Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Impressions of BFI Southbank, Wednesday 2nd March 2011

The walk from Waterloo station to BFI Southbank is the shortest walk I ever take, yet in many ways the most overpowered with resonances of multiple disavowed pasts, whose battles have shaped everyone's lives in ways that few really recognise or understand. Once you've walked past the Eurostar white elephant - which would never have needed to be built, replacing the atmospheric and evocative Windsor station as it did, had the party that now claims to believe in high-speed rail approached the Channel Tunnel rail link with any kind of enthusiasm, and cannot but evoke the horrible fact of such a superb train crawling along Victorian lines for thirteen years - you're faced with the memory of John Poulson, the grubby short-term capitalist whose success in buying both Tory anti-statists and Labour utopian-socialists, through cynically using the right words to convince both ilks of dreamers whose fatal flaw was remarkably similar (that they would take any route, without thought for the consequences, as long as it led Britain out of the '50s), did so much to bring the whole Butskellite edifice crashing down. His typically shoddy and ill-constructed Tower Building, beside which the 1922 station seems to cringe, almost embarrassed by its near-obliteration, is particularly jarring and depressing considering its proximity to some of the finest buildings to come out of the post-war public spirit; you're reminded of the cynical exploitation of modernist tropes and styles for utterly antithetical, exploitative reasons which the Mail and Express-reading masses confused with the real thing, and gave the Prince Charles school of neo-feudal reactionaries a justification they didn't deserve (in exactly the same way that ELP's misunderstanding and consequent abuse of the idea that rock music didn't have to take "Roll Over Beethoven" as its model, and the fact that the mass knew them but didn't know Hammill, Wyatt or even Fripp, gave rock'n'roll fundamentalists, and all those who fundamentally got punk wrong, all the excuse they needed).

This is all the more depressing not only considering the greatness (in their own contrasting and conflicting ways) of the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall/Hayward Gallery and National Theatre, but the fact that much of what is contained within BFI Southbank (the expanded and renamed National Film Theatre) reminds us of all the good that the consensus did for Britain, yet - perhaps because of its urban location and need to reflect the city around it far removed from the romanticised ruralism of Ghost Box (whose downside should be made clear for all by the Brian True-May row) - never seems to embalm it or innoculate itself from the present, always keeps open both to the complex reality of those times and to what could still happen in the present and future. In short, the post-war consensus modernised rather than abolished. But there were multiple reasons why that didn't happen in the wider society, and even as I have managed to disassociate the area - and the RFH specifically - from my own childhood experiences there, not least my first, brutal realisation of class awareness, it has become a mental battleground for the battles between those who truly believed in the consensus and those who wanted to exploit it for the crudest possible reasons, a harsh and heartstopping experience whenever I'm there. The London Studios are a little bit further on, and I don't usually think of their history; what I do have on my mind is as much as I can take.

The relevance of this piece thus far to television may seem to be merely tangential. Let that now change. While I would suspect that the majority of the Mediatheque's contents were not made for television - indeed, it goes back long before there was such a thing, and some of its most revealing moments for me have come from the lineage of experimentation and challenge in British film which those talking up The King's Speech far beyond its merits implicitly write out of history, from the all-too-relevant early 1980s social comment of Burning an Illusion or Crystal Gazing, to Nick Broomfield's unforgiving expose of harsh 1970s Lancashire authority, Juvenile Liason, to the exploration of Scotland's unspoken history in Blue Black Permanent (made for Channel 4, I know, but the point holds) - its TV collections continue to stimulate, and ask more questions than they answer. There have been many Play for Today revelations, including the very first, Ray Davies (who should have done more acting) amid a dying, rotting Old North in The Long Distance Piano Player (I notice that Tom drafted a piece on this production, and I would be very interested to read his thoughts on that matter), Licking Hitler, David Hare's unrelenting exposure of the cynicism hidden by the "finest hour" self-aggrandisement that some still cannot let go, and the chilling allusions to Britain's unkillable pagan legacy in Robin Redbreast.

