Last day of May’s Britain…

May’s Britain

Image result for grenfell charred
(c) The Independent

Schools are crowdfunding for pencils, glue and books.

Government departments are in stasis, allowing the illusory talisman of “Brexit” to dazzle them still, 37 months and numerous reality-checks later.

‘Austerity’ has been rhetorically ‘ended’ by the outgoing Prime Minister and the resigning Chancellor, when it simply continues: a near decade in which we’ve had the mass redistribution of services and resources from the poorer to the richer in society. The fact of this is backed up by the UN, but is barely raised as a concern within our press or on television.

Theresa May’s tears on 24 May seemed emitted more due to ambition thwarted and sadness that her beloved Party is stuffed than from contrition about the Windrush scandal or Grenfell. On that day, on my way home through the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, I passed about seven beggars. That simply wouldn’t have been the case ten years ago.

The recently deceased Christopher Booker, the first editor of Private Eye who later became euro-sceptic and climate change-sceptic, once described Britain in the 1970s as a ‘Sad Little Island’ (1980: 101). Under May, we have become even more of what can only be described as a ‘Mean Little Island’. Better an island prey to wistful melancholy than to bitterness, bluster and avarice. A United Kingdom – however complex – is better than Little England. As is a UK working with Europe to address climate change.

So, I had, and have, no sympathy. My namesake has been the joint-worst PM of my adult life; a remarkable achievement considering her predecessor was Carlton’s finest, David Cameron! The Daily Mail‘s choice is to be replaced by the Daily Telegraph‘s: such is life in Tory Britain.

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Brexit Britain: Day #1080 – For a Left-pluralism and Against 51st-State “sovereignty”

On the BBC News on 4 June, a bearded British man, publicly defending Donald Trump, sported a baseball cap bearing the inscription: “MAKE AMERICAN GREAT AGAIN”. A few weeks earlier, you can see two further British subjects sporting the self-same sartorial delight in this video report on the Brexit Party. Maybe “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” should have been emblazoned on the famous Brexiter battle bus…?

This last week, we’ve witnessed a preposterous, ornate ‘state visit’ from Donald Trump, whereby British politicians and media have fallen over themselves to indulge him; there is, of course, no contradiction at all in their calls for greater “sovereignty” outside the EU and their offering up of the NHS and other areas as part of a cap-in-hand trade deal with the USA…!

We’ve seen European Election results where Farage’s Brexit Party gained 2% more of the vote than UKIP in 2014: hardly a ringing endorsement of a “No Deal” Brexit. 5,248,533 Brexit Party voters signalled their strong commitment to an illusory patriotic dream, perhaps not realizing that many of their candidates are tax avoiding pirate capitalists. Sadly, my own region, the North East of England, was the most susceptible to Brexit Party’s empty, manifesto-less, empty populism: who, instead of great candidates like the Greens’ Rachel Featherstone, elected a silver goateed Thatcherite Scot who lives in France as a North East MEP:

Some positives? Well, the now unequivocally far-right UKIP flopped, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon humiliated. Moreover, the combined Lab-Green-LD-CUK-SNP-PC-SDLP share of the vote rose to 54.3% from 42.1% in 2014. The combined Tory-BP-UKIP vote was 42.5% down from 50.8% UKIP, Con and BNP got in 2014. The right is not winning as much as it was in 2009 and 2014; even, 2004, remember, which saw the absurd, vanity-stoked rise of Robert Kilroy-Silk MEP! There is a long way to go to defeat these people and their ideas, but, tentatively, the tide is turning as facile, unachievable ideas meet reality. Yet, on the Brexit issue, you sense not enough has changed: a re-run of the referendum would simply be 52-48 the other way. Sadly, bleakly, we may have to suffer the realities of an ever more unleashed pirate capitalism before the largely inattentive part of the public realises it has been sold not just a pup, but a rottweiler.

Do we care more about blue passports or protecting the ideals of the NHS? If the anti-Brexit petition got 6 million signatures, this should be getting even more: as we are now getting to know the shape of an actual No Deal Brexit. It will be a Britain that has literally amputated its own heart and brain if we allow the NHS to be “put on the table” with US profit to be put above UK people’s well-being. Brexiters only plan to make Trump’s America great again, remember?

Novelist and essayist Jonathan Coe has written persuasively of the strange movement from Olympics Britain of 2012 to the Brexit vote of 2016, not neglecting to argue that austerity was the harsh reality beyond the optimism expressed in Danny Boyle’s ceremony:

Still stunned by the referendum result, and cowed by the way it was talked up in the media as an overwhelming mandate, our political class remains paralyzed by its own commitment to delivering the undeliverable.

