Books, TV and Films, August 2020


1 August

With the football season at an end, there’s time to try out a classic film that I have never actually seen before — Ice Station Zebra — ‘classic’ in the very loose sense of a film with an all-star cast that turns up quite a lot on television. It came out in 1968 and is based on a novel by a famous thriller writer of the day, Alistair MacLean. I have only ever read one of his books, I think (Partisans, a book-club buy from the early-’80s), but I automatically place him in the same bracket as Jack Higgins — exciting, page-turning plots let down by unexciting, predictable and poorly drawn characters — whose books (the most famous is probably The Eagle Has Landed) I am a bit more familiar with.

Ice Station Zebra is set during the Cold War, but it has the feel of many of the Second World War movies that were popular in the sixties — the likes of The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare (which is also by MacLean). Watch any of the above and expect secret orders passed down from on high, plenty of suspense interspersed with bursts of derring-do, clean-cut heroes and dastardly villains, courage and betrayal, few if any women, and lots of cigarette smoking.

Life inside the submarine is suitably claustrophobic and, like Where Eagles Dare, the film features stunning location photography, though the scenes at the Zebra station on the polar ice-cap are poorly realised in comparison. Rock Hudson is the cool-under-pressure captain, Ernest Borgnine struggles to convince with his dodgy Russian backstory and even dodgier accent, and Patrick McGoohan plays a secretive (and, stretching it quite a bit, vicious) spook to type: it could be the exact same agent as the one he portrayed in a Columbo episode a few years later (Identity Crisis, the one in which he kills Leslie Nielsen).

2 August

More television (well, Amazon Prime). This time, Knives Out. I wasn’t too sure what to expect; my guess, based on media advertising, was some kind of ingeniously plotted farce or spoof. Actually, it is more like an homage and didn’t disappoint.

Once I got over Daniel Craig’s southern drawl (at first I thought his voice was badly overdubbed) there was much to enjoy, even if it was a bit silly in places — the suspect who is unable to lie without immediately vomiting, for example. It borrowed ingredients freely (though respectfully) from the Agatha Christie recipe — the labyrinthine house; the sudden and suspicious death of a wealthy patriarch; the family squabbling over the will; the everybody-is-a-suspect-and-has-a-shaky-alibi routine etc.

All very 1930s. In one respect, however, Knives Out seems to be making a very up-to-the-minute political statement. The family members — white, wealthy, privileged — are greedy, duplicitous and self-serving. They each make a show of welcoming the Latina nurse into their family and their home, but it is all pretence (their lies exposed when she unexpectedly receives the bulk of the fortune of the deceased patriarch). It is the nurse who, throughout, is the one genuine, kind and likeable character, determined to do the right thing. It’s hard not to see it as a commentary on the Trump administration and the state of US politics.

6 August

I had to re-read On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, having watched the film a few weeks ago. At just 160 or so pages it’s really a novella. It’s quite extraordinary how McEwan is able to say so much in so few words.

A million years ago, sitting my A-level general studies exam, I answered an essay question that basically asked us to consider whether film adaptations of books can ever do justice to the original text. I was reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes at the time and, if memory serves, based much of my answer around a discussion of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films. I imagine I focused on the difficulty films have in exploring the inner voice (though it’s doubtful I used quite those words).

Films do narrative well. Sometimes — as in the ending of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone — they improve on the original text. But they have a harder task than books at exploring character in a nuanced way. Not the stock ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. That’s all too easy. Nor do I really mean the Bildungsroman-style character arc in which a person undergoes some sort of metamorphosis over the course of the film. I am thinking more about finding a way to portray the jumble of sometimes contradictory feelings, moods, emotions and urges that most of us feel most of the time. How to portray someone like Florence Ponting from On Chesil Beach, for example.

12 August

Being in a ‘horror’ frame of mind after just writing the first part of my blog on Dennis Wheatley, I decided to watch Interview with the Vampire. It came out in 1994, but I have never see it before. I won’t be in a hurry to watch it again any time soon. I know that the Anne Rice novel, which I haven’t read, was hugely popular but I found the film — and the performances of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt — less than enthralling.

Perhaps it was trying too hard to be sophisticated. Much more to my liking was Lust for a Vampire, shown on a cable channel the other day. It’s typical of those classic Hammer productions that don’t take themselves too seriously. Predictable plot. Stage-y sets. Generous helpings of tomato-ketchup blood. Dodgy overdubbing. And happy-go-lucky, nubile serving girls who speak perfect English despite the central European location and who think nothing of going off alone despite a number of unexplained deaths in the local area of other happy-go-lucky, nubile serving girls.

Scars of Dracula (starring a very young Dennis Waterman and Jenny Hanley), released in 1970, is rather tame, but in a sign of changing times Hammer upped the sex quotient for its Karnstein trilogy: Lust for a Vampire, The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil all feature more than a hint of lesbianism and scenes of not-exactly-central-to-the-plot female (mainly) upper-body nudity.

It’s all harmless stuff — the most explicit thing about them are the original promotional posters — and quite ridiculous that films like these still seem to be rated 18.

13 August

After Robert Harris’s brilliant The Second Sleep, here’s another treat, bought on the day it came out in paperback: Winds of Change, the latest volume in Peter Hennessy’s postwar history of Britain, this time covering the early sixties.

I don’t watch a huge amount of television and I am conscious of having missed out on loads of great programmes over the years. When the lockdown first kicked in, I decided to try out something from BBC iPlayer. As a fan of the spy genre I settled on Spooks. Ten series. Eighty-odd hour-long episodes. Enough to keep anyone busy. I finally finished it this week.

A big surprise — I have only just found this out after looking up Spooks on Wikipedia — is that it was a production-company and not a BBC decision to end the programme. That’s quite refreshing. Even allowing for the fact that I was watching it over a relatively short span of time, it felt by series 10 like enough was enough. Another episode; another day in Spookworld. Another terrorist outrage averted here; another corrupt top-level appointee or politician unmasked there. Another intelligence agency up to no good here (take your pick — the CIA, the FSB, Mossad); another dodgy organisation with global tentacles up to no good there (the slightly preposterously named ‘Yalta’, for example).

It was smart. It was sexy. It was tech-y. It was exciting. Was it also a little too predictable? As soon as it was revealed in series 10 that new spook Erin Watts had a young child, it surely wouldn’t be long before the said child was kidnapped or murdered by bad guys. And indeed it wasn’t.

Somewhat predictable, then … except in one regard: the death rate among lead characters. Everybody was expendable. Nobody, but nobody (except Harry), was exempt, and not just in end-of-series cliffhangers either — from Helen in the second episode of series one to Danny, Zaf, Adam Carter’s wife, Adam Carter himself, and finally (the saddest one of all) Ruth. It’s a long, long list.

20 August

Peter Hennessy’s Winds of Change is excellent. No surprises there. I first discovered Hennessy via a work colleague who had been an undergraduate student of his at Queen Mary’s in London and spoke of him in reverential terms. I read Whitehall, his huge book about the history and inner workings of the civil service. He is a trusty guide and absolutely authoritative. He is a capable broadcaster, too; his is the voice I always listen out for as his media role as both ‘talking head’ and presenter has flourished over the last couple of decades.

In the preface to the first volume of his history of postwar Britain, Never Again, published in 1992 and covering the Attlee government, Hennessy refers to a project spanning the years from 1945 to 2000. Plans obviously changed. There has been at least a decade between each volume. The second, Having It So Good, encompasses the whole of the fifties. This volume covers only the years 1960 to 1964 but much of the media comment surrounding the book’s launch is of it completing a ‘trilogy’.

It is little surprise that Hennessy became a go-to academic for expert, objective analysis. As well as having encyclopaedic knowledge, he is also at ease in front of a microphone. And he writes like he talks, mixing magisterial insights with gossipy asides. “Poor Selwyn!”; “Very Rab.”

It helps that he has interviewed pretty much everybody that matters in British politics over the years. Liberal use of ‘private information’, often in footnotes and end-notes, combined with recently declassified documents and unpublished minutes of key meetings reinforces the sense as you read Hennessy that you are being offered privileged access to little-known, hush-hush stuff.

Hennessy specialises in what he calls the ‘hidden wiring’, the workings of government not ordinarily in the public gaze. This at times leads him to focus on such matters at the expense of other areas of importance and interest. For example, we return repeatedly to official (and top-secret) preparations for government in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. Okay, but this reader at least would have expected in a history of sixties Britain a bit more than we get on social and cultural developments.

Hennessy has a keen sense of the absurd and the quirky; there’s half a page devoted, for example, to Selwyn Lloyd’s dog, Sambo. More often than not, such you-couldn’t-make-it-up stories — as in the extraordinary arrangements for the prime minister to use the AA roadside-phone network to contact the Number 10 switchboard in the event of a nuclear attack taking place when he was away from London — tell us something rather revealing about the state of Britain at that time.

I watched Lady Bird, another hugely enjoyable film starring the excellent Saoirse Ronan. It has a similar coming-of-age, teenage-angst theme as On Chesil Beach, though ultimately it’s less dark. It’s a tale of two strong-willed women — a mother and her daughter — and of things left unsaid.

24 August

I knew that after reading The Second Sleep I had to go back and re-read Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again, another novel that plays around with history. I think I have read everything by Ben Elton, ever since his first novel Stark had me laughing out loud thirty or so years ago. For a long time he specialised in satirising whatever was the latest pop-culture obsession — drugs, talent shows, Big Brother-style fly-on-the-wall TV. Some of his books I enjoyed more than others. I loved Blast from the Past, but Inconceivable was less good. Some of his later efforts have been more historical — The First Casualty (the First World War) and Two Brothers (Nazi Germany).

This time around (no joke intended — the book concerns going back in time) the predictability of the characters in Time and Time Again grated a little. They are all larger than life, versions of Elton himself in a way. Hugh ‘Guts’ Stanton is the biggest, baddest ‘survivalist’ soldier around. Bernadette Burdette is the beautiful, loquacious free spirit he meets on a central European train, her every thought and utterance typical of the 2010s rather than the 1910s. Least believable of all is the foul-mouthed distinguished professor of history at Cambridge University who seems to think like a Sun editorial. Okay as a one-off maybe but then we meet the Lucian Professor of Mathematics, an “appalling media tart” who wears a ‘Science Rocks’ badge and says things like “Why in the blinking blazes was old Isaac getting his knickers in a twist?” Old Isaac being Sir Isaac Newton.

Nevertheless, one thing that Elton does brilliantly is plot. He is astonishingly imaginative, and although the basic set-up here is familiar — travelling back in time to change the past and therefore the future — Elton packs it with plenty of twists and turns. One, in particular, had me gasping (on p441 of the paperback). Nicely done, sir. I also liked the fact that the infamous assassination in Sarajevo happens (or rather, doesn’t happen) halfway through the book, allowing Elton to have plenty of fun with counterfactual histories.


