MAY’S MINIATURES – S.01 E.10: J.G. Ballard – ‘The Largest Theme Park in the World’ (1989)

Photo (c) Fay Goodwin, The British Library Board

Welcome to the last episode of series 1 of May’s Miniatures. If you’ve enjoyed this series at all, please get in touch and suggest other stories or writers you’d like featured in a possible, if not probable, future series! Feel free to add comments on the posts that are on the May’s Britain blog.

Now, this final selection is a short story from one of my favourite writers. You don’t have to be Will to self-diagnose as a Ballardian. I love his work as it is sardonic, strange and taps into undercurrents of our human consciousness that most writers shy away from. Ballard’s work is like a literary equivalent to Max Ernst’s surrealist paintings but with an utterly matter of fact tone to its weirdness. You can’t help but hear his words resounding inside your head as if delivered by a BBC announcer from the Sixties, but who has unknowingly ingested some weird substance – and we’re not talking bleach!

He is not alarmed or moralistic about modernism, about the modern life of cars, motorways and consumerism, but nor is he Panglossian about it. He perceives troubling currents and subtly under plays them. This story is from later era Ballard. He was in his fourth decade as a writer, and wrote this soon after Margaret Thatcher’s pivotal Bruges Speech of 19 September 1988 which was critical in how the UK Conservative Party changed from being a pragmatically pro-European capitalist party to one torn between this and proto-Brexiting euroscepticism. This was published on 7 July 1989 in the Guardian newspaper, accompanied by a Steve Bell cartoon. This was four months before the restrictions between East Germany and West Germany were lifted, and the Berlin Wall took on new historical meaning. This story is incredibly prescient not just of events since 2016, but seems to parallel… In some ways… the, yes, cliché-alert…! strange times we are living in RIGHT NOW…!

Broadcast here on YouTube on Tuesday 11 August 2020:

This story brilliantly depicts cross-European middle class rebellion of leisure with a distinctive English iteration with seemingly divergent tendencies – green, feminist, sporty, Thatcherite. It observes the undercurrent beneath our cultural observance of the Protestant Work Ethic, which could apply on a much wider cross-class basis, given how beloved our holidays in Spain, Italy and Greece are to us.

More detailed thoughts to follow subsequently.

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


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.