Our man in the cinema: Graham Greene, popular culture, underdogs and the Left

THC

In Graham Greene’s 1973 novel The Honorary Consul, Argentinian love-interest Clara knows ‘the latest dope about a woman called Elizabeth Taylor’, while the honorary consul Charley Fortnum shows his lack of popular cultural capital: ‘a fellow called Burton? I always thought Burton was a kind of beer.’[1] In addition, Clara is represented as vain and her attention is ‘bought’ by Dr Eduardo Plarr through a pair of sunglasses, an object signifying consumerist desires and also the act of watching. Popular writer Greene’s life and work has an ambivalent relation to popular culture, and his attitudes to the political Left were rarely fixed. One of the few common threads in his non-conformist life is a concern for the underdog.

Graham Greene was a ‘child of the cinema’: as a young man he had been a cineaste; from 1935-40, he reviewed hundreds of films, inspired by the serious film journal, Close Up, which he was reading in 1922 when he started at Oxford University.[2] His tastes were for the Grierson school of British documentary, European art cinema like Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and the comedies of Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. These were examples of the relatively few films which lived up to his ideal of ‘poetic cinema’ that reflected life and had a visceral, popular appeal.

His views on British cinema were that it should depict the national character, as was observable in Will Hay films and the Grierson-style documentaries. This doesn’t necessarily clash with his status as a cosmopolitan internationalist. He tended to observe that British films were watered down by non-British influence and far less interesting or evocative of life than those which resisted this. Some of his pre-WW2 reviews seem like a cautious blueprint for Ealing’s Balcon-era output. As Matthew Sweet reminds us, Balcon’s Ealing was actually pretty left-wing – the sort of individual-respecting socialism that we can assign Orwell, Priestley and, indeed, Greene. Balcon was involved in the 1941 Committee who were lobbying for post-war opinion to be pro-Attlee instead of Churchill.[3] The Balcon children all speak of a home with a ‘political atmosphere’, infused by the ‘Left Book Club’. Sweet writes evocatively of Balcon’s protégé, Pen Tennyson, director of some earlier relatively class-conscious and politicised Ealing films: There Ain’t No Justice (1939) and The Proud Valley (1940). In his film reviewing days, Greene had seen potential in both films, but argued that it wasn’t realised; of the former, saying: ‘The etceteras – setting of bar rooms and coffee stalls – are admirable, but the whole picture breathes timidity and refinement.’[4] The latter he compared, unfavourably, with Carol Reed’s A.J. Cronin-adaptation The Stars Look Down (1940).[5] Cronin’s original novel had been loosely inspired by the March 1925 Montagu View Pit Disaster, in Scotswood, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Greene was regularly critical of and bemused by the British Board of Film Censors’ decisions: for example, to classify The Wizard of Oz (1939) as ‘for adults only’.[6] He argued, ‘Surely it is time that this absurd committee of elderly men and spinsters who feared, too, that Snow White was unsuitable for those under sixteen, was laughed out of existence?’[7] He felt it ridiculous that parents wouldn’t be able to take their children to see this ‘lavish’ film, which he liked in a pantomime vein, praising Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the ‘spinster-witch’. This shows a resistance to the wrong kind of paternalism: the BBFC’s stuffy partiality and bizarre prudery made them odd and damaging cultural gatekeepers.

BBFC

In his critic days, Greene was often scornful of ‘middlebrow’ British films preferred by the BBFC that lacked intellect or excitement and chased a form of intangible sophistication or spurious cultural cachet. He also attacked much of Hollywood as summarised by the insipid nature of a Bing Crosby song number in a film with its ‘mild self-pity, something soothing, something gently amusing’, but not much of life.[8] As opposed to the lively vulgarity he liked in British audiences, he disliked the materialistic vulgarity of Hollywood, as shown in his 1937 piece ‘Film Lunch’ where he attacked moguls like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and a system in thrall to money, with the content of films lacking in either intelligence or vivacity: ‘money for no thought, for the banal situation and the inhuman romance: money for forgetting how people live.’[9] He speaks of American capitalism utilising ‘a touch of religion, a touch of the family’ to gain respectability and cultural hegemony.[10]

