Book review: Citizen Clem – A Biography of Attlee by John Bew


Published by Riverrun

Uncharismatic, underwhelming and a bit posh, Clement Attlee might seem an unlikely hero. But he’s certainly one of my heroes. And he should probably be one of yours too.
He came from a privileged background, the sort of background many on the Right see as inappropriate for someone on the Left. In fact, Attlee’s origins are very typical of many on the Left: Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Hugh Dalton, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell and many others. But Attlee, unlike most right wingers was intelligent enough to recognise the realities of poverty and sought to rectify them, rather than either seeking to blame the poor for their own misfortunes or obsessing about the social background of those attempting to alleviate poverty as the Right tend to do.
Attlee retained a certain conservatism. He never moved against the royal family or the House of Lords. He never attacked public schools either, having enjoyed his own schooldays.

His relationship with Winston Churchill, the other political giant of his era is fascinating. As a young man, Attlee watched the top hatted Home Secretary as he attended the 1911 Sidney Street Siege. He didn’t blame Churchill for the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landings even though he took part in them himself. He served loyally as Churchill’s wartime deputy. He trounced Churchill in the 1945 General Election.
As John Bew’s extremely well researched and thorough Orwell award winning book reminds us, Attlee probably did more than any other 20th century British Prime Minister to transform Britain for the better. This is a great book about a great man.

Book review: Monty Python’s Hidden Treasures by Adrian Besley

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Published by: Carlton Books
It is a sad fact that the world today can be divided into two groups. Those who, like me, will always be amused by the likes of the Dirty Fork Sketch (punchline: “A good job I didn’t tell them about the dirty knife as well!”), the Upper Class Twit of the Year contest (“Nigel Incubator-Jones. His best friend is a tree. Works as a stockbroker in his spare time”), the quiz show Blackmail, the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Funniest Joke in the World and, of course, the Dead Parrot Sketch.

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Then there are those, perhaps a majority now sadly, for whom the humour of Monty Python’s Flying Circus will always be a mystery. Like The Goon Show which is now largely incomprehensible to anyone born after 1960, MPFC is increasingly dated.
Disparate members of the first group even those like me who were born after the series finished are thus forced to eternally roam the land muttering catchphrases (“nudge nudge, wink wink, likes photography? I bet she does! I bet she does!”) which are totally incomprehensible to the second group and trying to convince them it was funny.
In truth, although patchy as all TV sketch shows are, it really was often very funny. The cause was helped by the films too, particularly the Life of Brian, which have ,by and large, aged better than the series itself.
This book attempts to bridge the gap still further with (if I may quote from the press release) “22 removable facsimiles of rare memorabilia from their official archives, including hand-scribbled scripts, cue sheets, character lists, posters, and animation artwork”. If the aim is to introduce the uninitiated to the ways of Python, I’m not sure it succeeds. Would anyone who didn’t know the series well buy it anyway? I doubt it.
But for any Python fans out there, this is a lovely book and a beautifully crafted treat for them.
And let’s not forget the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects…oh bugger.

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Book review: Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

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Published by: Macmillan, 2016

Ken Clarke sits today on the backbenches. He is seventy six years old and since the death of Gerald Kaufman last month is the Father of the House, having served as MP for Rushcliffe since entering the House of Commons as one of Edward Heath’s new intake of fresh  young Tories in June 1970. He can look back on almost a half century in parliament, one of only four men alive to have held two of the four great offices of state: he has been Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The other three men are Douglas Hurd, Gordon Brown and John Major.

But unlike the last two, Clarke was never Prime Minister. We all must wonder what might have been, as he surely does.

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However, in many ways it’s hard to see how this could have happened. In other ways, it seems bizarre that it didn’t. Look at a list of recent Conservative leaders.The names that are there (Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard) are almost as surprising as those who are not (Heseltine, Portillo, Clarke himself).

Although he is defensive about it in this readable autobiography, Clarke did not excel as either Secretary of State of Health or Education during the later Thatcher, early Major years. But neither of these were ever strong areas for the 1979-90 Tory government, or indeed any Tory government. Clarke was never truly a Thatcherite. But when Clarke became Home Secretary after the 1992 April election and then Chancellor following Norman Lamont’s unceremonious departure in 1993, speculation mounted that the troubled Prime Minister John Major might have unwittingly appointed his own future successor to the Number Two job as Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson (and indeed Thatcher) had before him.

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Although inclined to gaffes before and since, Ken (previously “Kenneth”) Clarke, known for his Hush Puppies, cigars and occasional pints of lager was a surprisingly competent Chancellor overseeing the UK’s recovery from the early Nineties recession. “Go home,” he once bellowed at an under-prepared Robert Maclennan of the SDP in the Commons, “lie down in a dark room and keep taking the pills.” He was popular, well known and a big hitter. But like another clubbable former Tory Chancellor Reggie Maudling, he never got the top job.

The reason was simple: Europe. Clarke was and is a keen supporter of the EU. With so many of John Major’s problems caused by his signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the increasingly Eurosceptic Tories were never likely to replace Major with him.

In 1997, following the colossal May 1st defeat, Clarke’s path to leadership should have been clear. His main rivals Michaels Portillo and Heseltine were out of the race, Portillo having famously lost his Enfield seat, while Tarzan apparently had heart issues. Clarke was far more popular and well known than his main rival, the thirty six year old, much less experienced former Welsh secretary William Hague. Polls indicated that if party members had had a vote, Clarke would have won easily. But the increasingly eccentric parliamentary party was happy to take the increasingly elderly Lady Thatcher’s advice. “Hague! Have you got that? H-A-G-U-E,” the Baroness spelt out to reporters, having just privately been told of the correct spelling herself.