Jonathan Coe, TIME, 06/06/2019

We have been landed in this mess by the Tory Party, whose leadership campaign now is focused on a positive vision for the future of the country – hard-drugs for some and Hard Brexit for all! This article, too, reveals the Tories’ state of perhaps terminal weakness, with candidates scared of the likelihood of ‘Crowds booing Tories’. If they were genuinely confident in their Brexit and indeed in defending their record in government, they would welcome a proper, representative public forum. Instead, they will lobby for a disproportionately blue-rinsed, elderly and affluent assembly of Tory members and voters… And if they do get their way – sadly, the BBC see themselves as beholden to this hapless government – it may surely end up rebounding on them, as people see an audience that manifestly does not reflect the country at large.

Friday morning’s Peterborough by-election result was more heartening than expected: maybe these are the first signs of Brexit fatigue? Or is it evidence of my gnawing suspicion that, beyond the quite large and doggedly entrenched 5 million Leavers and 5 million Remainers, the largest number of people ultimately care more about other, domestic issues…?

It certainly suggests that Labour would be likely to “win” a general election under FPTP but probably with a minority government, so would have to work with other parties (GP, SNP, LD, PC). However, it isn’t going to be quite so simple to “put Brexit to bed” if you’re in power, but they could conceivably do so, and working and compromising with those 4 other parties should be key (and it would show up Theresa May’s failures to compromise even more)… What the result should demonstrate is that the Brexit Party may well gain a lot of votes, but they’ll gain relatively few seats under FPTP and invariably split the right-wing vote in a strange reverse-mirror of the 1980s.

Labour are making some positive steps, policy-wise: Angela Rayner and the National Education Service; Corbyn and Rayner with the absurdly overdue move away from the rhetoric of ‘social mobility’ and ‘meritocracy’: these are stale 1990s concepts that just dress up Grammar School-like idea of giving a leg up to a lucky few. Improving opportunities for all, ‘equality’ and ‘social justice’ are far more desirable and progressive goals. Let’s hope that Labour can also move towards a fairer system of transparency over land ownership and properly tax the biggest hoarders of land: not ordinary home-owners, but the small number who heard the vast acreage of Britain, as Ian Jack details in the LRB. More school playing fields and libraries and the idea of the Public Good.

Practical steps to achieve progressive outcomes:

1. Labour, after winning an election but without a majority, introduce a programme of constitutional reform including, crucially, Proportional Representation as a genuine sign of goodwill and cooperation towards those smaller parties.

2. They hold a second referendum on the actual Brexit deal that is available (& if No Deal isn’t given as an option, there’s proper public communication about why not).

3. The Labour-led government institute a genuine end to austerity and a return to ideas of the Public Good: NHS, NES, land reform…

4. They begin radical plans to address climate change.

I am of the Left but I care about listening to, learning from and allying with those of social-Liberal (not Orange Book Cleggite) and Green views. I am a Left-pluralist who realises the left’s historical record means it should not assume it has all the answers. New alliances need forming, to outmanoeuvre Johnson and Farage. Too many in both the Liberal-Left and the Left have turned their fire on each other and resorted to Life of Brian-esque sectionalism rather than relentlessly turning fire on the real enemies: especially those two privileged men named above, the lying journalist and the ‘rebel’ stockbroker.

Saving the planet is frankly the biggest issue that faces us. Let’s gradually and democratically consign Brexit to the history books: an impossible dream sold by the Tories on a false prospectus and face humanity’s real crisis and emergency of Climate Change and Britain’s real crisis of austerity. The first will be tough and require significant societal changes, and needs to be done in concert with others, the EU included… The Green New Deal is a good first step, but isn’t in itself going to be sufficient.

So, greater wisdom, humility and willingness to achieve the above four steps is necessary to unite the Left, ecologists and the Liberal-Left and keep the UK together as a political entity.

Tribute: Peter Hutchings

Last Wednesday, I attended a special event to commemorate the life of film and television academic Peter Hutchings at Newcastle upon Tyne’s Tyneside Cinema, alongside many of his former colleagues and students. This was a lovely gathering; it was great to learn more about Peter’s life, beyond my own relatively brief experience of being taught by him for one academic year when I did my MA in Film Studies in 2004/05.

