente era and there were hopes for the Western European anti-Soviet ‘Eurocommunism’ movement, as conveyed in the Conference of Communist and Workers Parties of Europe, held in East Berlin from 29-30 June 1976. This conference featured 29 of the European Communist parties from Europe apart from Iceland and Albania. TIME magazine included a rather alarmist lead news story, highlighting the Italian influence.

ITALY THE RED THREAT 14-06-76

In November 1988, using the discouraging example of the USA, Greene claims that ‘the United States of Europe (a whole Europe) can never exist’, criticising the EU’s French, German and UK-centric nature and lack of true unity, and also arguing that judicial systems are too diverse for a united Europe.[35] Despite these criticisms of the then-European Communities, it seems impossible that Greene would have ultimately sided with the Brexiteers, given their notably anti-cosmopolitan campaign and the ‘little England’ isolationism they ignited.

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An “underdog” ‘against’ the establishment!

[1]  Greene, G. (1974) The Honorary Consul. London: Penguin, p.208

[2] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.228

[3] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.57

[4] Couto, M. (1988) On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the novels of Graham Greene. London: Macmillan Press, p.149

[5] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.18

[6] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.248

[7] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.201

[8] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) A Life in Letters. London: Abacus, p.290

[9] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.133

[10] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.137

[11] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.214

[12] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.262

[13] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.44

[14] The Times (1968) ‘Mr Healey sees new realism in policy: proud to continue’, The Times, 26th January, p.6

[15] Currie, M. (1968) ‘Aftermath of defence cuts’, The Times, 23rd January, p.9

[16] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.261

[17] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.25

[18] Crystal, D. ‘Going Especially Careful: Language Reference in Graham Greene’ in: Gilvary, D. & Middleton, D.J.N. (2011) Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene. London: Continuum, pp.128-48

[19] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., pp.91-2

[20] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.71

[21] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.267

[22] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.45

[23] Greene, G. (1990) Reflections. London: Reinhardt Press, p.268

[24] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.270

[25] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.269

[26] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.269

[27] Greene, G. (2005) Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin, p.444

[28] Greene, G. (2005) ibid., p.443

[29] Sinyard, N. ‘Graham Greene and Charlie Chaplin’ in: Gilvary, D. & Middleton, D.J.N. (2011) Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene. London: Continuum, p.252

[30] Sinyard, N. (2011) ibid., p.252

[31] Sinyard, N. (2011) ibid., p.250

[32] Amis, M. (1984) ‘Graham Greene at eighty’, The Observer, 23rd September, p.7

[33] Couto, M. (1988) ibid.., p.211

[34] Couto, M. (1988) ibid.., p.211

[35] Greene, G. (1991) Yours Etc. Letters to the Press. London: Penguin, p.250