In defence of Blackadder

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The year 2014, as every schoolboy knows, marks an important anniversary. It is twenty five years since the final series of perhaps the best British sitcom of all time, Blackadder: Blackadder Goes Forth.

It is a shame then, that some have used another anniversary (the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War) to attack the much loved series.

Unpopular Education Secretary Michael Gove is only the latest to do so, launching a broadside at the sitcom during a wider attack on “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders” in The Daily Mail.

“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite,” Mr. Gove has written.

Gove seems to have thrown Blackadder into the attack almost as an afterthought. Blackadder is not , after all, a “drama”. Watching the series again, it is difficult to understand what he is on about.  It is hard to see where, for example, he feels Blackadder “excuses Germany of blame” for the war.

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Presumably, he is unhappy with the portrayal of the real life Field Marshall Haig by Geoffrey Palmer in the last episode. At one point, Haig is shown callously brushing “fallen” toy soldiers off a replica battlefield with a dustpan and brush. The Education Secretary also doubtless dislikes Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the buffoonish General Melchett.

“We’re right behind you!” Melchett reassures Baldrick (Tony Robinson) as he sets off for the Front.

“About thirty five miles behind you,” Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) responds dryly.

Gove points to new revisionist histories which he says paint both the role of Haig and the merciless slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in a new light. But it is unfair to attack Blackadder for this. Not only were these new interpretations not around in 1989 when the series was made but they are highly questionable anyway. Gove argues that the Somme which occurred in 1916, more than two years before the end of the war in November 1918 can now be viewed as a “precursor to victory”.

It is worth remembering that on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme, British fatalities alone were close to twenty thousand, seven times the entire number of deaths from the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. And not a single British General died on the Somme.

Although the Daily Mail has captioned pictures surrounding Gove’s words with phrases like “Captain Coward” for Blackadder himself, this is unlikely to be a view shared by many who viewed the programme. The series, of course, ends with all the main characters charging wilfully towards death on No Man’s Land. They know they are probably going to die, but proceed anyway. What on Earth is cowardly about that? Gove argues that: ”For all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.” Nobility and courage? Don’t the deaths of Captain Blackadder, Lieutenant George, Captain Darling and Private Baldrick perfectly exemplify these qualities?

Attacking popular culture rarely works out well for politicians. Michael Gove’s botched attack on Blackadder is no exception.

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Great Oscar disasters …explained!

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Every year since 1928, the American Academy has awarded a Best Picture Oscar to the movie deemed to have been judged “Best Picture”. Sometimes they have got it right (Casablanca, The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire). Sometimes they have got it wrong. Hugely dramatically wrong. Here are some of the worst foul ups and some possible explanations for them…

1941: How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is bad. It’s just that Citizen Kane is supposed to be the greatest film ever made. The young Orson Welles’ performance in the lead role as Kane himself is peerless as is his direction. Witness Kane’s convincing transformation from a charismatic young idealist into an embittered old man. The innovative use of light and shadows. The scene in which Kane’s marriage declines from untroubled romance into weary silence in the space of a few shots. Citizen Kane transformed cinema forever. Why didn’t it win?

The simple answer is that by basing Kane on the real life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (who was still very much alive in 1941), Welles assured the film’s critical and commercial failure. The journalist’s quest to uncover the secret of “Rosebud” (the name of Kane’s childhood sledge and the character’s last word) in the film alluded to Hearst’s own private nickname for his mistress’s (ahem) private part.

Hearst was hugely powerful and buried the film amidst hostile reviews just as Rupert Murdoch would do if a similar film were made about a thinly disguised malevolent Australian TV and press baron today. The genius Welles who had read the complete works of Shakespeare before he was ten, ended his days as fat as a house and lending his distinctive voice to Transformers: The Movie. As well as probably the best beer commercial voiceovers in the world.

But critically he had the last laugh. It’s difficult to think of William Randolph Hearst these days without inviting thoughts of Citizen Kane.

