Archive for the ‘film and television’ Category

h1

The Audience (NT Live)

22 July 2016

(Cross-posted from elsewhere, considering the links to previous books I’ve read and reviewed here.)

I saw an NT Live showing of The Audience last night, in which Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II during her weekly audiences with a number of her prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron. (It was filmed in 2013, so unlike the recent West End revival it does not do the trick where the dialogue in Cameron’s scenes changes from week to week based on current events. Thankfully for us all.)

I greatly enjoyed it and laughed quite a lot, though the thing I was most struck by was the play’s deliberate choice to focus on illness, physical and mental, of the people in power. Anthony Eden openly takes a dose of what I believe to be dexamyl on stage shortly before his audience with the Queen, and appears to be in a tightly wound, near-manic state throughout his scene as he rants about Nasser, Hitler, and Mussolini at the height of the Suez Crisis. Gordon Brown tries to speak cheerfully and casually as he mentions his new diet and the foods he can’t eat, a direct reference to the rumours swirling in 2009 that he was taking MAOIs to combat depression. (The Queen chimes in sympathetically with an admission of OCD tendencies — ‘pens and shoes must be lined up just so, or I get very vexed‘.) And Harold Wilson’s early decline into Alzheimer’s disease has the most poignant scene at the play’s heart, where even the Queen is shocked at how her prime minister’s once-razor-sharp mental faculties are visibly crumbling into paranoia and forgetfulness. The Queen herself reveals her emotional and physical weaknesses during a scene set in 1992, where she is fighting a terrible cold and watching her children’s marriages fall apart as John Major struggles to convince her that the royal family will have to make changes to their lifestyle or risk greater public displeasure. To me, it seems a reasonable choice to use illness as the vehicle for humanizing both the monarchy and the premiership, though I was a bit surprised that Eden’s terrible physical health (following his botched gallbladder operation) and Wilson’s alcoholism weren’t mentioned as well.

Helen Mirren is a delight throughout, especially in the scenes where she converses with a younger version of herself who seems to embody her rebellious, free-spirited streak. The only scene I found grating was the one with Margaret Thatcher — though I found it difficult to tell whether I was reacting more negatively to Thatcher-as-Thatcher or to Haydn Gywnne’s interpretation of her.

It certainly helps to know something about the politics and personalities of the time, but I don’t think it’s a requirement to enjoy the production. I’m not sure how many more encore presentations it will receive, but it’s certainly worth checking out. It’s certainly prompted me to revisit sections of Peter Hennessy’s book on prime ministers, which might well be good supplemental reading for viewers of the play.

Advertisements
h1

Ministers, Mandarins, and Metafashion

25 September 2013

The suits of Yes Minister is a delightful assessment of sartorial choices (and precisely what coded messages they convey, through the characters who wear them) in my beloved series. Who would have thought that a four-in-hand vs. Windsor knot contrast would reveal so much?

h1

Commentary: A very un-Canadian Caper….

27 September 2012

(I originally wrote this on another online journaling site, but after consideration I feel that it’s worth re-posting here as well, with a few minor edits.)

I know that I shouldn’t let myself get too upset about Hollywood’s usual approach to history, because if I did then I’d likely never do anything with my time but froth at the mouth. But I feel rather strongly about this most recent bit of history that Hollywood’s taken on: the Canadian Caper, which will shortly air as the new Ben Affleck picture Argo.

It’s an exciting true-life story, I’ll admit. At the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA operative is given the task of rescuing six Americans who managed to escape the storming of the Tehran embassy and are hiding in the homes of two Canadian diplomats, one of whom is Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. So the CIA fakes an entire film production company, Studio Six, and gets into Iran under cover of scouting locations for a new film called Argo. When the fake film team leaves the country shortly thereafter, the six Americans (having been given Canadian passports with CIA-forged Iranian visas) leave under their cover as the film crew, reaching the safety of Switzerland before travelling back to the States. The remaining Canadian diplomats evacuate the country shortly thereafter, and when the press breaks the story of the daring ‘Canadian Caper’, Iran breaks off diplomatic relations with Canada in retribution. Lots of room for action, adventure, and dramatic tension in a story like that. It’s a nail-biting suspense flick if I ever heard one.