But Nemone Lethbridge, James MacTaggart and Kenith Trodd's Baby Blues, seen exactly 51 years after the night Elvis landed in Scotland and, separated only by the news and seen by early ITV's millions, Daniel Farson exposed Britain's cultural humiliation by America and Wolves exposed its sporting humiliation by continental Europe, and 38 years after it was made, may stick in the mind longer than most, not least because it seems to embody the unabashed socialism possible at the time in mass communication, while at the same time being full of harbingers for the Tory reaction that would freeze such opinions out of "ordinary" media. Transmitted in December 1973 - right in the midst of a moment of acute national desperation and class-war tension, with the Civil Service being trained in how to resist anything a soon-come Labour government might try to do - it captures a moment of acute paranoia among the traditional ruling class, feeling directionless and adrift following Heath's U-turn, three months before what turned out to be Labour's, and British socialism's, fatal victory. The direct resemblance between the casino frequented by the grotesque Sir Dominic (Norman Rodway) and the very real one whose members' political legacy was so superbly dissected by Adam Curtis in The Mayfair Set only makes it seem all the more real, as if you're watching a dramatisation of history at a crucial turning point.

Among its most interesting elements is the baronet's friendship with two erstwhile proles on the make (Terry and Sid, played by Brian Croucher and Peter Childs), both every bit as odious and anti-human as he is, and representing the unpleasant underbelly of the supposed alliance (alluded to, with heavy sarcasm, by one of the private hospital staff they abuse together, who at that moment clearly feels a greater sense of affinity with NHS workers than she might normally do) of the aristocracy and proletariat fondly and falsely wished for by David Lindsay. To a 1973 audience, these characters must have seemed like washed-up ghosts of the already distant '60s - Michael Caine clones who'd thought they could make it but were now reduced to clinging to the elbows of the already privileged - but seen today they weirdly anticipate one of the major political shifts of the 1980s; the rise of the Tebbitist "barrow-boys" who felt no cultural loyalty even to a heritagised, cleaned-up version of the BBC, and accordingly precisely broke what ties remained between the Tory party and the Corporation and rendered such a thing as Play for Today unachievable, while also setting the tone for the pop-cultural leanings without which the Cameronites would never have been able to play the Blairite game to destroy Brown. If the main disappointment of the post-1979 changes - and especially the post-2010 changes - from the perspective of people like Sir Dominic has been the victory of the mass in cultural terms even as the political process in Britain has become less and less equal and more and more stratified, culminating of course in the current government, then these characters anticipate precisely how things were to work out; while the idea of a casual, cynical alliance between the Sir Dominics and the Terrys and Sids may have seemed slightly off ten years later, when what resistance there was in the Tory party to the Tebbitist doctrines tended to come from the quasi-aristocratic elements, it makes all the sense in the world in 2011, when Britain is ruled by Sir Dominics playing Terry and Sid's game, in terms of the crude, tabloid level of their tactics and rhetoric.

It may well say something about how those very same US-inspired marketing techniques have diluted class politics in terms of the basic public understanding of the terms of debate, even at the time of the most socially elitist government since 1964 - admittedly, they seemed to have been comparatively diluted when Butskellism was at its zenith, and only came back to the fore so brutally as it was withering, but the point holds - that a part of even me was thinking, with a very 2011 kind of cynicism, that Sir Dominic's portrayal was too broad and overdone, a mere caricature. Certainly, even if there were still the time, place and context within mass television for comparable dissections of the psychopathology of Cameronites, a portrayal like that very clearly wouldn't do; it would have to be based around a particular version of the marketing character, rather than an ancient class archetype. But I cannot stop myself thinking of Chuck D's line about "now the KKK wear three-piece suits", which while it refers directly to David Duke's attempt to become Governor of Louisiana, anticipates not only the BNP's post-millennial "suits not boots" tactics but also, more obliquely, the popification of Sir Dominic's class which defines current British politics. Back then, if you were a socialist, you knew exactly who the enemy was - their image, speech and dress were utterly unreconstructed and unambiguous - and you had the space within mass communication to decry them. Now, the former is hidden by the facade of Welch/Mumford pseudo-pop and the latter is frozen out forever in Murdoch's kingdom. While Play for Today poses many still-unanswered questions, this is looking to be among the most recurring, and maybe the most important.