Books, TV and Films, July 2020


1 July

Some thoughts, to begin with, on Philomena and On Chesil Beach, two films I watched last week on the BBC and thoroughly enjoyed.

I was already aware of Martin Sixsmith, who wrote the book on which Philomena is based, from his time as a foreign correspondent at the BBC in the ’90s; it’s probably why I also vaguely remember his involvement in a bust-up with the Blair government a few years later. In Philomena the part of Sixsmith is played by Steve Coogan. He (Sixsmith) is not a particularly sympathetic character in my eyes: he is reluctant to take on the investigation at first (having been approached by Philomena Lee’s daughter to write about her mother who, as a young unmarried mother, was forced to give up her son by the Catholic Church in Ireland) and comes across as somewhat self-absorbed. His portrayal in the film carries the same sense of an exaggerated version of reality that is the central conceit of The Trip, the series in which Coogan stars with Rob Brydon.

The character of Philomena, played by Judi Dench, is satisfyingly multilayered. Initial impressions of her as merely eccentric, unworldly and frankly not very bright are quickly dispelled. She is quick to realise — and, despite her faith, to accept — that her son was gay and died of Aids. And despite the despicable way in which she had been (and, in the film version at least, continued to be) treated by the Catholic Church, she also comes across as dignified and remarkably forgiving. Sixsmith, on the other hand, is reduced to outbursts of impotent rage. Forgiveness is a central teaching of Christianity; but how many Christians would be able to find it in their hearts to be as forgiving as Philomena, I wonder.

I watched this just a few weeks after watching Spotlight, also based on a true story, about the work of a special investigations unit attached to the Boston Globe to expose the systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church, over a period of decades, of sexual abuse of children by priests. Both are powerful, disturbing and moving films, laying bare how innocent lives have been blighted by powerful institutional forces. And then I watched On Chesil Beach, which features malign influences of a different kind.

I read Ian McEwan’s novella a couple of years ago. I was particularly keen to watch the film adaptation because (a) McEwan himself wrote the screenplay and (b) it features Saoirse Ronan, a huge talent among the current generation of young actors.

It is set in 1962 but it might just as easily have been 1963, the year that sexual intercourse began, at least for Philip Larkin. Though the title references a place, I see this more as a story about a time — Britain after postwar austerity but before the so-called Swinging Sixties, when supposedly we never had it so good (yes, I am being a little unfair to Harold Macmillan with that misquote) — and about the dominant attitudes and mores of the era, not least with regard to sex.

This tale is a searing indictment of how we thought and behaved and preached and moralised and condemned, not really all that long ago: people’s lives — in this case Florence and Edward, but how many in reality, heterosexual as well as homosexual? — constrained, deformed and ultimately ruined by society’s prudish, repressive and in many cases hypocritical attitudes to sex.

Though much of the background story is told in flashback, the main setting for the film is the honeymoon suite of the couple’s hotel. The sniggering pageboys providing room service convey the immature, schoolboy-ish mentality that the Carry On series later so successfully lampooned. The couple are both virgins but their first night (well, afternoon) together is not a blissful consummation of their love; it is an ordeal to be overcome.

Edward is a fumbling, bumbling wreck, unable even to take off his pants. Florence has been reduced to taking tea with the local vicar and reading cold, mechanical sex manuals (think John Cleese classroom sketch in The Meaning of Life) to try and learn about sexual intercourse. She is clearly traumatised at the prospect of having sex. The film doesn’t make clear exactly why, but McEwan leaves us enough clues to suggest that it is as a result of childhood abuse from her father.

I interpreted the wild and unspoiled terrain of Chesil Beach itself as standing in stark contrast to the way in which the natural instincts of Florence and Edward have been repressed, controlled and restricted.

Great stuff from McEwan, as always. I seem to remember the ending of the book is different. It’s definitely on my shortlist to reread.

10 July

Richard J Evans’ The Third Reich in Power is turning into a mammoth undertaking. It’s a big book anyway (712 pages, not counting the extensive end-notes) and I have a lot of work on at the moment. I was hoping to read 50 pages a day but most days I’m only managing about 40.

I say this often but, in these benighted times when experts are widely distrusted and the meaning of words like ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ are seemingly up for grabs, it needs saying over and over again: what a joy it is to read a book like this, written by an acknowledged expert on the subject. There are the broad judgements he makes, of course: I particularly enjoyed the ‘revolutionary or reactionary’ discussion that ends the book. Sometimes, though, it’s little details and anecdotes. This one, in particular, caught my attention: on the morning after the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been announced the front garden of Nazi Party headquarters was covered in party badges thrown there by disgruntled party members.

One thing about this book that really stands out is the way it is organised. It is divided into seven parts, each with four chapters and each of roughly similar length. This is clearly an artificial contrivance and yet it all fits together so beautifully. At no point does it really feel as if content has been placed in a certain section merely to fit the framework, though inevitably there is a lot of potential overlap between Mobilisation of the Spirit (propaganda, arts and culture) and Converting the Soul (religion, school, universities, the Hitler Youth).

19 July

A huge birthday treat — the latest Robert Harris novel, The Second Sleep, is just out in paperback. I have been waiting for this for ages. I think publication of the paperback edition may have been delayed because of the coronavirus emergency. I really like Harris anyway, but when I first read the synopsis I was genuinely excited because it covered favourite ground — time travel or, to be absolutely precise, playing around with history.

On Twitter someone asked what kind of stuff Harris writes. It took me a while to think of what to reply because, though all his books are rooted in history and/or politics, it ranges from ‘alternate reality’ (Fatherland) to novels that stick fairly close to actual events (An Officer and a Spy; Munich). I eventually answered: ‘Mainly well-plotted thrillers, often tied in with real historical events. Superbly researched.’

24 July

I finished the last 100 pages of The Second Sleep this morning. It certainly lived up to my expectations, ranging across several of my favourite fictional genres — mystery; thriller; history-twister (is that a genre?). It is brilliantly structured and genuinely gripping; we’re talking Robert Harris, after all.

I will need to go back and re-read the final 50 pages or so, I think. There are twists and turns aplenty, as you would expect with any good novel of this type. I was turning the pages so quickly by the end that there is much I doubtless missed. Nothing was quite as it seemed. I also found it to be refreshingly thought-provoking. Others have commented that it is an urgently needed ‘wake-up call’; it’s certainly hard to miss the many references to plastic.

As someone long interested in the science and reason versus faith and religion debate — and associating myself very clearly with one side of the argument — I found that the book added some welcome hues to my monochromatic thinking, illustrating the value and strengths as well as the dangers and weaknesses of both sides.

28 July

I repeatedly find myself drawn back to the world of left-wing politics and political ideas — specifically the heyday of the so-called New Left in the ’60s and ’70s and its precipitous decline in the ’80s. I am re-reading Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left by Paul Blackledge, which I first read three or four years ago probably.

I find this milieu endlessly fascinating. It’s the discussion of ideas that draws me in, encompassing political theory, philosophy, history, sociology and economics. No doubt it’s partly the challenge. Left-wing thinkers, in particular, seem to delight in abstruse theorisation. An appropriate level of abstraction, they might say; gobbledegook, others would doubtless counter. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton excoriates them mercilessly in his brilliant Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. Sometimes you really do have to wonder if Scruton has a point:

John Roberts has criticised [them] for what he argues is a systematic confusion in their work between “the end of the avant-garde as the positivisation of the revolutionary transformation in action … and the avant-garde as the continuing labour of negation on the category of art and the representations and institutions of capitalist culture.”

from end-note 73 of Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left

Putting this sort of tripe to one side, I find that, as I widen and deepen my reading, I am understanding more each time, especially as my very sketchy grasp of philosophy improves. Perry Anderson himself is a fascinating figure. Astonishingly well read, he was a leading left intellectual by his mid-20s, taking over the editorship of New Left Review at an extraordinarily young age and using it as a vehicle to introduce new left-wing thinking from continental Europe.

The history of the New Left, especially in the ’60s, is as much about generational divides and personality clashes as it is about theoretical arguments. Two interconnected threads of the story are of particular interest. The first is the debate, with Anderson at its centre, over why Britain never developed an indigenous Marxism, a debate that focused in part on rival interpretations of key moments of British history, especially the English Civil War. The second is the attempt, particularly associated with the historian EP Thompson, with whom Anderson repeatedly clashed, to articulate a socialist humanism in contradistinction to the mechanical, ‘scientific’ Marxism that was in vogue particularly in the ’70s.

Dennis Wheatley & The Devil Rides Out


What do the following films all have in common? Firefox, starring Clint Eastwood (and his later Absolute Power, come to think of it); The Colditz Story, the 1950s POW film with John Mills; Sidney Poitier’s To Sir with Love; Shane — and The Return of Shane, otherwise known as Pale Rider; The Untouchables, the ‘80s version with Kevin Costner and Sean Connery; the big-screen version of Porridge; and all those old Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films?

Well, for one thing, the ‘heroes’ strike me as genuinely heroic: noble, honourable, sincere, generous and kind-hearted — all qualities I greatly admire. And secondly, they all end if not happily then at least on an upbeat or uplifting note.

Another connection is that I can watch these films again and again and again.

To contextualise that remark a little: whatever the definition of a film buff is, it doesn’t describe me. I record on average perhaps four films a month from various TV channels and tend to watch them in irregular bursts — none for weeks at a time and then perhaps three in as many days. I rarely go to the cinema (the last films I saw on the big screen were Bohemian Rhapsody and Stan and Ollie but, before that, nothing for years) and I hardly ever buy films to keep. Books and CDs, lots. Films, not so much. The few DVDs I own are mainly music-related, plus a handful of TV boxsets (The West Wing, House, Kung Fu) and the odd comedy. I don’t do streaming at all.

Films are not part of my comfort zone in the way that books and music are. I have to be in the mood: watching a film takes time (obviously), concentration and sometimes a real effort of will. It’s that opportunity-cost thing again — what could I be doing instead of sitting here watching this film? The ‘Delete’ button is always to hand.

If I like a film, I will of course watch to the end. If I really like a film, I may watch it a second time when it is next on, perhaps a few months down the line. But that’s probably it. From then on it becomes ‘Seen It’. The Colditz Story, Firefox and the rest, on the other hand … Every month. Every week. Rain. Shine. Sober. Drunk. Not a problem. Just press Play.

Which brings us to The Devil Rides Out.

Certain films — the likes of The Great Escape, The Sound of Music — are labelled ‘classics’, perhaps because they possess a timeless quality but just as likely because we associate them so closely with key national occasions like Christmas and Easter that they are all but embedded in our national culture. Other films, meanwhile, have obviously cultish qualities— The Blues Brothers, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Withnail and I. Devotees of such films might even gather together, perhaps dressing as the key characters, to quote the lines or sing the songs.

The Devil Rides Out doesn’t fit neatly into either of those categories. It’s hardly timeless; though it’s in colour, it is obviously dated. Any showing on mainstream television will doubtless be in the graveyard slot; more recently it has turned up on the niche Horror Channel. Nor does it lend itself to communal viewing or participation. On the other hand, it does boast memorable special effects — though perhaps not memorable for the obvious reason — several iconic set pieces and at least one eminently quotable line of dialogue, albeit (like “Klaatu barada nikto”) not spoken in English.