But now we come to Argo, the film based on these events.

According to the IMDB cast list, as best I can tell the only Canadian figure given reasonable billing is Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber (thankfully, Canadian himself). Taylor’s wife Pat is also included, further down the cast list. But there is no mention of John and Zena Sheardown, the Canadian immigration officer and his wife who also sheltered three of the six Americans for more than two months. No mention of either Prime Minister Joe Clark or Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald, who originally pushed through the Order in Council that issued six Canadian passports to be used for the rescue attempt. Yes, Tony Mendez and the CIA organised the actual rescue, faking the visa information and going into Iran as the exfiltration team. But for those two months, Taylor and Sheardown put themselves and their families at great personal risk to hide the fugitive Americans, living with the constant fear that someone would find out what was going on and let it slip to the hostage-takers at the American embassy. Why are the Canadians so conspicuously absent from a film about the Canadian Caper?

Granted, I understand that the film is based on Tony Mendez’s book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which naturally focuses on the CIA’s part in the rescue of the six Americans. Unlike Canadian historian Robert Wright’s book Our Man in Tehran, which centres on Ambassador Taylor’s role during the hostage crisis, Argo plays up the successful, hands-on American action — such a contrast to the months of waiting endured by the hostages, and the shambolic failure of the Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt. Nonetheless, by all but writing the Canadians out of the Canadian Caper, Argo suggests that Ben Affleck has taken all the wrong lessons about creating historical drama from his heavily panned role in 2001’s Pearl Harbor.

I will probably see Argo, just so I can critique it on its own merits or lack thereof rather than on what I’m seeing from the trailers and the cast list. I’m particularly interested in how the Iranians themselves are portrayed, and if even the slightest nods are given to the history of American meddling in Iran and its less-than-honourable support for the shah. But I’ll be fighting my own blood pressure the whole time.

h1

Commentary: Sir Humphrey on Newsnight

29 April 2010

As part of Newsnight‘s Election 2010 coverage, Yes, Minister co-creator Sir Anthony Jay has written a set of three new sketches featuring the quintessential civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Henry Goodman (who will be portraying Sir Humphrey in the new Yes, Prime Minister stage play opening in May at the Chichester Festival Theatre). According to the BBC’s description: ‘In three episodes we will see him flick through the main party manifestos and offer his unique advice for any incoming minister on handling, or getting around, aspects of potential future policy.

For now, the clips are available here: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour [to be aired on 4 May].

Overall, I found the writing to be fairly clever, with some good turns of phrase in the best mandarin style. Though it is nigh-impossible to live up to the memory of Sir Nigel Hawthorne’s performance, I would say that Henry Goodman’s portrayal is well up to par — though I do wish he hadn’t said ‘Lib Dem’, which would be far too crude for the Sir Humphrey Appleby I recall. But my primary reservation about these sketches is that they would be a good deal more funny, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original series, if we weren’t told which party’s manifesto was actually being read.

One of the most prized aspects of the series was that it carefully avoided party-political issues in favour of highlighting the underlying conflict between government and administration, an approach that allows it to have continued relevance more than three decades later. It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to have Sir Humphrey, always so scrupulous about drawing the line between the sordid world of party politics and the tidy machinery of the Civil Service, offering commentary in this muddled grey area between the policy and the policymakers. Sir Humphrey himself would be the first to say that to the Civil Service, it barely matters what party is in power…or rather, in government, because no party is ever truly in ‘power’ in that sense of the word.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, so perhaps I’m somewhat protective of the original series and resistant to the prospect of its ‘modernization’ in this fashion — even when modernised by the creators. But even setting that aside and attempting to judge the sketches purely on their own merits, they seem somewhat lacking in the classic Yes, Minister message that first attracted my interest.

h1

Conferences: Fiction and British Politics

4 November 2009

Though I’m heading off to the Berlin Wall conference this weekend, I already have one eye on another conference I’m slated to present at in mid-December. The University of Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics is hosting a one-day conference on fiction and British politics, and rather predictably I’m giving a paper on Yes, Minister. (For the curious, here’s the official conference flyer.)

