Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Doctor Who – The Evil of the Daleks (Campbell & Hadley’s Recorder Uncut)
Patrick Troughton’s Doctor – Victoriana – dark fairy tales – rewriting the whole of time and space… No, it’s not the latest Doctor Who from Steven Moffat, but a fabulous story first broadcast forty-six years ago yesterday and, appropriately for John Stuart Mill’s birthday, one of the most blazingly Liberal of all Doctor Who stories: a Dalek Faust. Last Christmas, I wrote two guest pieces about it for my friend Nick Campbell’s blog: here’s the full version of what I sent him, not one of my usual style of reviews but a series of questions and answers – and spoilers.
“Somewhere in the Dalek race, there are three Daleks with the Human Factor. Gradually, they will come to question. They will persuade other Daleks to question. You will have a rebellion on your planet!”
Episode 1 of Doctor Who – The Evil of the Daleks was first broadcast on 20th May, 1967, and though it was repeated the following year, the BBC later junked all but one of its seven episodes. That means I’ve never seen six-sevenths of it, and only came to it on audio cassette at the age of twenty, a quarter of a century later. And yet ever since then it’s been one of my favourite stories across the whole fifty years – reliably at my number 2 spot – with terrific performances all round, the Daleks as you’ve never heard them before but influencing many Doctor Who adventures since, and above all a compelling script from David Whitaker, the series’ finest writer of the 1960s. So when it approached time for my friend Nick and his friend Sarah to cover it on their blog Campbell & Hadley’s Recorder, I asked if I might take him up on one of the ‘guest pieces’ he’s occasionally prodded me to write.
To make it more manageable to interweave three people’s thoughts on a seven-part story, Nick set a tighter word count than I’d usually keep to and split the story into two. His first blog post covers Episodes 1-4; his second covers Episodes 5-7. I’ve published everything I sent him below, and you’ll spot two significant changes of style between the two, one from Nick, the other coming out of my reaction to that. I’ve been thinking of an appropriate time to follow Nick’s Christmas excitements with my ‘uncut’ version ever since, and this week seems ideal – when I noticed yesterday was the birthday of both John Stuart Mill (at which I wrote my own piece about him and Harriet Taylor) and of this most Liberal Doctor Who tale, I pulled out my notes in the afternoon and got to work. Again, I should warn that this is quite different to my usual reviews: it doesn’t just feature spoilers, but reads best if you know a little about the story (though the more structured second part is easier to follow anyway). So here’s something of an introduction to start you off…
The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his friend Jamie (Frazer Hines) have seen off the threat of the Faceless Ones to Gatwick Airport in Swinging 1966, but their usual departure for another time and place is prevented when the TARDIS is stolen and driven off in a lorry. Using the Doctor’s own cleverness against him, a trail of clues and crooks lead them to an antique shop with a secret and back into Victorian times… Who is behind it all? Timid but driven scientist Edward Waterfield? His big-guest-star-in-a-bigger-beard colleague Theodore Maxtible (Marius Goring), financier, scientific and alchemical dilettante and steampunk Goldfinger? Their peculiar house guests, or bewildered daughters? All right, so you’ll have guessed it’s mostly the Daleks, who’ve taken advantage of Waterfield and Maxtible’s captivatingly insane Nineteenth Century time experiments to capture the Doctor and his friend for experiments of their own… But as the climax approaches on the Dalek planet of Skaro and the Doctor faces up to the Emperor Dalek at last, who is really trying to deceive who? [A clue: almost everybody.] Mashing up Victoriana and modern science fiction decades before it was fashionable, this is utterly compelling – a marvellous morality tale in sci-fi trappings from its inspired fantasy science through a country house mystery to a civil war and a powerfully Liberal moral that champions questioning individuals over rigid authority and the impulse to destroy.
The Evil of the Daleks Episodes 1-4: To Set A Trap…
After thanking Nick and Sarah for letting me join in on one of my very favourite stories, I began by observing that the start has something in common with the previous story…
The opening has an intriguing mystery to it – the spy, the clue, the transmitter as hearing aid and someone listening in… Is it ‘Revenge of the Chameleons’? Fortunately not. Mr Waterfield almost has too much personality, not too little, ostentatiously Victorian, moral, full of self-loathing and unnerving all at the same time. Unusually for Doctor Who, there’s a sharply observed class divide here too: Hall’s a small-time working class crook who, even given extra money, still has his principles; posh, ambitious businessman Perry protests that he won’t do anything “dicey” only after Waterfield’s prevented the greedy weasel from stealing his suppliers (and he creeps in later to pinch a customer). So who’s the more crooked one…?
The Doctor’s very modelled on Sherlock Holmes to start with: mistrusting the easy clue; analysing the cigarettes; spotting the matchbook; the too-short study… All used to trap him, of course, but I wonder where it comes from – Whitaker’s character notes for Troughton’s Doctor, or making us have the Victorian period in mind from the start?
The Daleks getting an evil throbbing version of the Who Theme – like a sinister machine – pre-empts The Sound of Drums by forty years almost to the week…
I really must get round to getting the new Loose Cannon Recon, but I’d been saving it for a treat. As well as the pictures, the animation and the moving Daleks to entice me, there’s one scene with three different soundtracks due to rights problems: on the original ’90s cassette release, a coffee bar scene’s simply cut; on the CD, sound restoration engineer Mark Ayres has remarkably grafted in Hold Tight; it’s only on bootlegs that you get to hear the Beatles’ Paperback Writer as Jamie picks his way round the “lassies” (it sounds from the muffled reverb like the mono mix, fact fans). And that’s the first scene where the Doctor and Jamie are really together as a pair with great comedy timing, too: “Aye, well, maybe I’m used to you.”
Troughton has a brilliant flash of indignation as he tells thieving Perry “…and because it happens to be my property!” It’s an early hint of how he’ll react when faced with the Daleks and losing control:
“What have you done with your infernal meddling?”That’s a sign, too, like them being labelled “Devils”, that this is a going to be a very different sort of Dalek story. In theory in Doctor Who, Mr Maxtible should be right when he tries to regard them as “different people. Alien,” but here more than any other time they’re less physical monsters than a force of spiritual evil, fading from their first scene like Victorian ghosts.
Maxtible is utterly magnetic as he spins his stories like a great and terrible fairy tale, an inspired scientific fantasy, all of a piece with his later alchemical lust. There’s so much foreshadowing of what the story will be about, too: going through the looking glass, “They forced me into the horror of time travel” transforms even the heart of the series into horror, prefiguring that anything can become Dalek; the Daleks and Doctor almost instantly present the Dalek Factor and its eventual downfall (“You will obey!” “Do not question!” “I will not be your slave!”); even the ‘be careful what you wish for’ of greed for transformation in the promise
“The Daleks know many secrets. You will learn the most important…”It’s a brilliant mystery – funny, intricate, and deadly underneath, from Molly the maid assuming our heroes are plastered to the Daleks’ aggressive Weight-watchers. One bit of writing doesn’t convince, though: Chekhov’s Portrait is a clumsier bit of exposition than most, particularly when we’re told about it twice. And I know we’re meant to feel for Ruth, caught between her obsessive father and her schizophrenic fiancé, but I just find Brigit Forsyth very cold. Possibly because when, way back in my teens, I worked in a restaurant, she was the most horrible customer we ever had and made the waitresses cry.
Was it Maxtible who thought up “Leatherman”? I ask because much of the early part of Episode 3 is him getting his “man” from London to flex his muscles while he and a Dalek eye him up. But Episode 3 and, slightly less so, 4 would have been very visual, with much less pace or meat (other than Kemel) to them than the terrific openers. Part of the problem is that Pat is so blatantly on holiday, with only a few little scenes of the Doctor giving a DVD commentary on the plot, which are rather ahead of their time (the Doctor and a Dalek! Watching humans! On television! How postmodern). Toby’s plot, particularly, could easily be discarded, with the whole ‘the violent one looks to do some burglary but is exterminated’ end already used for Kennedy.
Jamie in a temper is quite raw – it’s not just that the Doctor’s talking about him behind his back, but has gone off with two new gentleman boyfriends. With his heavy emphasis on “There’s no-one I’d rather have with me” when he finds his own rebound guy, it comes across very much as hurt that the Doctor’s dumped him just as he thought they were finally an item. And yet he’s learnt from the Doctor and applied it, too: in The Macra Terror, the Doctor laid the groundwork for so much of this story, telling people not to do as they’re told. Jamie believed that, and now his loyalty to the Doctor’s ideals makes him refuse to do what the Doctor himself says.
All right, so the story sags a bit in the middle. But what’s coming more than makes up for that…
The Evil of the Daleks Episodes 5-7: Shut Your Trap [‘Exterminate’ Font]I-only-arsked[/’Exterminate’ Font]
Three people’s random thoughts, even more or less to Nick’s suggested word limit, meant he had quite a task to puzzle over it and fit them all together – so for the second week, he suggested some prompts to get us at least talking about the same sort of things. The good news is that I answered the questions. The bad news is that we sometimes gave much the same answers. The worse news for Nick was that he could have the word limit or the answers, but not both…
Subject: Evil Questions
No, not questions that are evil – well, I hope not, anyway.