The film is undoubtedly regarded with great affection by horror film fans, perhaps because it is a more serious effort than the average Hammer production of the time (it came out in 1968, just as Hammer was entering its tomato-ketchup-gore-and-nudity phase). It was profiled by the well-known cinema critic Mark Kermode in his Cult Film Corner series on Radio 1 back in the ‘90s (ironically as part of Mark and Lard’s show known as The Graveyard Shift).

Unlike for that undoubted horror cult classic The Wicker Man (to choose an obvious example), the Wikipedia entry for The Devil Rides Out doesn’t include a Popular Culture section, but it’s a fairly safe bet that the film has lodged itself in the popular consciousness, at least for people of a certain age. It may even be the go-to film for media picture editors desperate to illustrate stories about satanic goings-on. A 2019 Daily Mail story about devil worshippers in Hampshire, for example, used a still from the ‘Goat of Mendes’ sabbat scene as one of its accompanying photos.


Perhaps my fascination with the film stems from the fact that I first saw it as a teenager. It may even be the first ‘black magic’ film I ever saw. I was certainly into all things ‘horror’ at the time. I have written elsewhere about how reading horror novels compensated for not being old enough to see them at the cinema — the likes of The Exorcist, Carrie and The Omen.

Within the ‘horror’ category certain subgenres have always interested me more than others. Reading Stephen King I found Salem’s Lot (vampires) far scarier than, say, The Shining (a haunted building) or Christine (an evil car). Stories that involve reaching into the past — curses, manuscripts, prophecies — intrigue me, so I am drawn to films like — picking two at random — The Ninth Gate (about an ancient book that purportedly contains a magical secret for summoning the Devil) and, going back to the ‘50s, Night of the Demon (runic parchments, satanic curses and, yes, a demon).

But more than that, stories about vampires and black magic are fundamentally about ideas — philosophies, religions, belief systems, heresies, and what the Duke de Richleau (who features in The Devil Rides Out) would call “esoteric doctrines”. Just my cup of tea. A good black magic tale is basically about the battle between good and evil. I always enjoy the bit where the beliefs, practices, supernatural powers and vulnerabilities of the evildoers are explained. Why can a vampire not enter someone’s home without an invitation? Why are they repelled by garlic?

There is a history connection to all of this, of course — also very much my thing. Belief in vampires, witches and ghosts is rooted in the past — in superstition, in folklore, in stories passed down from one generation to the next. One of the classic history books of the last 50 years is Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas.


Several years after first watching The Devil Rides Out, I saw To the Devil a Daughter for the first time. Both films star Christopher Lee. Both plots revolve around black magic and devil worship. Both were originally written by Dennis Wheatley.

I remember a couple of Wheatley paperbacks lying around at home when I was a child. I was too young to read them but vaguely recall titillating covers featuring scantily clad females. I ignored Wheatley during my Stephen King/James Herbert-dominated horror-book phase (perhaps I flicked through the ones at home and spotted how dated they are) and eventually ended up buying two special Wheatley book-club editions published in 2005.

Special (and cheap) 2005 book-club editions of some of Wheatley’s black magic books. The battered look is part of the cover design, not a result of my frequent re-reading of them.

Over a prolific writing career Wheatley wrote in a range of fictional genres — including espionage, crime and history — and he appears to have been able to churn out books at will. Alas, quantity triumphed over quality. Admittedly, I have only read a handful of them, so if his Gregory Sallust and Roger Brook books and the rest are masterpieces of literature I am happy to stand corrected. I somehow doubt it.

The Devil Rides Out was his second novel, published in 1934 and using the same lead characters as in his debut novel, The Forbidden Territory, in which they escape from the clutches of the communists in the Soviet Union, the forbidden territory of the title. One of them, Simon, is now entangled with a circle of satanists and must be rescued. Much of the story of To the Devil a Daughter, meanwhile, consists of attempts to track down and rescue a young woman before she is sacrificed by devil worshippers.

Notwithstanding the ‘black magic’ label, Wheatley in fact offers the reader a largely standard adventure-novel diet of kidnappings, escapes and manhunts, served up with lashings of derring-do. Though the plots are undoubtedly exciting in parts, the writing itself is distinctly mediocre and unimaginative. When facing the latest setback, for example, we repeatedly find our heroes rationally weighing their options, confident that even the most dastardly and wicked of their enemies will behave in a predictable way, as if bound by a gentleman’s code of honour.

That, after all, is how men behave in Wheatley’s world — the world about which he writes. He came from a comfortable background — his family owned a wine business and were wealthy enough to send him to Dulwich College — and it shows. Like with Agatha Christie’s Poirot, we’re mixing exclusively with the rich and privileged. In The Devil Rides Out, for example, much of the characters’ wealth is obviously inherited, though Simon’s and Rex’s considerable incomes appear to be from finance and banking.

Simon, we are told early on, is no longer living at his club. Max, meanwhile, is de Richleau’s ‘man’ — in other words, his butler. Indeed, butlers, maids, chauffeurs, cooks and nannies are an intrinsic part of this world. Globetrotting, too, is the norm: Rex, for example, has happened to notice a beautiful stranger called Tanith, who becomes central to the plot, in Budapest, New York and Biarritz on recent visits.

Wheatley’s attempt to write dialogue is hilariously wooden. His use of vocabulary and choice of idioms — “mumsie”, “no better than he should be”, “in the family way” — tells us much about his attitudes, assumptions and prejudices: his worldview is privileged, hierarchical, male-dominated and at the thoroughly reactionary, white-man’s-burden end of the political spectrum.

In his descriptions of the sinister guests at Simon’s party (it turns out they’re all satanists), the juxtaposition of each individual’s racial background with a list of their unpleasant characteristics is unfortunate to say the very least — the “grave-faced Chinaman … whose slit eyes betrayed a cold, merciless nature”; “a red-faced Teuton, who suffered the deformity of a hare lip”; a “fat, oily-looking Babu”.

To modern sensibilities, the most extraordinarily inappropriate exchange, however, goes as follows:

Duke: … he reminded me in a most unpleasant way of the Bogey Man with whom I used to be threatened in my infancy.

Rex: Why, is he a black?

from The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

I kid you not.

To the Devil a Daughter was published in 1952, almost 20 years after The Devil Rides Out. By this time Wheatley seems to have toned down the ridiculous overuse of capital letters in his writing (though Top Secret — presumably an attempt to use capital letters to convey gravitas — made me laugh out loud), but that apart nothing much has changed. He is clearly no fan of the postwar social-democratic settlement (a welfare state paid for out of progressive taxation etc), seeing it as a naked attack on his world of wealth, privilege and entitlement. Rationing, still largely in place in the early ‘50s, for example, represents the overweening power of the state. Consider, too, this observation about taxation. They are voiced by a ‘baddie’, but there is every reason to suppose that the author is in agreement with the argument:

Since … the Government has become only another name for the People, it really amounts to the idle and stupid stealing from those who work hard and show initiative.

from To the Devil a Daughter by Dennis Wheatley

With his Manichaean worldview — good versus evil — it’s easy to see where occultism fits in. Wheatley was vehemently anticommunist, of course: in his books the Soviet Union (and communism in general) is the Devil’s handiwork, a means by which Satan visits chaos and misrule on the world. There are long, uninterrupted monologues — basically, passages of exegesis shoehorned into the text to provide the reader with background information on some aspect of black magic or other. In To the Devil a Daughter, for example, we get several pages on the occultist Aleister Crowley, about whom Wheatley was something of an expert.

Christianity, meanwhile, underpins the forces of goodness and light — and, by extension, order, stability and civilisation. Wheatley’s characters are one-dimensional: pure of heart (though the men, at least, are almost certainly not expected to be actual virgins), honourable and God-fearing. Despite there being no evidence that they attend church or are practising Christians in any way, they are unsullied by base and immoral actions and thoughts. Only thus are they able to call on God’s protection when their very souls are in peril from followers of the Left-Hand Path.

The following exchange ends the film version of The Devil Rides Out. The forces of darkness have been vanquished; Tanith is alive once more; all is as it was:

Duke: … Mocata is dead.

Simon: Thank God.

Duke: Yes, Simon. He is the one we should thank.

from the film version of The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Meanwhile, in To the Devil a Daughter, with the good guys trapped in the dastardly Copely-Syle’s crypt and surrounded by infernal creatures, a bolt of lightning cracks open the roof and strikes the altar, shattering it into tiny pieces. The reader is informed — by the narrator Wheatley himself, not via one of the characters — that “God had intervened”.

[TO BE CONTINUED …]


Some parts of this text were originally used in my monthly blog, Books, TV and Films.

Books, TV and Films, June 2020


6 June

After seeing a tweet from the great Steven Pinker a few days ago, I decided to reread Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace by Hans J Morgenthau.

It was a book that I used a lot at university. My own copy of it means a great deal to me. As I was constantly borrowing it from the library, I asked my parents to buy me a copy one Christmas way back when. This was long before Amazon and online shopping, of course. My parents would have been reluctant to go to a major city to visit an academic/university bookshop that might stock a copy, and so they ended up ordering a copy from a local bookshop. It arrived weeks later, beautifully bound but costing something like £25 — an awful lot of money for a book back then.

It is a classic of political science, not a work of history. Though half of my degree was in international relations, I consider myself a historian, certainly by inclination: I had originally chosen to do a joint degree with international relations because I was worried (with good reason at the time) that the history syllabuses would stop in or around 1945.

I quickly realised that I was far more comfortable with the contemporary history elements of the international relations course than with the analysis of contemporary systems and structures. Most of the books on the reading lists were American (like this one), and the pseudo-scientific, theoretical approach used to get on my nerves (I suppose that’s why it’s called political science … doh!). Sometimes it seems like they are just stating the obvious. Take this quote:

When we say that the United States is at present one of the two most powerful nations on earth, what we are actually saying is that if we compare the power of the United States with the power of all other nations … we find that the United States is more powerful than all others save one.

Hans J Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace

Well, blow me down.

13 June

I finished the Morgenthau book today. It was originally published in the late-1940s (as the Cold War was kicking off). It was groundbreaking and highly influential in its day, not just on university campuses but in political and diplomatic circles. It went through several editions over the years. My copy (the sixth — and final? — edition) was published after the author’s death, with updating done by a professional colleague.

Leaving aside discussion of the ‘realist’ perspective that Morgenthau adopts, two thoughts about the book come to mind.

