“You cannot have unilateral disarmament […] It’d be national suicide” – representation of the Ban the Bomb debate in ESPIONAGE

ESPIONAGE: 4. ‘The Gentle Spies’, ITV, Saturday 26/10/1963

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“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!”

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Establishment men

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.

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Baz Foster in his earlier “man from the ministry” city gent get-up…

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.

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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).

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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.

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“Spies on British Screens” Day 3: Of Whicker, reassuring hawks and burning Londons

Sunday 19th June 2016

Plymouth

Following an enjoyable, inevitably seafood-including meal near Plymouth Harbour and drinks til late, I must admit to being very tired open entering Day 3 of the conference, but just about made it through…

Filipa Moreira (I. U. de Lisboa, Portugal) placed Bond in the context of Portuguese cultural history. She mentioned how Fleming had stayed at the Palacio Estoril Hotel – to the west of Lisbon on the coast – in 1941, also using its casino, which yielded some of his later writing. During WW2, Portugal was officially neutral, which reminded me of Rui Lopes’ paper from Spying on Spies last year. Moreira explained some further influence of Portugal on Bond, with Guincho Beach proving a setting in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).

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Moreira located Bond as ‘the most popular figure in entertainment’ with repetitive narrative structures important to how Fleming established his archetypal hero. She identified product placement as a significant part of the series’ persistent appeal. Using Galician and Bordeau’s four category model (2004) of how product placement is used in films (1. Verbal/hand placement, 2. Implied endorsement, 3. Signage, 4. Clutter), she argued it allowed the series to develop throughout time and adapt to changing tastes.

We were then treated to some revealing cultural history in the shape of the Whicker’s World ‘James Bond Special’ (TX: BBC-1, 25th March 1967). This documentary was of Pinewood Studios in the time of You Only Live Twice’s making. Whicker’s phrases – such as “a modern fairy tale”, “space age gubbins”, “the Bondwagon”, “Bondiana”, “no message to sell” and “like Kleenex!” – amounted to a smugly indulgent, supercilious reveling in the trivial nature of pop culture and Bond’s amorality.

This documentary didn’t just reveal that Cubby Broccoli’s grandfather introduced broccoli the vegetable, but indirectly showed a stark difference to 2016 in sexual mores – pre-1970s ‘women’s lib’ – with women marginalised or patronised in the show’s preferred reading. A particularly telling section saw YOLT screenwriter Roald Dahl drily responding to Whicker’s eager ‘wink-wink’ question about how Bond “gets through women”.

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Connery’s appearance showed how comparatively low-key the nature of celebrity was in 1967, compared with 2016; he comes across as down to earth and mildly embarrassed by the absurd level of media attention he was experiencing. He also focused on how the books ‘lack humour’ and how he liked how the films increased it.

There wasn’t time to watch the whole programme; then, a Q&A pertaining to Moreira’s paper and the Whicker programme. Alan ‘Gus’ Burton referred back to his own paper – the lineage of 1964-73 British spy films – and how Hammerhead included location usage of Lisbon to signify the exotic.

Mention was made of the democratising impact of brands on culture, from the 1960s onwards. This appearance of luxury could be compared to the supposed ‘privileging’ of audiences’ being able to vote for ‘talent’ on Hughie Green’s TV shows in the same era, as Joe Moran has detailed in his excellent article for History Workshop, ”Stand Up and Be Counted’: Hughie Green, the 1970s and Popular Memory’.

A delegate highlighted that items like Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green in the 2006 Casino Royale)’s necklace will set you back £2000, showing money’s lack of democracy. There was discussion, linking back to Felix Thompson’s Day 1 paper, of how the programme showed a pre-mass tourism age – with Whicker’s formulaic parade of wealthy people and foregrounding of luxury. The almost parodic silliness of Whicker’s persona perhaps chimed with the fact that YOLT was more negatively received, with many film critics discussing the formula as growing ‘stale’. Cultural change was commented on: casinos are now seen as tacky. There was juxtaposition of the worldly, urbane Roger Moore with Daniel Craig in CR – ‘the first Bond to be drunk on screen’. This was seen as influenced by the Bourne films, with Jason Bourne’s ‘grim and gritty lifestyle’ – at least in the early films – being anti-Bondian. Some anticipation was evident in the room for the new Jason Bourne (2016).

The next panel included myself and was all a little rushed, with lunch on the way! Both papers made use of video matter. Toby Manning began by showing clips from Smiley’s People (1982) and US drama series Homeland (2011 – date). His clips proved that dialogue in the latter was practically lifted from the former, eliciting belly laughs from conference goers… He contrasted the former’s advocating of détente with the latter’s anti-Iranian ‘terrorist’ hawkishness. Manning argued that the JLC TV adaptations provide a ‘source book, a template’ used by what he described as the ‘trashier’ Homeland. The adaptations reflected the ‘posh end of heritage’. He commented on the oddity of a ‘hate-fuelling’ Homeland using as its template the humanist hero Smiley and also considering that JLC was very critical of the ‘War on Terror’.