I've just relistened to those last three episodes for the first time in years (only the second time ever, too). I'd completely forgotten that episode six twist (that the Doctor had been tricked). That's probably my favourite moment – how about you?“Do not question!”So, not evil by my standards, but…
The Episode 6 cliffhanger of the Doctor confronting the Emperor is probably my favourite, too! For a lot of reasons – the bluff and counter-bluff of it all, the Doctor being intelligent, afraid, ruthless, but above all defiant against the biggest bully and the Universe, the fantastic sight of that bully itself… With even a bonus innuendo. Crucially, though, it gets to the heart of me because the Doctor expounding on the Human Factor versus the Dalek Factor is so absolutely Liberal, freedom against conformity and hate, all leading into how just asking questions brings down the Daleks in the final episode. So I will tell you that (spoilers!) it’s coming up sometime in my year-long countdown of Doctor Who – 50 Great Scenes. You’ll have to wait to find out what chart position it’s reached.Here we are back on Skaro, blowing it up. Is this an affectionate goodbye to the Hartnell era, do you think, or a slightly aggressive wipe of the blackboard (better metaphors are welcome).
The reason I asked if I might join in with you on The Evil of the Daleks is that it is simply one of my absolute favourites. Sarah talked about the cassettes last week; well, I listened to this one most of all, and of that curious but brilliant all-Troughton early ’90s selection, I loved them all to start with, yet two have since dipped a little for me while two continue to soar – perhaps it’s because this and The Macra Terror seem such close thematic bedfellows. And in seven episodes, there are many more than one great scenes. Two other crucial ones that come to mind are, appropriately, mirrors: the Doctor and the nice old man both being scary; the Daleks being friendly. There’s a great moment where the Doctor’s satisfied at the close of the experiment and Waterfield, sick with horror, tries to kill him – and the Doctor gives a hint of just what an appalling thing he’s planning. Later, perhaps only Pat’s Doctor could get away with gently telling Victoria he’d let them all die. So it’s no wonder Jamie’s the voice of the viewer in saying the Doctor’s turned wrong. Contrast that, then, with the endearing ‘child’ Daleks playing, particularly Omega with his incredibly deep voice (and note that the ruthless Doctor sends his innocent children off to war).
Of all Doctor Who stories, this has a fair claim to being the ‘ultimate’ one, and it was clearly designed that way – not just that it’s so well-done, full of atmosphere, characters and ideas, but that you could imagine it working as a Doctor Who film. Because it’s about adventures throughout time and space, almost all single Who stories would be lacking something in a standalone film – but this is structured almost uniquely through present, past and future / an alien world overlapping. The only thing that’s weird about this perfection is that the adventure is following the TARDIS, rather than aboard it.
I think it’s really striking out in a different direction to William Hartnell’s Dalek stories, which intriguingly raised the stakes and broadened the canvas with each return – and adds a dash of TV21’s Dalek strips (in the form of a rebellion among the Daleks, and ‘nicer’ Daleks) long before Russell T Davies did them in Bad Wolf. David Whitaker has a subtly different conception of the Daleks to Terry Nation; in some ways Nation’s is more powerful, with the starkness of space Nazis, but Whitaker makes them more insidious, corrupters, our bad angels – most of all here, as I’ve said, a force of spiritual evil for Doctor Who’s Faust. Though it does have curious (or not so curious, given that Whitaker was script editor behind both) parallels with both The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth – it’s the final end of the Daleks, in their city, again, and makes explicit the mash-up of different time periods that was a subtext in the invasion (technically the future / feels like the 1960s the viewers knew, smashed / but essentially the iconography of ‘what if the Nazis had won in the 1940s?’). I don’t think it’s really about the Hartnell era, for all that – Troughton is very distinct and his own Doctor here, and Whitaker is pitting the Doctor and the Daleks against each other in their essences rather than physically.A lot of good work seems to be done with playing with Dalek voices, even having an untreated one in the form of Maxtible. Do you think this story would succeed with different audio, or cheaper visuals…?
It’s a brilliant script, but obviously that almost everything seems to work helps – I can think of other terrific scripts hated by fans largely because they’re not delivered nearly so well (Paradise Towers, for example). Here, the actors and the atmosphere are top-notch, and imagining it with, say, the Day of the Daleks Dalek voices doesn’t bear thinking about. Despite not being able to see most of it, knowing that some of it was filmed Grim’s Dyke has always been a bit of a thrill, as my Nana and Grandad lived near Old Redding when I was a boy, so I’d play just across the road from Maxtible’s house when visiting.Do you or have you ever found the Daleks scary, and why? Do you like the Daleks? And if you do or don't particularly, do you think it affects your enjoyment of this story?
I’ve always found the Daleks powerful – in design and concept, as space Nazis in individual tanks, the embodiment of war and hate. Certainly the best Who monster… Though, unlike some, I think they were more tense or thrilling than nightmarish. Some monsters literally did give me nightmares as a boy, but, oddly, the scene from Genesis of the Daleks that did wasn’t one with Daleks in it. They have a fantastic vocal and insidious presence here, only really becoming a physical threat (despite the odd extermination!) at the close of Episode 6. It’s odd – I can never make up my mind whether effectively making them malevolent spirits displays them at their essence or very out of character. Either way, for me this is their best story.
Do you think Terry Nation could have written this story (I did wonder if the inclusion of a countdown was deliberate homage by Whitaker)? Do you think it was inevitable that this story – the final destruction of the Daleks – would be written?
I don’t think Terry Nation could possibly have written this story, but then I don’t think he wanted to. He banned Emperors, didn’t he, and he hated Daleks being ‘sent up’ (except when he did it, and far more dumbly than “Dizzy Daleks”). His writing Death To the Daleks as a riposte to Mr Whitaker’s The Power of the Daleks fell flat; arguably, he might have written Genesis of the Daleks as a comeback to this story, far more successfully, and Whitaker couldn’t have written that. I’m happy for different writers to be different.Would you rather have Victoria, Kemel or her father surviving to go off with the Doctor and Jamie at the end?
As for “The final end,” well, Nation did that in his first story, didn’t he? So Skaro’s blown up already, with more to come (it’s worse than Atlantis). It was inevitable once Nation said he was taking them away that the BBC would do something big, but that’s not the only reason – it’s happened again and again. Russell did the final destruction of the Daleks four times, didn’t he?
Well, it would have to be Victoria Waterfield, of that lot, designed as she is from the archetypal companion template (slightly plucky but screaming, plus ‘my daddy was quite posh but he’s dead now, so the Doctor can be a substitute while a/nobody misses me and b/ until I grow up / fall in love / have a nervous breakdown and find a second set of surrogate parents’). Edward Waterfield being such a timid old stick wouldn’t fit the format, and Kemel not speaking would make him unable to say ‘But what is it, Doctor?’ or scream. Though I think there was a Kemel in-joke in Vastra Investigates on the Red Button tonight, about Strax: “Funny-looking fellow. Turkish, is he?”Would you swap episode 2 of this story for another surviving Evil episode?
[On watching it, it has rather a lot of Troughton references, notably the Yeti stories and The Box of Delights, so this was almost certainly deliberate.]
I’m strangely tempted to have Maxtible join the crew, though – he could wander round being charmingly patrician and exploring, then trying to nick everything, while everyone admires his enormous bouffant. It would be like Pertwee in the TARDIS a few years early. Or Beta the friendly Dalek – yes, Beta would be a good companion.
‘I like gliding about in circles and giggling tinnily! Why does everyone run away when I come out of the TARDIS?’
Well, I’d like to see them all – Jamie awkward amid Paperback Writer and the “lassies”, even the slightly sagging middle ones for their visual impact, but any of Episodes 5, 6 or 7, especially, which are all spellbinding. Perhaps 6, counter-intuitively; we’ve got some of the footage of “The final end,” and while it’s better than it has any right to be, perhaps I’d rather see the Daleks’ strange playfulness amid the Victoriana and the Doctor’s big confrontation with the Emperor. I suppose the real answer has to be no, because I wouldn’t want to lose those marvellous scenes of the Doctor and Jamie creeping about and working it out, or the first sight of Maxtible’s magnificent beard, or most of all the whole gripping, dreamlike then nightmarish scene in the laboratory.Last week I wondered whether Whitaker's Daleks are a nightmare of nuclear fallout. This week's episodes made me question that slightly. But what do you think this story is about?
The Evil of the Daleks is about as clear thematically as you get in Doctor Who – of course, it’s David Whitaker’s Faust. And whether he intended it with this story deliberately, or it arose naturally from his or the series’ views, it’s also as unambiguously Liberal as the show gets, as I’ve written on in my How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal.In what ways has Doctor Who changed by the end of this story?
This story raises the Daleks from a physical to a metaphysical threat – malevolent spirits that plot to seed all humanity with “The Dalek Factor”, taking even the Doctor for a ride. We see many transformations, with the ultimate conflict of our hero and the greatest villains each attempting to ‘turn’ the other, with alchemist Maxtible making this explicit as the Faust figure, though there’s temptation all the way through (and, as Dalek, he makes the devil as antichrist metaphor blatant, too, telling the Doctor to “Rise up and follow me”). Like Kennedy and Toby before him, Maxtible is overtaken by his greed – it’s almost ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of the Daleks: Avarice’, isn’t it? Mind you, both the Doctor and the Emperor are over-proud, Jamie is full of wrath (and fancies Victoria), Perry was envious and Terrall accused the Doctor of gluttony… You’d think in the seven episodes they’d have found time for Sloth. Or could they not be bothered?
