Thursday, 21 April 2011

Play for Today #003: The Lie

TX: 29/10/1970 (dir. Alan Bridges, w. Ingmar Bergman, trans. Paul Britten Austin)


"We have to be able to lie to live together..."

There can be no in-depth study of PfT #002: 'The Right Prospectus' (TX: 22/10/1970), as it has not yet surfaced in the BFI Mediatheque's Play for Today collection. It is apparently 'a satirical piece in which a wealthy couple disguise themselves as schoolboys to infiltrate a public school' penned by erstwhile 'Angry Young Man' John Osborne, known for the feather-ruffling of Look Back in Anger and - for me, more affectingly - The Entertainer. It stars George Cole and Elvi Hale as the couple. Contemporary reviewer Chris Dunkley was very critical: 'he made no attempt to explode the widely accepted myth, and show how truly appalling it would really be to go back to the best regimented days of our lives. In rapid succession he aimed petulant slaps in the general direction of the technological revolution, democracy, protest marches, tradition, co-education, public schools, and a host of other subjects which cropped up too fast to memorize'. (The Times, 23/10/1970, p.15)

Nancy Banks-Smith is fairy noncommittal, highlighting the 'dream-like quality' of a play in which nobody at the all-boys' school bats an eyelid at Mr Newbold's age or Mrs Newbold's sex (The Guardian, 23/10/1970). George Melly, however, is entirely won over; partly as it chimes with his own experiences of public-schools. In particular, he praises Christopher Witty's performance as the Head of House: 'I can still remember boys like that. I still glow when, in adult life, one greets me warmly. I still detest everything they stand for.' (Observer, 25/10/1970, p.32) He acclaims it as a more 'profound' work than Lindsay Anderson's If... 'The Right Prospectus' is readily available in book format, but seemingly not in its televisual version - although it must exist, as some gent on a Minder fan-forum alludes to having seen it. I am sure it would at the very least be an interesting counterpoint to If... and the superb Wednesday Play of 1966, 'The Connoisseur', dissected here.

But now to the main point of this article - a consideration of the following week's 'The Lie', a translation of an Ingmar Bergman play. The Swedish version, 'Reservatet', was directed by Jan Molander and actually broadcast on Swedish television one day before this BBC version. Molander's version features Gunnel Lindblom, Per Myberg and Erland Josephson as Anna, Andreas and Elis; in the British version, they are Anna Firth (Gemma Jones), Andrew Firth (Frank Finlay) and Ellis Anderson (John Carson), respectively.

The story is a classic love-triangle, with plenty of the existential angst one expects of Bergman. It was acclaimed 'best drama production' of 1970 at the Society of Film and Television Arts awards, held on 4th March 1971. On 16th May 1972, The Times reported in its TV Guide that the play was being 'repeated yet again' and was 'a superb if searing production', boasting 'alpha performances' from Gemma Jones and others. Is it worth this acclaim?

It has much to commend it, but is problematic, as one might expect of Bergman being transposed to bourgeois England. The play certainly has its moments but it takes some time to gel, and the translated dialogue is often stilted in the extreme. The music is un-Bergmanian, though this was not a problem for me; Marc Wilkinson's theme is jazzy and sedate, all vibraphone, flute and horns. Wilkinson has an interesting resume of British film and TV music: he composed soundtracks for If..., Days of Hope, Quatermass, Blue Remembered Hills and The Blood on Satan's Claw. This latter soundtrack is astonishingly ancient sounding - a rare piece of music to sound simultaneously of the psychedelic era and the seventeenth century.

The photography from Brian Tufano is exemplary - capturing the staid, stultifying darkness of this enclosed bourgeois world. The couple's house is the most Swedish thing here - all clinical, clean modernism of the low-rise variety, wood and panels - autumnally shot by Tufano. They live in the sort of modernist house beloved of wealthier people, pre-brutalism. It is interesting to consider that Tufano, now 71, went on to photograph one of the greatest of all Play for Todays, Sunset Across the Bay and also over-rated popular successes such as Trainspotting and Billy Elliot.