He was sued in 1938 by 20th Century Fox for critiquing the ironically anti-religion and anti-family sexualisation of child-star Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie. The magazine who published his review, Night and Day, had to pay the studio and Temple damages that came to a total of £3500. Nearly £216000 in today’s money! In another 1937 review, Greene condemned US cultural imperialism that he discerned within the ostensibly Germany-focused The Road Back, referring to ‘the unformed, unlined faces and the well-fed bodies of American youth, clean limbed, prize cattle mooing into the microphone […] It would be funny if it wasn’t horrifying. This is America seeing the world in its own image.’[11]

THE ROAD BACK - 1937i

Fifteen years later, in 1952, when the House of Un-American Activities was in full swing, Greene wrote a letter to Charlie Chaplin that was published on 27th September in the New Statesman. He praises Chaplin as ‘a great liberal’, champion of the underdog whose films ‘have always punctured the bully’.[12] He suggests British personnel in Hollywood could boycott the films of those ‘friends of the witch-hunter’ Adolph Menjou and Louis B. Mayer. This letter even, as Neil Sinyard claims, partially inspired scenes in Chaplin’s anti-McCarthyist satire A King in New York from 1957. He suggests to Chaplin a scene where the tramp is resurrected and called before the House, which proposes an absurd range of indictments against supposedly politically-charged scenes from the tramp’s cinematic past. The letter shows a telling attempt by Greene to connect with the values he perceived in Chaplin’s cinematic work. Indeed, rare are the Greene texts which lack the underdog master-plot, as defined by H. Porter Abbot.

WENT THE DAY WELL

A clear example of this is Greene’s 1941 short-story ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’, which became the tremendous, ‘People’s War’ myth-building film, Went the Day Well? (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942). The short-story emphasises the working-class poacher, Purves, who is in the end imprisoned for his transgression of upper-class land, despite the ironic fact that this contravention enables him to pick off most of the German platoon threatening the village. Greene’s story focuses on this absurd, class-based injustice, while the film instead has the character die heroically, leaving a more or less united social tableau at the end. Greene represents ‘Old Purves’ as a plucky underdog, embittered due to his Boer war service, who succeeds due to his illicit knowledge of the Lord Drew’s land, but yet feels some revulsion at what he has done, when finding a baby-and-hearth photo on the person of the German lieutenant he had killed.[13] With Greene’s eye for the partiality and myth-making of official propaganda, he subtitles the story: ‘An Unrecorded Victory in 1940’.

In August 1956, US Democratic Presidential candidate and ‘egghead’ Adlai Stevenson had asked Greene to write a film script to support the United Nations. Greene drily declined, saying that the UN and ‘American materialism’ combined were the ‘chief threat’ to world peace.[14] Again, these are concerns which prefigure Chaplin’s A King in New York, which features a (sometimes overly verbose) series of verbal volleys against US culture, as Jim Jarmusch has identified. Chaplin critiques plastic surgery, product placement, advertisements and the sanitisation of popular music, in often very pungent visual terms – for example, the banal, crashing noise of the scene where his bonce is ‘drummed’ by a resident band’s drummer in a restaurant.