It’s difficult to think of a more strikingly Liberal allegory than defining what makes humans Human as asking awkward questions and making your own decisions, with the Doctor contrastingly identifying the core of “the Dalek Factor” as “to obey,” even before “to exterminate”. While from the first and in many subsequent stories the Daleks have been metaphors for the Nazis, here they are broadened to encompass all enemies of free thought who simply do as they’re told. And where the anti-racism of the first Dalek story was a bit let down by the ‘normal people = good, ugly monsters = bad,’ here the human Daleks aren’t monsters, but Maxtible is, and his becoming a Dalek just hammers the point home.
I’m not certain what you were after with “has Doctor Who changed by the end of this story?” The series, the character, and just within this story or since 1963? It’s certainly become more complex since then, with the Doctor here more palpably alien than he’s ever been (after developing that way in The Daleks’ Master Plan and The Tenth Planet), and more proactive (even starting as reactive in this story, he turns it around in a major way). For all that it introduces Victoria, it’s only in her fourth episode that she interacts with anyone or displays any character beyond ‘Wailing’ and ‘McGuffin’ – this is about Jamie, cementing him as this Doctor’s other half, not least when they fall out, and in the bigger picture, it introduces the idea of staging a story through different time periods as a thematic structure rather than random travelogue, arguably paving the way for but not a direct influence on the likes of Carnival of Monsters and City of Death (and certainly The War Games, much the same story if with a far bleaker view of human nature). At the time, it was establishing a more ruthless Doctor (a deliberate plan, rather than pretend bumbling) and clearing the decks of the Daleks, ready for new monsters, as well as, with The Macra Terror, pairing the peak of the series’ Liberal philosophy with mass destruction – well, freedom’s dangerous. This was the first purpose-built ‘season finale’, too, of which many more later – the first two seasons had ended with a triumphal scene, but here it’s the whole adventure. And, of course, if you’re asking about changes, much of this story’s about transformation, and yet it says that the Doctor is a transforming agent himself, a catalyst, and so can’t himself be changed. Which is lucky.If you could change one thing about the story, what would it be?
Will the QI hooters go off if I say ‘The BBC to have kept all of it’? It’s tempting to truncate Episodes 3 and 4 into each other, but I don’t really want less of it, so coming in at Episode 5, that one’s gripping and fabulous but a couple of its ideas don’t quite deliver. Whitaker has a rare clumsy bit of writing in blowing Maxtible’s mesmerism within seconds of it being hinted at, which could do with a polish, but I think were I to change one thing it would be Arthur Terrall. His schizophrenic outbursts and, here, strange physical properties have been building to something, and then rather fizzle out. There are two possibilities that seem hinted at – that he’s an early attempt at the Dalek Factor, a failed experiment, which is why they have to call the Doctor in; or, more gruesomely (but what I was expecting the first time I heard it, when I was twenty and very much into existential crises), that he’s a Dalek android who doesn’t realise it, with his ‘real’ body that Ruth had fallen in love with long-dead. The control device and ‘get him away’ really aren’t good enough – his mystery deserves better, particularly after that terrific scene where the Doctor is flighty, enquiring, commanding, and generally winding Terrall up, with Troughton’s marvellous, mellifluously delivered line about his interest in all forms of life (contrasting directly with “There is only one form of life that matters – Dalek life”).
[It occurs to me after I’ve sent this that on top of doing Power with their tricksiness and “I am your soldier,” Mark Gatiss must have thought the same thing about Terrall – that’s where he got his boffin with the heart of Dalekanium from, isn’t it?]
Now, if this was one of my proper reviews, it would end in some kind of conclusion, but Nick didn’t ask me for one, and I can only obey. No… That’s not right! Then I’ll just finish with three other temptations, if the Faustian appeal of all of the above didn’t quite persuade you, which inevitably conclude with a final response – not an answer – to the story’s crucial question. The Daleks waking dizzily as humans and realizing they now have a sense of fun are so weirdly endearing that I put them on my first answerphone message; if you pay attention to the two key technologies they use at either end of the plot, you’ll realise that the Dalek plan is literally smoke and mirrors; and nothing can quite prepare you – or him – for the Black Dalek’s appalled, hysterical, ooh-I’ve-never-been-so reaction to the simple act of a Dalek asking a question:
“Who spoke? Who questioned a Dalek command?!”
Monday, May 20, 2013
Liberal Mondays 3: John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor #LibDemValues
Today’s Liberal Monday celebrates the 207th birthday of Liberal philosopher and politician John Stuart Mill. With Harriet Taylor, he wrote arguably Liberalism’s most influential text of all: On Liberty, the book that created the Harm Principle, from which I’ve picked two key quotations. For many Liberal Democrats, this crystallises the party’s essential belief, and I’ve already touched on it in both previous Liberal Mondays in freedom from conformity and from other restraints… But, though you can see On Liberty’s influence right through to today’s Equal Marriage bill, it still challenges Lib Dems – has it really influenced our policies enough?
“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”This principle is so widely known and debated that this time I won’t analyse it at length. However, even if not every Liberal reads On Liberty once a year (as former Leader Jo Grimond suggested), and if you only read those two points from it, in campaigning Lib Dem style I’d suggest three things to remember – and one thing to think about.
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
Three Things To Remember
- Between them, these two statements for me sum up the heart of On Liberty, and start off modern Liberalism. I treasure the first, because it’s a positive statement that’s a simple principle to understand but with enormous consequences. It’s greatly influenced a great many Liberals and me, too, not least in my own What the Lib Dems Stand For.
- And I always remember the second, because this time it expresses the same rallying cry as a warning: ordering people about ‘For your own good’ is the most superficially tempting, the most difficult to stand against and the most widely practised by every government of all threats to liberty. It’s greatly influenced the Lib Dems, not least in the Preamble that sets our party’s creed uniquely as “No-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”
- Though John Stuart Mill wrote a great many books and essays, this is his most famous, his most lasting and still his most controversial (or influential). And he wrote it with his friend and later wife Harriet Taylor, who never gets the credit – except every time Mr Mill himself talked about who wrote it. So when you think about “Mill’s Harm Principle,” remember that it’s not just about the Great Victorian Man. His publishers may not have given Ms Taylor credit, but you can. So try to ignore the Victorian language that only says “he”; unlike many politicians of the age, Mr Mill was an early advocate of equality.
One Thing To Think About
But for all that the Liberal Democrats think of ourselves as inspired by On Liberty – it’s even the book handed down to each Party President on their election – how much do we practise what it preaches?
I sometimes feel a strange kinship with Evelyn Waugh’s lament that:
“The Conservative Party have never put the clock back a single second.”How many laws have the Liberal Democrats put back? And how many have we acquiesced in or cheer-led? After Labour’s smothering record more than 4,000 new laws when in power, we proposed a Great Repeal Bill, or Freedom Bill; we formed a Coalition with the Conservatives in part on a promise of enacting that Bill, with principles of freedom and personal responsibility. And yet when it came down to it, it was watered down in government to a Small Repeal Bill, or a Freedom That Won’t Frighten the Daily Mail Bill – putting authoritarianism back only a few seconds, and then it starts ticking forward again. That’s the trouble with legislation by shopping list rather than principle: it’s too easy to say you’ll take just the more difficult things out of the cart, and find you’ve got very little left in it.
I’m not even talking about the more egregious government-by-securocrat proposals that rang enough danger signals for Liberal Democrats to block – or ostentatiously fail to – such as the Snooper’s Charter or Secret Courts. It’s more the insidious danger of legislation and regulation in favour of nice things, because nice people could only ever want nice things, and so no right-thinking person could ever want nasty things, whether the wrong type of food or the wrong type of fun… And yet, if it’s so self-evident that everyone must agree, how come government needs to enforce it? Because people should be able to make their own choices, even if they’re not for their own good. Freedom means taking responsibility. And sometimes that means even insisting people have the freedom to do things that the Daily Mail does like and the Guardian doesn’t – let alone things that both scream against. Because making crimes of personal actions that other people or press puritans merely disagree means creating criminals to punish where there aren’t actually any victims. And to a Liberal, shouldn’t a “Victimless crime” be no crime at all?
So here’s something to think about, if the Liberal Democrats really are a party influenced by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Of course we should look at the little things – removing some enforced conformities, resisting the temptation to ban things we don’t think are very nice but which are actually none of our business. Applying our Harm Principle consistently would be a revelation. But we shouldn’t get stuck in only reacting to every individual problem or proposal that comes our way. If we’re really a party of On Liberty-based Liberalism, how about thinking about where we’d actually start? How would we put that principle into practice? What if we get into government again – is it enough just to blunt the edges of government-as-it-always-is-by-authoritarian-inertia? Isn’t it time to start planning for something better? Even if it means challenging the whole legal system (and a potential coalition partner) to go back to first principles?