I am probably harder on 'The Lie' due to my love of Bergman's filmic oeuvre; one Saturday last year, with a friend, I watched Summer Interlude and From the Life of the Marionettes - a double bill of his films spanning nearly thirty years. The former is a gloriously bittersweet reflection on lost love and the time it can take to achieve catharsis and move on. The latter film is an unremittingly bleak exploration of neuroses and psychosis within a faltering relationship, ending in violence - this is all treated as an academic detective case by the psychoanalyst. It really is a despondent, nihilistic film, forming a fascinating contrast to the hard-won, humanist optimism of the earlier film.

This play seems a bit of a rehearsal for the grimness to come in Bergman's work - both in terms of FTLOTM and other 1970s films. Outward respectability and 'normal' routines hide a frightening vacuum, as identified by Nancy Banks-Smith in her review: 'Anna and Frank's [sic] marriage is a very streamlined thing indeed. If you discount the fact that they are both walking dead.' (The Guardian, 30/10/1970, p.10) The play explores the deceit that is necessary to sustain many marriages; this is the case in wider society too, as witness the woman at the party's ironic words to Anna: "Your marriage is the only one I know that's happy".

Artifice and ritual are all in this cold world: Anna's wig, shopping-centre escalators, squash between work colleagues, the banal phrase "Be Seeing You" - possibly used as a nod to The Prisoner. This sense of existence as formulaic chimes with Alan Sharp's 'The Long Distance Piano Player' - though this play has a stronger focus on relationships as ritualistic compared with the earlier play's focus on work and 'leisure'.

The goldfish bowl metaphor is extremely laboured, and 'The Lie' does at times resemble that rather po-faced film, The Pumpkin Eater (1964), with its middlebrow straining after profundity. Such as with Joss Ackland's aspiring writer, babbling on about 'a great silence', 'the approaching twilight' and 'the big lie'; who is predictably enough unable to come to terms with his homosexuality. He appears in one overwrought scene with Anna near the start of the play, never to re-appear.

And yet, there is real pain and feeling in the performances from Finlay and Jones, who make this a domestic drama with more than just a surface iciness. Finlay does a superb essay of middle-class reverse and evasion in his "I'm trying to communicate..." Jones is epically glum and glacial as Anna, a lady who is well connected and guaranteed a 'tax-free grant' to travel on her academic business. These are people jaded with success in their jobs and an inability to touch or talk in their relationship.

There are attempts at rooting the play in 1970 Britain: the play is set around Easter and the General Election is 'coming', the result of which may have a bearing on which building projects get the go-ahead. A Wednesday edtion of The Guardian is visible - with the headline: 'VIETNAM MASSACRES - Trial verdict expected today'. A 'Wonderful! Radio One!' jingle mingles and blurs with Wilkinson's thoughtful vibraphone music. There is a 'man from the ministry' on the way in Firth's workplace. Firth himself is an architect, in what was an era of architectural visionaries and crooks. Finlay cuts a Michael Rimmer-esque figure in immaculate, pin-striped suit, though this TV-play is as far away in tone as possible from that irrelevant film satire of the same year - see my 19/05/2010 review of that here. We are never really shown Firth doing any work, tellingly.

Finlay is fine casting; his distinctly cadaverous features suiting this showroom dummy of a man - no surprise, perhaps, that Banks-Smith misremembered his character name as Frank! The Farnworth-born actor is a malevolent force of nature in so much British television of the past five decades: as the glowering father in Bouquet of Barbed Wire (1976) and Dylan Moran's bĂȘte noire in the underrated sitcom How Do You Want Me? (1998-99). He would surely have made a good Heathcliff.

Alan Bridges was a fairly prolific television director, who helmed six Wednesday Plays (including David Mercer's 'On the Eve of Publication', TX. 27/11/1968, which is said to be excellent) and further Play for Todays after this. He also went on to make films, such as the flawed but interesting L.P. Hartley adaptation, The Hireling (1973) - also featuring Marc Wilkinson's music - and The Shooting Party (1984) with James Mason and Edward Fox.

The large cast is peopled by the reliable likes of Alan Rowe, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, Annette Crosbie and that voice of Victorian officiousness, John Nettleton. Richard O'Sullivan, so memorable as the tortured voice of conscience in 'The Connoisseur', is subdued as the walking-suit Whiteley. Noel Coleman and Terence Bayler are re-united after their sterling performances as army officers in the World War I zone within Dr Who's 'The War Games' serial. A year after General Smythe, Coleman's formidable sideboards are still very much intact - and he makes an imposing mannequin amidst the others at the bourgeois party.