Since my article on the impact and influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister went to press before I found out about this conference, I decided to look through the rest of my research on the series to see if there was another aspect of fiction and British politics that captured my interest. And then I recalled that my earliest interest in researching the series had been sparked when I read that on 9 January 1986, when Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine walked out of Cabinet over the furore known as the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher spent that evening watching the first episode of Yes, Prime Minister. That juxtaposition of political fiction and political reality ended up becoming the basis for my planned paper: ‘Yes, Prime Minister and the Westland Affair: A Tale of Two Resignations’.

As it’s a one-day conference, I’m sure the whole thing will be a bit of a whirlwind. (I do wish it was longer; there’s certainly enough material on fiction and British politics to fill up several days’ worth of panels and papers and plenary lectures.) All the same, I’m greatly looking forward to it — the scheduled conference papers sound fascinating, as do the invited guest speakers. Two conferences in two months is daunting, but I wouldn’t miss either of them for the world.

h1

Never Had It So Good and White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook

27 October 2009

I’ve had these books for quite a while now, and finally have had a chance to pull my thoughts on them together into a single combined review. For those who might be interested in another set of opinions, David Edgar also reviewed these two books in the 7 June 2007 issue of the London Review of Books (subscription required to view the full article).

Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook

When Historian Dominic Sandbrook wanted to write a history of Britain in the 1960s, he soon realised that merely covering the years 1960-1969 wouldn’t do justice to a period that refused to be confined by something as arbitrary as a set of dates. As a result, he split his work into two parts: the first volume covering 1956 to 1963 (from the Suez Crisis to Harold Macmillan’s resignation), and the second volume covering 1964 to 1970 (the span of Harold Wilson’s first Labour Government). The title of the first volume comes from a comment made by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan — not the phrase ‘you’ve never had it so good’, as it is often misquoted. The actual comment comes from a speech made in mid-1957, in which Macmillan attempted to reassure the public on the state of Britain under his new Conservative Government:

Let’s be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime — nor indeed ever in the history of this country. What is worrying some of us is ‘Is it too good to be true?’ or perhaps I should say ‘Is it too good to last?’

Macmillan’s assessment did indeed reflect the real improvement in the general standard of living. By 1956, the last official remnants of the years of austerity following World War II were finally fading. Rationing had ended, National Service was on the way out, and with unemployment figures at markedly low levels a new sense of consumer confidence translated into increased spending. And yet as Never Had It So Good presents it, Macmillan’s statement reflected the very real concerns that many people had about the changes taking place in British society in the late 1950s, in a world where many of the old political, social, and economic standards no longer seemed to apply.

For the political highlights, Sandbrook’s chapter on the events of Suez crisis is fascinating and tightly written, illustrating Anthony Eden’s sudden and steep decline from one of the more capable and experienced British politicians of his time to an ‘enraged elephant’ utterly obsessed with engineering Nasser’s downfall. Sandbrook also provides concise assessments of the 1962 Cabinet reshuffle known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ and the various upheavals within the long-suffering Labour Party. Never Had It So Good‘s chapters on social history cover the big developments very well, examining broad trends in drama and art and literature, the growth of teenage culture — and, of course, the rise of the Beatles and other popular music groups that profited from the new affluence. Throughout the book, though, Sandbrook constantly emphasises that the trend-setting youngsters flocking to London and Liverpool around this time were by no means the majority of the population. If anything, he attempts to push the pendulum in the other direction, suggesting that most people were far likely to go home and listen to the cozy dramas of The Archers than to any of the more esoteric productions aired by the Third Programme. Though it’s an admirable attempt at balancing out the narrative, Sandbrook seems so determined to protect his silent majority that he seems to dismiss off-hand many of the real changes that were affecting the United Kingdom at the time. The shifts in public attitudes on immigration, women’s rights, abortion and divorce, and other social issues would receive greater prominence in 1960s, but the groundwork for their changes was laid in the Macmillan years.