Part of the event was the unveiling of the results of his Northumbria University colleagues’ apt idea of inscribing a whole row of seats in the Tyneside Cinema’s largest Classic screen, with his name and quotations from some of his favourite films, e.g. Chinatown (1974) and Horror Express (1972). Peter Cushing – so neglected for so long – was clearly Peter’s favourite actor, as his characters such as Dr Wells were well represented, quotation wise…


Inspector Mirov: The two of you together. That’s fine. But what if one of you is the monster?
Dr Wells: Monster? We’re British, you know.

Horror Express

The speakers, who included Northumbria’s Johnny Walker and Russ Hunter, were often emotional in paying tribute to a man who had helped shape their academic careers. As RH detailed, he could be unpredictable in class when teaching and his musical taste was varied and included the strange likes of Tiny Tim. Recently, he had taken to attending the horror film festival Abertoir, held annually in November at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre in Ceredigion, and has now had a festival cocktail named after him: the “Hutch”!

I found him personally very helpful; one of those lecturers who was sharp and expert, yet who you also sensed was thoroughly on the side of students trying to formulate their own thoughts on film and television. He steered me down interesting paths, and helped me refine my voice when writing about film and television; as Mark Jancovich has commented:

‘He wasn’t a Gothic villain who attempted to remake the world in his image. he had no interest in churning out replicas of himself or extensions of his will. Instead, he helped people to achieve their potential, to recognize their intellectual insights and have confidence in the value of their contribution to the world.’

Mark Jancovich (2018) ‘Remembering Peter Hutchings’, Horror Studies 9.1, 4

When getting down to work on my MA dissertation on British cinema of the 1970s – then, in 2005, a very neglected area – he strongly recommended I watch a few episodes of LWT’s 1969-74 sitcom On the Buses, to get a flavour of the era and what was popular with British audiences, and was thus especially significant. I learned from him that the first film adaptation was Hammer’s highest grossing film of 1971, exceeding any of the studio’s horror films of that year. It was clear that he felt this was a matter for some cultural sorrow, though he didn’t explicitly say so. I loaned a single VHS tape from Northumbria’s now sadly defunct “slide library” and proceeded to watch 3 or 4 episodes of the sitcom, which conveyed strangely, horribly virulent gender stereotyping and casual sexism, as well as notable class representations.

Johnny Walker (2018: 454) has argued that Hutchings was ‘not merely a scholar of popular British cinema, but its champion’, who, in addition to his work on horror, explored thrillers, disaster movies, science fiction as well as penning outlying essays on film and TV representations of the culturally marginal region of north-east England. Similarly, a major thing I learned from him was the importance of analysing and taking seriously both popular culture and areas within it that get neglected or marginalised by certain cultural gatekeepers – whether horror cinema or ITV comedies of the 1970s. He was also good at recommending excellent books in this area: Leon Hunt’s British Low Culture: From Safari Suits to Sexploitation (1998) being perhaps the most memorable and useful during my MA dissertation.

Prompted by Walker’s tribute which mentions PH’s first published writing in Charles Barr’s ‘pivotal’ edited volume All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema (1986), I have read and enjoyed this very piece today. Hutchings’s short essay on Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) closes a book which ambitiously explores institutions, ideology, overlaps between film and television and what Julian Petley defines as ‘the Lost Continent’ of British cinema. Hutchings locates Hitchcock’s film as being around the close of the period of generous US funding of British films, and 9 years before the ‘renaissance’ of Chariots of Fire (1981): a rebirth he regards as questionable as it has excluded ‘broad comedy, horror, melodrama, and ‘bad taste’ in general’. He further argues that ‘a regeneration of British cinema must remain incomplete’ until not just critical attention is paid to neglected popular films but until more such films are made. (Barr, 1986: 374)

He notes that there was derogatory criticism of the Covent Garden-set Frenzy for its Dixon of Dock Green dialogue, highlighting critics’ long-standing snobbery towards television. He conducts sophisticated textual analysis of the film, drawing fascinating links to features as varied as A Canterbury Tale (1944), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Blue Lamp (1949), The Dambusters (1955), Every Day Except Christmas (1957), Look Back in Anger (1959), Peeping Tom (1960), Hands of the Ripper (1970), Carry On Loving (1970) and Murder by Decree (1978).