Ultimately, this is another imperfect early Play for Today - rather predictable in its depiction of well-to-do middle-class people going through the motions, not helped by an indifferent translation of the dialogue from Swedish to English. However, the core performances ensure that these scenes of marriage do register an impact; as Banks-Smith says of its context as television: 'These things are particularly painful and relevant in the living room'. I cannot pretend that 'The Lie' enthralled me in the same way that his films have, but it is worth a viewing for anyone who cannot get enough of Swedish gloom. And for fans of Frank Finlay, who will delight in the darkness.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Another week at BFI Southbank

(I must state at this point that I originally intended to write a piece here inspired by my viewing, at BFI Southbank on 21st March, of Alan Plater's Doggin' Around (1994) and Short Back and Sides (1977). It would have dealt with, among much else, the political and cultural flux in which I lived my every moment on the cusp of my fourteenth birthday, the meaning and ultimate failure of the post-war dreams of urban reconstruction, humanism and rugby league. Hyper-carmodism, in other words. I did not write it largely because I was too exhausted, both mentally and physically, and overwhelmed by my experiences; it would have taken too much out of me to get it out. Hopefully these latest BFI impressions will be some kind of compensation for those who would have enjoyed the above aborted piece.)

Rumer Godden (1907-1998) - essentially a storyteller, but very close to the front rank of those - lived the sort of life that I, in my more conservative moments, would have quite liked to live. A child of the later years of the Raj, who determined to break away from the harsh and paranoid separation of her tribe from the "natives" and seemingly could sense the change coming some time before the tide became irresistible - while the dancing school she ran in her early life may seem paternalistic today, it was then seen as daring for children of colonial families to engage with actual Indians, to attempt to meet them on equal cultural terms, in such a way. But her storyteller's approach had a fatal flaw, very similar to that of the Penelope Houston school of film criticism. While her style and that of Renoir fils were a perfect fit, and made The River stand out as one of the latter's most sensitive and fulfilling works, the bold, fearless anti-realism of Powell and Pressburger was a step out of the English tradition too far. She never recanted her dislike for their extraordinary version of Black Narcissus - a middlebrow hack such as Lewis Gilbert, with his wholly un-directed (by any even vaguely auteurist definition of the director) version of The Greengage Summer, was far more to her taste.

Kizzy, a 1976 BBC children's serial based on her 1972 novel The Diddakoi now available in the Mediatheque, shows many of the strengths and weaknesses both of her own professional craftsmanship and the similar virtues of BBC children's drama at that time. There is no doubt that it shows a sensitivity and awareness of the life of the British Romany community that even many supposedly tolerant left-leaning writers have often found beyond them (and still do today - think of the way, so typical of the cultural self-flagellation that gives the Left a bad name, that latterday BBC children's programmes revert to tried-and-tested allusions to clothes pegs and heather when they would never dream of using the equivalent stereotypes for any other minority or ethnic group, and of an otherwise impeccably left-wing journalist shamelessly using the word "gyppo" and suggesting that Tony Martin had the right idea).

Like much other popular art of its time, it expresses a sense of traditions and ways of life crumbling - the lead character's "grandmother" (actually further away in the family line), supposedly 100 years old, said at the start by her younger Romany relatives, ready to go "in brick", to be living in a world that was already gone, and inevitably dying in the second episode. Allusions are made to those, in the wake of the '60s, who'd taken to travelling and given those who had always lived that way a bad name. The petty-minded Little Englander bigotry of some in the village community, and its resident busybody who can never hide her obsessive desire to control and censure, is portrayed with clear disapproval, however consensual and centrist (and thus by that time being attacked from both extremes), and the sheer cruelty of young children (so often ignored in sentimental portrayals essentially aimed at adults, typified by the "family drama" which has largely supplanted series like this) is not ignored or hidden.