When are we going to stand up for freedom and personal responsibility by showing some responsibility ourselves – and freeing ourselves from the conformity of politicians who always take the safe route and order everyone else to do the same?
Labels: British Politics, Harriet Taylor, Ideas, John Stuart Mill, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Mondays, Liberalism, Meddling In Things That Are Nobody's Business But Your Own, What the Lib Dems Stand For
Thursday, May 02, 2013
Three Problems With The Politician’s Husband
Tonight it’s Part Two of The Politician’s Husband – though, first, it’s political drama at the ballot box, so if you have elections round your way and you’ve not been out to vote yet, do. If you need a reminder, here’s why you should vote for the Liberal Democrats on philosophical grounds, on practical action, and for just five good reasons – but pick just one to read, as the polls are closing!
Now back to The Politician’s Husband, starring David Tennant and inevitably in a line from 1995’s rather good The Politician’s Wife and 1990’s outstanding House of Cards. But not a patch on either of those after Part One, is it? I hope it’ll improve, but a third of the way in it’s failed for me on three crucial levels.
You can’t do a political thriller if you’re too frit to commit.
House of Cards prefigured Thatcher’s downfall and Major’s minor majority, and captured the moment by being utterly unafraid to show the Conservatives at their worst and best. The Politician’s Wife, too, was a brilliantly crafted revenge drama, but still took time to understand how the Tories worked, and felt of its times with the sleaze and media feeding frenzy of the last days of the old regime. But The Politician’s Husband wants to have its coke and sniff it. Is it Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper in a Labour Party struggling to cope after being returned to power by a masochistically amnesiac electorate? Is it the Tories all over again? Is the point that you can’t tell them apart these days? The problem is, it pulls every punch and so seems to be about nothing – a pale shadow compared to what’s actually happening in today’s complicated politics, and the personal conflict terribly artificial after Chris Huhne’s.
OK, One Bit of Politics. But It Was Rubbish
The whole farrago is triggered when Aiden Hoynes resigns to force a Leadership election. He has no support and his sole issue makes no sense. Has no-one ever seen a Leadership challenge?
For a senior Cabinet Minister to think they’re in with a chance – unless they’re an unbelievable idiot – a number of things would have to happen. We didn’t see any of them. Is the Prime Minister in trouble? Is there discontent, rebellion, lost votes, attacks in the press, open criticism from the party grassroots? Not here. Does Mr Hoynes have people talking him up in the press, cheerleaders in the blogosphere and the rest of his party – even in the Tories since the two better dramas of two decades ago, Leaders face votes from their party? Not here. Does he have more of a nucleus among the MPs than Cassius at the back there? Not so much.
So far, so stupid on the practicalities.
Then the choice of issue to resign over. Unbelievable.
Immigration is an increasingly toxic political issue on which, like the National Front and the BNP before him, Mr Farage’s neo-fascists are currently rising on in the polls. The Tories used it nakedly in the 1960s; when open racism started to go out of fashion, Mrs Thatcher dog-whistled to victory in the 1970s; the Tories binged on it all through New Labour’s time in office; Labour and the Tories and their lickspittles hit the Liberal Democrats on it harder than any other single issue to stop Cleggmania in the 2010 election; immigration is one of many issues on which Labour has shot to the hard right under Ed Miliband, apologising for being too soft in an attempt to corral soft racists back into voting for Labour. For crying out loud, politicians have been whipping up hate against immigrants to win easy support since the Middle Ages.
Everyone, but everyone, knows that immigration is unpopular, and it’s the first issue that desperate politicians leap on to oppose. Despite every crackdown on immigration being not just racist but kicking the economy in the nadgers. The only party I can think of in my lifetime that’s positively campaigned in favour of immigration was the Liberal Democrats in 1989, when passports for Hong Kong British / Chinese citizens and gay rights were two highly unpopular but principled issues that helped keep the core of the party together when we were at 3% in the polls.
So someone in either the Labour or the Tory Party resigns with an unprincipled, cynical, populist speech… In favour of immigration? In what sensible-but-incredible mirror universe?
If the Prime Minister had been exposed as doing a deliberate u-turn against what were known to be his convictions; if there was a smoking Cabinet paper exposing that he was only doing it because the press and the Opposition were forcing him; if Mr Hoynes had put out spin that he was a man of principle, prepared to take the hard but unpopular choices, so you knew he must be a pretty straight kind of guy… Then it still would have strained credulity past breaking point, but at least they’d have shown they’d thought about it. Nobody did.
It’s clearly not a coalition government, so if The Politician’s Husband had seriously wanted to make immigration a Leadership issue in this way they could only have done it with a Lib Dem majority government… But even I didn’t read that into it. Vince arguing for immigration on economic grounds to challenge Nick might just work with Lib Dem MPs and Lib Dem members. But not with any other party. And it’s clearly not us.
I can’t help thinking that writer Paula Milne chose the topic out of sheer cynicism rather than ignorance as something that viewers, like voters, would hate Mr Hoynes for all the more.
Freya Hoynes Doesn’t Seem Up To It
And finally, there’s Freya Hoynes. From the start a far more important figure than The Politician’s Wife’s Flora Matlock – not just a wife, but an MP, and not just an MP, but a minister in her own right, if not quite yet as high-flying as her husband. She must be good! But though we keep being told it, we don’t see it. Nothing of her talent at all. It’s not just that Emily Watson isn’t quite as good as Juliet Stevenson – it’s that her character is written so much worse. With no politics and no personal grudge yet, in the first episode we needed to see that she was, at least, brilliant. She was a vacuum. Only the men around her gave her definition. And that wasn’t just sexist, nor just foolish to think we’d assume she could get there on so little, but insulted the viewers by expecting us to side with her anyway.
When Ed Stoppard’s slimy Tory Bruce Babbish – and, come on, if you’re trying not to give away which party it is, don’t make him such a caricature – took Mrs Hoynes to dinner to slather her in blatant lies so as to get her on side, he did it incredibly badly. He told repeated and obvious lies – that he’d never supported Mr Hoynes’ bid, and had tried to deter it, when everyone on Earth knew he’d set him up for a fall – then came in with the enticing truth, that he’d suggested her for promotion (without noting that he’d only done it as part of the power-play against her husband and didn’t expect her to take it). What sort of fool would believe that?
Any student of human nature, still less drama, could see that if you want to persuade someone in a political thriller, you come out with the disarming truth first – ‘Look, you know and I know that I stabbed Aiden in the front, but he was a loose cannon that was damaging the party, he’d only have done more harm to himself and the rest of us, so I encouraged him to self-destruct’ – and then come in with the persuasive lie, which then seems plausible. At least, that’s how you’d do it in a political thriller with any brains. Doing it the other way round was rubbish writing for Mr Babbish, and apparently worse for Mrs Hoynes when she seemed to swallow it.
I can just about forgive her being written as deer-in-the-headlights on Newsnight – the character was making up her mind, dramatically (as if we didn’t expect it), live on TV. But this should have been the moment when she showed, suddenly, that she was up to it. She just looked like she was wavering between whose pawn to be.
I could have come up with a better answer for her to Kirsty Wark. So could you. Go on the attack.
‘My husband resigned on a matter of principle and I respect him for it. Of course I support the Government – I’m a Government Minister. But, Kirsty, I didn’t come on your programme to talk about this issue. It’s not part of my Ministry. And we both know that the only reason you asked was to embarrass my husband or the Prime Minister. You would never ask a male politician if they took all their views from their wife, and frankly I’m surprised and disappointed that you’ve taken such a sexist line of questioning.’But, no. She didn’t. Frankly I’m surprised and disappointed that Paula Milne’s written such a sexist script where a female politician must be a helpless victim and can’t be any good until she has to be to escape her husband’s no-doubt-soon-to-be-sociopathic control freakery.
Still, at least some of the actors were good. David Tennant, of course, despite the Highlights of Evil. Hoping to see more for Chipo Chung to do. Roger Allam’s Chief Whip, reliable as always, his marvellously disillusioned Peter Mannion MP now bleeding into all realities.
And was it just me, or was Mr Hoynes named for Tim Matheson’s disgraced Vice-President John Hoynes and slimy Bruce Babbish named for Oliver Platt’s Oliver Babish, both from The West Wing? Shouldn’t you have spent a bit more time getting your scripts up to Sorkin level before exposing yourself quite so blatantly to unflattering comparison?
Update: On the bright side, and for the sake of fairness, Richard reminds me of the BBC’s last, disastrous attempt at a political drama. The Politician’s Husband is much, much better than The Amazing Mrs Pritchard. But that was brain-dead Poujadist* smiley-faced UKIPpery, and it was shit. Here, also, is an informative factual snippet – though not without its own bias, naturally – from one of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s leading hit-men. Unlike anyone involved in The Politician’s Husband, he knows exactly what’s involved in a Leadership coup attempt.
*Yes, it is known in our flat as The Appalling Mrs Poujade.