The result? Another massive defeat in 2001. This time, party members too followed the increasingly frail Thatcher’s endorsement again choosing Iain Duncan Smith over Clarke. It was clearly an absurd decision from the outset. IDS was ditched in favour of an unelected Micheal Howard in 2003. Following the third consecutive Tory General Election defeat in 2005, Clarke, now ageing himself and harmed by his business dealings with Big Tobacco lost his third leadership bid to amongst others, a youthful David Cameron. A rare survivor of the Major era, Clarke served as Justice Secretary under the Coalition. In recent years, he has become increasingly gaffe prone. His wife Gillian died in 2015.

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Although it is unlikely Ken Clarke could have overturned the massive Labour majorities won by Blair in 1997 and 2001, had he become leader instead of the pro-war Duncan Smith, it seems likely a Clarke led Tory Party would have opposed the Iraq War, voted with Labour rebels to prevent UK involvement and forced Blair’s resignation. It was not to be. IDS’s Tories misjudged the situation and slavishly backed the war.

As Clarke himself reflects in this readable but unsurprising autobiography, his long parliamentary career has almost exactly coincided with the period of British membership of what used to be called the Common Market.

Ken Clarke is undoubtedly one of the better more decent breed of Tories, a far better man than the Boris Johnsons, Michael Goves, Stewart Jacksons, Jeremy Hunts and George Osbornes of this world. Politically incorrect though he is, one suspects he is liked far more by many of those outside his own party than he is by many of those within it.

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Book review: Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore

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In 1978, Alan Moore decided to quit the job at the Northampton gas board and dedicate himself full time to breaking into the comics industry as a writer. It was a high risk strategy. He was twenty-four years old and his young wife was pregnant. But Moore saw it as his last chance to exchange a job he hated for a career he loved.

Success came slowly with occasional one-off stories (Tharg’s Futureshocks) in the new science fiction comic 2000AD. Later, came Skizz, D.R. and Quinch and my own personal favourite, The Ballad of Halo Jones. More success came through the short lived and inappropriately titled Warrior comic (it was not war-related at all). Moore provided the backbone to the comic between 1982 and 1985, most famously with V For Vendetta, set in a late 1990s futuristic fascist dystopia. He also wrote Marvelman, now known as Miracleman, a promising superhero strip derailed by a legal dispute with Marvel Comics. This proved an forerunner to his greatest success, DC’s The Watchmen.

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Today, Alan Moore is still in Northampton, in his sixties and is renowned as one of the most successful comic writers ever albeit one with a bit of reputation for disputes with his employers or prospective filmmakers attempting to adapt his works (Moore has famously never seen any of the four films directly based on his own comics).

His fascinating story is detailed thoroughly by the always excellent Lance Parkin in this comprehensive biography.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin, published by Aurum Press (2013)

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Why I cannot vote for Corbyn as leader again

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As a party member, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn a year ago. He was the best of the candidates available at the time. But a year on, one thing is clear:  it’s not working out. The party has been in perpetual crisis ever since. It has been behind in the polls for his entire first year as leader, the first time this has happened in my lifetime I think and I am in my late thirties. Even under Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, Labour were ahead sometimes. Now they never are.

It cannot go on like this. There has to be a change. Owen Smith isn’t great but if he does well, someone else will move into the contest to lead the party. I am not expecting this to happen. I am expecting Jeremy Corbyn to win.

But what reasons do people give for supporting him?

He is moral and decent: I believe this. I don’t trust Virgin Trains in the matter this week for a moment. But Clement Attlee was moral and decent and led us to victory where we achieved great things. Michael Foot was moral and decent and led us to electoral disaster, leaving Margaret Thatcher a huge majority with which to do as she wished. Being moral and decent is not enough in itself.

He has already won a huge mandate from his party: True, but that was a year ago. A lot has changed since then. This is a new contest. Saying “he won the leadership before” is not an argument for backing him again.

The media are hostile to him: The press certainly are. But they always are to Labour. That isn’t really the problem.

Many MPs never supported him from the outset: This is true and certainly isn’t too their credit. I will certainly support Corbyn if he wins. I hope MPs do the same. Pro-Corbyn members should stop going on about purging their enemies within the party too. Enough is enough.

Labour MPs should represent the majority of their members’ views: No. This has never been the case. MPs should vote for whoever they wish.

Winning isn’t everything: No, but it’s essential if we are to accomplish anything. The Tories have their smallest majority since 1945. Victory is achievable but some of us act as if we don’t want to win, as if to win is the same as becoming a Tory.

Had we followed this approach in 1945, we would now have no NHS or welfare  state. If we had done the same in 1964, homosexuality and abortion would never have been legalised, the death penalty abolished or comprehensive education introduced. And had we not won in 1997, there would now be no minimum wage, Good Friday Agreement or devolution.

We owe it to our people to win power. And we cannot do so, under Jeremy Corbyn.

 

 

Film review: Dad’s Army (2016)

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Who did they think they were kidding?

A new film version of the classic BBC TV comedy series about the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard was never likely to win over fans of the much-loved sitcom.