It is a long book, No doubt the process of preparing a new edition requires a great deal of time and effort, but the ‘joins’ between the original and newer sections of the text are glaringly obvious. Some of this sixth edition, published in the mid-1980s, seems to be the original, unaltered text written in the ’40s. Then there is the briefest of discussions of Nato and the ‘European Communities’, which clearly dates from the ’50s. In the section on the United Nations, meanwhile, statistical information stops abruptly at 1965 — presumably when that portion of the book was last updated. Other parts of the book, on the other hand, talk in some detail about Reagan and developments in the 1980s. I’m not sure that I noticed it at the time but now it strikes me as rather unsatisfactory.

The main takeaway, however, is how much the international scene has changed. Even my sixth edition was published in a ‘bipolar’ world that assumed a global struggle for supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union. China was an impoverished minor actor on the world stage, taking its first faltering steps on the road to industrialisation. The environment is mentioned occasionally — though nothing as specific as climate change — and, according to the index, there is just a single reference in the whole book to terrorism.

15 June

As a longtime history teacher, I am listening in some despair to the ‘statues’ debate that has erupted following the death of George Floyd in the USA and to the discussion that surrounds it about the teaching of history. I was troubled by two comments from activists quoted in the Guardian in the last few days:

That history [of the nineteenth-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes] will never be erased, it’s a lived reality for people in southern Africa, but it needs to be contextualised, it needs to be accurately represented and not glorified in the way it is today.

Decolonising the curriculum means providing an accurate portrayal of history …

I instinctively find phrases like “accurately represented” and “accurate portrayal” alarming. What worries me is that, other than those on the right with their own small-‘c’ conservative agenda, nobody seems to be picking this up. Before commenting further, I want to go back over a few things in my head, so I am rereading In Defence of History by Richard J Evans.

18 June

I am not quite sure why I thought the Evans book would be particularly helpful. It was written in 1997, primarily in response to the rise of postmodernism and the threat to what most people would think of as history. My main takeaway from the book is what utter drivel many of the so-called ‘intellectual historians’ and philosophers of history — people who focus on the theory and writing of history, not on the events of history itself — write. They do themselves no favours. Time and again they express their ideas in overblown, pretentious language, — or, as they might say, ‘at an appropriate level of abstraction’. It is as if they believe that writing in a way that is deliberately abstruse and impenetrable somehow proves how profound and worthy it is.

I suppose the book reinforces my conviction that there is no single, universally agreed, true story of the past ‘out there’ waiting to be told in the correct way. Talk of “an accurate portrayal of history” is therefore less than helpful. Accurate — according to whom? Who gets to decide?

23 June

I headed to my local Waterstones again today. If anybody is reading this years in the future, a visit to a bookshop is indeed noteworthy because all the shops have been shut for months due to the coronavirus pandemic and are only slowly, tentatively, reopening their doors.

I don’t have the second volume of Richard Evans’ history of Nazi Germany (I am working my way through the three volumes), so I thought I would go into the shop to buy it and show my support. Surprisingly, neither their large-ish Preston branch nor the smaller Wigan branch stocked any of the three volumes. Anyway, I ordered it and it arrived within two working days. Well done, them.

Mooching around the ‘buy one get one half-price’ tables, I picked up the latest Ian McEwan novel, Machines Like Us, and a book I have been itching to buy for some time: How to Be Right by James O’Brien. It feels like the perfect time to get a bit of clear thinking from O’Brien. The online clips from his radio phone-in show really are essential listening.

In a media world dominated by right-wing newspapers, loudmouth columnists and shock-jocks, O’Brien’s is a rare voice of the moderate centre-left. He is hated by those on the opposing side in our ever more visceral culture wars. Of course I am biased but he really does strike me as a voice of reason, with a refreshing willingness (in the book at least) on things like wearing a burqa in public to say: ‘I’m not sure’.

30 June

Well, the James O’Brien book was a quick read — just two days — though it is one I will doubtless dip into again and again. The paperback edition includes a short afterword and is another reminder of why I very rarely buy ‘current affairs’ books. It was written in April 2019 and is about Brexit. But the political landscape is changing so quickly that, already, it feels completely out of date. Much journalistic commentary — however insightful the writer — is inevitably contingent and quotidian, quickly superseded by events. Tomorrow’s chip paper. That’s why, though very tempted, I have resisted buying any of the books published about the Trump presidency.

That’s also why I no longer buy biographies of serving prime ministers or other new faces suddenly propelled into the limelight. I think the first one I ever bought was Hugo Young’s biography of Thatcher, One of Us, written I think in 1989. She was defenestrated a year later. Such books — another one I bought in the mid-’80s is Mrs Thatcher’s Revolution, written by another Guardian columnist of the time, Peter Jenkins (late husband of Polly Toynbee) — are best read now as historical texts, offering an insight into the mindset of the times in which they were written, rather than as reliable, in-depth accounts of what happened.

And finally this month, a quick mention of two films that I have just caught up with: Philomena and On Chesil Beach. Both absolutely delightful. Both unbearably sad. Both wonderfully acted. More thoughts on these and other things next month.

Books, TV and Films, May 2020


Wednesday 6 May

I finished two things today: Homeland on Channel 4 and the Rudolf Hess biography, Hess: The Führer’s Disciple.

I stayed up late to watch the final episodes of the final series of Homeland. Eight series in total — and what fantastic television it has been. It began way back in 2011, ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks with an ‘is he/isn’t he a terrorist’ plotline featuring Damian Lewis. Like all long-running dramas, it has suffered from a bit of a credibility problem as time passes and yet another apocalyptic crisis confronts the central characters. But it is well worth suspending disbelief and letting yourself be swept along.

As well as offering gripping drama and jaw-dropping twists and turns, Homeland has had a brilliant writing team with an uncanny ability to deliver a succession of stories foreshadowing the next ‘big thing’ in global politics — not just foreign and domestic terrorism, but also Russian interference, governmental overreach and abuse of power, and (in series eight) a fatally flawed US president.

Peter’s Padfield’s Hess biography, meanwhile, is easily the least enjoyable book I have read for some time, though it did improve as it went along. I wrote last month that it was a bad biography badly written. I was perhaps being a little unkind about the writing — but not about the biography itself. This is a bad book.

It doesn’t help that the biographical subject, Rudolf Hess, completely lacked personality and profile. That was his nature: Hitler’s yes-man, always in the shadows and utterly obedient. The first third of the book, covering the years to 1941, is frankly a waste of time. Hess was theoretically the Deputy Führer but either there is nothing to write about (which clearly isn’t the case for someone in such a prominent role) or Padfield has been unwilling to do the necessary spadework.

There are just two chapters covering the years 1933 to 1939. The first, called The Night of the Long Knives, barely mentions Hess at all. The second, The Deputy, is just 14 pages, much of which is actually about antisemitism.

It would surely have been better to have marketed the book around what it is actually about — Hess’s flight to England. On this, however, it is full of speculation, guesswork and conjecture. Padfield, presumably writing in 1990–91, frequently refers to government files closed until 2017 to excuse the lack of definitive answers to key questions about Hess’s actions. My edition includes a 30-page Afterword relating to these files (which he informs us were all opened — unexpectedly, one assumes — in 1991 and 1992). It opens with the words: “The expectations raised by this torrent of releases were … not met: there were no revelations …”. Ah, shame.

10 May

Time for something a little less intense: another Poirot, Peril at End House. I wrote about the very first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, last year. End House is the fifth in the series, published in 1932, 12 years after Styles.

One of the points I made about the Styles book is that Poirot didn’t yet strike me as the fully drawn character we know from TV and film. End House offers us a more recognisable Poirot, not least his enormous self-regard. I also commented on Agatha Christie’s use of language and the underlying attitudes and beliefs it reveals, particularly regarding race and class. In End House, a wealthy friend is described by the character Nick as follows: “He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.” Consider, too, this from Poirot himself on a suspect: the reaction of Ellen [a housekeeper] “might be due to natural pleasurable excitement of her class over deaths.”

I did smile at this comment from Poirot: “When you have eliminated other possibilities, you turn to the one that is left and say — since the other is not — this must be so …”. Now why does that sound familiar?

12 May

The central claim of the Padfield book is that Hitler knew in advance about (and therefore approved of) Hess’s flight to Britain in 1941, a highly controversial claim. The first thing I do when reading dodgy claims is to see what acknowledged experts have to say. Step forward Richard J Evans, professor of modern history at Oxford. The Third Reich at War states unequivocally that Hitler knew nothing of the flight in advance. Now who to believe?

Evans has published a trilogy on the Third Reich, about 2000 pages in total. It will be quite an undertaking but this seems like a good moment to tackle the complete trilogy, so I have started the first book, The Coming of the Third Reich, the one that I read when it came out in 2003.

16 May

Not sure why but I got the urge to watch Salem’s Lot, borrowed from a friend (it’s perhaps because I was reminiscing not too long ago about horror books from childhood days). I read a number of the early Stephen King books as a teenager — The Dead Zone, Carrie, The Shining. Salem’s Lot was one of them too, but it’s the TV dramatisation that really left a lasting impression.

I originally watched it when it was shown on the BBC, presumably some time around 1980, soon after it was made. It stars David Soul, who was a huge name at the time as one half of Starsky and Hutch. This is the full three-hour version (in two parts). I later saw that an abridged film-length version had been released on video. Utter vandalism! Avoid!

Watching it now, the special effects, fashions and so on obviously date it, but it’s a classic of its type and includes some really memorable moments: Danny Gluck scratching at the window; the first appearance of ‘Mr Barlow’ in the family kitchen. It is directed by Tobe Hooper, a Spielberg of the horror world who made his name with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

What’s striking is that so many of the actors are familiar, even if you can’t necessarily name them. Apart from Soul, there’s Bonnie Bedelia (Mrs McClane in the first two Die Hard films), Elisha Cook, yet again playing an unhinged-looking outsider and people like Geoffrey Lewis and George Dzunzda, who have been in just about everything. Just google the names.

Best of all is a memorable performance from James Mason as the vampire’s henchman: “You’ll enjoy Mr Barlow and he’ll enjoy you.” Great stuff.

Back, holy man! Back, shaman! Back, priest!

22 May

I’m making good progress with The Coming of the Third Reich. It’s a pleasure to read a historian like Richard Evans after the Padfield ‘biography’. To be clear, I have no problem with revisionist writers like Padfield, provided that what they write is well argued and supported by evidence. Evans was an expert witness in the famous Lipstadt trial of David Irving (the DD Guttenplan book The Holocaust on Trial is excellent, as is the recent film Denial with Timothy Spall as Irving).

Evans is opinionated, frank (read his obituary of Norman Stone) but also authoritative. Unlike with Padfield, the reader feels in safe hands, confident that the text distils knowledge and understanding built up over a lifetime of study — even if paragraph one of chapter one does state that fifty years elapsed between the creation of the German Empire in 1871 and Hitler’s accession to power in the early 1930s. Yikes!

Evans also writes exceptionally well, notwithstanding the occasional questionable phrase such as “rebarbatively abstruse” (I can’t actually remember who or what he said that about). More puzzling to someone who has read a considerable amount about the Nazis is his decision to render German titles into English: Hitler is referred to as ‘the Leader’ not ‘the Führer’; his book is ‘My Struggle’ not ‘Mein Kampf’ and newspapers have names like ‘The Stormer’ (instead of ‘Der Stürmer’) and the ‘Racial Observer’ (‘Völkischer Beobachter’). Odd.