And to be fair, for all its technical excellence, Citizen Kane is hardly a natural crowd-pleaser. It might not have won anyway.

 

1976: Rocky beats Taxi Driver (and a few other things).

1976 should have been a classic year. Sydney Lumet’s Network was a powerful critique on the media portraying a news programme’s cynical exploitation of one of its presenters when he suddenly has a breakdown and announces he’s going to kill himself on air. All The President’s Men saw Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as real life Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein as they uncovered the Watergate scandal. Taxi Driver saw Robert De Niro deliver one of the finest performances ever committed to film as a Vietnam vet driven mad by insomnia and loneliness comes close to assassinating a presidential candidate.

But 1976 was the United States’ bicentennial year. the Academy are a conservative bunch and were keener to reward a film endorsing the American dream than one about Watergate (in an election year)  or one about Vietnam vets. This why Rocky beat all of these films, despite being clearly the worst of the lot.

1979: Kramer Vs Kramer beats Apocalypse Now.

Actually for all Apocalypse Now’s classic status, I’m less sure this was such a bad call. Kramer is actually an excellent and extremely powerful film while Apocalypse Now does rather go on a bit and – let’s face it – doesn’t end properly. Besides, the much more conservative Vietnam film The Deer Hunter had already won the previous year.

1989: Driving Miss Daisy beats Born on the Fourth of July (1990 Dances With Wolves beats Goodfellas).

Driving Miss Daisy was a ludicrously safe choice which barely even begins to discuss the issues raised by the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Even worse, the Oscars opted for Kevin Costner’s picturesque western snooze fest the following year, thus snubbing Goodfellas, probably the best film of the entire 1990s.

1994 Forrest Gump beats Pulp Fiction.

The Oscars got everything wrong this year snubbing the most iconic and watchable film of the decade in favour of a film which a) portrays the entire anti-Vietnam movement as a bunch of sneering wife beaters b) suggests women should marry young and be good housewives or they’ll descend into drugs, promiscuity and prostitution c) spends a good half hour showing Forrest running across the US in a bid to win the Best Cinematography Oscar…which it didn’t win anyway! And d) is scared to mention the AIDS virus by name. In 1994. A full year after Tom Hanks had appeared himself in the Oscar winning Philadelphia which is all about AIDS.

Even worse: the one Oscar Pulp Fiction did win (Best Original Screenplay) should actually have probably gone to Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Samuel L Jackson’s response on losing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (visibly mouthing “Shit”) says it all.

2006: Crash beats Brokeback Mountain.

Were the Academy attempting to show their liberal credentials by awarding a film about racism? Or were they just being homophobic? Or were they just idiots? Who knows? Either way Paul Harris’s Crash must rank amongst the weakest Best Film winners ever. It’s barely any better than the David Cronenberg car crash fetish film of the same name.

The name is fitting though: the choice was a disaster.

 

Thirty years of A Very British Coup

Written during the gloomy days of the early Thatcher era, Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup has since inspired two Channel 4 dramas series: a 1988 series adapted by Alan Plater and the current  The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne..

The second of these has so far has shown only a slight resemblance to Chris Mullin’s novel. But thirty years after it was first published, A Very British Coup remains one of the finest political novels ever written.

The story is set in what was then the future: the year 1989. The General Election has ended with an amazing shock result: the Labour Party led by former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins has been swept to power in an unexpected popular landslide. The result is a clear mandate for a truly radical agenda which proposes “consideration to be given” to withdrawal from NATO, an end to the nuclear deterrent and to UK membership  of the then Common Market, abolition of the House of Lords, an end to public schools and much more.

Little wonder the establishment react with alarm. The story of A Very British Coup is essentially of how the security services (with US help), the media and civil service all conspire to thwart the new government’s agenda and ultimately subvert democracy.