But in fairness, while certainly not great, this isn’t all bad. The casting is mostly successful. Toby Jones achieves the near impossible feat of filling Arthur Lowe’s shoes as the perfectly pompous Captain Mainwaring. ‘Line of Duty’ star Daniel Mays is also excellent as the spiv Private Walker and Michael Gambon (despite a needlessly crude scene in which he pisses on another character) does an admirable job of evoking the spirit of the placid Private Godfrey (originally played by Arnold Ridley). There is also an admirable attempt to expand the female cast – perhaps a slight failing of the original show – including Alan Partridge’s Felicity Montagu as the formidable and previously unseen Elizabeth Mainwaring.

But there also is quite a lot that is bad. Although mostly competent, some of the cast such as Tom Courtenay as Lance Corporal Jones (a genuinely old actor playing the character Clive Dunn played in middle-age) and Bill Nighy’s louche Sergeant Wilson generally reminding you of the old cast just enough to annoy you rather than truly replacing them. Blake Harrison’s portrayal of young Pike, meanwhile, is completely misjudged, ‘The Inbetweeners’ star playing him more as a debonair lech than as the juvenile “stupid boy” Ian Lavender perfected, despite both actors playing the role at a similar age.

Like the flawed 1971 film of the series, the movie also errs in making the platoon face a very specific foe in this case in the form of spy Catherine Zeta Jones. In the TV series, the real but unseen threat posed by the Nazis overseas was usually deemed sufficient although in fairness this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of expanding ‘Dad’s Army’ into a full-length film.

Unanswered questions abound though. Why does the film start in 1944 when in reality that was the year the Home Guard ceased activity? Why is one group of characters shown in full fox-hunting regalia, when hunting never occurred during the Second World War? Why does the plot hinge on a civilian telephone call to occupied Paris, an impossibility at the time? Why does the usually uneducated Jones suddenly start making a fairly deep philosophical point on one occasion? Why is Wilson suddenly revealed as an ex-university don?

This isn’t a disaster and is certainly respectful to the memory of  ‘Dad’s Army’. But forty years on from the end of the series, one wonders if even despite its surprisingly strong box office (mostly, like the recent Brexit result, attributable to older audiences) if this will be our final visit to Walmington-on-Sea.

Director: Oliver Parker. Cast: Toby Jones, Catherine Zeta Jones, Bill Nighy, Bill Paterson, Michael Gambon, Daniel Mays, Felicity Montagu, Alison Steadman, Sarah Lancashire

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Book review: Order, Order! by Ben Wright

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Alcohol has long been the fuel which has powered the engine of our nation’s political life. Sometimes the results seemed to be beneficial. Margaret Thatcher generally found it difficult to relax and enjoyed a whisky or two most evenings during her long stint in Number 10. Winston Churchill also seems to have been improved incredibly by the astonishing amounts of alcohol he drank during his premiership. One has to wonder if we would have won the war, as BBC Political Correspondent Ben Wright does here, had he not drank.

Sometimes the results were less positive. During the 1970s, both Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon both saw their powers dim partly as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.Much earlier, William Pitt the Younger went through the same thing.

Occasionally, the results have been funny. Wilson’s famously erratic Foreign Secretary George Brown experienced numerous embarrassments as the result of his frequently “tired and emotional” state while Tory MP Alan Clark was famously exposed by Labour’s Clare Short as being drunk in the House on one occasion, or at least did so as far as Commons protocol allowed.

Often,  of course, as in the case of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, the results have been tragic.

Ben Wright’s book offers a witty and well informed insight into one of Britain’s longest standing political traditions.

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Book review: Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking by Ben Wright.

Published by: Duckworth Overlook

Book review: The Impossible Has Happened by Lance Parkin

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The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek. Author: Lance Parkin. Aurum Press. Published: July 21st 2016.

It has been fifty years since the creation of Star Trek and the franchise is undeniably going strong. A new film and a new TV series are both scheduled to appear later this year.

Twenty five years after his death, the reputation of the series creator Gene Roddenberry is more uncertain. On the one hand, he has been subject to a personality cult almost as elaborate as that surrounding Scientology creator and sci-fi author. On the other hand, he has been demonised as a fraud, a philanderer and a phoney. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

He was born in 1921 and served with distinction as a pilot in the Second World War. After the war, ironically he came very close to death in a Pan Am air crash which killed seven people in 1947. He served in the US police force drifting into TV writing and creating one non-Star Trek series, a police-themed one called The Lieutenant. He then created Star Trek which ran for three series between 1966 and 1968. At the time, it was neither very successful or a failure. Mission Impossible which ran at about the same time was probably more successful. Leonard Nimoy indeed joined the Mission Impossible cast after Star Trek ended. But unexpectedly, Star Trek became a huge success after it had ended through syndicated repeat showings. The show grew and grew and grew.

Many of the myths surrounding Star Trek seem to come from stories Roddenberry himself told at science fiction conventions in the 1970s. Some had the commendable aim of consolidating a following for the series but others clearly had more to do with Roddenberry’s ego. Yes, the series did end after three series but Roddenberry’s claims that it was ended unfairly by small-minded producers don’t add up. It was no longer profitable and the last series was significantly worse than the others. Roddenberry also subsequently exaggerated his own role as a champion of equality and civil rights claiming falsely that he fought narrow minded studio heads over the issue In fact, though he wasn’t racist by mid-20th century standards, the 1960s series only ever featured as many other minorities as most other US TV series of the time. Nichelle Nicholls’ Uhura, for example, was barely ever given anything important to do. She was one of many women Roddenberry had affairs with and in truth, the original series really didn’t have a progressive role towards women at all.