27 May

Before writing about two horror films I wanted to re-read the original novels, both by Dennis Wheatley. I am in the middle of To the Devil a Daughter (hyphen sometimes included and sometimes not), having read The Devil Rides Out a few months ago. More to follow on the books and films, then. Here I will comment briefly on the writing.

To the Devil a Daughter was written in 1953, much later than The Devil Rides Out (which was published in the mid-30s). Wheatley seems to have toned down the ridiculous overuse of capital letters (though ‘Top Secret’ made me laugh), but that apart nothing much has changed across the decades. As with Agatha Christie, Wheatley’s general vocabulary and choice of idioms — “mumsie”, “no better than he should be”, “in the family way” — speaks volumes about his attitudes and assumptions: his worldview is privileged, hierarchical, male-dominated, white, Christian and at the reactionary end of the conservative spectrum.

Wheatley is clearly no fan of the postwar social-democratic settlement, seeing it as a naked attack on his world of privilege and entitlement. Rationing, for example, represents the overweening power of the state. Consider, too, this observation about taxation. They are voiced by a ‘baddie’, but there is every reason to suppose that the author is in sympathy with the line of argument:

Since … the Government has become only another name for the People, it really amounts to the idle and stupid stealing from those who work hard and show initiative.

He is vehemently anticommunist, of course: the Soviet Union (and communism in general) is the devil’s handiwork, a means by which Satan visits chaos and misrule on the world.

Books, TV and Films, April 2020

6 April

John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and Its faith is proving an absolute treat. My interest in religion and belief systems has developed over the last decade or so, triggered — does this count as irony? — by reading Richard Dawkins. Anyway, last year I read the huge but hugely enjoyable A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Professor Barton is another distinguished Oxford academic.

First of all, it was a pleasure to read — not just well written but also accessible. The contrast with the Michael Foot biography of HG Wells is telling. The Foot book required a great deal of background knowledge to make sense of it; Barton, on the other hand, goes out of his way to make his text accessible to the general reader.

Apart from its readability, this book is exactly what I look for when reading about something I don’t really know much about. Key words and concepts are clearly explained, even basics such as the meaning of ‘testament’, as in Old Testament. Important facts, ideas and arguments are covered succinctly, and revisited and reinforced.

Controversies and areas of disagreement (of which there are many) are set out before the reader. Barton does not shy away from telling us what he thinks, which I like. I turn the page confident that his conclusions and judgements are judiciously reached, and that I am being led along a tricky and complicated path by an expert guide.

9 April

Having planned in December to write something about the general election and the future of the Labour Party, I find that I have now written two blogposts about politics and still not really addressed what Labour ought to do next. Having read Mark Bevir’s book in January on the early years of British socialism and the ideas that were influential at the time when the Labour Party was founded, I have decided to re-read The Labour Party’s Political Thought: A History by Geoffrey Foote.

I bought the book at university, probably in 1986. I remember laughing about the front cover, which features photos of three men — Ernie Bevin, Tom Mann and Neil Kinnock. The photo of Kinnock, who was a new-ish Labour leader when the book was published, is twice the size of the other two, even though Kinnock only features in the final few pages.

I suppose there is an argument that it emphasises the connection between history and politics, but I can’t help thinking that’s it’s really a sales ploy by publishers to give history books an of-the-moment appeal.

13 April

It’s the Easter bank holiday weekend. Having just read John Barton’s history of the Bible, I am certainly noticing the many media references to biblical events, chiefly (of course) the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It’s striking how often these events are written about as if they were established historical facts.

In the absence of live sport on TV, I am working through a backlog of unwatched films and dramas. I have just re-watched Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett as the eponymous queen, Dickie Attenborough as a well-intentioned but deeply conservative William Cecil, Christopher Eccleston stuck on fast-forward as a sinister Duke of Norfolk and a brilliant Geoffrey Rush as Francis Walsingham. I have just started watching Mary Queen of Scots, which stars the wonderful Saiarse Ronan (definitely had to look up that spelling) and I have the Elizabeth follow-up, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, still to come.

I mentioned Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite (which I have also just watched) in a blogpost called Fake History and Film. It is quite astonishing the liberties taken with the historical record in all of these films. Elizabeth, in particular, seems to have cut up a chronology of historical events into individual pieces and randomly reassembled them — either that or just made things up (assuming that she wasn’t really in a long-term sexual relationship with Dudley). Quite astonishing.

A leading article in today’s Guardian talks of revisiting ideas from Labour’s past, mentioning ethical socialism, William Morris and RH Tawney. Just what I have been doing!

18 April

Just finished the Foote book on the Labour Party’s political thought. Two immediate thoughts.

Books on politics age very quickly. That’s why I don’t often buy them. This is mainly a history of political ideas, but the concluding chapter (written in 1985) deals with then-current political thinking. It has not aged well. Events and developments are all viewed through a Marxist lens, and so his critical analysis just seems woefully out of date from the perspective of 2020.

Like many on the hard left, the author can’t quite bring himself to believe that the majority of the British people don’t subscribe to his idea of socialism: “[o]nly by risking a short-term unpopularity through industrial action could the long-term reward of electoral office be obtained,” he writes, in the context of union militancy at around the time of the miners’ strike of 1984. Yuk.

The second thing to note — something that would have completely passed me by until a few years ago — is the poor quality of the proofreading and copy-editing. To be fair, it’s presumably a fact of life for many small, cash-strapped publishers. There are a number of noticeable typsetting errors. More annoyingly, there seems to be absolutely no consistency with regard to capital letters. Style guides vary, but at least be consistent!

Sentences like this one are not uncommon:

The Social Contract … was finally destroyed by the discontent of the union rank and file in the winter of discontent in 1978-9.

Out-and-out spelling mistakes — as opposed to typographical errors — are (as far as I am aware) relatively unusual in books. They get the benefit of the doubt with ‘legitimatist’ — it should probably be ‘legitimist’ — but I was astonished to see Bevan’s famous quote about Gaitskell written as “a dessicated [sic] calculating machine”.

22 April

I finished binge-watching War of the Worlds last night — the 2020 Anglo-French production shown on the Fox cable channel: eight episodes (each of about 45 minutes’ duration) over three days. Set in the present, it’s nothing like the book, I don’t think, except for the basic fact that it’s about an alien invasion. It was bleak and properly dystopian. I was enjoying the slow unfurling of the story and the time taken on character development until I realised by about episode 6 that it wasn’t unfurling anything like quickly enough to reach a conclusion. Sure enough, the final episode sets us up for a second series. How disappointing.

Time for another Sebastian Faulks novel — The Girl at the Lion d’Or. It was published in 1989, so is very early (his first, possibly). I read it ages ago but, to be honest, I can remember hardly anything about it. The character names vaguely ring a bell, as do some seemingly incidental details. I note that a reviewer quoted on the back cover recommends it to fans of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, another novel that I read a very long time ago (possibly in the mid-’80s) and can remember very little about.

27 April

I finished The Girl at the Lion d’Or yesterday. It’s only 250 pages and didn’t take long; I had no trouble reading more than my 10% minimum daily target.

It’s the first of three Faulks novels set in France in the first half of the twentieth century — this one takes place in the ’30s, the final decade of the Third Republic. Just like On Green Dolphin Street, which I read last month, the novel is beautifully crafted: it’s a love story, but so much more as well. Every character, every event (however seemingly incidental), every exchange, every detail helps paint a picture of France in the years leading up to its collapse and national humiliation in May and June 1940.

The terrible impact of the 1914-18 war, particularly the psychological scarring left on the wartime generation, looms large. People are politically rudderless, losing faith in democracy and receptive to extremist solutions; the Jews are convenient scapegoats for the nation’s ills. Hartmann’s old family home is perhaps a metaphor for the Third Republic itself, the cracks in its structure gradually growing larger and its foundations undermined by the troubled builders’ shoddy workmanship.

Wonderful. Alas, my current read, a biography of the Nazi Rudolf Hess — Hess: The Fuhrer’s Disciple by Peter Padfield — most certainly is not. I don’t like giving up on books unless they are impenetrable or really, really boring. This is just a bad biography badly written, so I will plough on, especially as there is much I don’t know about Hess after his flight (as in ‘plane journey’, not ‘escape’) to Britain in 1941.

Books, TV and Films, January 2020

1 January 2020

New year — new decade — new resolution … a reading log or diary. Let’s see how this goes. Also thinking of setting myself a target of a book every ten days, equating to 36 books over the year. That means reading 10% of each book every day — a tall order for anything over about 300 pages. Seriously toying with the idea of cancelling my Guardian subscription (it takes me about two hours to read it).

I am starting the new year with a new read (or rather, re-read): Citizens to Lords by Ellen Meiskins Wood.

I finished my Christmas treat — The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse — a few days ago and ended the year with a few Sherlock Holmes short stories (inspired by a comment during the election campaign by John Crace in The Guardian).

I now have only the very final Holmes short story to go — The Adventure of the Retired Colourman. I read almost the complete set of Conan Doyle Holmes books last year, most of them before watching the relevant ‘Jeremy Brett’ dramatisation. I may go back and re-read the short stories again this year — easy to dip into for half an hour or so. There are 56 of them.

The first episode of the latest Dracula dramatisation is on BBC1 tonight; it involves Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, so should be excellent. That’s reminded me: I must get round to reading Frankenstein this year.

2 January 2020

Last night, I read the very final Holmes short story, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman — so a milestone of sorts. I don’t know whether I have a memory of the TV adaptation or whether it’s a growing familiarity with Conan Doyle’s style, but I guessed the significance of a few of the plot ingredients like the newly painted house and the telegram from the vicarage. Having said that, I was convinced that the mysterious spectator outside the house was Holmes in disguise.

Definitely up to Conan Doyle’s usual standard, and so much more enjoyable as a read than the first Poirot novel, which I read last year. Kate Mosse was singing Agathe Christie’s praises on Twitter; she’s just re-read the Miss Marple books over Christmas. I must read more Poirot to see if the quality improves.

5 January 2020

Enjoying Citizens to Lords, a history of political thought in ancient and medieval times. Putting the political angle aside for a moment, it’s always enjoyable to read a Marxist writer who writes fluently and intelligibly. That’s one of the reasons why I always enjoy reading Ralph Miliband and Eric Hobsbawm. I first read it about four years ago, but I am finding it much easier to grasp this time around, having in the meantime read some reader-friendly introductions to the history of philosophy, particularly the brilliant The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb.

Richard Dawkins (a fan of audio books, which have never appealed to me) tweeted the other day about listening to Paperweight by Stephen Fry. He sang the praises of a Holmes short story that Stephen wrote. I must read that; his novels Making History and The Stars’ Tennis Balls are right up there for me.