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Doctor Who Unbound – Sympathy For the Devil (and 10% Off Big Finish Today)
Rush to Big Finish, makers of Doctor Who and other quality audio dramas! Today only, they’re doing 10% off everything, and some of it’s very good indeed. My personal top recommendation is Rob Shearman’s Jubilee, the best bit of Doctor Who in the show’s Fortieth Anniversary and a big influence on the 2005 TV series. Also from 2003, I’ve been listening again to Jonathan Clements’ brilliant Sympathy For the Devil, starring David Warner as a grumpy alternative Doctor, David Tennant, Nicholas Courtney and Sam Kisgart. Order it today, and don’t read anything about it first (here’s the trailer). Spoilers follow…
“Oh, very good, Doctor. Your powers of deduction are, as usual, adequate.”This is a less in-depth review than usual, so you’ve got time to get an order in – but it’s well worth while. You can hear a remarkable number of voices from Doctor Who’s Twenty-first Century TV series in this story, from David Tennant himself to two people involved in this year’s Cold War. And where Jubilee inspired Dalek, something here may just have influenced Rise of the Cybermen… Back in 2003, Big Finish celebrated the series’ last big anniversary by casting six alternative Doctors for one-off dramas, asking What If…? What if, in this one, David Warner were the Third Doctor, exiled to Earth by the Time Lords but arriving nearly twenty years late? That means he was never UNIT’s Scientific Adviser, and a bitter old Brigadier (and Surrey) has had a terrible time of it. The Doctor makes things better – having no Doctor makes things worse. It’s the best of their Doctor Who Unbound series, and so much misanthropic fun that they were paired together for a splendid sequel, Masters of War, which adds another fine old actor to the brilliant team of David Warner and Nick Courtney (and makes it even more like The Scarifiers). And if you fancy more David Warner from Big Finish, they do some excellent Sapphire and Steel, too.
On a personal level, this story’s about both a Doctor and a Brigadier disenchanted by losing out on fuller lives rediscovering themselves. On a story level, it’s both love-letter to and critique of the Pertwee era, with an added local reflection of the Time Lords. UNIT had to get harder and nastier, and David Tennant’s Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood is a nasty hard bastard with a scene-stealingly sweary tongue, a tendency to make mistakes and a shocking contempt for our old friend Lethbridge-Stewart… And then there’s the other character who flies in for a skewed sequel to what is right now a uniquely little-known story of the period. And from now on, the spoilers get thicker and faster, so you might consider stopping reading now. Though most of the fun’s still to come…
“The proof is that the world isn’t overrun by bloody lizards!”This time David Warner’s tangling with a different Cold War power. It’s Hong Kong; it’s 1997; and a sinister figure is prompting tensions between Britain and China on the eve of the Handover – General Ke Le of the People’s Liberation Army, escaping with the aid of, er, foreign stealth technology. It’s Beltane today, so which character have I been writing about, an embarrassing month after I last posted one of my Fifty Great Scenes entries? As this is another take on the Third Doctor, there’s only one person he could possibly be. He had previously defected to the East as Emil Keller, and brought his ability to turn criminals into mindless soldiers with him… Yes, it’s Sam Kisgart, in truth Mark Gatiss, as General Ke Le, in truth the Master. And rather a good giggling fiend he makes, too.
My favourite play on names, though, comes between the Doctor and the local Abbot in Chapter 10 of the CD (also available in download) – puns in Chinese dialects, and I stake a fiver all of them wittier than Mr Moffat is likely to deliver in a fortnight’s time.
One of the Pertwee era’s most stylish and exciting story is Doctor Who – The Mind of Evil, at present the sole TV story featuring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor yet to be released on DVD. It’s due out a month on Friday, though, and painstakingly recoloured after the BBC carelessly burnt the original tapes and left only black and white export copies. It’s striking for showing UNIT as an impressive, extensive – and expensive, the biggest-budget Doctor Who story to that time – military force, and for giving Roger Delgado a fabulously louche Bond-villain role as the Master, as well as showing his biggest fear. Sympathy For the Devil is a very different story to The Mind of Evil, but takes several elements and themes from it as its starting point, expanding the sole mind parasite of the earlier story into a threat to the world – as well as making the end of a chant almost as dangerous as it was in Logopolis (the Master, again). All making a drama that’s both sinister and sometimes very funny, especially if you can spot your Doctor Who (or Rolling Stones) in-jokes… There’s even a reference to a Satanically-titled New Adventure. Add in musing on the nature of evil and Twentieth-Century atrocities, and you have something rather special.
Both the drama and the distinctly dark humour come together brilliantly for a rather bleak ending, as both the Doctor and the Master find things spiralling out of control and we find even the Master has missed the Doctor – frustrated at having been stuck on Earth in his enemy’s place.
“Pol Pot killed every doctor he could find – and none of them was you!”Give this one a go – for today, it’s less than a fiver. Give some of the others a go, too. And listen right to the end for a Doctor strangely more endearing than the one who’d just been on telly around the time the story’s set, and strangely both more and less competent than the other version of the Third Doctor.
Or you could just watch Wizard – it stars David Warner, it’s written by Big Finish’s finest Simon Guerrier, it’s short, it’s funny, and it’s not just 10% off but free. How can you say no?
Things To Remember About Labour #6 – Iraq
The Labour Government eagerly joined President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. An illegal war.
The main ‘justification’ for invading Iraq was a series of lies to Parliament sexed up by the Labour Government. The Labour Party has the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on their hands. Ten years ago in March, Labour joined President Bush in invading. Ten years ago today, President Bush announced it was “Mission accomplished”. That was another lie. The Labour Party stayed the main cheerleader for the hundreds of thousands of deaths and tortures that followed.
So much for Labour’s “ethical foreign policy”. Twenty years ago, the Labour Party abandoned socialism and the Red Flag. Ten years ago, the Labour Party chose to stain the Union Flag in the blood of hundreds of thousands instead.
Who Are the “Traitors” and “Collaborators”?
The Labour Party demonised anyone who opposed the war as “traitors” and “collaborators”. The Liberal Democrats were proud to stand up for international law and do the right thing – even though at the time opposing the war hit us badly in the opinion polls.
The Labour Party still call the Liberal Democrats “traitors” and “collaborators”. Now it’s because we’re in coalition with another British political party who isn’t the Labour Party. They howl and shriek daily that trying to fix the economy after the Labour Government spent all the money and much more they didn’t have – in part by spending so many billions on an illegal war – is exactly the same as being Nazis.
The Labour Party say this because they remember what they did. And the only way they can cope with their guilt for all that death is to accuse someone else instead. But I remember what the Labour Party did, too.
- Remember – who was it who joined the coalition with President George W. Bush?
- Remember – who was it who led Britain into an illegal war?
- Remember – who was it who involved Britain in illegal torture and rendition?
- Remember – who was it who lied and lied and sexed up fake intelligence that weapons of mass destruction which didn’t exist could be launched in forty-five minutes?
Remember what the Labour Government actually did.
The Liberal Democrats Did the Unpopular Thing Because It Was Right
And remember what the Liberal Democrats did – we were the only party to oppose the war back when it seemed political suicide to do so.
Ming Campbell writes how Britain lost its moral authority. I remember how he was desperately ill and came out of hospital to vote against – so that every single Liberal Democrat MP voted against the war.
Andy Strange remembers the Liberal Democrats marching against the Iraq War (I remember bringing bags of sweets and feeding them to Shirley Williams and other leading Lib Dems on the front line of the long march to keep them going on a bitter day).
Caron Lindsay reports Scottish Lib Dem Leader Willie Rennie’s speech about the Iraq War.
Nick Clegg writes on the lessons of Iraq.
Labour Leaders Past and Present – Blood-stained Bullies, Cowards, Hypocrites
Brave, brave John Prescott, the Labour Party Deputy Prime Minister who screamed “traitors” and “collaborators” then and still screams “traitors” and “collaborators” now admits ten years later that the invasion of Iraq “cannot be justified”.
Lord Prescott is the authentic voice of the Labour Party. A bully. A coward. A hypocrite. A moral vacuum who stayed in power at any cost. A man who went along with President Bush in an illegal invasion, lied to support it, attacked those who were against it.
And ten years later, ten years too late, Lord Prescott admits it was all wrong. So vote Labour!
While brave, brave Ed Miliband worked for the Labour Government as a leading advisor through every second of that time and slimed his way to being a Labour MP on the back of it.
To reap the rewards of insider power and become a Labour MP, Ed Miliband supported the war to the hilt.
To become Labour Leader, Ed Miliband said seven years too late that he “considered” resigning.
Brave, brave Ed Miliband.
Things To Remember
So when the Labour Party pretend to be sweetness and light, just remember what they did with thirteen years of absolute power. Remember that war-mongering, evidence-sexing, amnesia-promising, freedom-crushing, LGBT-hypocrisising, rich-brownnosing, poor-taxing, crony-bribe-swallowing shameless Labour Government.
And remember that when the USA asked the UK’s help in arming up for a potential war on another Middle Eastern country, this part-Liberal Democrat Government said no.
The Labour Party had a choice. The Liberal Democrats had a choice. So do you.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Broadchurch and How To Spot A TV Murderer
Did you guess whodunnit in Broadchurch? Having saved it up, Richard and I binged on the whole series over the weekend, and I have a few thoughts on its themes and surprising quality below (with implicit spoilers if you’re good at clues). Or what about other murder mysteries? Have you ever wondered how to spot the murderer in a TV detective series? Or specifically whoprobablydunnit in Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Father Brown, Inspector Morse and more? I reveal Richard and my (almost) infallible Rules of Suspicion: what’s the number one biggest giveaway of the TV murderer attempting to divert suspicion?