Leonard Nimoy certainly grew to hate Roddenberry. The man would often claim sole credit for the success of the series, ignoring the contribution of many others. He had no role at all in the making of the most acclaimed film 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (which he hated) and his own increasingly drunken, ageing cocaine-addled influence partly explains why the ultimately excellent Next Generation series had such a dull start.

Author Lance Parkin provides a balanced portrait of a man who for all his many flaws took TV on a journey where no one had gone before.

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Brexit: Ten Years On (2026)

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It has now been a full decade since Britain voted 53 to 47 to leave the European Union.

Opinion polls now indicate that over 75% now regard this as a bad decision with many of the architects of Brexit such as the former Prime Minister Lord Cameron expressing regret at the move. It is unlikely Cameron’s seven undistinguished years in Downing Street will be remembered for much else. Like Thatcher before him, his premiership both began and ended with severe economic recession.

The pound began dropping before the celebrations had even ended. Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne were able to briefly use the cover of the mounting economic crisis to cling to power into the new year. He was assisted in this by the ructions in the Labour Party with Labour MPs using the excuse of the referendum defeat as an excuse to blame and overthrow their leader Jeremy Corbyn.

By 2017, unemployment was over two million (it has never been as low since) and both the facts that the country had a huge deficit and the Tories had a tiny majority suddenly became hugely relevant. As under John Major, the economy suffered both severe recession and Tory civil war. The Queen expressed concern. Cameron fell. For all his sub-Churchillian rhetoric, his gaffe-prone successor Boris Johnson proved no more able to cope with the slump than Cameron had. Nor could Chancellor Michael Gove.

Ten years on, unemployment is again back to 1980s levels, permanently over three million. Immigration has increased dramatically, the illusion that we could control our own borders on our own dramatically exposed as a pipe dream. UKIP, against expectation, remains strong although less strong than the resurgent pro-European  Liberal Democrats.  Any democratic gains achieved by Brexit seem to have passed most people by, unnoticed.

The newspapers, fierce cheerleaders for Brexit at the time now condemn it as an “historic mistake”.

The Prime Minister, encouraged by the support of former US president Hillary Clinton, is thought to be contemplating a new bid to apply for EU membership as soon as soon as the coronation is over.

It is not known if this will be successful.

 

 

Movie review: The Jungle Book

jungle-book-2016-trailers-bare-necessitiesLet’s just make things clear: despite the name, this isn’t a book, it is a film. Nor is it the famous Disney cartoon, the one you probably saw first as a child and doubtless have fond memories of. It also isn’t the forthcoming one with Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch in either. That’s Jungle Book: Origins due out in 2018. Finally, it isn’t the now largely forgotten 1994 live action version. But I doubt you ever thought it was anyway: It is largely forgotten.
This one is a live action film starring Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters, Nelson Mandela, the Black Widow from The Avengers and Mahatma Gandhi. Mowgli is clearly intended to remind you of the cartoon one with his orange pants and big dark hair but is actually played by a real boy, the excellent Neel Sethi. As in Babe though, the animals are real but have been granted the power of speech by magic.
Although they are mostly celebrity voices, I couldn’t identify most of them when I saw the film so was not too distracted by this. Mowgli is raised by wolves after his father was killed by the evil tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). The animal pursues the boy throughout occasionally leaping out at him unexpectedly like Richard Parker in Life of Pi. He is much scarier than the 1960s George Sanders version. His face actually looks evil. He is more like the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park than Tony from the Frosties adverts. Who would have thought a lethal man-eating predator could be imbued with such a sense of menace?
(That said, the first two lines of Blake’s famous poem literally come true at one point. Spoiler over.)
Mowgli moves from the care of panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to the amiable bear Baloo (Murray). Note to children: bears and panthers are often quite dangerous in real life too. Scarlett Johansson voices the apparently telepathic snake Kaa. And yes, two songs from the old cartoon do crop up, just when you’re starting to miss them.
Only Christopher Walken whose King Louis comes across as a sort of cross between King Kong and Marlon Brando’s character at the end of Apocalypse Now strikes a false note. Have you spoken to any six year olds lately? Much of their cinema knowledge is pathetic. Many haven’t even seen Batman Returns let alone Heaven’s Gate or The Deer Hunter. Very few of them know who Christopher Walken is so his weird speech patterns are just distracting. Maybe he does want to talk like you hoo hoo but the fact is he speaks like no one else on Earth.
Is this a good family film? Yes. But it never let’s you forget the cartoon version. And, to be honest, that was better than this.

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Book review: Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography. Volume Two Everything She Wants

charlesmoore-margaretthatcherThis is the second volume of Charles Moore’s three volume official biography of the first British woman Prime Minister. It deals with the middle years of her premiership from the aftermath of her 1982 victory in the Falklands to her third and last election win in June 1987. These were the golden years for the Iron Lady: perhaps this period should be called “the Iron Age”?

Council houses are sold, utilities are privatised and opposition from Michael Foot’s and Neil Kinnock’s Labour, the SDP and the unions is all crushed underfoot. Thatcher also exploits her ties to US President Reagan to mostly good effect and survives the 1984 Brighton bomb.

Moore is a former Daily Telegraph editor but despite this conservative bias is not always unaware of the lady’s faults. She never knew how to deal with her wayward son Mark, was lucky not to resign over the 1985-86  Westland Affair, was stubbornly blind to the numerous flaws of the Poll Tax and was privately very difficult during the 1987 election campaign.