10 January 2020

I finished Citizens to Lords yesterday, having managed to keep to my 10%-a-day target. So much packed into its 236 pages. Yes, it’s written from a Marxist perspective but it’s very readable, accessible (as long as you have a working knowledge of political theory and Ancient Greek philosophical ideas), erudite and compelling, with something illuminating on every page. Looking forward to reading the companion volume, Liberty and Property, at some point in the coming weeks and months.

Listening to a couple of James Bond dramas on BBC Sounds — what a discovery … the dramas, not the app! — has led me back to A Colder War by Charles Cumming. It’s the second of his Thomas Kell trilogy; I really enjoyed the first one, A Foreign Country, last year.

15 January 2020

The morning after the night before. I stayed up late to finish A Colder War. A gripping read; thoroughly enjoyable. It got to about 10pm and decision time: stay up and read a bit more, stay up until I finish it, or leave it until tomorrow. It was a no-brainer in the end. Fiction can get you like that: I felt exactly the same way reading Stephen King’s 11.22.63 a few years ago. I am determined to read more page-turning fiction this year.

I discovered Charles Cumming through The Trinity Six, a novel about a supposed sixth member of the Cambridge spy ring. A Colder War is set in the same fictional landscape as his earlier A Foreign Country and features an out-in-the-cold SIS spy called Thomas Kell.

It’s not as well written as Le Carré — what is? — and I felt myself giving him the benefit of the doubt after reading things like “Giles, a man so boring that he was dubbed ‘The Coma’ in the corridors of Vauxhall Cross”. But the writing is generally much better than that, and the structuring, plotting and sense of place are all excellent. Plus, there’s tons of spycraft to enjoy. The extended description of a surveillance operation through London is brilliantly told.

20 January 2020

Thoroughly enjoying Dominion, Volume V of Peter Ackroyd’s The History of England series, this one covering the period from 1815 to 1900. I actually read two thirds of it when I first bought it but then put it to one side, probably to read something ‘essential’ that was newly published. Can’t remember what.

I originally bought Volume I — Foundations — from a shop specialising in remaindered books. I wanted something accessible, as my knowledge of early history is woeful. This is broad-brush history, written by someone with highly developed literary sensibilities: line one of page one refers to Vanity Fair and there are also references to Byron, Southey, Dickens and Wilde within the first few pages.

There are no footnotes or end-notes and the historian in me squirms somewhat when encountering sweeping generalisations like: “They [the English people] differed from their predecessors and their successors with their implicit faith in the human will.” But it is wonderfully written and a joy to read.

25 January 2020

I finished Dominion today. Ackroyd is simply remarkable: his output is prodigious and ranges widely across disciplines, though London is never very far away from his thoughts.

He writes wonderful prose — the pen-portraits, in particular, are often engagingly drawn with an eye for amusing, often absurd, detail. Sometimes, however, his style simply doesn’t suit a work of serious history: “[Disraeli] could have flattered his way out of a condemned cell and stolen the axe.” Ugh.

On the other hand, there are echoes of the great AJP Taylor in sentences like: “The conflict did not assist or make any military reputations, and the war itself had emanated from the fear of an attack which was never contemplated and a threat which barely existed.” Therein, I suppose, lies the problem: it’s a wonderful read but is it good history — reasoned, balanced, nuanced?

One wonders, too, whether age is finally catching up with him. His daily routine apparently involves — certainly until recently; he may have finally slowed down — working on three projects at the same time, twelve-hour working days ending with copious amounts of alcohol, seven-day working weeks.

Something surely has to give. This is an annoyingly London-centric history, presumably reworking previously researched material and quoting, sometimes at considerable length, from primary sources. In a book of this size, every word counts: key people, events and developments merit no more than a chapter, maybe a page, perhaps only a paragraph or two. And yet Ackroyd devotes two full pages quoting at length from an 1894 book about the Golden Jubilee of 1887 — its focus, no surprise, the people of South London.

Anyway, I await the final volume with interest. Meanwhile, time for the third in the Thomas Kell spy trilogy by Charles Cumming.

30 January 2020

One month in and my new year reading resolution is going well. I am managing to keep to my 10%-a-day target … exceeding it, in fact. That’s partly because I chose medium-sized books this month rather than doorstoppers. It has also helped that my two fiction choices this month — both by Charles Cumming — have been page-turners.

A Divided Spy is the last of the Thomas Kell trilogy by Charles Cumming. I read about 100 pages a couple of days ago. It was about 8pm and the thought did cross my mind: 150 pages or so to go … do I pull an all-nighter? A daft idea, but a sign of a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Hercule Poirot’s First Case

Mille tonnerres! It’s a still from ITV’s production of Curtain, Poirot’s last case, in a blog about the first Poirot book

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)

After revisiting the very final David Suchet TV adaptations on ITV3 fairly recently, I chanced upon a four-novel Poirot omnibus — actually two omnibuses, eight novels in total — in a local charity shop. Serendipity. Time to acquaint myself for the first time with Poirot in print.

Though a random selection — the novels are not sequential and, beyond the obvious, there is no linking theme — one omnibus did at least begin with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the very first book of the Poirot series. That matters — a lot. A desire for completeness, perhaps. Begin at the beginning: Book One, Volume I, Series One, Episode One. It feels rude not to.

First, a little background. The detective novel was already an established and lucrative publishing phenomenon by the end of the nineteenth century. Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins are sometimes cited as pioneers of the genre — Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841 and Collins’s The Moonstone in 1868 — and characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Raffles and Father Brown were familiar to readers by the time Poirot first appeared in 1920. As literacy rates soared, the detective novel fed a growing popular appetite for sensational, lightweight (in more than one sense) reading.

The historian AJP Taylor described Agatha Christie, who was writing mainly in the so-called ‘golden age’ of detective fiction between the wars, as “the acknowledged queen in this art”. Having sampled so little of Christie’s writing (though plenty of film and television adaptations of her work), it seems prudent to heed the wise counsel of the incomparable Sherlock Holmes, who famously cautioned against rushing to judgement:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.”

Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887)

I will therefore go no further than the tentative but tame and unsurprising observation that The Mysterious Affair at Styles seems entirely typical of the genre at that time: the country-house setting; the simmering family tensions and jealousies, with legacy disputes the default motive for murder; the long list of likely suspects. Christie’s directness and economy of style are remarkable, a counterblast, perhaps, to the weighty, sprawling novels so typical of the nineteenth century — Dickens, Elliot, Hugo. Indeed, the entire Styles novel took just six hours to read.

There is little attempt at literary craftmanship — no descriptive digressions immersing the reader in location and atmosphere, no cleverly interwoven sub-plots or carefully constructed layers of meaning. The murder plot is (almost) all. Detail is provided insofar as it serves the needs of the plot, principally to widen the net of suspicion and usually to misdirect the reader — all the better to build suspense before the Big Reveal. Equally striking (to this reader, at least) is the poverty of language employed by Christie: I lost count of the number of times, for example, she refers to Hastings’s “lively curiosity”.

Consider the opening chapter, ‘I Go to Styles’ — the ‘I’ being Captain Hastings, who, like Holmes’s Watson, is our narrator and a casualty of war. In ten whirlwind pages, we are introduced to the Cavendish family, family friend Evie, and Cynthia, a foster child of sorts. Though the murder is yet to occur, the soon-to-be victim is obvious, as are at least three likely suspects: the husband, the brooding, troubled brother and a “sinister” (Hastings’s word) doctor, who happens (luckily for us) to be an expert in poisons. Indeed. the efficacy of poison as a modus operandi for dispatching someone is matter-of-factly discussed over afternoon tea. Poirot’s little grey cells will not be required to work out how the murder was committed.

Styles is a world apart: it is a gentrified world of privilege and entitlement, of property and inherited wealth, of starched-collar formality and strict etiquette. Women are referred to throughout as ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. John Cavendish refers to his mother not as ‘mother’, ‘mum’ or even ‘mummy’ — but as ‘mater’. Endless summer days are spent lounging around the pool, playing tennis or going for long walks.

The landscape is sketched from the pages of William Blake. The industrial revolution, the most tumultuous and transformative event in our history, has by-passed this particular corner of England’s green and pleasant land. There is little or no factory-based work, no pollution, no cramped, stifling urban life. The few labourers we encounter are rough and ready but nonetheless deferential to their social superiors, like the gardener who doffs his cap on entering the boudoir. The servants, respectful and loyal, know their place and freely accept this ‘natural’ order of things, though (helpfully) they do like to listen at doors as their masters and mistresses bicker.

Set (and in fact written) during the First World War, the novel describes a world on which the sun was slowly setting, of course. Despite the trappings of privilege, the younger women are gainfully employed in war-related work: John’s wife works as a farmhand and Cynthia is a VAD, working in a dispensary — perfect for the poisonous plot! These details — and Hastings’s convalescence — notwithstanding, the war screams its absence. Like industrialisation, even total war cannot sully this pastoral idyll. The faithful parlourmaid Dorcas, described by Hastings as “a fine specimen … of the old-fashioned servant that is so fast dying out”, bemoans at one point the presence of a female gardener wearing breeches — surely the end of civilisation as we know it.

Novels are invaluable as windows into the attitudes, values and social mores of the time — and into peculiarities of speech and language. People ‘ejaculate’ and have ‘a queer way’. Cheerful people are ‘gay’. Women are ‘handsome’. Unpleasant men are ‘bounders’ and ‘rascally’. Bad things are ‘damnable’.

Less quaint is the unmistakeable whiff of casual racism and xenophobia. At least one of the comic-book suspects will invariably be sinister, somehow foreign-looking and ‘alien’ – a word that Hastings actually uses. Inglethorp, the main suspect, has an enormous black beard. Dr Bauerstein, an expert in poisons, is “a Polish Jew”. The supposedly sluttish temptress Mrs Raikes is a “gipsy” girl. It is worth noting that the 1990 television adaptation omits Dr Bauerstein completely, and Mrs Raikes becomes merely a farmer’s wife.

An obsession with race was central to Nazi ideology, ending in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that concerns about the mental and physical health of the population also preoccupied inter-war Britain. The question of how to improve the racial ‘stock’ was not confined to the outer fringes of political debate; genetics, eugenics, sterilization and birth control were high up the agenda. Indeed, the historian Richard Overy has written:

“…the high point of the British eugenics movement, and of eugenics internationally, came in the years between the two world wars.”

Richard Overy, The Morbid Age

In a society rigidly defined by class, social snobbery is not hard to uncover, but the language of everyday discourse often betrays this wider obsession with racial hygiene and race improvement. For example, the overwhelming importance of maintaining the proverbial stiff upper lip even in the face of calamity — the death of Mrs Inglethorp — is expressed thus:

“Decorum and good breeding naturally enjoined that our demeanour should be much as usual…”

Captain Hastings, Chapter V

An absence of backbone, on the other hand, merits Hastings’s disdain:

“Never, I thought, had his indecision of character been more apparent.”

