On October 21st 1966, after a period of heavy rain, 30,000 cubic yards of coal sludge collapsed on 19 houses and a primary school in Aberfan with predictably devastating results. Episode 3 of The Crown focuses on he disaster and its aftermath. The Queen herself reacts slowly to the tragedy, forcing her to confront her own apparent tendency to react with the traditional stoicism and reserve to such events, rather than the public show of emotion which might be expected or even needed by the watching public in the media age. The monarch would, of course, fall foul of similar issues following the death of Diana, 31 years’ later.
Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) articulates an interesting theory in the second episode of the third season of Peter Morgan’s The Crown.
The theory states simply that just as there is a clear pattern of steady, reliable, generally boring Royals, such as Queen Victoria, George V, George VI and the Queen herself, there is equally a parallel lineage of wild, reckless and hedonistic rebels. Consider: Edward VII, George V’s brother Prince Eddy or the notorious Duke of Windsor. Just as the older Queen, played by Helen Mirren in Morgan’s 2006 film, famously held back from shooting a stag, the other bunch would probably have ended up riding it roughshod over the hills and far away.
The Royal couple here are clearly thinking about the Queen’s own naughty little sister, Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), glamorous and popular, but also increasingly wayward as she tours the mid-1960s USA. Viewers at home will, of course, be wondering how this theory applies to Prince Harry. And Prince Andrew.
At any rate, Margaret, at this point, gets an opportunity to restore Anglo-US relations which have been damaged by the new Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s (admirable) refusal to join America in the disastrous quagmire of Vietnam. The princess is thus dispatched to the White House in use her charms to win over President Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown) in the hope that L.B.J. will go all the way in resolving a British balance of payments crisis.
The Crown is back. We rejoin proceedings at the dawn of a new era.
For after two glorious seasons with the marvelous Claire Foy playing the Princess and young Queen in her twenties and thirties, we now give way to the new age of Olivia Colman. The transition is neatly symbolised by a tactful discussion of a new Royal portrait for a new range of postage stamps. It is 1964 and the monarch is in her late thirties, what might normally be seen as her “middle years.”
“A great many changes. But there we are,” Colman’s Queen remarks. “Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.”
Other changes are afoot too. Then, as now, a general election is in progress, resulting in the election of the first Labour Prime Minister of the Queen’s reign, Harold Wilson. Jason Watkins captures Wilson’s manner perfectly, although not yet his wit. In time, we now know Wilson would become the favourite of the Queen’s Prime Ministers. At this stage, however, both figures are wary of each other: the working class Wilson seems socially insecure and chippy while the Queen has heard an unfounded rumour from Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies – a good likeness) that Wilson is a KGB agent.
Elsewhere, another age comes to an end as the elderly Churchill breathes his last. In a rare piece of casting continuity, John Lithgow briefly resumes his role.
Suspicion also surrounds Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt. Although not exactly a dead ringer for the art historian and Soviet spy, Samuel West is well cast as Blunt. West is a fine actor anyway but his lineage here is impeccable. His mother, Prunella Scales played the Queen in the Alan Bennett drama, A Question of Attribution, which was about Blunt and which parts of this episode strongly resemble. Blunt then was played by James Fox, whose brother Edward, incidentally played Churchill in The Audience, the Peter Morgan play which inspired this series. West also played the Queen’s father George VI in the (not very good) film, Hyde Park on the Hudson. His wife, the future Queen Mother was played by one Olivia Colman. West’s father, Timothy, of course, famously played George VI’s grandfather, Edward VII (and also played Churchill, several times), while Colman won an Oscar for playing the Queen’s ancestor, Queen Anne in The Favourite, earlier this year.
Fellow Oscar winner, Helena Bonham Carter is, of course, now cast as the Queen’s glamorous but troubled sister, Princess Margaret here, replacing the excellent Vanessa Kirby. The makers clearly feel obliged to feature Margaret frequently in this episode, presumably because of Bonham Carter’s star status, but aside from much drinking, rudeness, singing and fretting about her wayward photographer husband Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels), who is pictured motorbiking about a lot, she does little of interest.
The next episode promises to be much more Margaret-orientated…
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.
Book review: Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking by Ben Wright.
Published by: Duckworth Overlook
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An odd feature of post-war British political life has been the longevity of our leaders.
Three former Prime Ministers John Major (72), Tony Blair (62) and Gordon Brown (64) are all still alive and are not yet especially aged.
Nine former British PMs have died since the end of the Second War.