Moore is weaker on popular culture, however, partly because he is very very anti-BBC. He has given the book a title from a song by Wham! which virtually no one remembers and attacks Sue Townsend for putting anti-Thatcherite sentiments into Adrian Mole’s adolescent poetry (“Do you weep Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?”) while condemning Rik from TV’s The Young Ones for attacking the “Thatcherite junta”. Townsend and the Young Ones’ creators were undeniably left wing but Moore misses the point. The satirical targets here were not Thatcher but the immature Mole and “people’s poet”/sociology student Rik himself.

At another point, he accuses David Frost (by that point, a fairly gentle interviewer and certainly no lefty) of “having a go at her” rather than asking perfectly reasonable questions during the 1987 election campaign. At no point does Moore offer any examination of the often dubious but consistent support given to her by the slavishly pro-Thatcherite press.

Moore also does not really understand why Thatcher made so many people so very angry. For this was a time when levels of homelessness and crime soared, unemployment reached its post-war peak (3.6 million) and the NHS was savagely undermined.

There is little mention of these things in the book.

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Published by Allen Lane

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography Volume Two: Everything She Wants

Author: Charles Moore

In praise of Blackadder the Third

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This article (written by me) has been reproduced with the kind permission of Chortle. It first appeared in 2012.

‘I want to be remembered when I’m dead. I want books written about me. I want songs sung about me. And then, hundreds of years from now, I want episodes of my life to be played out weekly at half past nine by some heroic actor of the age.’ (Edmund Blackadder, Dual and Duality).

It has now been a full quarter-century since the first screening of Blackadder The Third. Under normal circumstances, the anniversary of the third series of anything would not be a cause for comment. Yet Blackadder is not a normal programme and the third series alone must rank as one of the best sitcoms of the Eighties in its own right.

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Continuing the slow social decline of the Blackadder family (from 15th Century royalty in the first series to a 20th Century Army officer by the fourth), Blackadder the Third, sees Edmund (Rowan Atkinson again) reduced to the role of butler to the idiotic foppish Prince Regent played by the then still-up-and-coming twenty-something Hugh Laurie. Despite having played two different roles in Blackadder II, as the drunken innuendo-obsessed Simon ‘Farters’ Partridge (‘Sounds a bit rude doesn’t it?’) in the acclaimed series 2 episode, ‘Beer’ and the cast’s Teutonic nemesis Mad Prince Ludwig in the final episode ‘Chains’ (‘Yes! I was one of the sheep!’), Laurie was reportedly tremendously nervous about taking on the part.

It’s easy to see why. The standard set by the second series had been incredibly high and with the regular cast slimmed down (Miranda ‘Queenie’ Richardson and Tim ‘Lord Percy’ McInnerny appear in only one episode each in new roles), a lot of weight was on Laurie and Atkinson’s shoulders, even with the excellent Tony Robinson returning as Baldrick (or rather ‘Mr S. Baldrick’). The introduction of a new character, pie-shop proprietor Mrs. Miggins (Helen Atkinson-Wood), a character referred to in Blackadder II but never seen, frankly doesn’t help the series much.

Thankfully, virtually everything else does. Hugh Laurie is perfect as Prince George, a good-natured, if lazy and spoilt clot who seems incapable of recognising his butler’s insults even when he says them directly to his face. The part would in fact be the perfect preparation for perhaps Laurie’s most successful Nineties role as Bertie Wooster, opposite a less hostile servant.

This is still not the best series of Blackadder, a position which still belongs to Blackadder II. Historically, it’s a bit confused – George is repeatedly referred to as the Prince Regent, a position he didn’t hold until 1811, by which time he was corpulent and in his fifties. Yet virtually everything else in terms of costumes and references suggests this is set in the 1780s or 1790s, while Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, the subject of one episode, was published before the Prince was actually born.

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Despite a few good lines and an excellent cameo by the late political reporter Vincent Hanna, the opening election-themed opening episode is perhaps also bit iffy by Blackadder standards. A few episodes also rely a bit too heavily on fictional versions of real characters such as Dr. Johnson (Robbie Coltrane) and the Duke of Wellington (Stephen Fry) being homicidal maniacs. They were not.

Happily, though, most of the series is sublime, reaching a peak with the brilliant closing episodes ‘Amy and Amiability’ and ‘Dual and Duality’. Blackadder’s run-in with a squirrel-hating highway woman and a memorable scene in which Hugh Laurie’s Prince is repeatedly punched make up two of the best Blackadder episodes ever produced.

And (is a spoiler alert necessary 25 years on?) the series uniquely sees a happy ending for Blackadder himself, with the butler rather confusingly replacing George as heir to the throne. Are we to assume all subsequent royals are in fact descended from him?

It hardly matters. What’s undeniable is that this remains one of the finest British sitcoms ever produced.

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Read more: Third time’s a charm… : Correspondents 2012 : Chortle : The UK Comedy Guide

Twenty years of Our Friends In The North

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It has now been a full two decades since the start of one of the most acclaimed British dramas of all time, Our Friends In The North. Peter Flannery’s hugely ambitious nine part series depicted British life between the years 1964 and 1995, through the eyes of four Newcastle friends as they progress from youth to middle age.