Captain Hastings, Chapter III

Lest we think this is merely the sneering of a snobbish Hastings, consider Poirot’s comment on an argument involving Lucy Cavendish:

“It was an astonishing thing for a woman of her breeding to do.”

Hercule Poirot, Chapter V

Later, reflecting upon the actions of Evie Howard, he comments thus:

“There is nothing weak-minded or degenerate about Miss Howard. She is an excellent specimen of well balanced English beef and brawn. She is sanity itself.”

Hercule Poirot, Chapter VIII

The cast of supporting characters are mere cardboard cut-outs; only the two principals — Hastings and Poirot himself — are given space to breathe and come alive. His friends might well have described Hastings as a ‘good sort’ — loyal, trustworthy and thoroughly decent. A true Englishman, they would doubtless have said. Confronted with a damsel in distress — a woman he has in fact known for barely a day — he impulsively proposes marriage. Like Nigel Bruce’s Watson, he is rather credulous and dim-witted. Fancying himself as something of a private detective, he is initially dismissive of Poirot’s thought-processes and obscure lines of questioning. Similar to the Holmes-Watson relationship, ‘the master’ sometimes treats ‘the assistant’ rudely, dismissively and thoughtlessly, only to offer profuse apologies later.

“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all … There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

Poirot to Hastings, Chapter VIII

Hastings interprets this remark as a compliment, a recognition of his “true worth”. As with the earlier Holmes stories, the assistant-as-narrator device allows the novelist to engage in obfuscation and misdirection, withholding reveals in order to build mystery and suspense.

And what of Poirot himself? A Belgian refugee from his war-torn homeland, he is conveniently living with other compatriots in the village that Hastings (who knew him before the war) happens to be visiting. He is meticulous and particular, to be sure, but perhaps not yet quite the fully drawn dandy portrayed by Suchet, Ustinov and Finney, and certainly not the athletic swashbuckler depicted in Kenneth Branagh’s recent film. Of the John Malkovitch portrayal, I offer no comment.

Holmes felt so strongly about the dangers of leaping to judgement that he later reiterated the point almost word for word:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia (1892)

So my quest to uncover the original Poirot will go on. The omnibuses contain several other novels in addition to this first adventure. A reservation on the Orient Express awaits, as does an evening of bridge (Cards on the Table) and a visit to End House to confront the peril that lies therein. John Buchan’s thirty-nine steps are also yet to be climbed, and, going further back in time, the multi-layered, Benedictine world of Umberto Eco is long overdue a revisit. Yet the lure of Baker Street — the pipe, the violin, Mrs Hudson’s cooking — is impossible to ignore for long. The game is afoot.

Darkest Hour: Film Review


‘Darkest Hour’ offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains. In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision — his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb.

Diogenes

The year is 1940 and Britain is in dire straits. Abroad, the German army is sweeping across western Europe, a defeatist mentality paralyses the French top ranks, and the British army faces imminent annihilation at Dunkirk, probably to be followed by the invasion of Britain itself. At home, Churchill must negotiate a fragile coalition government, a divided Conservative Party, and rebellious and ambitious cabinet colleagues.

Darkest Hour, the 2017 film starring Gary Oldman that deals with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, inevitably resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst: the UK’s relationship with the European continent is currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, with not a little hyperbolic talk about existential threats to our freedom and independence.

An example of a meme circulated on social media during the Brexit debate.

These tumultuous events of 1940 and Britain’s survival were, of course, exhaustively mined by Britain’s wartime propaganda machine, turning calamitous defeat and near-disaster into a form of national triumph. Ministry of Information shorts, such as Channel Incident (starring a young Peggy Ashcroft) and Neighbours Under Fire, trumpeted the indomitable will of the British people – the ‘Very Well, Alone’ mood of popular defiance also captured in David Low’s cartoons of the time and the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ in the face of the Luftwaffe’s aerial onslaught.

Widely circulated on social media in October 2018

I have discussed elsewhere the issue of ‘fake history’ and film — questions of historical accuracy and fidelity to the facts, the portrayal of people and events from the past, and the inevitable trade-off between historical ‘truth’ and entertainment. What makes Darkest Hour compelling viewing — beyond undeniable echoes in our current political travails — is the knowledge that those wartime propaganda lines about defiance and British exceptionalism have now been resurrected and shamelessly peddled by cheerleaders in the diehard Brexit camp to support their views about the Brexit negotiations, the opportunities and threats posed by a no-deal outcome, and our current crop of political leaders.

Darkest Hour includes virtually no scenes of actual fighting, though the reality of Britain’s perilous strategic position casts its shadow across virtually every scene. The focus of the film is essentially Winston Churchill, hailed by many — especially on the right — as our national saviour. In 2002 (Golden Jubilee year, of course), he was proclaimed the greatest Briton in a BBC poll, and ‘he’ featured prominently in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. To be fair, and perhaps in an indication of our changing national temper (or maybe just a reflection of the BBC2 audience), he lost out to Alan Turing and others in a 2019 BBC poll of the twentieth century’s greatest icon.

Churchill is arguably the most instantly recognisable figure from our past: the huge cigar, the V-for-Victory salute and the wobbly jowls delivering soaring oratory are etched into the popular consciousness. One effect of biographies and biopics (the good ones, anyway) is to flesh out and ‘humanize’ distant figures, uncovering something of the real person behind the myth. In Darkest Hour, we see glimpses of the husband and family man, the man of privilege baffled by the Tube map, the playful man giggling with the secretarial staff and (crucially) the man of doubt. His eccentricities and larger-than-life character are fully on display, dictating memos from his bed (and from the bathroom), consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, berating his personal staff for the slightest of errors.

One cannot help but feel that aspects of Churchill’s personal conduct, long dismissed — perhaps even applauded — as quirky, eccentric and idiosyncratic, would in today’s #MeToo climate be condemned as unacceptable bullying and sexist behaviour. Films about personalities and events from the past nevertheless reflect the mood, norms and expectations of the times in which they were made. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges for director and scriptwriter.

The secretary Elizabeth Layton is assigned a key role in the script.

In the film, a key role is therefore assigned to a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary, the script manoeuvres her close to the action and the locus of power, often involving her in intimate, one-to-one situations with Churchill (intimate in the sense that both can reveal hidden worries and doubts). Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

Darkest Hour offers us drama and tension aplenty, emotional highs and lows, and the usual cast of heroes and villains (with, in this case, Neville Chamberlain perhaps somewhere in the middle). In a welcome challenge to the ‘great leader’ myth, Churchill himself commits numerous tactical blunders, shows himself prone to wishful thinking, and is overcome by doubt and indecision — his own darkest hour. As the tension mounts, with Britain’s position seemingly hopeless and his critics ranged against him, his spirits reach their lowest ebb. He becomes forgetful and — the ultimate catastrophe for a politician feted for his ability to communicate — struggles to find the words, before rediscovering his mojo with the help of the great British public in the controversial ‘Underground’ scene — controversial in the sense that it is purely fictional.

The George VI portrayed here is very different from the vulnerable king in The King’s Speech

The George VI presented to us is also of interest. Though the icy relationship between Churchill and the king thaws somewhat as the film progresses, the viewer will struggle to reconcile this monarch with Colin Firth’s portrayal in The King’s Speech. In the latter, he is warm, vulnerable and all-too-human. Here, he is remote, cold, bigoted and snobbish. The scene where he surreptitiously wipes his hand behind his back after it has been kissed by Churchill is particularly telling. Later, in an ironic turn, it is the king who urges the prime minister to listen to the voice of the people, precipitating Churchill’s journey of rediscovery on the Underground.

The role of arch-baddie is, however, reserved for Lord Halifax, the king’s confidant and political puppet-master, pulling Chamberlain’s strings in a bid to engineer a compromise peace with Hitler, thus preventing a German invasion and safeguarding the British Empire. He is calculating and scheming, refusing to take on the role of prime minister after Chamberlain’s resignation as the time is ‘not yet right’. The England (sic) he cherishes and seeks to preserve is that of the upper-class gentleman and country estate, a land of strict social division, of privilege and entitlement. Compare this with the portrayal of the ordinary Englishman and Englishwoman: patriotic, decent and resolute.

Films recreating events from the past must find imaginative ways to contextualise events, plugging gaps in the viewer’s historical knowledge and ensuring that the storyline makes sense. Here, for example, Churchill explains to someone who would have known the situation perfectly well that the king disliked him because he (Churchill) supported his (George’s) brother’s desire to marry Wallis Simpson. To establish the reasons for Churchill’s unpopularity with many Tories, we are offered a montage of politicians in whispered discussion, each with a gripe against Churchill: it is a ‘greatest hits’ of his errors and failings — serial infidelity to the Conservative Party, Gallipoli, India and the return to the Gold Standard.

The House of Commons as theatre

The scenes in the Chamber of the House of Commons are pure theatre — the bear-pit atmosphere and the dramatic lighting, as if a solitary spotlight were picking out the speaker at the despatch box, with the surrounding benches (front and back) almost in darkness, the more so to accentuate order papers furiously batting the air.

The debates themselves do not (inevitably) ring particularly true. For example, the two-day debate that led to Chamberlain’s resignation is here shortened to about five minutes. Labour’s Clement Attlee is forensic and withering, far too much so, if the recent biography by John Below is to be trusted. Crucially, the damning verdict of backbench Conservative MP Leo Amery, invoking Cromwell to the Rump Parliament — “In the name of God, go!” — is expunged from the record, as it wouldn’t serve the narrative, namely that Churchill did not have the Tory backbenches behind him and that his support came from the Labour benches. To the end, Chamberlain appears to command the loyalty of the Conservative MPs, a surreptitious wave of the handkerchief his signal to the backbench troops whether or not to show their support for the new prime minister.

Some of the points made in this article were also made in the article ‘Fake History’ and Film.

‘Fake History’ and Film

Elizabeth I meets Mary, Queen of Scots! Churchill rediscovers his mojo on the Underground! Homosexual genius Alan Turing is blackmailed by Soviet spy John Cairncross at Bletchley Park! Hmmm. Memo to self: ‘Films based on historical events are not documentaries. Stop judging them as if they are.’

Diogenes

The above are not happenings in an alternate reality (to borrow some American sci-fi terminology) but scenes from films about real people, their lives mediated through ‘Hollywood’ — just three examples of what we might call ‘fake history’ offered up for our viewing pleasure in well-known films released over the last few years about famous people and/or events.

The buzz surrounding two recent films that focus on the lives of female monarchs from Britain’s past — Mary Queen of Scots (about the rivalry between the eponymous Mary and Elizabeth I) and The Favourite (set in the court of Queen Anne) — has poured lighter-fuel on a debate that seems to smoulder away all but unnoticed before re-igniting whenever a blockbuster film portraying iconic figures and events from the past is released.

Fake history Saving Private Ryan
Though lauded for its realistic depiction of war, Saving Private Ryan has also been much criticised for ignoring the role of the British armed forces and those of other countries in the D-Day landings.