The paternalistically tolerant One Nation Tory retired admiral who does so much to make Kizzy feel safe and secure in the wider world - similar in some ways to Desmond Llewelyn's Colonel in Follyfoot - is himself brought into a wider world by his experiences; where at first he does not allow women in his house, he eventually marries the woman who has subsequently taken Kizzy in (when, of course, it could have been and in the 1970s frequently would have been much worse - the dark shadow of a children's home is raised but, probably inevitably considering its post-Blue Peter slot, avoided; the treatment she could well have received in such a place at that time is the sort of thing none of us want to think about, until the time comes when we have to). Still unrealistic in her grasp of life beyond the dwindling world in which she had spent her early childhood, she has poured paraffin over her own garden fire (in a manner momentarily reminiscent of Birdie in Godden's The Dolls' House, whose TV adaptation was the last significant thing either Oliver Postgate or Kaye Webb were involved with, dancing in the flames where she is about to give her life), in hope that it could equal the magnificence of the Guy Fawkes display over the wall, and in the process almost killed her adoptive mother. But the girls who have previously abused Kizzy so aggressively - to the point where they caused serious injury, which as so often in this sort of story has been the turning point - display heroism which confirms their conversion to the cause of consensus society, and it ends with Kizzy and her adoptive parents in the big house, having won over the village and shown that inter-class collaboration and reconciliation can conquer all the prejudice that so often lies behind the myth of the "close-knit community".

This, inevitably, seems unnaturally rose-tinted and quasi-feudal in its organisation of social perfection compared to the advances ITV were making in children's drama at the time, and indeed to Alan Plater and Alex Glasgow's reinvention of the originally Tory wet text of Flambards, and it makes you wonder what would have happened to Kizzy - whose birthday, which in a sign of Butskellite inter-class unity she takes (not knowing her own) from one of the Admiral's ancestors whose name may have inspired hers, is two months after David Cameron's - in the 1980s, when the world of benevolent admirals that has given her a platform of security until she can take to the road again had become utterly defenceless against Kelvin Mackenzie and his vicious bigotry against all travellers of whichever personal history and ethnic origin. How could she have coped when the walls of this village were breached by something even nastier and cruder than the net-curtain-twitching taunts she has already had to face, because not counterbalanced by a benevolent establishment acceptance of the Attlee settlement?

A 2011 adult viewer cannot but wonder (in the same way that the end of Pamela Brown's astonishing 1972 novel Summer is a Festival - the moment where the writer of The Swish of the Curtain comprehensively explodes her own myths and evokes a shire England battered by Bolan and Bowie and fearing Heath and Barber with remarkably incisive accuracy - inevitably makes me wonder what the lead character would do once she'd got off the train she'd jumped on even when it was moving, out into the London netherworld of Al Stewart's "Apple Cider Re-constitution", itself one of the many moments when British songwriters of the pre-neoliberal age tried so hard to imitate the ways and norms of American music that they inadvertently created something entirely new, getting it wrong so they could get it right, and then who knows? Sloane Square or Greenham Common? Take Three Women or Crystal Gazing?). But whatever the weaknesses of what Kingsley Amis (and there's someone whose relationship to the politics of the 1970s could sustain at least one essay in itself) acknowledged in his praise of the book to be its almost fairytale ending, Kizzy is well worth seeing, and is certainly a fine example of classicism in BBC children's drama, a mirror in microcosm of the literary Great Tradition.

My previous post touched on Central Television's exploration of a certain strain of socio-realist drama, which brought some kind of identity and cultural self-determination to the English Midlands at a real low point in their self-esteem and self-regard (from the Nottinghamshire coalfield, alienated from the Scargillite heartlands and eventually having to face the fact that its attempt to reconcile with the Thatcher government had been an utter failure, so ideologically determined was it to get its revenge for 1974, to Birmingham, at that point a standing joke in the London-based media and the most public face of '60s redevelopment going very, very wrong in the '80s). In terms of drama aimed at young people - especially in Dramarama and the schools series Starting Out - much work on that front was done by the producer Geoff Husson, who eventually formed his own production company which took full advantage of the brief island between the old over-protection finally ebbing away and the market removing such things for other reasons, i.e. between one kind of Toryism and another. While one of the two Husson productions shown this past week, In the Pink (the very last Dramarama from the summer of 1989), was merely a well-made issue-led piece, the 1987 production The Halt - wholly different in specific techniques from the contemporaneous Peter, but with a similar look (remarkably cold and austere for something so late, showing how much this was an era of "Two Nations", whose only ever comparative reversal between 1997 and 2010 the Cameronite view of Britain is sufficiently extreme as to see as crypto-Communist). A timeslip one-off, it makes superb use of the vague separation from normal time of an isolated railway station, and is so atmospheric and in touch with real life and the uncontained, uncontrolled nature of the, by then, wholly disorganised working class (which separates it from the Ghost Box axis very effectively) as to wholly offset its hints at mere moralising.