Hutchings describes Hitchcock’s first British-based film in over 30 years as a ‘democratic […] compendium’ of post-WW2 British cinematic genres which freely mingle and aren’t part of a ‘static, hierarchical order’. (ibid, 373) The modes of sex comedy, war film, social realism, melodrama and the new X-rated horror are all ripe to be richly exploited by Hitchcock, who saw cinema as artifice and didn’t accept what Hutchings defines as a binary critical paradigm of ‘realist/Good Taste’ (Ealing, British New Wave, Free Cinema) and ‘non-realist/Bad Taste’ (Gainsborough, Hammer, the Carry On series). (ibid, 369) He notes how realism has been critically privileged, with cultural gatekeepers like the Observer film critic George Melly attacking Frenzy for its anachronism. Interestingly, he links Powell and Pressburger with this non-realist tendency, highlighting their critical and commercial decline in fortunes in the 1950s. He places the mass of British war films as somewhere in between the binaries.

In a particularly rich section of textual analysis, Hutchings identifies the film’s exploration of ‘uncontrolled and violent male sexuality’, linking it with the cultural history of Jack the Ripper and Victorian London:

‘It is significant in this light that the first necktie murder in Hitchcock’s film is greeted with the comment that ‘It’s another necktie murder’, a line repeated in newspaper headlines several times throughout the film. One can link this with the reaction to the Glueman in Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, the news of whose nocturnal activities – pouring glue into young girls’ hair during the blackout – is greeted with the remark ‘The Glueman’s out again‘. Again and another: two signifiers of indefinite repetition, in a situation where repeated acts of psychopathic violence have become an integral part of the British way of life’

Peter Hutchings (in Barr, 1986: 370)

This suggests so much: not just in its situation of Frenzy within the context of the increasingly ‘violence’ preoccupied 1970s, but also about our own times. Any budding film or television scholar should read this piece (and, indeed, its parent book) and aspire to emulate Hutchings’s incisive range of references and strength of argument.

On Wednesday, it was palpable how highly he was thought of and how he positively influenced and helped shape so many lives. As another colleague said, “He was a gentle man”, and there was a sense of loss as the many people gathered processed upstairs to the cafe bar to further toast his life, to the strains of Tiny Tim’s ukulele-led hit ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ (1968). But there was also a sense of celebration, as his was a life that had made a tangible difference.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Hutchings, P. (1986) ‘Frenzy: A Return to Britain’, in: Barr, C. (ed.) All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 368-74
  • Jancovich, M. (2018) ‘Remembering Peter Hutchings’, Horror Studies, 9.1, 4 January, 3-6
  • Walker, J. (2018) ‘Hammer and Beyond: Peter Hutchings’s Contribution to the Study of Popular British Cinema and Television’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 15.3, July, 453-9

Brexit Britain: Day #1052: Calling generals… But not forgetting drivers

So, thought you could forget all about it…? Think again. While many of us Britishers enjoyed a sublime Easter weekend – even in the usually rainy north-west towns of Kendal and Brampton – we have again been brought face to face with the intractable lose-lose game and soap opera without episodes that is… Brexit.

Two Thursdays back, we had local elections and, curiously, the mood music from both Conservative and Labour parties is that their incoherent pro-Brexit stances have been vindicated by results which actually showed the Greens and Liberal Democrats significantly up, UKIP and Labour down and the Tories massively down.

At least some of our household voted Green in the local elections and my vote for Jamie Driscoll as Mayor of the North of Tyne was due to his seemingly genuine engagement with green issues. A municipal socialist Copenhagen upon Tyne is going to be rather likelier than Venezuela, I reckon and hope… While Tory rival candidate Charlie Hoult carried Northumberland by a margin of almost 14% in the second-round, Driscoll won by over 19% in North Tyneside and gained nearly tw0-thirds of the vote in Newcastle upon Tyne itself.

What else has happened? Man-child military fetishist Gavin Williamson lost his job, due to a purported leak about a sensitive international policy, in a strange after-echo of the 1986 Westland affair, but with added random petulance. If this is true, shouldn’t this dwarf even the leak in significance? Also, why is he accompanied by a famous, back-from-the-dead light entertainer?

With sincere apologies to the Swindonian band, XTC

If we are to believe one bizarre old buffer on Question Time (02/05/2019) who thought Williamson had been an army General, is this time to be “Calling Generals… and Brucies…!”?

Following the previous week’s Question Time madness which centred on the actor-pundit John Rhys-Davies, who had played a Guardian bully-boy in LWT’s neglected 1971 dystopian drama series The Guardians, an old man in the Warrington audience provided a generous, if unintended, helping of the absurd:

Like Toby Young, 42 year-old Williamson is another man from a Labour family who has thoroughly undermined his parents’ values. Instead of having been in the army, a myth he would no doubt like to foster, he has been managing director of a Staffordshire pottery firm, worked for an architectural design firm alongside being a career politician since the late 1990s.