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Manning described Saul Berenson as the best thing about it: possessing probity and Smiley-like moral scruples. By season 3, JLC was being channeled ever more explicitly, as an attempt by the show to lend itself ‘legitimacy’. Enhanced by his opposition to the Iraq War, JLC is often seen as the great liberal conscience; Manning commented that Homeland gets to seem liberal while being hawkish. Saul increasingly gets given Smiley’s lines. Carrie is said to enact all of the mad and bad stuff, with Saul being scrupulous initially but ultimately endorsing her actions. Season 3 channels The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and also quoted several other plagiaristic lines. He unfavourably contrasted Berenson’s ultimate concern being with his own career with Smiley’s wider sense of duty.

Manning began to conclude by criticising the Manichean idea that ‘the enemy’ is peculiarly inhuman and brutal. He said that it was one thing to portray Communists as barbaric – “You can argue with that and I do” – but that it was quite another to argue that Muslims are inherently barbaric and stated that there was a racist element at work in Homeland… He closed by saying that Smiley was a liberal hawk as early as in The Honourable Schoolboy; he executes Dieter Frei in Call from the Dead, is implicated in Liz and Leamas’ setting-up in TSWCIFTC and allows Bill Haydon’s death in TTSS. His ruthless pursuit of Karla is due to his loss of faith in détente. Manning’s excellent long conclusion ended with how the spy genre works to reassure us that the threat is real and to give us avatars like Berenson and Smiley, doing the job ‘as decently as possible in the circumstances’. These ‘reassuring hawks’ wring their hands on our behalf but ultimately enact the dominant ideological impulses.

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Does my hawkishness look reassuring in this?

Next was my own paper, available here. I argued, akin to Manning about Homeland, that the Christopher Hampton-scripted film version of The Honorary Consul ultimately endorses hegemonic politics, ignoring much of the notable counter-hegemonic discourse of Greene’s original 1973 novel. Unfortunately, the timings in the schedule were slightly off so there was no specific Q&A just for this panel. Though there was another good cold buffet lunch to go straight into! Wherein I discussed Greene with Felix Thompson, who mentioned how comparatively forgotten oppositional representations to the NATO hegemony now are…

Then, it was onto the very final panel of the day; this was delivered by three gents from King’s College London, with complementary papers on recent James Bond texts. Edward Lamberti began with analysis of the ‘shortest’ Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), using Judith Butler’s performativity theory and – as more of a curve-ball – J.L. Austin’s Speech-Act Theory (1955). This was the only mention in the conference of this theory that language brings things into being: “It’s a girl!” “We find the defendant guilty”. Some use was made of Sandy Petry’s Speech Acts and Literary Theory (1990) as a framework.

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He developed an analysis of Bond in QOS as conveying a sense of loss and melancholy, mentioning how Cinema Paradiso (1988) reflecting a sense of the past as better. “A newly Bourne secret agent” elicited a groan or two! This grittier Bond’s isolation and alienation was argued to contain insight into the structures of society. Lamberti asserted that a ‘productive melancholy’ on Bond’s part reflected a rebelliousness seen as a threat by M.

The next speaker Christopher Holiday (KCL) focused on recent portrayals of London on screen seem fixated on showing it battered into oblivion. Use was made of Charlotte Brunsdon’s London in Cinema (2007) to develop his thoughts on a ‘London has fallen’ cycle of films, which included some recent Bonds. The US-made The Day the Earth Was Stopped (2008) was derided. A clip was used from G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013). These films were more broadly contextualised in a lineage of British science fiction cinema: The Giant Behemoth (1959), Konga (1961) and Gorgo (1961) – the titular monster of whom was to some the ‘English Godzilla’ – and I.Q. Hunter was quoted on this tradition.

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G.I. Joe: Retaliation or Konga? I know which I’d prefer to sit down and watch!

The true ‘London sequence’ was argued to have started with the relatively politicised V for Vendetta (2005) and Children of Men (2006), though key scenes in this latter film are in the UKIP-terrain of ‘Bexhill’*, East Sussex, though the detention camp scenes were actually filmed in Aldershot. PD James-adaptation COM is a very notable film, with satirising of nihilistic post-modernist neo-liberalism and an against-type casting of Michael Caine as a romantic hippie.

London was being used more, not just for British films, but by others – as British crews were experienced, now generally non-unionised and there was greater studio space.  Mention was made of a 2013 Telegraph article by John Hiscock, who seems to have written about the subject since at least the late-90s.

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The SIS Building (1994) was used in GoldenEye (1995). Holiday discussed Craig’s Bond as being strongly aligned with London through his unveiling as Bond on a Royal Marine speedboat on the Thames on 14th October 2005. He showed this clip and it was undoubtedly powerful iconography, no doubt intended to counterbalance Craig’s more working-class, northern origins with patriotic ballast.