Chaplin4Chaplin2 Chaplin3

The attempt to make the child character (played by Chaplin’s son, Michael) the underdog doesn’t work like the universal Tramp, but very perceptive points indeed about monopoly and immigration are emitted from the precocious child’s gob. The sense of Chaplin as a champagne liberal or socialist is keenly felt – he plays a King, deposed via a communist revolution, but who finds US society no better. King Shadhoff has a Shavian or Wellsian belief in social progress, speaking not just against nuclear weapons but of a ‘Utopia’, which makes a mockery of Chaplin’s off-screen claims to be non-political: ‘I have never been political. I have no convictions. I am an individualist.’[15] Chaplin would have surely been quite well disposed towards Wells, who also had a turbulent London upbringing. Greene spoke in 1983 of admiring HGW’s work ‘enormously’ and preferring him to the more canonised Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.[16]

chaplin1

Individualism for Chaplin must be rather more about non-conformity than anything dangerously Ayn Rand or as ‘social mobility’ fixated as Michael Caine. This is shown in how the film encourages the audience to think and consider collective dreams like disarmament and devolved decision-making (with, admittedly, the paternalist King pointing the way).

Chaplin5

If Chaplin can be likened to Bertrand Russell’s left-humanism, Greene might be usefully located in the context of the post-WW2 British cultural elite, with his brother Hugh Carleton Greene’s 1960-68 tenure of BBC Director General and the Wilson government influencing an incrementally more liberal cultural climate and laws. In a 1971 interview, Greene is very critical of the puritanical didacticism of the otherwise liberal Home Secretary Rab Butler’s Street Offences Act of 1960 – which he refers to as the ‘Cleaning the Streets Act’.[17] Contrastingly, Greene consistently adheres to a more ‘enlightened’, relaxed-about-vice well-healed paternalism. This is in the context of Leavisite ascendency in literature study, Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1958) and seriously engaged documentaries in cinema and television from the likes of Denis Mitchell and John Krish. Politically, this aligned with Butskellism and the consensus politics deriving from the political economies of Beveridge and Titmuss; epitomised also by films such as A Diary for Timothy (1945), with its W.H. Auden script. Greene’s own focus on the ‘promise of socialism’ was first articulated in fiction via his 1934 novel, It’s a Battlefield.[18]

In 1993, Auberon Waugh referred to Greene as a ‘left-wing social democrat’, given to siding with the underdog and who had a ‘hatred’ of American culture for its ‘vulgarity and populism’.[19] There is a strong sense in which anti-Americanism runs through the middle and upper-class left in this era, seeing Hollywood and ‘mass culture’ as threatening to long-established ways of life – for example, Hoggart’s view on Leeds. However, Couto outlined what she saw as Greene’s nuanced attitude towards Americans in The Quiet American and The Comedians, arguing that Pyle and the Smiths represented the ‘courage and good intentions of individual Americans’, yet ‘also their misplaced, ill-judged and simplistic attitudes to life and the world.’[20] Couto discerns in the latter novel a critique of well-meaning charity, with aid money buttressing ‘imperialist activity’.[21] Ultimately, the benefit of the doubt never gets given to Americans in Greene’s work, though at least the Smiths are shown to be capable of learning and gaining more wisdom.

Perceptions of Greene’s hate-hate relationship with the US were strongly present in public discourse. Four days after Greene’s death, George Pitcher wrote a satirical piece for The Observer, wherein he has a ‘ghastly dream’ of the American secret-services responding to Greene’s persistent criticisms by blacklisting his works and which ends with Pitcher pointedly and sarcastically attacking on America’s ‘freedom, not money and business’ driven foreign policy.[22]

PITCHER

Greene also disliked the vast majority of the film adaptations of his work; with most American adaptations being, in his words from 1984: ‘outstandingly bad’.[23] He was particularly outraged by how Joseph L. Mankiewicz reversed the geopolitical argument of The Quiet American, making it into flag-waving, anti-Communist narrative; as Patterson argued, it might as well have been retitled ‘The Really Nice American’![24]