Stormzy provides the real mood music with his ‘Vossi Bop’, current number #1 UK single which reached the top during the weekend and contains a bluntly political attack on the government and our favourite “loveable buffoon” and transmitter of racist tropes like “piccaninnies”, “watermelon smiles” and “letter boxes”:

“Fuck the government and fuck Boris!”

Meanwhile Tim Crouch and Toby Jones’s brilliant Don’t Forget the Driver depicts a fraught Britain in which the broadly good people hang in there amid banal sourness and madness. This Bognor Regis-set sitcom is much better than the seemingly flippant, insubstantial Ghosts, which just seems a needless update on The Ghosts of Motley Hall – at least from episode #1. Yet, this latter has more than double the audience of the former, which says something about British audience tastes: settling for meagre gruel when they could have a delicately constructed repast. DFTD is a cinematic take on Britain via Bognor – which Crouch hails from. It carefully balances the mundane, beautiful, bleak and heartwarming and transcends comedy. Watch it, if you haven’t already: it’s great.

Erin Kellyman, one of many brilliant players in the DON’T FORGET THE DRIVER cast

On Tuesday 7 May, to paraphrase Paddy McAloon, “I got two things through my door, you’re no longer one of them:

On Wednesday 8 May, I didn’t rip it up – satisfying but impact-less. Instead, I posted it back to ensure these charlatans pay the postage.

Also this week, on Monday 6 May, I had a letter published in the Guardian, highlighting the historical amnesia of Coronation Street producers and media pundits in claiming the Baileys are to be the ‘first black family’ to appear in the soap opera.

INFORMER: “God didn’t save the Queen — Charlie did!”

INFORMER

TX: BBC1, Tuesdays, 9pm, 16/10/2018 – 20/11/2018 (six episodes)
w: Rory Haines & Sohrab Noshirvani, d: Jonny Campbell, p: Julian Stevens, m: Ilan Eshkeri (Neal Street Productions)

Informer is local, national and specific. It is the alternative to some of the more transnational tendencies – common, for better and worse – in recent TV dramas. In their tough script, Haines & Noshirvani address the thorny issue of national identity; they are also singularly successful in rooting their drama in the atmosphere of 2018 Britain: a place fraught, boisterous and unstable in a way a 30-something like me has never really previously experienced (though this situation has gradually revealed itself ever since the onset of austerity in 2011).

Yes, Informer is mostly London-centric, but it at least feels genuinely of a London which the drama defines in contrast to the bleak “Other” of the more fleetingly depicted North. The setting is manifestly East London, around Brick Lane and Whitechapel. Central to this geographical dichotomy are revelations of policeman Gabriel Waters (Paddy Considine)’s previous double-life: in contrast to his suburban family life in the South, his undercover work is as the self-styled “Charlie”, infiltrating far-right circles in the North. Considine – channelling some of the disturbing force he conveyed as the avenging ex-soldier Richard in Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) – is adept in the role of Gabe, trying and often failing to separate his two lives. Edgy performances rooted in social realism are Considine’s stock-in-trade and he is given fascinating material here and is well balanced by the perceptive, acerbic Bel Powley as Holly Morten.

In contrast to Bodyguard, Haines & Noshrivani present a whole Muslim family, in depth and warts and all: no idealisation or demonisation here. Heading an impressive ensemble cast is Nabhaan Rizwan as Raza Shar, a second-generation British Pakistani hairdresser who is mercurial, street-smart and basically decent but roped into deeply questionable activities as part of his new role as police informer. His family life is troubled and all members are presented as flawed human beings – not as driven ideologues or dupes for Islamist ideas as so many other dramas present Muslims. As I previously argued, Bodyguard does the Muslim community a grave disservice in its simplistic fictional representations of them.

This drama is keener to display how individual foibles can lead to a tragic, inexorable sequence of events and also sets up the intriguing subplot of Gabe’s double-life as “Charlie”, keeping open until the last episode the sadly all too realistic possibility of far-right terrorism in Brexit-afflicted Britain. The characters in this northern world, like Sharon Collins (Rachel Tucker), are not ogres, but nor are they shown to “have a point” in their core views. Sharon is distinguished from the rest in seeming less passionate in her politics, but nor does she seem to countenance leaving the group: she is of their world.