Never Had It So Good concludes with the various scandals that plagued the end of Harold Macmillan’s time in office, followed soon after by his resignation due to ill health and the Conservative Party’s leadership fracas from which Lord Home (shortly to renounce his hereditary peerage and become Sir Alec Douglas-Home) emerged as Prime Minister. Yet Sandbrook does not end on the sour note of the resignation — he is already looking ahead to 1964, with the Beatles at the top of the charts and the new television programme Doctor Who sending thousands of children racing to hide behind the sofa as the terrifying Daleks advanced across the screen. After almost 13 years of Tory rule, a country whose people had never had it so good were looking for the new, the fresh, and the exciting, and were preparing to vote in (by a very narrow margin) a Government whose leader promised all of those things and more, with a buoyant optimism that he hoped would be contagious. Never Had It So Good does not invite the reader to linger on the Macmillan years. Everyone, including Sandbrook, seems to be on the way to somewhere else — in this case, on to the next book.

White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties by Dominic Sandbrook

White Heat takes its title from a quotation from the Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson, given during a speech at the 1963 Labour Party Conference. Wilson urged his fellow party members to equate Labour’s socialism with the seemingly boundless capacity of scientific progress, ready to revolutionise how Britain saw itself at home and abroad:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry….In the Cabinet room and the boardroom alike, those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and to speak in the language of our scientific age.

Wilson’s words reflected the themes of science, progress, and revolution that were a constant background of the early 1960s. The pressure to be ‘new’ and ‘modern’ produced visible changes, as glass-and-concrete tower blocks replaced Victorian terraced housing and designers embraced synthetic materials and sleekly futuristic lines in fashion and furniture. The Labour Government, despite the slim majority with which it entered power in 1964, intended to push Britain forward to meet the challenges of the Space Age, and the public seemed quite happy to go along — for a time, at least.

Sandbrook writes a crisp political history of the 1960s, drawing heavily on published diaries and memoirs of politicians and other celebrities for good gossip and anecdotes. But when it comes to social history, Sandbrook warns readers against taking a romantic view of the period. He is of the opinion that most of the fashionable movements and trendy ideas of the 1960s lacked real permanence: the protesting students go home at the end of term, the daringly avant-garde play closes within a month, the popular new boutique shuts its doors when the losses from shoplifting and poor business management become too great. To remain popular in the music world, he suggests, even the Beatles had to move away from their cheerful clean-cut image and experiment with mysticism and drugs. Meanwhile, many people distrusted the changes taking place, fearing that immigration and the always-scare-quoted ‘permissive society’ were eroding traditional values and doing irreparable damage to the British way of life. Sandbrook chips away at the myths of a carefree Swinging Britain, focusing more on the fracture points (such as Northern Ireland and growing labour unrest) that would lead to the greater trouble and strife of the 1970s.

Though the concluding chapter of Never Had It So Good looks ahead with interest to the Wilson years, White Heat closes with a wistful look at the popularity of the World War II sitcom Dad’s Army, a symbol of the growing cult of nostalgia that Sandbrook claims is the real legacy of the 1960s. Poets like Philip Larkin and John Betjeman wrote paens to a simpler Britain of sleepy country churches and soot-covered northern towns, and the Kinks and the Beatles popularised openly nostalgic songs like ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Penny Lane’. Even miniskirts, one of the most iconic symbols of the Swinging Sixties, warred with ankle-length Victorian-inspired dresses in fashionable circles towards the end of the decade. Sandbrook’s melancholy message is really that Britain in the 1960s was not all that keen on change; at least, not at the speed with which it seemed to be happening. And in spite of the real advancements that was made during the decade in the women’s movement and in other broader campaigns for social progress, White Heat suggests that the decade burned itself out long before it actually came to an end.

h1

Publications: ‘Downing Street’s Favourite Soap Opera’ (in print)

20 September 2009

To my chagrin, I’ve only just realised that I’ve neglected to mention in To Bed With a Trollope that the following article is now available from Contemporary British History:

Downing Street’s Favourite Soap Opera: Evaluating the Impact and Influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister‘, Contemporary British History 23:3 (September 2009): 315-336

Abstract: The satirical 1980s television programmes Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister have made a lasting contribution to the substance and content of political discourse in Britain, shaping public and political opinion on the relationship between politicians and civil servants. An in-depth analysis of the reactions to Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister — from the earliest reviews to the most recent references to the programmes in contemporary political debates — reveals the programmes’ incisive observations on the proper roles of government and administration in the British political system and explains why these observations continue to be relevant nearly three decades after the programmes first aired.

This article is available online through the link above or in the hard copy edition of the September 2009 issue of Contemporary British History.