(Churchill, Attlee, Eden, Macmillan , Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher).
Seven out of nine of those who died lived past 80 years old (Harold Wilson and Sir Anthony Eden both died, aged 79).
Six of the remaining seven made it to 85 (Attlee was 84).
Four of the remainder made it to 90.
Macmillan, Home and Callaghan all died aged 92. Churchill was 90. (Heath, 89 and Thatcher, 87 did not).
Four out of nine post-war prime ministers have thus lived into their nineties. Does being PM increase your lifespan? Or do the sort of people who become Prime Ministers just tend to live longer? It should also be remembered that not all UK Prime Ministers have had privileged backgrounds (Thatcher, Heath and Wilson did not, nor did James Callaghan who lived longer than anyone else).
In the US, four post-World War II former presidents have lived into their nineties, two of whom, Jimmy Carter and George H.W Bush are still alive. Bush is 91, Carter though seriously ill is 90. Gerald Ford, the longest lived former US president and Ronald Reagan both died aged 93.
Generally, the US trend is less impressive partly because President Kennedy was assassinated while still in his forties and his successor Lyndon Johnson died prematurely following a heart attack at 64.
But overall the stats are still impressive: Hoover died aged 88 (he was not a post-war World War II president – he was in office from 1929 to 1933 – but died in the post-war era). Harry S. Truman died aged 88, Dwight D. Eisenhower was 78 and Richard Nixon, 81. Since 1945, seven former presidents have made it to eighty (as opposed to four who did not) and four have made it to ninety.
Generally, for whatever reason, being a world leader does seem to be good for your health.
Thanks to the new fixed term arrangements, the days of a Prime Minister calling an election whenever the political weather seemed favourable are gone. But while Thatcher, Blair, Macmillan and Eden took full advantage of this privilege, other Prime Ministers have made a real mess of it…
Calling the election too early
June 1970 (Harold Wilson)
Few would blame Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson for calling an election almost a full year before he had to for June 1970. After a rocky few years, the economy was recovering and Labour was way ahead in the polls. The pipe-smoking northerner Wilson was always more popular than the somewhat stuffy Tory leader Edward Heath too. Many (including Tory Enoch Powell) eagerly anticipated Heath’s second defeat (he had also led the Tories to defeat in 1966) and inevitable resignation as Tory leader.
But the opinion polls turned out to be wrong. Very wrong. On election night, the Tories won a majority of thirty. The result was totally unexpected. A low turnout and unexpectedly poor trade figures did for Labour. Labour had branded the Tories “Yesterday’s Men”. Now it was their turn to be consigned to history.
February 1974 (Edward Heath)
Under different circumstances, Prime Minister Heath fell into the same trap as Wilson during the Three Day Week crisis a few years later. With a six percent lead in the polls, Heath called a surprise early election on the issue “Who Governs Britain?” The government or the unions? An election didn’t have to be called until June 1975, but Heath wanted the issue resolved immediately and was confident of victory.
Instead, the result was very inconclusive and a disaster for Heath personally. The Tories got more votes but slightly fewer seats. The Tories had lost their majority needlessly. Edward Heath, who didn’t even have a house to move into after Downing Street (a friend put him and his piano up) moved out after Hung Parliament negotiations with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe failed. Harold Wilson was back and he was returned to power again with a small majority in a second election in October. Heath’s leadership of the Tories ended with his shock removal by Margaret Thatcher in February 1975.
Clinging to power
October 1964 (Alec-Douglas Home)
Just as calling an election too early can be calamitous, a leader clinging to power until the very last minute hardly inspires great confidence either. Alec-Douglas Home did indeed lose narrowly for the Tories after holding out for a full five years until October 1964. With Home focusing heavily on Labour’s apparent inexperience in foreign policy during the election campaign, however, Home may have, in retrospect, wished the election had been held a day later. With news of China exploding its first H-bomb and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev suddenly being toppled breaking on the day after polling, the new international uncertainty might well have persuaded voters to stay in the Tory camp had news of these two troubling international events come to light slightly earlier. As it was, Labour won with a majority of just four.
Pretending to be about to call an election and then not doing so (James Callaghan, 1978. Gordon Brown 2007)
“Can’t get away to marry you today, my wife won’t let me!” Labour PM James Callaghan surprised everyone at the TUC Conference in September 1978, by not calling an election and singing this ancient music hall ditty instead (he had been born in 1912). Although leading the less popular Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories in the polls, the cautious Callaghan feared a 1978 election might end in a dead heat and preferred to wait until 1979. The decision was a disaster.