The world these particular Northerners exist in is clearly shown to be limiting and limited – indeed, they celebrate the legend of Charlie as the socially-mobile one who “escaped” – genuinely neglected by the metropole but also self-defeating in their closed attitudes. “Charlie”, when he encounters Nigel “Nige” Briggs (Richard Glover) who lays bare the geopolitical divides when Charlie asks him “What are you doing down here? I thought you’d never set foot in London”: “I still stay out the PC swamp as far as I can. But, you know, when duty calls.” As Gabe explains to Holly, “He [Charlie] was a hero to those people – the one that got away”. But, in his fiction, he didn’t escape to London but to the dreamland of Florida.

In a taut, frightening scene in episode 5, “Charlie” has returned in character to a working men’s club type venue where friends of Nigel Briggs (Richard Glover), implicitly of the far-right, gather to celebrate Nigel’s life following his death, which, in a dramatic irony unknown to them, was linked to his encountering Charlie again. Gabe as “Charlie” shows himself to be an expert rabble rousing MC, and is announced as “the master of disaster himself”. His rhetoric is inch-perfect in its rough sentimentality and incitement: “I know that Nige is up there, watching us. And he’d want us to have a fucking riot!”

“Charlie” is a performative, masculine Nazi, not with swastikas but a Burberry-style Mod jacket and who has the pogoing audience as putty in his hands, sharing in a love of their retrograde Oi brand of punk music. And then, there is the more disturbing turn when a pizza delivery man of Asian ethnicity appears to deliver food and “Charlie” apparently loses control of his persona and appears to side with what is an overtly racist mob against him. This scene, while clarified in episode 6, is not robbed of any of its stark power. It is violence and bigotry distilled; as Dennis Potter said of David Edgar’s ‘Destiny’ in 1978, this is ‘malignancy charted’, the malignancy of 2018 that has been gestating for a long time.

In Gabe’s assuming of this alter-ego ‘mask’, nothing is dressed up: he is shown to have a conflicted love and shame for being “Charlie”. Being “Charlie” seems to give him some greater adrenaline, ego boost and sense of belonging to this dangerous world, which holds greater excitement for him than his family life with Emily (Jessica Raine) and children. You get a sense that he might actually want to, as he says, “glory-days it” with Nige. This drama exposes the real and actual corruption of undercover police work, while also not necessarily denying its necessity.

Roger Jean Nsengiyumva is brilliant as Dadir Hussain, a roguish drug dealer who is nevertheless far from a stereotypical Black Briton; family life is more important to him. There is a brilliant scene where social worlds collide when Raza and Dadir encounter middle-class students in a local art college; this conveys something of East London’s distinctive and diverse social milieu. Raza also has a great, taut scene in episode 1, where he meets some middle-class London hipsters and rebukes them for their patronising, hackneyed attitudes and demonstrates he possesses cultural capital they don’t expect: knowledgeably mentioning photographer Robert Capa.

This is a defiantly uncomfortable drama of Britain in 2018, which centres on the mundane realities of multicultural London. It also conveys a tellingly nightmarish vision of the North, seen as if in passing via the cult of “Charlie” that hoodwinks the downtrodden, self-excluding group who put their faith in flags more than people. Best of all, it gives voice to a range of men and women and race is only centred on by the racists, whose stories are rightly given less time.

Brexit Britain: Day #1040 – Mass-Observation and Dream Diaries

From the 25-27 April, I attended the seventh annual conference British Association for Television and Screen Studies; the first I had attended and at which I spoke.

On Friday 26th, during my panel, the preceding speaker talked eloquently about a long lost BBC TV series EAST END, broadcast in 1939. This was an anthropological insight into the subject of Jewish and Cockney life in the East End of London, presented by Tom Harrisson, one of the founders of the Mass-Observation movement. More than a decade ago, David Attenborough presented a documentary on Harrisson, entitled Tom Harrisson: the Barefoot Anthropologist (BBC4, 18/01/2007). After our panel, the speaker JJ told me how easy it was to get sidetracked in the M-O archives: for example, getting engrossed in the dream diaries participants were asked to complete in the early years of the Second World War.

On Saturday afternoon, I made my way back from the conference on the Cross Country train to Newcastle. While there was excellent free WiFi access for the whole journey, and I spent much of the time typing up my handwritten notes from a fascinating documentary on Italian genre cinema of the 1970s, I couldn’t help observing some of what was going on around. The woman next to me was older middle-aged, serious but fairly cheery when she struggled to locate the right ticket. At Leeds, the train emptied. At York, it filled up again. A hen party, and nearer to where I was sat, a group of young women – very Geordie and working class. The sort of people Rod Liddle might patronise or, even worse, claim to speak for. The announcer on the PA system chummily advertised alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages on sale. 