Richard started this long ago when he told me the three general and specific rules for spotting whodunnit in Agatha Christie. He’s right about them, too. Though I did correctly predict Broadchurch’s in Episode Two (albeit after wrongly being convinced Mark and the Rev Paul were shagging, particularly when the former stormed into the latter’s church as if in personal betrayal), I’m usually not a patch on Richard for spotting the murderers. What I am pretty good at is spotting themes in particular authors’ writing. Between us, we’ve come up with three rules that catch bang to rights an awful lot of whodunnits’ off-the-shelf attempts at misdirection, and several more specific ones after watching too much of particular detectives…
Richard and Alex’s Rules of Suspicion
Whoever throws around the most vicious accusations is probably the murderer. Any child will be able to tell you the rhyme that warns of this.
Whoever is too nice is probably the murderer. But you don’t come to a murder mystery to stoke your faith in human nature, do you?
Whoever is the victim of a murder attempt but manages to survive when all around them fall is almost certainly faking it to divert suspicion.
If anyone manages to survive an ‘attempt on their life’ while the detective is there as a witness, the chance of their being innocent approaches zero.
Richard and Alex’s Detective-Specific Suspicions
- The villain will never be the beautiful young woman*, though there is a fifty-fifty chance of her marrying Watson by the end of the story.
- Miss Marple – she’s a gimlet-eyed, gossiping spinster; the murderer is likely to be a younger, sexier woman who’s no better than she ought to be.
- Hercule Poirot – he’s a rather prim retired police officer; the murderer is likely to be an ambitious young man.
- Or in any Agatha Christie, it’ll be the one person with such a supernaturally perfect alibi they couldn’t possibly have done it.
- GK Chesterton version and faithful adaptations – the Catholic Church is always right, and anyone who stirs any of Mr Chesterton’s prejudices (particularly if they’re an atheist or, worse, of the wrong Christian denomination [that is, says Father Brown sonorously, not a Christian]) will be proven evil.
- New BBC version – the Catholic Church was surprisingly liberal in the 1950s, so anyone who stirs any of our own prejudices about prejudice (particularly if they’re a sexist man in a position of power) will be proven evil.
- A priest with a wandering sense of his vocation and a police officer friend too close and too pretty for the Monsignor’s comfort? God, in the person of the omnipresent author, keeps dropping subtle hints about celibacy by making all the murders love gone wrong.
- Richard’s a big fan, but he still suggests the old man usually waits until nearly everyone’s dead and then arrests the survivor.
- It’s also worth looking at the woman he fancies and acts unprofessionally with in each episode: she’ll either be dead or in the nick by the end of it. I wonder if that’s why Endeavour’s admirer decided not to push her luck with a second go the other night.
SS Sturmbannführer Kessler
- Depending on your point of view, either hedunnit or he’s unlikely to get his suspects, but eats out well while puzzling over them. Surprisingly good at getting away when it’s his turn.
- I resisted getting into detective dramas for so many years, but this is so insidious in its quirkiness, bitchy lead detectives and warped country ways that I’ve fallen for it over many classier productions. And yet it’s the odd one out: it has so many writers and so many tones (the weirder and funnier and more AvengerLand the better, for me) that I don’t have a rule for it. But see particularly Rule One above.
- Mind you, if you’re stuck for spotting the killer, in this inbred county where the actors all look like they’ve been in it before (and have), incest is always worth a punt.
Implicit spoiler warning: in case you’re just skimming across this article and might pick up something vital at a glance, I’m not going to mention names of suspects when I say something that implicitly implicates or clears a particular person, though you can probably work out who they are if you’re reading more closely.
I have to admit that I came to Broadchurch with some wariness. It was an ambitious drama series with many good actors in it, so I wanted to give it a go; but on the other hand, police procedurals aren’t really my thing (particularly horrible depressing Daily Mail-ish paedo-scare misery-porn), most ITV drama I’ve seen over the past few years has been deeply unimpressive, and Chris Chibnall as a writer has often been much worse than that. I have in the past been so critical of Chris Chibnall’s writing (Torchwood Series One being its nadir) that I came to Broadchurch fearing the worst, though with a little hope from his two Doctor Who episodes last year which while no triumphs for me felt conspicuously like he’d been trying harder and, despite having serious problems with the end of each, I’d quite enjoyed until the last five minutes. In Broadchurch, remarkably, his writing seems to have grown up, even down to a dramatically and morally satisfying conclusion.
The obvious part of the series’ success lies in telling two overlapping stories well: a whodunnit police investigation; more importantly, the harrowing emotional effect that has on a community. And it achieves the latter with generally very effective writing and in letting the various characters in that community breathe, as well as giving most of the recognisable suspects their own moments of suspicion and plenty of what on the surface seem like red herrings. The two leads were, of course, strong performances, with David Tennant seeming like he’d not slept since giving up Doctor Who and Olivia Colman moving from Hot Fuzz to everywoman in much darker places, but none of the actors and few of their actions struck false. The emotional realism reinforced the well-plotted mystery, with almost all the clues feeding back into the eventual pay-off from the in-your-face damaged characters to the intriguingly off-key early question of the deleted messages. For me it made the right choice, too, in the ending being all about the effects on the people, rather than just catching the murderer (something achieved through a combination of chance and, at the last, choice, rather than brilliant policework). It meant the writing was both straightforward in terms of how we understood and empathised, and shot through with ambiguity in no character being plain good or bad – that is, going some way to capture the complexity of life, even if that occasionally led to mixed messages (hugging is fine and natural and you should be ashamed for being suspicious of it / but also a danger sign of suppressed evil, for example).
And yet there were other, slightly postmodern touches for people wanting more layers: references such as naming Wessex Police’s DI “Alec” “Hardy” for Wessex’s Thomas Hardy and one of his best-known characters, Doctor Who quotes in the dialogue (to match the large cast of Doctor Who actors) and the faintest whiff of Twin Peaks that ITV would let you get away with; genre-aware – up to a point – DS Miller hanging a lampshade on her superior’s stereotypical broody detective schtick; the recognition about the viewer that we will recognise certain actors and say ‘Ooh, it’s them – they must be significant’, which the first episode foregrounded by giving us opening minutes of the soon-to-be-bereaved dad’s happy tour of all the famous faces in the village, then closing with a montage of those same faces in the dark, alone, troubled and suspicious, all but slapping on subtitles ‘FAMOUS SUSPECT #1…’
For me, though, the most interesting – and the most successful – extra layer was the thought that had gone into giving it a moral outlook that underpinned the drama without being overpowering.
Broadchurch – The Underlying Themes
What most impressed me about the series was that it dealt with a horrible, tabloid-friendly, always-reported-black-and-white sort of story as a much more thoughtful narrative. Even as the show drew me in, I was sceptical that it was trading on a fictional form of rubbernecking misery porn even as it had its cake and ate it with ‘…But of course journalists are evil reptiles’ to show false piety. But by the end, Broadchurch had shown itself to be something much deeper than that, and perhaps even with a touch of genuine piety.
Rather than just take the easy road of saying how shocking
There was a deeper morality to the series than media ethics, however. Broadchurch was at the same time a very modern story and very old-fashioned in its underlying themes, to such an extent that I wonder if the writer has a Christian faith informing his work. Part of it might be the name of show, in plain sight. Part of it was that the vicar for once seemed more or less credible as a vicar – at least in his two sermons, after a piss-poor attempt at the Problem of Evil (perhaps he just bottled giving the line on that to a grieving mother, which you might take as extra motivation to find courage to do the right thing in the penultimate episode even when faced with the worst threat someone can make today). But it was also that as every character’s secrets peeled away, all of those ‘red herrings’ echoed and reinforced each other until at the end it wasn’t just the grammar of whodunnits that made the killer’s identity clear, but the morality of the series that led inevitably to it. Over and over, we were told how destructive adultery was (even in the heart) and that betrayal by your partner was the series’ original sin. It was a murder mystery where you don’t work it out from the clues, but from the themes, asking the viewer by the end: how can you not have known? While the characters themselves weren’t black and white, it’s hard not to see the overwhelming near-universal guilt and the way that almost anything a character vindictively slags off rebounds to be found unwittingly in their own lives as a stern morality from the omnipotent author.
So Broadchurch Wasn’t Perfect…
There was one suspect who, though a decent performance, I found so improbable in concept and their red herring so unconnected to the themes of the rest that their only proper dramatic function appeared to be to illustrate DI Hardy’s gradual collapse. Conversely, we didn’t see enough of Tracey Childs’ rather fabulous police boss with her cool pedeconferencing sporting shades and ice cream, but she was saddled right up front with one of the minor mysteries so awkward that I wondered throughout if it would ever have a payoff (a practical rather than a thematic one): why didn’t Ellie get the job? The series starts with DS Miller returning from three weeks of holiday, scattering presents among the jolly coppers, before being abruptly called away by the Chief Superintendent to be told that she’s not been promoted. Despite being told before she left that they needed a female DI, that she was local and that she was a shoo-in, in her absence the situation had changed and someone else had already been appointed a week ago. A male DI with an apparently conspicuously awful record about which no-one would speak. For a minute, I thought that the explanation had to be that the murder had taken place a week ago, they’d had to get someone in fast, and so Ellie would be the viewer’s point of view in a town suddenly gone horribly wrong – but, no, it was all still to come and there was no motivation at all for dumping on her. That made Hardy’s appointment such a bizarre turnaround that it suggested psychic powers not for Will Mellor but for Tracey Childs, with her able to see into the future of the case or indeed into the minds of TV bosses who might have said, ‘I know we promised the lead to a woman character actor but really we need a big name male star’.