But my most telling experience of the week must have been The Connoisseur, a 1966 Wednesday Play (transmitted while the current Prime Minister was in the womb) which revealed the essentially sadistic and brutal nature of so many elite schools at that time, at a moment when - if anything - they became more paranoid and determined to cling to their insular cruelty out of fear that Labour might use their electoral remit to eliminate them altogether. In its observance of the precise words, gestures and behaviours of such institutions, it had the authentic stamp of genuine experience - not surprisingly so because both its writer, Hugo Charteris, and the strand's then script editor, David Benedictus, were themselves Old Etonians.

Every detail was uncannily evocative of its moment, from the campaigning, popular tabloid (clearly modelled on the Daily Mirror that had room to thrive in pre-Murdoch Britain) for which the sensitive, uneasy house captain - son of the school's chaplain and pretty much trained for the cloth from birth - has written an article attacking the school's hypocrisy, archaic curriculum and endemic culture of sexual abuse, to the copies of Private Eye, radical in some eyes but ultimately the Establishment on its days off, and for all its bravery in investigative journalism as uneasy with the overturning of cultural hierarchies and assumptions which lay at the heart of the decade's popular culture as the hierarchy of the school itself. As the house captain, Richard O'Sullivan gave a performance which made me regret anew his later miring in false and deluded sitcoms, aware that the system is rotten, but unable to admit that he was also sexually attracted to the young choirboy lusted after by the young aristocrat Ballantyne (Ian Ogilvy showing all the vicious anti-humanism reconstituted, in pop-friendly form, within the modern Conservative Party), and finally bought off by membership of the school's elite club, clearly modelled on Eton's original incarnation of Pop. Derek Francis gave a chillingly accurate performance as a housemaster utterly refusing to recognise what was happening around him, and Rosalie Crutchley - so dependable for so long, so undervalued - showed the sensitivity hidden within her own class, and her own archetype, as the house captain's mother.

Most significant of all, perhaps, was a moment where it became clear that Charteris had a far greater understanding of the true cultural politics of the Rolling Stones than most people on all cultural and political sides had at the time. The stereotypical assumption would have been for the "sensitive" boy portrayed in a positive light to identify with Jagger's howls of supposed alienation, and for the aristocratic sadists portrayed in a negative light to disapprove. But here we have the arrogant sons of privilege who, in the house captain's words, have turned the school into a brothel, loudly and abusively singing "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction". Such was the potency and strength of the Jagger myth at the time - and the related myth of offshore radio as some kind of equivalent of East European samizdata, rather than the traditional elite exploiting pop out of sheer expediency - that this alone shows a rare bravery and independence of thought on Charteris's part.

While the song, inspired by the disenchantment of Jagger's experiences of the real, crudely acquisitive America that was far more prevalent than the imagined land of rebellion and R&B cool which he had imagined before he could have hoped to actually see it in the flesh, obviously shows an awareness that the blandishments of capitalism - then so much more advanced there than here - were essentially lies, it also reveals an appalled, compulsive fascination with the norms of a neoliberal society; Jagger could not keep away, because he could imagine no alternative beyond the scarcity and isolation of his early childhood. He is repulsed at the methods used to sell Coca-Cola, but is not repulsed by the fact of Coca-Cola itself, in isolation from its marketing and advertising, as he is by the fact of Woolton pie or snoek, which is the only alternative he can imagine (not, I suspect, being much aware of the methods of social democracy which had grown over a long period in Scandinavia). Where Charteris's use of the song stands out is that many left-leaning playwrights at the time who had turned away from their own privileged backgrounds would have thought that the song genuinely heralded a rejection of a supposedly over-capitalist British state and a new age of egalitarianism, his awareness that the mass of young conformists, up to and including aristocratic sadists, could and would routinely consume it on a purely visceral level, without any thought of its deeper meaning, anticipates what the Stones were ultimately to mean in the reconstitution of deep-rooted privilege. I do not think, really, that I need to mention Tony Blair here. Charteris's politically predictive use of "Satisfaction" is particularly impressive considering that it was more than a year before the World in Action interview and William Rees-Mogg's realisation that Jagger's politics were "straight John Stuart Mill" (and thus emblematic of the main tendency excluded from the mainstream at the time and allowed back in with a vengeance in the 1980s); could it be, perhaps, that he could sense a residual Butskellism, a gratefulness to the enabling state, within the Beatles and could clearly tell that Jagger, from his impeccably Home Counties Tory background, had no such thing within his life and immediate experience?