This group was loud, on a generally noisy carriage. At a few points they had current popular “tunes” on, as I heard a passerby say. They went out of their way to be polite. One of them needed a tissue or something and a fellow passenger gave one and was thanked profusely: “You see, I’ve got manners, me!” It could have been an encounter in Lynsey Hanley’s book Respectable: The Experience of Class (2016).

This was far from the threatening raucousness you can sometimes get on a Saturday train from tanked-up average geezers. Their dialect was interesting – the Geordie usage of “grief” as a verb. Moreover, they did not just speak about their own lives but about the varied (and none too promising) job prospects in areas like nursing. One of them in particular had strongly held views, critical of people in their own generation who seemed to want to earn their money via Instagram, in some way… They were critical of people being “obsessed” with social media and discussed what they saw as the bad pay and conditions of being a nurse today.

After mentioning the difficulties the Health Service is having in providing care for certain conditions, one said: “I don’t think there’ll be an NHS in ten years’ time.”

These aren’t the sort of people, in age, class or geography, whose voices we hear much, except if they are ghettoised in reality TV or entertainment or mediated by journalists of left, neoliberal or right wing persuasions. (Most commonly, the latter two) It made me think of the folly of scrapping BBC3. It also made me think: why on earth doesn’t the BBC make a current affairs equivalent of Gogglebox, based in the likes of trains, bus queues and shopping centres? Unmediated by voice-over.

I had a dream, yesterday morning. The Prime Minister was holding a press conference. This was seemingly being broadcast to the nation. Yet instead of the usual sort of media set up she was sat on the floor. Beside her was a pile of books. After making a very cursory introduction, she picked up one of the books and began reading. The contents were baffling: nothing seemed to make sense.

It seemed she was somehow trying to be “authentic”. Yet, she was completely failing to connect and seemed utterly oblivious to how it was all coming across.

She abruptly abandoned the first book and starting reading from another, which again made little sense. The gathered journalists were scratching their heads and began muttering, uncomfortable at the non sequiturs. The PM’s delivery was as prim and Sunday school teacher patronising as usual, but it seemed she hadn’t learned the content beforehand. It seemed to me that these were books that had meant something to her in the distant past, or to someone else…

I was in the midst of the group and, somehow, a book appeared in my hands. I turned the pages, it was an old book, its contents were obscure. Its texture as a physical object particularly struck me as I turned its dusty pages; whole chapters were marked with soot. Yet, I was able to detect amid its antiquity that its subject was English culture and in particular English seaside resorts.

I suddenly felt that a sense of epiphany, as if it was being provided by a film voice-over: that I was aware, at least in part, of what she was getting at. Yet, I kept my silence and the broadcast continued. 

THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL – “Who started it? The British”

THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL

TX: BBC1, Sundays, 9pm, 28/10/2018 – 02/12/2018 (six episodes)
w: Michael Lesslie & Claire Wilson; John le Carré (novel – 01/03/1983), d: Chan-wook Park, p: Laura Hastings-Smith, m: Yeong-wook Jo (The Ink Factory & AMC Networks & BBC & Endeavor Content)

Yep, us British, we started a lot. As well as apologising for our role in the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, we should take heed of Peter Wilby in the New Statesman, who notes that we backed the dictatorship in Brunei in its inception, enabling it to stamp out democracy in that country. Thus, we bear some historical responsibility for a country whose laws currently punish homosexuality with death by stoning.

Recent dramas, too, have portrayed the after-effects of the British involvements in history. The Little Drummer Girl is a rich, engrossing version of a JLC novel, previously and less sure-footedly adapted for film by director George Roy Hill in 1984. This is another drama that explores the tensions and dangers of leading a double-life and develops at leisure JLC’s J.L. Austin and Erving Goffman influenced preoccupation with the performativity of language. What’s more, Park, Lesslie & Wilson ambitiously create an even-handed portrayal of the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, sadly every bit as relevant in 2018 as in its late-1970s setting.

Florence Pugh is one of a formidable phalanx of women who head the casts in 2018/19’s BBC drama season. Insouciant, idealistic yet at times devil-may-care, her Charlie feels right in a way that Diane Keaton’s rendition of the part just didn’t. With the story crammed into a 130-minute duration, Keaton is forced to become more of a passive object and loses control with several instances of hysteria. Pugh neatly creates an intelligent and slightly hedonistic Charlie, who moves in left-wing circles not that far from the 1970s milieu of Howard Schuman’s Rock Follies (Thames, 1976-77). Charlie performs a radicalism that is perhaps only partially faked; her divided loyalties and angst cut a bit deeper than some of JLC’s more standard Cold War characters, with their ultimately hegemonic pro-deterrence Atlanticist stances – as identified by Toby Manning.