Ethical issues were discussed, with relation to the criticism London Has Fallen (2016) itself had received from 7/7 victims’ families for its ‘insensitivity’. Holiday referred to the most recent JB film SPECTRE (2015) as ‘haunted cinema’, a sort of prelude to the next paper.

Speaker 26, the last of the Conference, was Alexander Sergeant (again KCL) who discussed the function of the “Bond girl” as a Structuring Archetype in SPECTRE, according to Jungian spectator theory. He said he wanted to steer away from the common – in the 1970s-90s, anyway – field of Lacan/Metz/Freud psychoanalytical approaches to film. Can’t say I blamed him, really!

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His paper focused on individuation and how archetypes have roots in the collective unconscious. Dr Madeleine Swann – a psychologist working in the Austrian Alps – in SPECTRE is referred to as a contradiction to the ‘Bond Girl’ archetype, who along with Bond will have to return. Proust was referred to.

The Q&A incorporated all three KCL speakers, Toby Manning and I. Sadly, I can remember little of it but that I made a point about social class and the poacher character in Went the Day Well? It only remained for me to make my way to the station with some other delegates and go through a grueling nigh on nine-hour journey back to the north east!

Four days after the end of the conference came the Brexit vote.

*Bexhill and Battle UK parliamentary constituency is a rock-solid Tory seat, which even had a Tory majority of 11,100 in 1997, and is now over 20,000 with UKIP in second place. Both Stuart Wheeler and Nigel Farage – two of the most reprehensible influences in our body politic in the last 20 years – stood here and got in excess of 2,500 votes.

Dominic Sandbrook: Cameron’s Panglossian optimist

Review: Let Us Entertain You

(TX: 9pm, BBC-2, Wednesday 04/11/2015 – 25/11/2015)

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‘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.[1] 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.[2]

For Julia Raeside in The Guardian, it was an ‘enjoyable gallop through Britain’s pop-cultural output’.[3] For ’Andrew Billen in The Times, it was ‘the brainiest clip show ever’.[4] For Matt Baylis, ‘Dominic does us proud’.[5] Sally Newall in The Independent said that she ‘enjoyed the focus on the business side of things’.[6] 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.’[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

Boyd Tonkin ruefully sees Sandbrook’s work as neglecting the Port Talbots of this world, siting it in the context of current steelworks closures.[10] 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.’[11] 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’.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.’[15] 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.

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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.[16] 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”.[17] 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.[18]

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.

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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.

Dominic Sandbrook - KATE BUSH AND THE BRIT SCHOOL

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![19]

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.

 

[1] 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

[2] Cooper, M. (2015) ‘Telling Stories? Popular culture as the new British Empire’, We Need to Talk About Dominic, 10th November [online] https://weneedtotalkaboutdominic.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/telling-stories-popular-culture-as-the-new-british-empire/ [accessed: 20/12/15]

[3] Raeside, J. (2015) ‘Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You review’, The Guardian, 5th November, p.21

[4] Billen, A. (2015) ‘For popular culture, Britain’s the cat’s whiskers’, The Times, 5th November, p.10

[5] Baylis, M. (2015) ‘Dominic does us proud – Matt Baylis on last night’s TV’, The Express, 12th November, p.43

[6] Newall, S. (2015) ‘Sandbrook’s social history went beyond the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll clichés’, The Independent, 5th November, p.41

[7] Sweet, M. (2015) ‘The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook review – intellectual snobs beware’, The Guardian, 14th October

[8] Department for Culture, Media & Sport and The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP (2015) ‘Creative Industries worth £8.8 million an hour to UK economy’, Gov.UK, 13th January [online] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/creative-industries-worth-88-million-an-hour-to-uk-economy [accessed: 20/12/15]

[9] Cooper, M. (2015) ibid.

[10] Tonkin, B. (2015) ‘As old jobs die, the march of the makers of dreams goes on’, The Independent, 24th October

[11] Heathcote, C. (2015) ‘Downing of the culture vulture’, The Express, 25th September

[12] Goodwin, S. (2015) ‘The Great British Dream Factory: Review’, The Sun, 5th December

[13] Turner, A.W. (2015) ‘God save the anarchists’, The Daily Telegraph, 14th October

[14] Eshun, E. (2015) ‘A Case of Mistaken Identity’, The Independent, 3rd October

[15] Cohen, N. (2015) ‘The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook – review’, The Guardian, 23rd September

[16] Coe, J. (2013) ‘Sinking Giggling into the Sea’, London Review of Books, (35)14, 18th July http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n14/jonathan-coe/sinking-giggling-into-the-sea [accessed: 20/12/15]

[17] Wiener, M.J. (1981) English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[18] Edgerton, D. (2005) Warfare State: Britain 1920-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[19] Sandifer, P. (2014) Tardis Eruditorium: An Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who, Volume V: Tom Baker and the Williams Years. Eruditorium Press, pp.34-44