Opening on the eve of the October 1964 General Election, which saw a rejuvenated Labour Party reclaim power after thirteen years of Tory misrule, the series ends in 1995, with New Labour seemingly poised to do much the same thing. In the meantime, the series touches on a whole range of issues including corruption within the police and government, the decline of the Left, the Miner’s Strike, homelessness, the failure of high rise housing and rising crime. The show includes a huge supporting cast too. Even today, it is hard to watch TV for long without seeing someone from it crop up.

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The four main players have all enjoyed huge success since, one (Christopher Eccleston) subsequently becoming Doctor Who, another (Daniel Craig), then unknown, subsequently becoming James Bond and a huge star. The other main actors Gina McKee and Mark Strong have been prolific stars of TV and film in the years since. Only Eccleston, who had appeared in Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave and the TV series Cracker and Hearts and Minds amongst other things could claim any real fame at the time.

The series required the four actors, in reality then all around the thirty mark, to age from their early twenties to their fifties. It is odd to reflect that, odd as they look in the final 1995-set episode, they are actually supposed to be about the age the actors are now. Ironically, the excesses of 70s fashion mean that even when playing their own age, in the fourth and fifth episodes set in 1970 and 1974, they still look a bit odd.

This is nevertheless a classic series. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to seek it out.

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A century of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

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They seemed  like total opposites.

Wilson seemed working-class to the core, Heath seemed posh. Wilson seemed jovial, dynamic and witty, Heath seemed stiff and awkward. Wilson was the family man who holidayed in the Isles of Scilly ever year, Heath was the European, conductor, champion yachtsman and lifelong bachelor.

Both men were actually more similar to each other than they seemed. Both ruled the nation for as long as Thatcher, eleven and a half years (October 1964 to April 1976) between them. And both were born a full century ago in the year 1916.

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Wilson emerged first, beating two older men George Brown and James Callaghan to win the Labour leadership following Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963. Always brilliant – he had become the youngest British cabinet minister of the century at 31 – Wilson was also wily and had reinvented himself from being rather a dull figure under Attlee to a dynamic, raincoat-wearing, pipe-smoking working class hero ripe for the TV age. Wilson, like all successful politicians, was lucky: the Tory government fell foul of the Profumo Affair and Harold Macmillan gave way to the much less formidable Alec Douglas Home in October 1963. But Wilson was also a brilliant opposition leader and spoke of “the white heat of revolution” an exciting but largely meaningless term. He led Labour to a narrow victory in October 1964. It is surprising he didn’t win by a wider margin.

Young and from a similar background (his father had been a carpenter) and the first grammar school boy to be Tory leader, Heath was elected in 1965 partly because he was seen (wrongly) as the Tory answer it Wilson.

Wilson trounced Heath in the 1966 election which saw Labour’s majority surge to almost 100. Both men would struggle in the next four years. Wilson was lucky to survive a sea of economic troubles especially with many of his colleagues (Brown, Jenkins, Callaghan, Healey) keen to usurp him. Heath was criticised for sacking Enoch Powell after his inflammatory 1968 Rivers of Blood speech on immigration. In fact, he was right to do so. But the press remained critical of Heath and he remained unpopular. Polls predicted another easy General Election win for Labour in 1970, Heath’s last chance. As in 1992 and 2015, the polls were wrong and the Tories got back with a majority.

As Prime Minister, Heath led Britain into the Common Market, a towering achievement the like of which neither Wilson or indeed most prime ministers ever manage. Sadly, the rest of his premiership was a disaster derailed by the oil shock, inflation and his battle with the unions.

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Asking “Who governs Britain?” Heath went to the polls early during the Three Day Week in 1974. He was overconfident. Enoch Powell urged voters to back Labour and though the Tories got more votes, Labour got slightly more seats. After an unseemly and unnecessary attempt to court the support of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, Wilson, to his surprise, was back. A second election later in the year gave him a majority, albeit a very small one, similar in size to the one he had started as PM with a full decade earlier.

Heath was now in serious trouble. Arrogant and supremely overconfident, he never expected to be overthrown by his former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975. Few had done. He never forgave her and remained a plausible rival to her leadership until the early 1980s. The Incredible Sulk had begun.

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Wilson had problems too. Inflation was sky-high, the pound was low, Labour’s majority was vanishing fast and the party was at odds over Europe. Wilson was also drinking heavily, well past his best politically and possibly already suffering from the dementia which would blight his old age. He resigned very suddenly in 1976, damaging his reputation with his botched Resignation Honours list. Wilson was consumed by paranoia. It is true these were paranoid times; many of Wilson’s colleagues DID want his job. Sections of the MI5 were also convinced he was a Soviet agent who had poisoned his predecessor Hugh Gaitskell. (They were wrong: Wilson had not been favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of his death anyway, so aside from anything else, he had no real motive). But Wilson’s own paranoia nevertheless got out of hand.

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Neither man has been served well by posterity. Heath looks worse than Thatcher in most Tory eyes (she did win three large victories after all, he lost three and won one). Although the abuse allegations raised in 2015 seem unsubstantiated at this time, Heath was most likely gay and suppressed his homosexuality in favour of a political career (his contemporary Jeremy Thorpe attempted to pursue both: the results were disastrous). He remained a visible and vocal public figure until his death in 2005. Now eleven years on, his most cherished achievement: our place in Europe is under threat.

Wilson’s tenure saw some major changes: the legalisation of abortion, homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty and reform of the divorce laws. Neither Wilson nor Heath can be described as a total success. But their decade or so in power, undoubtedly changed Britain.

