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.


  1. "The arrogant schoolboys, the enclosed world of the school itself, and the problems set by the monastic atmosphere were in their own way timeless." (Mary Crozier, "The Guardian", 05/05/1966)

    I watched this on Tuesday in the BFI Mediatheque in Newcastle; an evocative piece of work, as Robin suggests. There might be something in Crozier's claim of timelessness; the corruption and compromise of such schools will persist even if the cloistered atmosphere may have subsided. I was struck by Ogilvy's resemblance to both Cameron and Blair, at different points... the bearing and voice anticipated DC. Indeed, there is a throwaway remark about Ballantyne one day perhaps becoming Prime Minister...

    In terms of the performances, I would also highlight Michael Goodliffe as the school chaplain, veteran of much interesting British cinema (including some Powell and Pressburger). He conveys a contrasting approach to G.C., but is ultimately just as compromised and out-of-time. Derek Francis' G.C. struck me rather like a character out of Angus Wilson; ambiguously seedy and self-deluding.

    Very well said on Rosalie Crutchley: what an interesting career - "Brendon Chase", "Destiny" - which I'll be writing about here, "Bill Brand", "The Prisoner", "Carrie's War", Potter's "Alice", "Dark Season", "Anglo Saxon Attitudes"... As Pauline Tenterden, she conveys a sensitivity and conscience within the traditionalist establishment, but is powerless to effect any change.

    O'Sullivan does a brilliant job in playing a tortured, conflicted soul. He is actually also in the third "Play for Today", which I am about to write about for this same blog. Also, he is the lead in Richard Carpenter's "Dick Turpin"; any good? RC's stuff usually is (I've been rather enjoying "The Ghosts of Motley Hall" recently). There might be said to be an added frisson with his performance here in the fact of his numerous juvenile roles in boys' own type films/TV adventure serials.

    Ogilvy is superb also in 'Tomkinson's Schooldays' episode of "Ripping Yarns" - VERY relevant in this context. He has very memorable role in "Upstairs, Downstairs" as Elizabeth Bellamy's rather effete poet husband. He is also outstanding as Michael Reeves's lead in two compelling films: the human-puppet of Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey in "The Sorcerers" and the man pursuing vengeance against Matthew Hopkins in "Witchfinder General". I am looking forward to seeing him as Edgar Linton in the 1970 film of "Wuthering Heights" (also in the Mediatheque).

    "Charteris [...] caught the public school penchant for elegant sadism with remarkable accuracy, but he also managed to suggest that this confined world provided a microcosm for the corruption of our affluent time." (George Melly, "The Obsever", 07/07/1968)

  2. Although I haven't yet watched Kizzy (although I certainly will after reading this), I did watch the sublime "Crystal Gazing" at the Mediatheque today and left the BFI feeling amazement and archive melancholy in equal measure. I might review the film in more detail on here at some point, but I just wondered if anyone knew what sort of a release this enjoyed in 1982. And was it ever broadcast on TV?

  3. The only showings I can find in the Times Digital Archive are at the 1982 Edinburgh Film Festival and the ICA Cinematheque in March 1983. The Guardian adds a showing at Bristol Film Workshop in June 1983. Although it was made in association with Channel 4, neither paper reveals any TV showings and none are listed in the BFI database either. In the 1985 book 'A Night at the Pictures: Ten Decades of British Film', Colin McArthur included it in his all-time Top 10 British film or TV productions (by no means the only interesting submission in that book, and a critics' poll that really should be repeated; retrospective props go to Richard Combs for including 'Cul-de-Sac', 'Gone to Earth' and 'The Shout', Charles Barr for 'Hell Drivers' and 'The Golden Vision' and Gilbert Adair for 'Grown-ups' and 'Winstanley').

    This piece (and specifically the 'Summer is a Festival' diversion you allude to, though I would urge anyone who can afford them who wants to know how 1972 felt to seek out the desperately rare copies of that book - currently seven on Amazon Marketplace and one on eBay, none below £45) seems, in retrospect, like a high watermark of the heady, emotionally full-on, reference-laden style I was invoking at the time; trying to will something into being (in this case, a Yes vote in the AV referendum) that you already sensed (but didn't want to admit it) was being doomed by the cruelty of coincidence and history. Weirdly like what I imagine being part of the intellectual-Left during the Falklands War, and believing in the potential of the Associates to revolutionalise pop even as it slipped away even as they were still charting, must have been like.

    After this, there was a weird sense that I didn't really feel *part* of this blog anymore, much as I continued to construct ideas for it (the main one was about the Centre Plays 'England, Summer, Sunday' and 'A Passage to Inverness', both intensely evocative of the 1975-77 period and what was up for grabs then) ... in the summer of 2011 I had something close to a nervous breakdown, partially because I'd been travelling to London (basically to escape the mundanity of the rest of my life) more often than I could manage, and my life collapsed around me. Since then I've been very careful about writing (or indeed, alas, watching) things I thought would stir my emotions and sense of unease with "normal" life too much, which is why my more recent Sea Songs pieces have a clearer, more direct, more polemical style than I'd used before. Also, this and my other early 2011 writing got quite a lot of stick from 'Westengland' on the Mausoleum Club, who accused me (indirectly) of romanticising the Butskellite era, which I think is a reasonable claim from someone of his generation, but there is still the sense that he can't get over the romance of America-as-the-Other (c.f. his Murdoch apologias). Re-reading it now, I'm surprised at how well it actually stands up.

    Out of interest, Ed, did you get round to watching 'Kizzy'?

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