It was, without doubt, a week of stimulation. By the time I next get the chance, we will know whether the forces of reaction have trapped British politics in its current anti-human impairment for the foreseeable future, or whether we have chosen the closest thing possible to genuine reconstruction. My visits to BFI Southbank frequently explore past attempted reconstructions, and shed some light on the reasons for their ultimate failure. There has rarely been a better time for us to keep such failings in our mind, and do all we can to make a greater, more profound failing than any in the past comparatively less likely.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Uncle Jim, Uncle Lew, the Muppets and social democracy

I have written extensively elsewhere of the importance of ATV - the most problematic from a social democratic perspective, because wariest of the consensus of limited capitalism within which it had, unwillingly, to operate, of the ITV companies of the network's first quarter-century - in making the transition from the culture of the British Empire to the culture of the undeclared American one far smoother and easier to take for older British people at the time than it would have been otherwise.

The single most important show in this process in the late 1950s and early 1960s was Sunday Night at the London Palladium, simultaneously the last repository of the British music hall where the Crazy Gang made their final appearance together, and the platform through which Buddy Holly and the Beatles defined their impact, and where the Stones' attack on the certainties of the post-war state found its most perfect definition. But perhaps most fascinating in this context are the strong echoes of the music hall in the format of The Muppet Show - globally, probably Lew Grade's biggest success of all, even though it was made at a time when he had been forced to step down from day-to-day control of ATV by the IBA and when the social-democratic establishment was already closing in on the company, soon to force it to reform into a wholly Midlands-based company with quite different aims - and specifically the fact that, in the early weeks of 1978, the Muppets were in the Top 20 with their version of "Waiting at the Church".

The plot thickens. In the TV Times of 27 January-2 February 1979 - the same issue with Flambards on the cover - the then Prime Minister, in an interview seemingly conducted towards the end of the previous year so utterly inimical to the events of that moment, and weirdly predictive of the distortion of the political process which would do so much damage to another Labour Prime Minister who should have called an autumn election when he had the chance, expresses his appreciation and enjoyment of The Muppet Show. Infamously, he had heralded his fatal postponement of the general election at the TUC conference the previous September by singing the very same song, in a gesture which seems - history has given it this status, however little he could have imagined it - both to end one era (dignified statesmanlike politics, a cross-party agreement on the limiting of capitalism so as to maintain social cohesion and stability) and fire the starting gun on another (the reduction of politics to symbols, gestures, songs). Could it be, perhaps, that it was the Muppets' rendition that had placed the song back in his mind, and convinced him that it might, somehow, be a good idea?

The idea that there might have been some kind of connection between such an omnipresently successful - despite rather than because of the system under which it was created - product of British television as global/mid-Atlantic powerhouse rather than internal public service, and the political decision which opened the floodgates for the lifting of those restrictions on global capitalism which had dogged Lew Grade for so long, is one of the many powerful ironies of those years (if, that is, there is a connection; there may not be, I just like to imagine so). The cultural shame and embarrassment - obviously embedded with a nasty, latent anti-Semitism when held in some Tory circles, but rooted in a basically admirable, however incompatible with the pop-cultural creativity that exploded in Britain in the 1960s & 70s, belief in public-spiritedness and universal obligation when held by Labour supporters - which had been felt across the board about the presence of a company like ATV, trying desperately to juggle the international role it aspired towards with the regional role it had to fit within, in retrospect began to die the moment the nation heard that there would be no general election at this time.

