Denial: an opportunity missed to tell a story that needs to be told

<em>Denial</em>: an opportunity missed to tell a story that needs to be told

In 1996, the historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, her publisher, were sued in the UK courts by the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving for calling him a falsifier of history in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. In Denial, David Hare has written a version of those events for a film directed by Mick Jackson and starring Rachel Weisz as Lipstadt and Timothy Spall as Irving.

Could any film be more well-timed? Unfortunately, despite having good moments, Denial proved to be something of a disappointment. I was left feeling that there was a really interesting documentary struggling to free itself from this dramatisation.

Continue reading Denial: an opportunity missed to tell a story that needs to be told”

David Kynaston’s Family Britain: different times, but no nostalgia

David Kynaston’s <em>Family Britain</em>: different times, but no nostalgia

In his brilliant social history of Britain David Kynaston doesn’t deal in nostalgia. Nevertheless, I can’t resist recording this moment in Family Britain when he interrupts his account of the country between 1951 and 1956 to devote a whole page simply to a list of products whose names will instantly cause time to run backwards for anyone who lived through those years: Continue reading “David Kynaston’s Family Britain: different times, but no nostalgia”

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?

A revival of David Hare’s 1993 play, The Absence of War, seemed an enticing prospect. A drama portraying the Labour Party as lost in ideological confusion, drained of vitality, and unable to mobilise public support or present a vision or values in any compelling way promised to be highly relevant in present circumstances.

But at the Liverpool Playhouse the other night I found Headlong’s revival an uninspiring disappointment. The production seemed drained of energy, suffering from lifeless acting and direction which did little to overcome a script that suffered from flatness of dialogue and shallowness of characterisation.  It was as airless as the meeting rooms in which most of the action took place and the arguments that were batted back and forth in them. Continue reading “The Absence of War: parliamentary socialism, anybody?”

Jubilee: true British stoicism

Being of decidedly republican inclination, I can’t be doing with all the bunting, the flags, flotillas, the fawning and the wall-to-wall TV coverage of this bank holiday weekend’s Jubilee celebrations.  The money being spent on these shenanigans and the Olympics in the midst of a dire recession seems to me to be obscene.

As  David Hare out it in an otherwise strangely uncritical and somewhat obsequious article in yesterdays Guardian:

It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Here we are in the middle of a national carnival of disillusionment. Bankers and journalists have been sent to join politicians and payday lenders in the lowest pit of public opinion. Today, even our schools have to answer to an education secretary who, before ascending to office, had to return to the taxpayer £7,000 of our money, much of which he had spent at a furniture shop belonging to his party leader’s mother-in-law. How low can we get?  …  Today’s festivities coincide with the worst economic crisis for 80 years, brought about, we should remember, by the failure of the political class to offer the country even a modest degree of protection from a rampantly destructive City of London. No event since the invasion of Iraq has so reinforced people’s sense of powerlessness.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the people milling about under dripping umbrellas today on the village green at Hanley Swan where I took the photo above.  They were setting up the stalls, the coconut shy, the music stage, for a village celebration, while under the oak tree on the green a poster proclaimed a message of true British stoicism: ‘We’ll Weather the Weather Whatever’.

The whole country has been drenched in steady rain for two days.  We’re staying with a friend in this village near Malvern for a couple of nights and, unbelievably, the Malvern hills are invisible, shrouded in cloud.  We came here once before – and conditions were exactly the same.  We’ve never seen those hills!

David Hare’s Page Eight: classy television

David Hare’s Page Eight: classy television

Page Eight David Hare poster

Johnny Worricker is an old-school MI5 spy with old-school values and a determination to do the right thing even if things seem to be going the way of duplicitous and self-serving politicians.  Played by Bill Nighy in David Hare’s feature-length BBC drama Page Eight, broadcast on BBC2 last night, Worricker discovers an extraordinary political secret.  It’s on page eight of a sensitive government document, and it suggests that the Prime Minister has allowed British citizens to be tortured and killed in the name of national security and intelligence gathering.

Sound familiar?  Hare is too sophisticated an operator to deal in lookalikes, and this PM, played by Ralph Fiennes, looked nothing like TB.  It was left to the viewers to draw their own conclusions.  In interviews, Hare has explained how he came to write his first original screenplay in 20 years:

I don’t think anybody has written about what I think has been happening lately in the intelligence services, especially post 7/7 when home-grown terrorists walked onto the Tube and blew up British citizens. It’s been a rough few years for MI5, partly because it refused to offer Blair the information he wanted when he was putting together the case for an invasion of Iraq and partly because of the effects of 7/7.

John le Carré is the master of the spy genre, but by and large he has written about the Cold War. I spoke to people who work for MI5 about what it’s like in the organisation now, and it was those conversations that inspired me to write Page Eight.

Ralph Fiennes, who plays Prime Minister Alec Beasley, asked me if his character was based on anyone real. I told him Alec Beasley was an incredibly capable and powerful PM, and before I could go any further he said, ‘So no one we know then’.  He was joking, but he’s right. This is make-believe, albeit make-believe inspired by real conversations. Viewers can read into it what they wish.

This was intelligent and enjoyable TV drama – and, along with other recent offerings from the BBC such as The Hour and Glorious 39, very finely acted.  What more could you expect from a cast that included Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon and Rachel Weisz?  Interesting, too, how there seemed to be a common theme across these three pieces – one of duplicity and conspiring against democracy in high places.

Sam Wollaston provided a neat summing up in The Guardian:

It is a world where the old certainties have disappeared, where I Vow to Thee, My Country may still be sung at Benedict’s funeral but the words have little meaning any more. It is a world where politics operates in a moral vacuum. It is our world.

But it’s not a place without all hope. It may be impossible to beat the system, but you can perhaps get something back from it (Johnny gets justice for Nancy’s brother). And there are still the good things in life – paintings by Christopher Wood, Lester Young’s saxophone, a drink at six o’clock. Classy television.

This is the painting that the Bill Nighy character had hanging in his flat.  It’s The Card Players by Christopher Wood and was actually sold at Sothebys a few years back to a private bidder.  Christopher Wood was a local lad, born in Knowsley in 1901, the son of a GP. Wood studied architecture briefly at Liverpool University before going to Paris where he studied drawing. He moved in fashionable artistic circles, meeting Augustus John and the Chilean diplomat Antonio de Gandarillas, with whom he began to live. As well as providing financial support, Gandarillas introduced Wood to Picasso, Georges Auric and Jean Cocteau, and to the use of opium.

Wood exhibited with Ben and Winifred Nicholson at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1927, becoming close to them personally and artistically.  He painted with the Nicholsons in Cumberland and Cornwall in 1928. On a trip to St Ives, he and Ben Nicholson encountered the fisherman painter Alfred Wallis, whose work met a shared interest in ‘primitive’ expression and helped Wood to establish a personal style.  By 1930, addicted to opium and painting frenetically in preparation for an exhibition in London, he suffered paranoia and began carrying a revolver. On August 21 he travelled to meet his mother and sister for lunch in Salisbury and to show them a selection of his latest paintings. After saying goodbye he threw himself under a train at Salisbury railway station.

Apart from a good taste in art, Page Eight featured some classy jazz references.  The film opened with contemporary jazz playing under the titles which seemed a homage to the ambience of 1960s spy thrillers.  The Bill Nighy character is not only an art collector, but also has a passion for Lester Young and Billie Holiday.  When his boss in MI5 and best friend from university days (Michael Gambon) dies and friends wonder what music would be appropriate for the funeral, the woman who has been wife to both of them, dismisses the likelihood of Nighy helping with the words: ‘you’re no use, you like jazz’.