Over the winter, relations between government and unions broke down completely. Memories of the so-called “Winter of Discontent” with rubbish left uncollected and some isolated cases of the dead being left unburied, would poison Labour’s prospects not just in 1979 but for years to come.
Gordon Brown’s attempts to capitalise on the short-lived “Brown bounce” just after he became Prime Minister in 2007 backfired horribly too. Brown’s dithering ensured that the party never recovered from “the election that never was” and led to its actual defeat in 2010.
Since the Second World War, two third party leaders have been in a position to determine the balance of power in a Hung Parliament. Five years ago, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg secured his party a position in government but ultimately failed to achieve a proper cabinet position for himself or any of his party’s aims in office.
Liberal leader Jeremy Throrpe in February and March 1974 antagonised his Liberal colleagues (notably Chief Whip David Steel) by negotiating with Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath without consulting them first. Thorpe ultimately rejected the trappings of office and emerged with his reputation enhanced.
Few politicians would wish to emulate Jeremy Thorpe today, however, as Michael Bloch’s excellent biography reminds us. Indeed one wonders if the real reason future Liberal Democrat leader Jeremy Ashdown changed his name to “Paddy” was to avoid comparisons with the earlier Liberal? Today Thorpe, who died last December, is chiefly remembered for scandal and for being accused and found not guilty in a notorious murder plot. It was one of the biggest political stories of the Seventies and totally destroyed Thorpe’s career. Although only fifty in 1979, he was practically invisible for the last thirty-five years of his life which were also made worse by Parkinson’s disease.
The contrast with Thorpe’s earlier days could not be more striking. Thorpe was a dazzling figure who seems to have charmed almost everyone he met . Born in 1929, he joined the Liberals at the time of their great post-war crisis when they came close to extinction around 1950. Thorpe nevertheless determined to one day be Prime Minister, used his boundless energy to secure a seat in parliament in 1959 and obtained the party leadership while still in his thirties in 1967. As leader, he was always popular with the public (seeing the party through blows the 1970 election which coincided with the death of his first wife Caroline in a car accident) and highs (almost getting into government in 1974).
Ultimately, it was Thorpe’s compulsive risk-taking and his numerous homosexual liaisons which proved his downfall.
Published by: Little Brown
Director: Skip Kite
Running time: 95 minutes
Labour politician Tony Benn was many things to many people. To many on the Right (many of whom are clearly far more class-obsessed than Benn or anyone on the Left has ever been), he was the ultimate hypocrite: a peer of the realm who dared to turn on his own class and embrace socialism. In fact, Benn famously renounced his hereditary peerage as soon as he could after a monumental battle with the Establishment in the early sixties. A father of three and barred from the Commons, Benn was frequently left dejected and depressed by a battle which despite public support, often didn’t seem to be going his way.
To others within his own party, he was sometimes a hindrance. Harold Wilson, Labour leader during most of the relatively short period Benn held office (about eleven years) famously remarked that Benn “immatures with age”.
But to everyone Benn was something of a phenomenon, the second longest-serving Labour MP ever and a man who dutifully, almost obsessively, recorded the events of the second half of his life.
Skip Kite begins this film, made with Benn’s cooperation during his final two years, with the old man reciting Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet. And though, it jumps around a little (being thematic rather than strictly chronological in order) and features an odd recurring Narnia-like lamp post visual motif, it does accurately portray the Seven Ages of Benn (my own idea, not the director’s):
The schoolboy who once met the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Ramsay MacDonald (and who, in later life, would never stop reminding people of this).
The wartime pilot.
The young ambitious Labour MP, diverted by the battle with the Lords.
The modern technocrat of the sixties. Widely seen as the future of the party and perhaps Benn at his best.
The increasingly leftist “Most dangerous man in Britain” of tabloid infamy. An agitator, yes, but always respectful and good-natured.
Switching remarkably quickly from youthful rising star, to the lisping white-haired veteran of the Kinnock and Blair years: increasingly less powerful but never less interesting.
The old man we mostly see here, still in genuine mourning for Caroline his wife of nearly fifty years and increasingly a much loved national institution (whether he liked it or not).
This is an excellent documentary and a fitting monument to one of the greatest British politicians of the 20th century.
Bonus features include a Christmas message from the elderly Benn, a selection of photos (mostly covering his early life) and Benn’s final interview.
He will be missed.