As well as Vietnam, many writers were radicalised by events in Chile, in the early 1970s; for example, Harold Pinter, whose turn to the left – a reverse-Kronstadt moment – was caused by the Pinochet coup d’état of 11 September 1973.[25] While writing THC, Greene wrote ‘Chile: The Dangerous Edge’ for the Observer Magazine, published on 2 January 1972, a ruefully pessimistic account of his travels around Chile and meetings with the increasingly besieged Salvador Allende. He sees Allende’s democratically-elected Popular Unity minority coalition government of six parties as an underdog ensemble, having to be wary of various threats: generals in Brazil and Bolivia and Robert Kendall Davis, American Ambassador to Santiago, who had links with the CIA in Guatemala; as well as the proud, moneyed miners of Chuqui and ex-President Frei ‘waiting in the wings.’[26]

Greene had been impressed by ‘the new class’ of Communist that he had met in Chile, who seemed to him very similar to those Czechs involved in the Prague Spring in being ‘open and experimental, with dogma as the ground of argument and not as an article of faith’.[27] In an October 1973 letter to Czech dissident writer Josef Skvorecky, he claimed that Allende was of the ‘school of Dubcek’ and expressed his horror at Pinochet’s putsch.[28] Andy Beckett has documented how Pinochet’s neo-liberal reforms – coupled with a repressive ‘authoritarian populist’ impulse, to use Stuart Hall’s terms – provided a template for Thatcherism in the UK.[29]

Greene and Torrijos

Greene moved left as he grew older, influenced by South American outlooks and his experiences visiting the continent, where liberals and social-democrats often worked with communists, uniting against the invariably US-backed domestic right-wing forces. He referred to American policy driving him ‘to be more friendly towards Communism’ than he would otherwise have been.[30] At the behest of the moderate General Torrijos of Panama, who became a personal friend, Greene was involved as a sort of maverick diplomat in many affairs in the region. For example, he attended the signing of a Panamanian treaty with the Carter-era USA, and, in 1979, he ‘helped to secure the release of British bankers kidnapped in El Salvador’.[31] His positive identification with Central and South American movements is also expressed in The Honorary Consul, as the reader is encouraged to like Leon Rivas, a former priest turned revolutionary who Greene loosely based on Father Camillo Torres, a priest who was shot along with guerrillas in Colombia.[32] Rivas quotes Che Guevara approvingly, to justify a pan-South American outlook.[33]

His support for countries faced by hostile US actions, like El Salvador and Nicaragua, became steadfast, and he refused to adopt a knee-jerk anti-communism: ‘constant economic and military aggression from the USA is the power that will drive these societies to hard-line Marxism’.[34]

In an April 1987 visit to Nicaragua, Greene acclaimed the Sandinistas as being on the frontline in a ‘war between civilisation and barbarism’, using language far more left-wing than he would have in 1950, when he visited Malaya, the one Cold War conflict zone where he found himself entirely aligned with conventional Western thinking.[35] Additionally, in a letter in early 1984 to his cousin Edward, he emphasised the Sandinista regime’s education programmes, which significantly reduced illiteracy and the productive nature of a government with Catholic priests and Jesuits working alongside Marxists like Tomas Borge.[36] For Greene, Margaret Thatcher’s giving Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua a frosty reception on his visit to the UK displayed a ‘complete ignorance of conditions in Nicaragua and Latin America.’[37] As with Chile, Greene saw Nicaragua as an underdog; Couto summarised his position: ‘every Government that seeks a degree of autonomy from American hegemony is branded a liability, its sovereignty given short shrift, its power destabilised’.[38] As Chris Mullin and Alan Plater showed with the novel and TV adaptation of A Very British Coup, a left-wing government in Britain would have faced much the same pressures. Harry Perkins is a left-wing underdog in the Greene mould, but with a Sheffield accent.

In the same year, Greene told Martin Amis: ‘I retain this sympathy for the dream of communism anyway, though I agree that the record is very discouraging.’[39] Indeed, in November 1967, before his protest efforts against the Vietnam War, Greene, along with Bertrand Russell and Herbert Read, was a signatory to the Belgian Defence of Human Rights’ letter to the Soviet Union protesting against the imprisonment of satirical writers Daniel and Sinyavsky.[40] Yet, he also told Amis: ‘I would rather end my days in the Gulag than in – than in California’, confirming comments he had originally made in the 1960s.[41] This clearly conveyed a clear preference, stopping short of support, for the Soviet side, representing a ‘lesser evil’-type judgement.