There is an attention to detail in the trappings of tradecraft – bugs such as a rigged-up radio – that evokes The Americans (2013-18), and this is much closer to that programme’s murky tone than to The Night Manager (2016). That significant Eminent Dragon-packed hit drama featured to an embarrassing extent in The Guardian and other publications’ lifestyle, fashion and holiday sections. The Little Drummer Girl’s inability to attract the same sort of ‘soft coverage’ was reflected in its lower ratings and, while Florence Pugh’s background is fairly elite – independent boarding school St Edward’s School in Oxford – she shares this with none of her fellow cast members. As well as Laurence Olivier, its alumni includes figures like newsreader Jon Snow and the late, defiantly anti-establishment art critic, novelist and broadcaster John Berger.

Naxos, Greece. Vini Reilly. Vistas. Bottles. Pebbles. Words.

Like Killing Eve, there’s a relish in selecting unfamiliar music tracks – presumably to most British ears – to signify a cosmopolitan connoisseur-ship absent in TNM and Bodyguard. This is part of how these programmes are attuned to different audiences. As well as vintage Greek disco and the like, there’s The Durutti Column’s ‘Sketch for Summer’, perhaps mildly anachronistic as a January 1980 release being played in the summer of 1979 when it was recorded, is nevertheless wonderfully evocative of euro-romanticist radicalism. Vini Reilly’s band’s very name alluded to both anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and the Situationist International. Situationist theory enabled links between the 1960s-birthed ‘Psychedelic Left’ that Charles Shaar Murray was proud to be part of (as Mark Sinker’s A Hidden Landscape Once A Week details) and the Post Punk underground from 1978.

Unlike the film version, we are also shown Gadi Becker reading a book about Salvador Allende on the beach, notably in the same scene as we hear Reilly’s plangent music. Presumably such explicitly political touches would have been too close to the bone: the film was released in the UK in July 1985, not long before the Iran-Contra affair began. Referencing Allende implicitly anchors the TV version in justified left-wing outrage over the US backed coup against an elected socialist government in Chile in 1973.

From early in The Little Drummer Girl (d. George Roy Hill, 1984)

Hill is also much keener to show the Palestinians as a fearful ‘terrorist’ threat, using the iconography of the black balaclava used in so much 1970s-80s news footage. Park shows us proportionately much more of Khalil’s visage and other Palestinian faces. Park’s version is also repeatedly explicit in highlighting British culpability and, like detached BBC journalists in the Falklands War, ‘we’ are designated as ‘The British’: ‘The British always have the solution to other countries’ problems’, ‘The War of Independence, 1948. What do they call it? The Catastrophe. Or… Disaster. Who started all this? The British.’ It’s notable that the drama is set in 1979, a ‘theatre of the real’ that evokes the docudrama Death of a Princess (ATV, 1980) and Hanging Fire (BBC1, 1981) – controversial television addressing Saudi Arabia and Israel respectively, which JLC might have been aware of while writing his novel. Middle east controversies were definitely utmost in British news and culture of the early 1980s, along with the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Over six episodes, Lesslie and Wilson are able to give much more time to the Israelis, the Palestinians and Charlie’s urban, left-wing drama milieu, who barely appear at all in the film. We also have more time given to the British intelligence establishment and its distrust of the Israelis, through Commander Picton (Charles Dance, evocative of two facets of 1980s ITV drama, having appeared in bothThe Professionals (LWT, 1977-83) and The Jewel in the Crown (Granada, 1984)). Like Killing Eve, this is a plush transnational drama, just as rooted in European signifiers; the eclectic soundtrack also includes the European Classical canon. The architecture includes not just the Parthenon but 1960s-70s brutalism which grounds us in ‘grim 1970s’ terrain, especially with the last episode’s associative use of it as a staged terrorist incident is manufactured by the British and Israelis.

Both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict have a point from their own perspectives, rooted in historical circumstances; in this drama, both are shown to commit objectively bad, subjectively understandable acts. Which is maybe a bit much for complexity-averse British audiences in 2018. As well as its many incidental pleasures, this drama does far more to immerse us in unpalatable realities than the 1984 film version did.