The usual suspects — lower case, not the Kevin Spacey film — have again been hauled in to take up their place in the line-up of cinematic shame: films such as The Patriot, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan, all charged with the heinous crime of playing fast and loose with ‘the truth’. The only surprise is that nobody appears to have brought up Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise comes within minutes of bringing down the Third Reich.

The debate about ‘fake history’ operates at a number of levels, with questions of historical accuracy morphing into arguments about how much fidelity to the facts actually matters and broader discussions about representations of the past.

At its simplest is a binary question, the answer to which is either ‘yes, this did happen, that’s accurate’ or ‘no, that didn’t happen, that’s not how it really was’. We’re not just talking feature films and television dramas, of course. Any self-respecting pub quizzer will doubtless remind us that, when Cassius declares in Julius Caesar that “The clock has stricken three”, Shakespeare had (deliberately or otherwise) penned an anachronism: mechanical clocks of that type were not around in the first century BC.

Playing ‘fake history’ is fun for all the family. BBC Bitesize (targeted at a young audience) recently ran an online article highlighting inaccuracies in eight popular films — the Alpine escape of the von Trapp family from the clutches of the evil Nazis in The Sound of Music, the death of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in Gladiator, the clothing worn by thirteenth-century Scots in Braveheart. And so on.

There are deeper issues involved, however — not least the rather important question of what we mean by ‘the truth’ — and unsurprisingly these trickier matters attract the interest of heavyweight journalists and academic historians alike. In this latest round, for example, Oxford historian and BBC4 regular Dr Janina Ramirez was commissioned to write a piece on The Favourite for the Sunday Times. The Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins set out his views in a typically forthright piece headlined ‘The new threat to truth: fake history films’. He accused film-makers of claiming “the right to mis-sell films as history”, sexing them up with invention, out of fear that “accuracy will not put bums on seats”.

This terrain encompasses all ‘texts’, not just headline-grabbing films about famous people and events found on the school history curriculum. Take two other recent films, both of which might well have come with some variation or other of the words ‘based on real events’ attached. And what is ‘based on real events’ exactly — a neutral statement, a caveat, a disclaimer, a cop-out?

Fake history Stan and Ollie
Stan and Ollie depicts Stan arguing about money with Hal Roach on the set of Way Out West, with Ollie caught in the middle.

The first, Stan and Ollie, uses a Laurel and Hardy music hall tour of Britain in the twilight of their careers as a vehicle for exploring the duo’s relationship. As a narrative frame, it works brilliantly well, though I don’t know enough about their actual story to make confident assertions about how accurate it all is. My gut instinct is to doubt the literal ‘truth’ of certain events depicted, such as the on-set arguments between Stan and Hal Roach and Ollie’s collapse in Worthing, and the accuracy of the portrayal of characters such as the scheming, oleaginous impresario, Delfont.

The second, meanwhile, I have discussed in detail elsewhere: the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, a film that wields a knife with wilful abandon as it cuts the Queen story to shreds. Guitarist Brian May has spoken of his journey of understanding as an executive producer, ending (he says) with the realisation that a film is a very different beast from a documentary — but that both are valid artistic means of telling a story. He is, in essence, criticising those Queen fans unwilling or unable to see beyond the film’s cavalier approach to the facts. That formula — ‘based on real events’ — is, if nothing else, an elastic one. Maybe that’s part of the problem: how exactly are viewers expected to know how literally to believe what is being portrayed?

Fake history The Exception Himmler Kaiser Wilhelm II
The Exception suggests that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler met with Wilhelm II in 1940 and offered him the chance to return to Germany as Head of State in a ruse to flush out anti-Nazi monarchists.

Of course, should we so choose, we refer to Wikipedia or whatever for (usually) in-depth analysis of the accuracy of this or that scene, portrayal or storyline. My immediate reaction after watching the excellent film The Exception, about Kaiser Wilhelm II in exile in Holland in 1940, was to reach for a biography of the ex-German emperor to clarify how much of it was true (answer: not much). But how many of us ever bother? It’s a fair bet that many film-goers and TV-watchers don’t give the matter a second thought and/or don’t particularly care whether a film is accurate or not — as long as they are entertained.

The business of films, in more than one sense, is first and foremost to entertain — fair enough. Self-styled “public historian, broadcaster, author, and historical consultant to Film & TV” Greg Jenner disagrees with the Simon Jenkins line quoted above, tweeting recently about the importance of historians engaging with pop culture:

Historical films are not “fake history”; they’re stories. They aren’t documentaries and nor do they try to be. So long as historians are able to publicly respond (which we do in droves) these films are helpful, not a hindrance, in stimulating public fascination with the past.

Greg Jenner

In other words, if films are stimulating public interest in the past, that’s surely a good thing, right? Jenner says that historians are taking part “in droves”. I accept that it would be churlish to ignore or downplay the tireless efforts of a wide range of academics and others (a big shout-out here to classroom teachers) to engage with the public via an ever-widening variety of platforms — from websites and podcasts to public lectures and TV programmes.

But a nagging question remains: beyond a stratum of enthusiastic, educated amateur history buffs — to borrow Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, “that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen” — how much actual purchase is there at grassroots level among non-history buffs? I refer, perhaps, to those who drink at that bustling yet ever so elusive pub, the Dog and Duck, spoken of in hallowed terms by politicians and media commentators alike, where issues of the day are discussed by ‘ordinary’ folk over a warm pint of beer or glass of wine.

I also accept that, although accuracy obviously matters a great deal in historical re-creations, it isn’t the be-all and end-all — and perhaps not even the most important element of a film. A film may include plenty of inaccuracies, even wholly fictionalised situations, and yet still be bloody good, as Stan and Ollie certainly showed (assuming the narrative isn’t all literally true). After all, most if not all the dialogue in every historical film is made up: who knows who said what to whom in reality?

A great artist — actor, writer or director — uses their raw material — part-fact, part-fiction — to capture and convey the essence of a person or situation, hopefully revealing deeper or more complete truths. In that sense, even if some of it didn’t really happen, Stan and Ollie still stands up as an utterly delightful window into the world of Laurel and Hardy, funny, moving and sad, a warm-hearted, bittersweet film about friendship, fame and the inexorable passing of time.

I further agree that it is naive and simplistic to expect ‘the truth’ (singular). A ‘text’ — a book, a play, a film, a painting — is a representation (literally, a re-presenting) of the past, an authorial construct based at least in part on the selection and presentation of information. As the historian Anthony Beevor has argued persuasively, the price of supping with the Hollywood devil is stomaching a degree of creative licence for film-makers with regards to ‘what really happened’.

At its worst, however, this Faustian pact leads to oversimplification (not to mention ‘dumbing down’), serious distortion and the flattening of individuals and historical situations into one-dimensional caricatures. It filters out complexity, balance, nuance, ambiguity and paradox. It does not permit doubt, ambivalence and confusion. In other words, it comes at the expense of the stuff of reality and cheapens the study of the past. Ask John McDonnell, who foolishly accepted the request to reduce the life and career of Winston Churchill to a single word.

Films are also products of their time, reflecting the mood, norms and expectations of the day. However, unless handled skilfully by writer and director, they can end up seeming uncomfortably forced and contrived. Darkest Hour, the 2017 film dealing with Churchill’s first few weeks as prime minister in May 1940, is an intriguing case in this respect. With diversity and inclusion society’s current watchwords, any film about events dominated almost exclusively by socially privileged white men will throw up interesting challenges.

Fake history Darkest Hour Underground Winston Churchill
Darkest Hour includes an entirely fictional scene set on the London Underground.

In the film, a key supporting player is therefore a woman, Elizabeth Layton. Though a lowly secretary in the typing pool, she is manoeuvred close to the action and the locus of power, often involved in one-to-one situations with Churchill. Her role is as a proxy, a personification of the British public at large, their hopes and fears, their questions and concerns. She is fearful but resilient, curious to know more, and able to handle the unpleasant, unvarnished truth. Meanwhile, Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, is the steadying influence behind the scenes. More than just the dutiful wife, she gently admonishes the great man when he behaves like an ass.

A David Low cartoon from 1940. The caption read:”Very Well, Alone”. This mood of popular defiance was a feature of the fictional ‘Churchill on the Underground’ scene in the film Darkest Hour.

In the film’s ‘Underground’ scene — wholly fictional, of course — the passengers (a handy cross-section of the British people — men, women and children) are united, defiant and resolute. It is like a David Low cartoon brought to life, a re-creation of the mood portrayed in the official propaganda films of the time and later mythologised as ‘the spirit of the Blitz’. It is a version of history for the Brexiteers.

One of the passengers is a young black man, who appears to be in the company of a white woman — whether friend, lover or spouse is left unclear. While not wholly implausible in 1940, this depiction of relaxed attitudes to inter-racial relationships (and even friendships when involving people of the opposite sex) nevertheless feels anachronistic, and it is certainly very different from attitudes portrayed in the recent Rosamund Pike/David Oyelowo film set partly in late-’40s Britain, A United Kingdom.1

And of course, as consumers of history — watchers of films, readers of books etc — we sprinkle our diet with liberal (small ‘l’) helpings of our own beliefs, values and biases. With our relationship with the European continent currently under the microscope as never before in peacetime, and with much hyperbolic talk about threats to our freedom, Darkest Hour resonates in this time of Brexit-related angst. Would the ‘ordinary’, non-political, non-Eurosceptic viewer have felt this way about the film ten years ago, say?

Or take the films of Mel Gibson as both actor and director. Now something of a bête noire of the film industry and the wider public2, how much are people’s opinions of his work influenced by opinions of the man (drunk, misogynist, Christian extremist, anti-Semite are some of the labels attached to him)? Or, mutatis mutandis, re-read this paragraph, replacing the name in the first sentence with ‘Woody Allen’ or ‘Kevin Spacey’.

As a keen student of history, I feel protective of the people, events and circumstances of the past, and instinctively recoil at falsification, at bias and at individuals and their reputations being brazenly glorified or traduced. When I open a history book — especially on the many topics about which I know little or nothing — I bring to it certain expectations and assumptions. First and foremost, I want accuracy and fidelity to the facts. Secondly, I trust that the representations shown to me — and judgements offered — by the writer are judiciously reached, based on the best available evidence. I want to learn about three-dimensional characters, not black-and-white ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Where doubt about the evidence exists, I want it to be made clear that doubt exists.

Fake history Adolf Hitler Downfall
Bruno Ganz’s brilliant performance in Downfall was both celebrated and criticised for ‘humanizing’ Adolf Hitler.

Is it too much to expect all this of a film — and to be entertained as well? In the week of Bruno Ganz’s death, it is worth remembering what can be achieved. Though no Hollywood blockbuster, and perhaps known to many people only via much-circulated social media memes with joke subtitles, Downfall — and particularly Ganz’s electrifying portrayal of Adolf Hitler — demonstrates that films can indeed combine serious, well-researched history and gripping entertainment. More, please.