On 16th February 1987, impressed by Gorbachev’s leadership and feeling the Soviet Union was moving more towards his vision of it, Greene gave a speech to the Moscow Peace Forum, claiming Communists and Catholics were fighting together against the Death Squads in El Salvador, the Contras in Nicaragua and General Pinochet in Chile.[42] Greene often spoke of having no fixed attitude towards Communism, but it seemed, at that stage of Gorbachev’s liberalisation, as if ‘socialism with a human face’ could be realisable. It is only the sort of hindsight trafficked in by a Sandbrook or Gaddis that would claim there was an inevitability about Gorbachev’s ultimate failure to reform and transform communism.

Greene spoke of how he’d ‘rather romanticise the Left than romanticise the Right as Evelyn Waugh did’.[43] While he did show the limits of some left-wing organisations – such as the rebels in THC, who are shown to lack a seriously organised alliance with Catholicism – Greene in the détente and ‘second cold war’ eras showed his commitment to the struggles of the ‘new communism’ of Dubeck, Allende and the Sandinistas by including favourable representations of such ‘bottom-up’, underdog movements in his work.

[1] Greene, G. (1974) The Honorary Consul. London: Penguin, p.71

[2] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader. London: Penguin, p.xiii

[3] Sweet, M. (2006) Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema. London: Faber and Faber, p.167

[4] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.323

[5] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.380

[6] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.371

[7] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.371

[8] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.414-6

[9] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.421

[10] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.420

[11] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.227

[12] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.436

[13] Greene, G. (2005) Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin, pp.472-3

[14] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) A Life in Letters. London: Abacus, p.221

[15] Chaplin Today (Jerome de Missolz & Jim Jarmusch, 2003) – DVD: A King in New York

[16] Cunningham, J. (1983) ‘Plain thoughts of an Englishman abroad’, The Guardian, 19th December, p.11

[17] Hamilton, A. (1971) ‘GRAHAM GREENE’, The Guardian, 11th September, p.8

[18] Couto, M. (1988) On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the novels of Graham Greene. London: Macmillan Press, p.167

[19] Arena: The Graham Green Trilogy 2: ‘The Dangerous Edge’, BBC, TX: 9th January 1993

[20] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.178

[21] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.178

[22] Pitcher, G. (1991) Bottom Line: ‘Greene fingered’, The Observer, 7th April, p.30

[23] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[24] Patterson, J. (1999) ‘Playing the Greene card’, The Guardian, 10th December, p.B27

[25] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[26] Greene, G. (1990) Reflections. London: Reinhardt Press, p.283

[27] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.281

[28] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) ibid., p.328

[29] Beckett, A. (2003) Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History. London: Faber and Faber

[30] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.209

[31] Evans, R. & Hencke, D. (2002) ‘In life as in fiction, Greene’s taunts left Americans in a quiet fury’, The Guardian, 2nd December, p.3

[32] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[33] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.104

[34] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[35] Arena: The Graham Green Trilogy 3: ‘A World of My Own’, BBC-2, TX: 10th January 1993

[36] Greene, G.; Greene R. (ed.) (2008) ibid., p.382

[37] Evans, R. & Hencke, D. (2002) ibid., p.3

[38] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.167

[39] Amis, M. (1984) ibid., p.7

[40] The Guardian (1967) ‘Plea to free writers’, The Guardian, 28th November, p.17

[41] Amis, M. (1984) ibid., p.7

[42] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., pp.316-7

[43] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.212

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Dominic Sandbrook: Cameron’s Panglossian optimist

Review: Let Us Entertain You

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

Dominic Sandbrook3

‘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.

Dominic Sandbrook1

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.

Dominic Sandbrook2 - THE BEATLES

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