Some might scoff at the premise. 1989 after all, turned out to be the high watermark of Thatcherism in reality. And how likely is it that the Tories and SDP would form an alliance or that Labour would beat them with a manifesto which makes Labour’s real “longest suicide note in history” from 1983 look mild in comparison?

In fact, it’s not so far-fetched. Since 2010, we have been living under something very close to a Tory-SDP “Government of National Unity”. Labour also won an unexpected landslide on a very socialist agenda in the “khaki” election of 1945 and again, won unexpectedly (though much more narrowly) on a hard left manifesto in 1974.

There are also similarities between Harry Perkins and Harold Wilson, another Yorkshire-born Labour Prime Minister who resigned very unexpectedly in 1976. Even their names are similar. Wilson often talked of MI5 plots against him and it is easy to dismiss his talk now as an early manifestation of the Alzheimer’s disease which would blight his old age.

Except… it has since emerged: elements of MI5 were genuinely actively plotting against Wilson. Maybe not at the very top of the service, but some more eccentric right-wing agents apparently genuinely believed Wilson was a KGB agent who had assassinated his predecessor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell who died in 1963. In reality, this conspiracy theory is unlikely as Wilson was not even favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of the latter’s death, George Brown was. There is talk at the end of the novel of a book being written which would tell the true story of “what happened to the government of Harry Perkins. There must, however, be some doubt as to whether it will ever be published.”

Such talk should only go so far though. The book is a novel. Chris Mullin, later a Labour MP and now an acclaimed political diarist would not actually have expected events to turn out exactly as he wrote them, any more than George Orwell would have expected the horrors of his vision of 1984 to be fully realised. Harry Perkins is not Harold Wilson: he is far more left-wing than Wilson ever was. Mullin’s vision of the pernicious effects of Thatcherism in the Eighties is highly prescient. He may not have anticipated the peaceful end of the Cold War (virtually nobody did in 1981) but nor did he predict a Labour election landslide for Michael Foot or a limited nuclear war started by President Ted Kennedy as Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta which also appeared in 1982 did.

Perhaps more by coincidence, Mullin did foresee a Labour Foreign Secretary being revealed to have had an extramarital affair soon after a landslide election win. This is exactly what happened to the late Robin Cook in 1997 although he didn’t resign and the affair thankfully ended more happily than it does for the fictional Tom Newsome. On the other hand, Mullin was somewhat off in predicting the age of King Charles III and Queen Diana would have begun by 1989.

My copy of A Very British Coup features the quote “A delicious fantasy” by The Observer on the cover. I’m not so sure. It’s certainly delicious but it clearly isn’t entirely rooted in fantasy. Remember, the first ever Labour Government was brought down at least in part by the faked “Zinoviev Letter” distributed by MI5 in 1924. Think about how ungracious the response to Obama’s re-election has been amongst some on the US Right (such as Donald Trump). Or how the UK establishment might react to an unexpected Ed Miliband win in 2015.

Consider finally, this real life quote by the noted right-winger Peregrine Worsthorne in the Daily Telegraph from 1979 with which Mullin begins the novel: “When treason can be right”, it explains: “I could easily imagine myself being tempted into a treasonable disposition under a Labour government dominated by the Marxist left . . . Suppose, in these circumstances, one were approached by the CIA who sought to enlist one’s help in seeking to ‘destabilise’ this far-left government. Would it necessarily be right to refuse co-operation?”

No wonder A Very British Coup also features a villain called Peregrine.

Whatever happened to the end of Communism?

We all remember the fall of Communism don’t we? Certainly, anyone who is over twenty five will.

Who could, after all, forget the end of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Or Boris Yeltsin’s heroic role following the coup two years later? Or the final collapse of the USSR?

For many, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to signal an ideological victory for capitalism. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the triumph of liberal democracy and “the end of history”. Many argued that the end of the USSR proved that Communism and Marxist-Leninism, like fascism before it, simply could not work. It was contrary to human nature, they said. Reagan, Bush and Thatcher claimed the war had been won
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