DI Hardy belatedly explaining the missing link (and pendant) in the infamous Sanbrook Case was in many ways necessary – for the drama, for the viewers, giving his motivation, showing he’s a good copper really (or was: seeking redemption through doing another job he’s literally not fit for suggests he no longer is), and to put in place the last major piece of thematic reinforcement for the series’ underlying original sin. But, as he’d been silently taking the blame until now to protect two other people, and as even without naming the guilty party the press are going to find it bleedin’ obvious, why come clean now and ask only for a couple of days’ delay from the local rag? This was so clearly a deathbed confession that, the viewers having heard what we needed to, there was no dramatic need for it to be published as well: you expected his caveat to be not ‘give me a couple of days’ but ‘after I’m dead [in a couple of days]’. Was he scripted to keel over at the moment of triumph, as many earlier scenes had hinted, but then the producers realised they might have a hit on their hands and asked for a rewrite to preserve the unlikely but now promised sequel?
All in all, though, Broadchurch was a surprisingly impressive and thoughtful series, and once again proves the old Sherlock Holmes adage that I’m glad I don’t live in the countryside.
[Oh, joy, Blogger’s doing its thing where it either prints all my text in one splat or gives random massive gaps if I force in breaks again]
Monday, April 29, 2013
Liberal Mondays 2: Conrad Russell – The Liberal Cause #LibDemValues
For my second Liberal Mondays selection I’m looking to my old friend and mentor, Conrad Russell, who was through the 1990s the Liberal Democrats’ intellectual guru. I miss him terribly. He had a huge impact on my life and Liberalism, and no doubt I’ll come back to him again: this time I present a selection of quotes from the first booklet of his I ever read, The Liberal Cause. I bought it at my first Lib Dem Conference because I wanted as many Liberal texts as my tiny teenage budget would allow, and this one was marked down to 10p.
Conrad and Me and Name-Dropping
You can skip this bit if you like, but to introduce The Liberal Cause, I didn’t know Conrad when I first read this, nor I think even know of him. In many – but not enough – years later, we got to know each other very well through being on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee together, with such adventures to follow as drawing him into involvement with the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (I was, he wasn’t), working at by-elections or in doomed Leadership elections together, and of course always plotting to get a more Liberal line through the FPC. I loved him dearly, and of all the many influences on my philosophy, no other person had such a striking impact in directly shaping my Liberalism as Liberalism. Re-reading it last week, I can see that The Liberal Cause is far from his best work, but elements of it have still stayed with me ever since.
I’ve been suffering crippling headaches for weeks and not been reading or writing much, but thought I’d better attempt another Liberal Monday, with elections on. Conrad was the obvious choice, so I went back to the start with him where I was concerned, and decided to spare myself a bit of both staring at a glaring screen and knackering my hands typing by having another go with the infuriating voice command software that I lose patience with every time I attempt dictation. This time I didn’t even try to train it to understand me, but just went back and corrected the mistakes after reading it all out, which was at least marginally faster than typing the whole thing. Most of the misunderstandings were simply gibberish, but presenting the Whigs as “the whinge party” was mildly amusing, as was making “What has endured in party tradition…” into “What has endured in hottie tradition…” Though the one which most struck me was “Liberals, as has all male and beverage…” See if you can spot what this apparent reference to the Liberator Collective was meant to be when I said it aloud.
I kept on reading aloud to the one-paragraph biography of Conrad at the end, which is how the software came happily to inform me “He is descended from William Hartnell”. In so many ways, so true. That one may give away a bit of which words are stored in my custom dictionary. It’s actually a reference to “William Lord Russell, who was accounted worthy of three ‘w’s in John Locke’s list of the first Whigs,” which will become clear shortly. It also reminded me of one of Conrad’s more endearing stories from one of his more endearing habits: he was an inveterate name-dropper. Unlike most people’s, these were entirely natural lines about his family, just as he might mention something I’d said, or whoever we’d just been arguing with in the Policy Committee, in which he prefaced so many of his observations with a reference along the lines of ‘When this issue was first debated in 1647…’ Here are three that have always stuck in my head from variously private conversation on anti-discrimination laws (referring to Lord John Russell), a speech explaining his attitude to authority (William, Lord Russell) and, most fabulously, a mighty speech to Lib Dem Conference in which he illustrated a point with the best name-drop I’ve ever heard to a Conference hall (Bertrand Russell):
“My great-grandfather succeeded on his third attempt on passing religious toleration through Parliament, though he had to become Prime Minister to do it.” (It sounded a great inconvenience)
“My father took me to see his portrait. On seeing this grand long-haired man staring down at me, I asked my father if he had been a good man. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘A very good man. The King cut his head off.’”
“The point at which my father finally parted company with Lenin…”
Unservile State Papers 35 – The Liberal Cause: The Three-Century-Long Tradition of the Liberal Democrats
I’m presenting a series of extracts from The Liberal Cause, though at just 16 albeit close-typed A5 pages one day I might see who has the copyright and put the whole thing online if they agree. The booklet was produced under the aegis of the Unservile State Group, a sponsor of Liberal philosophy from the 1950s until, as far as I can tell, the early 1990s; this was published in 1990, and was probably among their last. Conrad had recently become the last Liberal and first Liberal Democrat peer introduced to the House of Lords (due to the different stages of assuming a peerage) as the Earl Russell, and was just embarking on his marvellous late flowering as an incisive Lords spokesperson and intellectual powerhouse of Liberalism. His finest work in that regard is his 1999 An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, which I would always recommend; The Liberal Cause is a very much shorter and lesser work, but it’s still worth looking out if you happen across a copy.
The point of The Liberal Cause is self-evident from its full title: the Liberals had just merged with the Social Democrats to form what after much internal strife became called the Liberal Democrats, and unlike now, everyone was rather wary of calling the new party either “Liberal” or “Social Democratic” for fear of unpicking the merger and having to go through the whole damn thing all over again. And a lot of Liberals were, less unlike now, very unhappy. Whether it was Conrad’s idea or that of the Unservile State Group, this booklet looked across three centuries to find continuities in our political tradition, see how political issues of the day measured up to our philosophy – primarily, Conrad looks at privatisation from the tail-end of its heyday, and green politics from the early end of its wide acceptance – and implicitly say, ‘The party’s changed its name and taken great evolutionary leaps many times before, so don’t worry about this one’. It’s not as well-structured as some of his work, and less politically punchy, with Conrad still learning late in life how to evolve himself from a great historian into a great politician.
“The Liberal Democrats are the heirs of a continuous institutional tradition over three hundred years old. Liberals and their Social Democrat allies have inherited the machinery, the membership and the goodwill of the Liberal Party as clearly as the Liberal Party inherited the membership, the machinery and the goodwill of the Whigs. The Whig party from which we descend can trace a continuous institutional history back to 1679, and the ‘First Whigs’ were the party for whom John Locke acted as an auxiliary Whip, listing members with ‘v’ for ‘vile’ or ‘w’ for ‘worthy’, graduating to ‘vv’ and ‘ww’ and, in extreme cases, to ‘vvv’ and ‘www’.”Conrad and I never sat at dinner after an FPC meeting annotating members of the Committee and guests by Locke’s listings. Well, hardly ever.
Having established the Liberal Democrats’ three-century organisational continuity (and, implicitly, his own love of gossip) in the first paragraph, the first page continues by explaining how the party naturally evolved a passion against discrimination despite its biggest initial rally-point being a call to discriminate against a Catholic King. The Whigs’ initial anti-Catholicism is long past but since then, says Conrad:
“What was enduring in party tradition was the chosen means: the commitment to controlling the power of an overweening executive, and the choice of the rule of law as the means by which it should be done. The championship of liberty, and the identification of liberty with the rule of law, would entitle Liberal Democrats today to at least two of John Locke’s ‘w’s.Conrad goes on to assess the Whigs’, Liberals’ and Liberal Democrats’ instinctive understanding of the United Kingdom as a supra-national institution, and how that has meant a commitment both to devolution and to the EEC and the UN, rather than the Tories’ stubborn one-level nation-statism – and how that links to an instinct to check arbitrary power. He carries on to discuss different parties’ class-based economic ideas – critiquing a pre-Blairite Labour Party that still called itself socialist, a strange historical note after two decades of Labour sucking up to the super-rich more than the Tories do – and offer a word of warning about different spheres of freedom: quoting John Stuart Mill, he argues that free trade and freedom itself may well often go together, but they are not the same thing, nor contingent on each other.