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Five not so glorious years of Tory low achievement

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The Tories have now been in power for five years and five months. This is a fair old time. What did our previous governments manage to accomplish by this point in their life span? Let’s take a look…

The Attlee Government (1945-51)

(Elected: August 1945. In office for five years and five months by January 1951)

Had created the National Health Service.

Established the welfare state.

Had demobilised our wartime forces, secured full employment and was busy housing the nation.

Had nationalised a third of British industry.

Established the UK’s post-war strategic position. Had joined NATO.

The Wilson Government (1964-70)

(Elected: October 1964. In office for five years and five months by March 1970).]

Had legalised homosexuality and abortion, liberalised divorce laws, abolished the death penalty, generated an education boom and created the Open University.

The Thatcher/Major Government (1979-97)

(Elected:May 1979. In office for five years and five months by October 1984).

Victory in the Falklands.

Widespread privatisation programme (for good or ill)

Right to buy scheme.

Dramatic monetarist economic reforms.

Winning battle with trade unions.

The Blair/Brown Government (1997-2010)

(Elected:May 1997. In office for five years and five months by October 2002).

Good Friday Agreement: created a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

Introduced a minimum wage. Abolished fox hunting, Equality reforms introduced,

Humanitarian intervention in Kosovo.

House of Lords reform. Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland,

The Cameron Government (2010-?)

Er…um…er…anyone?

10 reasons why the last Labour Government was great

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The Blair-Brown government achieved a lot of good, so why are Labour politicians so afraid of defending it in public? Here are ten reasons why it was a success…

  1. A lasting peace in Northern Ireland

By 1997, the peace process began under John Major had stalled, partly because the Tories were reliant on the Ulster Unionists to prop up the Tories in parliament during the Major Government’s final days. It took a new government, a new Prime Minister (Tony Blair) and a dynamic new Northern Ireland Secretary (the late Mo Mowlam) to deliver the Good Friday Agreement and the enduring peace which continues to this day. Blair and Mowlam succeeded where thirty years of previous governments had failed.

  1. The economy…stupid!

There are countless Tory myths about the last government’s economic record. Did Labour overspending cause the slump? Clearly not, there was a severe recession throughout the western world: Britain would have been hit anyway. Only the effort to bail out the banks (supported by the Tories) once the slump was in progress put the economy in debt. Should Labour have regulated the markets more tightly? Yes, but again the Tories at the time were arguing for LESS regulation of the markets not more. Did Brown’s actions prevent a recession becoming a depression? Undoubtedly yes. Brown stopped the UK entering the Euro as Chancellor and as PM, his quantative easing policy was widely credited with saving the global banking system. Historians are likely to judge Labour well for dodging the recession which hit many countries at the start of the century and coping well with the global deluge when it came. Should Labour have prepared a “rainy day fund” to prepare the economy during the boom times? In retrospect, yes. Has any other government ever done this? No!

  1. Tough on crime…

The crime rate fell by 44% between 1997 and 2010. Will this continue under Cameron with police numbers being slashed? It seems doubtful. Even Cameron in 201 admitted crime had fallen under Labour making a mockery of his “broken Britain” slogan.

  1. Labour saved the NHS

A disaster area in 1997, Labour bailed the NHS out, leaving it in a good state and with record user approval ratings by 2010. Once again, the Tories have squandered this inheritance and the NHS is in crisis again.

  1. Education, education, education

The period saw huge strides in education. By any measure, standards rose dramatically.

  1. A minimum wage

Fiercely opposed by the Tories at the time on the grounds that it would lead to mass unemployment (wrong!), the minimum wage introduced by Labour is now universally accepted by everyone. The living wage promoted by Ed Miliband is the next step.

  1. Things did get better

Homelessness fell dramatically (under both Thatcher, Major and Cameron it rose dramatically). Civil partnerships were introduced. The House of Lords was reformed. Devolution was introduced for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The gay age of consent was equalised. Britain got better.

  1. Less social division

Labour were never affected by the endless wrangling over the EU that has blighted both of the last Tory Governments. Nor did the government actively seek to turn the public against itself as the Tories have with the public and private sectors.

  1. What will Cameron be remembered for?

Compare his achievements with those listed above. What springs to mind?  Austerity. The Bedroom Tax. Gay marriage – a real achievement but only accomplished with Labour’s help. The massive rise in student tuition fees. Cameron’s record has been abysmal.

  1. Win. win, win

If Labour were so bad in office, why did the public elect them three times? The Tories were hated in 1997, leading to the biggest majority achieved by either party being won by Labour (179). After four years in power, the people wanted more. Labour’s 167 seat majority in 2001 was second only to their 1997 one in post-war scale. Neither Attlee or Thatcher ever won such big majorities. In 2005, their majority fell to 66. Even then, this was a big majority, the eighth largest win of the 19 elections held since 1945. No disgrace at all. Even in 2010 under the unpopular Gordon Brown and during a major slump, Labour still did well enough to deny the Tories a majority.

It is a record to be proud of. Labour should not shy away from defending it.

DVD review: Cucumber & Banana

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Henry (Vincent Franklin) is forty-six, gay and seemingly happy in a relationship with Lance, his boyfriend of nine years (Cyril Nri). Or so it would seem. For after a date which culminates in an an attempted threesome ends very badly indeed, Vincent soon finds himself out on his ear: homeless, jobless and strongly drawn to a much younger man, the beautiful but arrogant Freddie (Freddie Fox). But with Lance increasingly drawn to the unpredictable and volatile Daniel (James Murray), can the two men survive in the heady atmosphere of the 21st century Manchester gay scene?