The political legacy of what happened next is defined by the fact that it happened in the first, pre-Falklands years of the Thatcher government, when the ideologues were still struggling to stamp their absolute authority and the less fanatical "wets" still had a stake in the Cabinet. The collapse of the Grade empire due to the attentions of the IBA on one side of the business and the disaster of Raise the Titanic on the other (ITC having moved into films in the later '70s hoping for greater success in a less regulated area, only to be destroyed by the same rules of the market that have undermined so many latterday Tory heroes, not least Bruce Gyngell of Thatcher's own ideal ITV company) was one of two downfalls of buccaneering capitalists in the very early 1980s (the other being the collapse of Laker Airways, at least in part due to the machinations of the still-nationalised British Airways, in the early weeks of 1982) which convinced the forces of Thatcherism that they needed to take absolute control of the party and push out those who still took "conservative" comparatively literally. There is, in fact, a sense in which ATV and ITC died so that Murdoch and Sky could live.

There is no doubt that the Grades fitted perfectly one of the two main anti-Semitic stereotypes, and the Bernsteins the other; obviously, all those who adhered to such stereotypes, however subconsciously and unthinkingly, epitomised the lies and delusions on which Britain was living at the pre-ITV, pre-Suez, pre-Elvis moment, and Britain in 1955/6 undoubtedly needed a bit of what the Grades had to offer, "vulgar", "rootless" capitalism. It just needed the tendencies demonised by old-school Tories as "Jewish Bolshevism" more. In terms of being Conservative without being "Tory" in the then still commonly identifiable cultural sense, with its echoes of backwoodsmen and Victorian diehards, and also calling for an Establishment separated from the old Foreign Office Arabism, the Grade dynasty played a crucial role in the long-term creation of Thatcherism (this is the sense in which Death of a Princess was, perversely, less of a break from the earlier incarnation of ATV than it seemed at the time).

The fact that Central were, only twelve years after coming into being, absorbed by Carlton - capitalism at its absolute crudest, with no hint of the genuine love and enjoyment and care that defined even ATV and ITC's more mediocre efforts - sums up precisely how this story ended. In the brief island between, Central - while still continuing the tradition of IBA-baiting with The Price is Right - also defined their own territory in terms of drama (helped massively, in terms of opening up new ground in the portrayal and stimulation of young people, by Lewis Rudd and Geoff Husson, of whom more soon), and brought a genuine flavour of the Midlands to British television in a way nobody before or since has really shown the desire or inclination to do. The story of ITV in the Midlands begins and ends with out-and-out capitalism, by the end devoid of any of its fresher, more exciting qualities by having become a fat, rotten establishment culture. What interests me most, though, is what happened because it had to happen under a mixed economy, and which would probably not have happened under the neoliberal misinterpretation of freedom. For a powerful depiction of a class lost and isolated amid Thatcherism - the children of the old respectable working class, seeing their parents' routes to suburban respectability closed off and reduced to sheer nihilism, with even the land where the values of "your philosopher Keynes" were surviving only an unattainable mirage in the end - check this for a start. And remember how and why it was able to happen, and how and why it couldn't happen now.

Excuse me if I don't think The Persuaders or The Champions stand any kind of comparison. Out-and-out capitalism was exciting once. But here, now, it can never be again. The Grades, undoubtedly, did much of value in British mass culture in a particular place and time. But their myth is the same myth as that cherished by the offshore radio fanboys, the Jim Slater euologisers, the Jagger cultists (who Peter Hitchens would almost be right about if only he admitted that their crime is neoliberalism rather than socialism), and in the age when a cruder, much less well-made and well-constructed version of what they represented represents the cultural model for Old Etonian Tories rather than anything to be wary of, it has to be opposed. If only Jim Callaghan could have seen that, back in the first week of September 1978.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Desert Island Discs archive

Not television of course, but a valuable archive of a radio series with true longevity - now in its sixty-ninth year. One of those British institutions, along with Test Match Special and The Shipping Forecast that one cannot imagine not being there on BBC Radio 4.

You can listen to and download - or at least read - the selections of some crucial players in British television; including, of course, profoundly bad influences. Here are some interesting ones:

Sir Hugh Greene
John Freeman
Lew Grade
David Frost
Anthony Howard
Robin Day
Morecambe and Wise
Dr Jacob Bronowski
David Attenborough
Oliver Postgate
John Pilger
Armando Iannucci
Stephen Fry
David Mitchell