“During the Eighteenth Century the Whigs increasingly became identified as the party opposed to the monopoly of the Church of England in public life, and that identification also has marked the Liberal tradition in ways that have become indelible. That never meant that Whigs were opposed to the Church of England: it is to the eternal credit of England, the Church of England and the Whigs that a high proportion of their membership always consisted of devout members of the Anglican Church. What distinguished the Whigs was their belief that the Church of England did not enjoy a monopoly of truth, and that those outside it enjoyed an equal claim to citizenship. The Whigs enjoyed an unusual ability to concede equal status to the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The party rapidly became committed to a degree of religious pluralism unusual by the standards of the day; and from that commitment grew an increasing readiness to divide the spheres of church and state and a steadily deepening commitment to freedom of thought.
“From the battles over the Occasional Conformity Act at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century down to the Race Relations Act in the middle of the Twentieth, the party has felt a steadily deepening dislike of discrimination. As one would expect from the party of Locke and Mill, it has made the intellectual leap from opposing discrimination because it happened not to favour the chosen interest group, whether it was at Nonconformists, blacks or women, to opposing the discrimination because it was discrimination. The four-year-old who denounced the owners of a swimming pool because they did not accept Jews, and who asked, several minutes later, ‘By the way, what is a Jew?’, was showing a Liberal sense of priorities.”
“Liberals may, when they think the occasion suitable, defend state intervention in economic questions without any threat to their liberal principles. Economic acts are not, within Mill’s definition, self-regarding. In tackling these questions, we benefit from notions of liberty somewhat enlarged over those of the Nineteenth Century. Liberty does not simply consist in the absence of external impediment: it involves the existence of opportunity, and the freedom to take it. Freedom is not only freedom from outside interference: it is also freedom to attempt to do things we wish to do. It is this second freedom which may be promoted and not hindered by the action of the State.”I’d say – and I believe Conrad tended to, as well, when writing later and at more length – that the State can be a danger or a boost to both sorts, if more often a threat to the first and a protector of the second, but I think he was simplifying so as to be able to more easily make one a point against the Tories and the other against Labour. You’ll be able to spot my summary of this argument about the relationship between liberty and different sources of power in one of the lines I contributed to Mark Pack’s recent “What the Liberal Democrats Believe” Infographic.
“Liberals, as heirs of Mill and Beveridge, are aware of two sorts of liberty. One is the absence of external restraint, the individual liberty of which freedom of thought and freedom of speech are quintessential expressions. That liberty is hindered by state action, and its defence must often take the form of restraining the power of the state. Yet we are also aware that, as Mill put it, ‘liberty consists in doing what one desires’; and here state action, by creating opportunity, may create a liberty where, before, it effectively did not exist. Education, for example, is a field in which any viable policy must draw equally on both ideals.Before most British politicians, Conrad takes as a key example here the way ‘freedom of choice’ alone can destroy itself in traffic jams, and the need for the State to intervene for long-term environmental goals.
“Neither of these ideals of liberty is peculiar to Liberals: what is peculiar to us is our equal attachment to them both. On the whole Conservatives are attached to the first, and Labour to the second. It is only Conservatives who are capable of assuming axiomatically that rolling back the frontiers of the state makes any positive contribution to liberty ipso facto. The rest of us may want to wait and see what opportunities, and what freedoms, are lost by the absence of the State as their guarantor or even their creator. …A Thatcherite rhetoric of creating choice contradicts itself if it simultaneously destroys opportunity.”
“Yet as Conservatives tend to ignore the second kind of liberty, Labour tends to ignore the first. They do not see diversity as good in itself, and they therefore do not see the risk that state intervention, by creating uniformity, may destroy opportunity as well as creating it.”The third sentence in this next passage is one of those that struck a very deep chord with me – and not just on economic distinctions, though those were the most ‘live’ ones when Conrad wrote The Liberal Cause. It turns up right near the top in my latest longer version of “What the Liberal Democrats Stand For”.
“Just as we cannot regard ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’ as a good in itself, so we cannot regard extending the frontiers of the state as that. In the area where Labour and Conservatives fight we are, of our very nature, an empirical party. Hearing, for example, a Socialist arguing for the public ownership of banking and insurance, we do not regard it as good because it pushes back the frontiers of capital: that is a battle in which we are neutral. We want to know what concrete harm it will prevent and what concrete good it will do. Out of a natural suspicion of monopoly, Liberals would be inclined to investigate the argument that this might be an area in which competition is a positive good.
“We are also the heirs of a Gladstonian tradition of frugality with public money. This is not a fetish, and we are well aware of the concept of false economy. Yet, just as we reject the Conservative myth of the inexhaustible private purse, so do we reject the Labour myth of the inexhaustible public purse. Public money, before it can be raised through taxation and spent, has to be earned.”
“It is of our essence, then, in economic and industrial matters to be an empirical party. We are not in favour of capital and not in favour of labour, nor are we against either. Liberals think it dangerous to have a government which is committed to being ‘against’ any substantial body of its citizens, and would apply that conviction equally to Conservative views on trade unions and to Labour views on the City. We are not in favour of public ownership, as such, or against it. We want to know which view fits the facts of the case…Conrad closes this booklet with an uncompromising defence of the Rule of Law which would have him scorning Theresa May and applauding Nick Clegg this week over her ludicrous proposal to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights for just long enough to break it:
“The empirical approach is hard work. Liberal Democrats can never come to a privatisation issue knowing what is the ‘left’ or the ‘right’ thing to think: we have to do our homework before making up our minds. Granted that, it is startling how consistently we make them up on any particular issue. More often than one might think it is clear which way an empirical approach points on a particular issue. It is no objection to our approach to say it is hard work: that is what the real world is like. It is a big objection to the approach of the other two parties to say it is not hard work: they tend to know the answers before they know the questions.”
“Thus far the Liberal Democrats have absorbed new ideas from the new problems of the Twentieth Century, while building them on top of principles inherited from previous ages. Where we have absolutely rejected the ideas of the early Twentieth Century is the basing of political allegiance on class. That is a negation of everything the Liberals and Social Democrats have stood for. It is a negation of the autonomy of the human mind, a negation of the independence of belief which is what our creed is all about. It is a reductionism to define a human being in terms of one only among the many attributes which make him up.”
“Ideals of liberty have always been closely identified with law, and it is not for us to dismiss the law simply because it does not at the moment happen to favour us. Where the law does not, we may, if it seems just had to do so, campaign to change it. We do not choose to ignore it or to flout it. …Law is an instrument for the preservation of liberty: no doubt, an imperfect instrument, but it is the best we have. Without it, there can only be ‘such a war, as of every man against every man’.”Richard suggested to me last night that Tory-supporting burglars might put the defence that they entirely supported the English Law and always stayed within it, but had merely decided to abrogate from it for five minutes while they smashed that window. That’s what happens when you decide the Rule of Law is only there when it’s convenient – someone else will always find a point where it’s similarly inconvenient to them and your only protection.
Intriguingly, it wasn’t the Tories back then that Conrad distrusted because he thought they played fast and loose with the Rule of Law, but Labour – and subsequent history showed that the point at which Labour most flagrantly ignored the Rule of Law was, of course, the point when they were most indistinguishable from Conservatives. I can’t help but notice how since they stopped being socialists around the time Conrad wrote this booklet that the only thing dividing Labour from the right wing of the Tory Party is their increasingly shrill shouting of party labels (‘Vote Labour because the Tories are evil!’ ‘One Ed good, Two Eds bad!’ and so on).
Conrad had in previous decades spent some time considering his allegiance between the Liberals and Labour; the last few lines of The Liberal Cause presciently reject Labour because their willingness to throw liberty out of the window means they can’t be regarded as “the appropriate vehicle for opposition to the Conservative Party,” though even Conrad didn’t realise the extent to which, having necessarily jettisoned all their socialist baggage, Labour would see becoming Tories as the only alternative. For all that the LiberaTory Coalition has Liberal Democrats working alongside Conservatives, and that you might be tempted to score some Lib Dem MPs ‘vvv’ rather than ‘www’, it’s still easier to spot philosophical differences between the bulk of the Conservative Party and Lib Dems than between the Tories and Labour, for exactly the reason that Labour has spent twenty years throwing liberty out of the window and still to this day knee-jerkingly marches to the far right of the Coalition on freedom. By the end of the 1990s, the Labour Party had jettisoned so much of what it believed in and borrowed so much of the Liberal Democrat alternative to the Conservatives that the Lib Dems and Labour were at the closest they’d ever been. By then, Conrad was one of the Lib Dems most deeply sceptical of the Labour Party, and his terrific book at the other bookend of that decade ended not by reasserting opposition to Toryism but predicting the need to oppose Labour.
The Liberal Cause isn’t merely to choose an ‘enemy’ out of the other two, nor merely to gain power – it’s to promote liberty. And while either of the other two parties might at some point be an ally for freedom, like any other type of power, they need watching as a potential threat. If you look to liberty over the centuries, it’s not just the cause but because of Liberals.
Labels: Books, Coalition, Conrad Russell, Conservatives, FPC, History, Ideas, John Stuart Mill, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Mondays, Liberalism, Personal, Richard, The Golden Dozen, What the Lib Dems Stand For