With a huge cast of characters, none better than veteran actor Franklin who excels as the increasingly troubled Henry, Cucumber in many ways feels like a return home to Queer As Folk territory for creator Russell T. Davies after his many successful years resurrecting Doctor Who. At times, yes, it might seem silly: the titles of this Cucumber and its two spin off series Banana (which is included here having originally been screened straight after Cucumber’s Channel 4 broadcast on E4) and the internet-based Tofu, all apparently refer to different stages of the male erection. At times, Henry’s obsessions with perving over young men’s bums in supermarkets might seem unbecoming for a man in middle age. The final episode also ends very abruptly, surprisingly so, after everything we’ve been through with the characters.

But don’t be fooled. Episode 6 of this eight part series is a masterpiece, as good as anything on British TV this decade so far. Cleverly linked with the series is Banana, a series of one-offs looking more closely at the minor characters from Cucumber. With a range of writers (Including Sue Perkins) these are less consistent in quality than Cucumber, but are all definitely worth a look (although Tofu isn’t included at all here, for some reason). But, all in all, this is a superb package, well worth taking time to cast your eyes over.

Cucumber & Banana

Release: March 16th 2015

RRP: £16.99

BBC Worldwide

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10 things which would have astonished you about 2014 had you known about them at the Millennium

1. Britain’s leading astronomer is now someone from D:Ream.
2. The US president is black. And the next one may well be a woman.
3. Onetime rising Tory star Michael Portillo is now best known for hosting a TV series about railways.
4. Rolf Harris is in prison.
5. Edwina Currie and Ann Widdecombe are now stars of reality TV.
5. Slavery and piracy are major international problems.
6. Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s biggest shows (it was not on between 1989 and 2005).
7. Take That, Peter Andre, Noel Edmonds and Ant and Dec are rarely off our screens.
8. Tony Blair is best remembered for joining former President Bush’s son in starting a war with Iraq.
9. The Euro is widely seen as a failure. Britain never joined the Euro and is now seriously considering leaving the European Union.
10. Boris Johnson is seriously being considered as a likely possible future Prime Minister.

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Could it be Clinton Vs Bush in 2016?

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Could the next US presidential election end up being fought between the wife of one former president and the brother of another? Very possibly, is the only answer.
To start with, Hillary Clinton is currently the overwhelming favourite to be the Democratic nominee and is probably the general favourite to win overall. We have been here before, of course, but this time there seems no obvious signs of a charismatic Obama-type sweeping in to deny her the nomination as occurred in 2008. Indeed, her previous opposition to Obama probably stands her in good stead in the light of his recent unpopularity.

Clinton’s main hindrances are likely to be her age (she is 67, and would be the second oldest elected president ever if she won in 2016), concerns over her health and the rich array of baggage she has inevitably accumulated during her twenty years as First Lady, New York senator and Secretary of State.

Refreshingly, even though no woman has ever been nominated as a presidential candidate by either of the main parties, nobody seems very bothered that she’s a woman any more. It is as if the world has got used to the idea. Yet a lot still rides on her shoulders. For if Hillary failed (or even didn’t stand – she is yet to formally announce her candidacy), when would a woman get another chance as good as this?

Former US President George H.W. Bush(2nd

The prospects of Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, son of former president George HW and younger of President George W. look less good. Bush has always had a more competent air than his brother, but is far to the left of many in his party. What’s more, while Hillary can point to a largely successful Clinton presidency, the first Bush presidency ended after one term and the second was a near total disaster. Jeb will be lucky to get the nomination. Though if he does, Republicans will be praying he can perform a reversal of the 1992 result when Clinton outfoxed Bush. A third president would be a first for any family.
There are a number of cases of political dynasties taking the highest office in the US, mostly in the 19th century. But despite our hereditary monarchy, Britain rarely does the same when it comes to elected politicians. There have been a long line of Churchills either Winstons or Randolphs in the Commons, but only one has ever achieved glory. There have also been a number of Benns and Hoggs in Parliament over the decades, but none in Downing Street.
Elsewhere, one wonders if a more clearly defined fixed four-year presidential system might have prevented the disharmony caused by the two Miliband brothers competing for the Labour leadership in 2010 or the potential issues arising from the fact that both Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper are both seen as potential future contenders for the party leadership.

Jeb Bush

Book review: Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box

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Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box: 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections
Edited by: Philip Cowley and Robert Ford
Published by Biteback Books

People who vote Tory are rubbish at sex. Okay, perhaps that’s not fair. But they are worse than at sex than normal people are. Sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s apparently true. If this troubles you, perhaps defecting to UKIP might help? Or marry someone else.
That’s actually the only real revelation about sex contained within this book of fifty short political essays about elections and the imminent 2015 General Election penned by the leading political academics throughout the land.
The title was worth a try though. After all, one suspects simply calling it 50 Things You Need To Know About British Elections might not have attracted fewer readers.
Which would be a shame as the book does address important, interesting if non-sexy questions:
Does canvassing for votes actually make any difference to an election result at all? Why is Wales traditionally so anti-Conservative? Why are there still so few women MPs? Are ethnic minorities really more likely to support Labour? And who lost their party the most support: Blair or Brown?
This is an interesting book then and a useful one. Just don’t go in expecting there to be lots of sex. There isn’t.

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