I must at this point urge those who can make it at short notice to attend at least one of the remaining events in the Alan Plater season (and, if they have time, to visit the Atrium as well), because, without doubt, he was a great socialist, a great humanitarian, a great writer and a great man, a creative spirit with few rivals in his field. The 1965 Z Cars and 1966 Softly Softly shown in NFT2 on 2nd March were both fine representations of his talent; the former episode, "Brotherly Love", revealed his fine ear for dialogue, accent and social relationships as they were at the time, especially the now virtually unimaginable role of the church in most communities, and conveyed perfectly one of his characteristic traits, his wholly unforced balance of serious issues (which never seemed like "issues" in the worst, deathliest sense; they never did with him) and inspired humour. Broadcast in the days between Churchill's death and his funeral (poignantly, the review quoted in the programme was from the four-month-old original incarnation of The Sun), I couldn't resist the thought that it might have struck a chord with those - no doubt including Plater - who were anxious to get away from the fuss, to step further into a new era the following Monday morning, even if many of the pop-cultural forces he might then have seen as some kind of allies for socialism, or at least the building of a progressive British identity unconnected to the days of empire, proved to be anything but.

The Softly Softly episode, "Sleeping Dogs" - a witheringly accurate description of post-war British fascism and how it exploited, as that creed always has and always will, gaps and weaknesses in authority to physically attack any person or business that didn't fit into its ideals of "purity" - was quite exceptional, a warning about precisely what lies beneath official conservative "neutrality" and institutions proudly boasting that they have "no political position" and the soft-left/liberal view that it is "intolerant" not to tolerate absolutely everything that is ever said or thought - the normalisation of fascism. The greatest source of anger that it brought on is that so much of it could still apply today, right down to the Daily Mail as fascists' "least worst" mainstream newspaper - as recent polls have confirmed, there is still strong latent support for these views which would in many ways make the likes of the English Defence League more dangerous if they could somehow stop beating up Muslims (and how odious and cynical are modern-day fascists' attempts to embrace Jews as "allies of convenience"), just as organisations such as the "Free Britain" group portrayed here were more likely to pick up on the prejudices that lurked below the Butskellite surface when they simply spoke - as they do here, cleverly not displaying the Nazi iconography that was hidden within their homes - in terms of "sovereignty", and didn't scrawl swastikas and throw bricks in shop windows (as they also do here, but attempt in their "respectable" public image to distance themselves from, and could clearly fool a disturbing number of people just as their equivalents do today). Plater's passion on these matters, and his clear belief that if we don't use the rule of law against these people they will feel that they have won some kind of moral argument, shone through, and it worked even better for the moments of sharp humour, which made it much more effective as mass communication.

If Britain is the weaker for anything today, it is the lack of such unequivocal statements in mass television - the equivalents of Midsomer Murders always existed, of course, but they were much less dangerous because they co-existed with the sort of programmes I have written about here (they were also, on the whole, better - the idea that Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown were the best things Granada did is as foreign to me and everything I stand for as the idea that David Lean's epics were better than Black Narcissus, but the big productions of those times obviously had qualities that their post-1990 equivalents could never have grasped, or wanted to grasp). When Midsomer began, 14 years ago, international sales were rapidly on the rise to their current almost total importance within the British TV industry, and the series was always clearly intended to appeal to an easily-exportable, instantly-recognisable (and of course utterly false no matter how far you go back) view of Britain first and foremost - its success with the Mail heartland here was a secondary factor for ITV in a way that audience simply cannot accept.

Visions of any country designed to appeal to globally assimilable national caricatures are bound to seem far more problematic in that country itself, for clear and obvious reasons. Brian True-May has merely been honest about the nature of these things, and (without knowing it) the damage they have done to British television, setting it back, not forward. His vision of exclusivity is, in truth, a cultural one rather than a racial one per se - because of my musical and cultural tastes as well as my political views, I myself would have no more place in Midsomer than Smiley Culture (the circumstances of whose death show all this stuff in a particularly stark light); my being on "the wrong side" in Britain's internal cultural wars would overpower my whiteness. It is the antithesis of what the likes of Plater and Rosenthal were about, and the antithesis of what BFI Southbank is still about (in a necessarily and rightly different way). As with Keys and Gray, what may at first appear to be an over-promoted media sideshow actually uncovers much deeper problems - not so much in terms of Midsomer Murders itself, but in terms of the system that created and sustained it, and exaggerated its status far beyond anything it objectively deserved.

I hope to write more here next week, once I've been back. The journey is always nervous. The day itself is rarely anything of the kind. This is a platform we should all be proud of. This is all our responsibility.

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