Article first published as Idealism and Conspiracy in The Hour on Blogcritics.
The Hour has a little bit of everything. I am falling in love with its setting, its characters and its plot lines. On paper a stuffy newsroom and sepia period detail might not seem ideal for summer viewing. But there is something refreshingly
different and gripping about this very versatile new series.
The key ingredient to its seductive and exciting charm is hard to isolate. Certainly I was already predisposed to its particular portion of the past. I’ve read about the panicked political intrigue and rushed reactions of the Suez crisis. I am an aspiring writer and journalist, interested and inspired by current affairs, and therefore susceptible to characters who feel passionately about the issues of their time. Everything about the 50s as a decade seems at once British and strangely exotic, creating a fascinating cocktail of cultural change, from rationing to the Cold War, from crooners to rock ‘n roll. The costumes, the lipstick, the hair; were all part of an irresistible style.
And yet The Hour has prompted considerable criticism from some quarters, reigniting a debate about authenticity and historical accuracy. Producer Bel, played by Romola Garai, seems too weak for a successful woman in a man’s world at times during Episode 2. It’s also questionable whether the particular shade of her stunning hairdo was achievable at the time. Reporting veterans that lived TV news in the 50s have written in to national newspapers to bemoan the inaccurate methods on show. There wasn’t the sort of investigative journalism seen from Ben Whishaw’s character Freddie. Underlings were simply given assignments by editors and sent out with a camera crew.
But ultimately Whishaw is playing a character in a drama. Some of the intricacies may be wrong but The Hour works tremendously well as a story and has truly ambitious scope. On Twitter most of the praise singles out the perfect casting. Garai is as good as she usually is in costume drama, exchanging flirtatious banter with Dominic West’s Hector and friendly jibes with Whishaw’s Freddie. In Episode 1 Freddie dominated and got me hooked, whilst in Episode 2, as Hector struggled with presenting duties, he emerged as something more complicated than a connected charmer.
Aside from the overlapping relationships behind the scenes of The Hour itself, a cutting edge flagship TV news programme for the BBC, there is a conspiracy theory plot bubbling in the background. This occasionally gives the programme the flavour of a thriller to go with its period drama and romantic credentials. It centres on a couple of murders we witness in Episode 1, perpetrated by Burn Gorman’s mostly mute and hat wearing enigma. Gorman was in previous series of Torchwood, now enjoying an American financed revival. He ended up being an annoying presence in the sci-fi drama but works well here because his extraordinary eyes ooze sinister menace.
As part of the BBC’s financial restructuring, BBC 2 has become the home of original drama. We’ve already seen, as a result of this new strategy, complexly plotted series like The Shadow Line which focus strongly on conspiracy. The Shadow Line was set in the present day and the recent phone hacking scandal proves the potential for conspiracy in modern society. It isn’t necessary to delve into the past for compelling and devious plotting by powerful men in high places.
However genuine idealism is something distinctly lacking in today’s world of cynicism. In a world where we can access news and hordes of information with a few clicks, it can feel as if there is no longer any point to saying what you feel. There is no new ground to break and nothing left to discover. Strong ethical convictions are less common even in students, who should be protesting and staying up to discuss the philosophical ills of the world, rather than liking “funny” groups on Facebook. If the exposure of hacking at the News of the World reassured storytellers that shocking conspiracy could still be rife in vital
industries, it will also have confirmed the pessimism and ignorance many feel
about the workings of the world every day.
Ben Whishaw’s Freddie Lyon is the sort of idealist that doesn’t seem to exist anymore, at least openly. His fiercely held convictions, combined with his affectionate sparring with Bel, were a breath of fresh air in Episode 1 of The Hour. It’s his range of principles that allows the show to touch on themes as different as relationships, privilege, power and media content.
He has his flaws, as The Hour does. He is messy, like the plotting at times, and he is in love with a friend who will probably never see him that way. He is ignorant of his own hypocritical snobbery. He holds himself back by speaking too rashly. He is blunt, as the show can be when it telegraphs the trajectory of a scene with its moody period soundtrack. But he also cares about quality. And The Hour is quality television.
Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.
I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.
The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.
Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?
I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.
I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.
In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.
His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.
Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.
I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.
Posted in Personal, Uncategorized
Tagged 1984, America, argue, book, challenge, Channel 4, Civilization: The West and the Rest, Colossus, conflict, Contradictions, contradictory, controversy, crossover, dynamic, economic, education, Empire, evidence, Ferguson, Freedom, Freedom is Slavery, fusion, future, Gove, Greece, Guyatt, Harvard, heft, Helots, history, hobbies, idealism, ideas, interests, interview, learning, lecture, life, literature, love, LSE, man, new, Niall, Nicholas, Observer, oppose, opposing, Orlando, Orwell, passion, past, Patterson, personal, philosophy, Pity of War, Politics, pragmatic, professor, programme, realism, reform, reputation, revisionist, Schama, scholar, Scottish, Servitude, Skidelsky, Sparta, Starkey, suave, subject, Sunday 20th February 2011, support, teacher, teaching, theory, tv, university, view, War of the Worlds, William, work, works, York
Sitting in a luxurious hotel lobby in Spain last week I came across an article by the actor Hugh Bonneville in The Times which was part of their Christmas appeal. It was about Liberia and in particular a young mum, who claimed she was 21 but was in fact 17. She was having her third child. Even if it survived birth it would struggle to make it out of childhood, such are the overwhelming health risks for children in Africa. I wish I could quote the striking figures about infant mortality in the article but they are tied up behind Murdoch’s News International online paywall, although that is another matter entirely. The unsettling truth is that I would not have lingered over the article had I not known I would be writing a review on a documentary about Liberia’s turbulent recent political history on my return to British soil. I was holidaying in a country with 20% unemployment and an expanding prostitution industry, and the depressing fact is that we are all guilty of choosing to focus on these more manageable economic and moral woes of developed nations, than look with unblinking eyes at the seemingly insurmountable challenge of Africa. We need documentaries like Pray The Devil Back To Hell to jolt us out of our ignorance and indifference now and again and spark good souls into action.
Having said this, badly made documentaries can also turn an audience away from an issue, so it was an enormously important and difficult task that directors Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker took on. They were trying to summarise a long and bitter struggle and in particular distil the bravery and brilliance of ordinary women that formed a peace initiative that restored calm to their country. Liberia had once been envied as one of the few independent African republics, but just like other nations on the continent it encountered its terrible problems when the dream of a nation founded by free slaves on equality went sour over generations, leading to a sporadic civil war raging from 1989 to 2003. The conflict reached new and devastating heights at the beginning of the 21st century, so events remain chillingly fresh in the minds of those involved and are surely too close to be dismissed as mere history. Given the harrowing plight Liberians still face today according to The Times appeal, it’s clear this documentary had the potential to convince viewers why Liberia was as deserving of sympathy and aid as other better known African nations in crisis and poverty.
This is the story of an unlikely coalition of brilliant women, and given their brilliance the filmmakers are wise to let the women tell the story in their own words. From the beginning we are guided by the words of the charismatic leading light of the movement, and from then on the documentary is a painstaking fusion of moving interviews and dramatic archive footage. Initially the speakers set the scene of everyday life, then emotional interviews detail the atrocities carried out, both by the rebels supposedly fighting for democracy and the government forces commanded by President Charles Taylor, elected on the back of a campaign of fear. Having thus captivated the audience the film plunges into the remarkable story of the women that set out angrily to put a stop to the bloodshed in their villages of their friends and relatives. This story speaks for itself and is a tale of the power of peaceful protest that we in cynical developed nations may not think possible in the modern age.
Originating as a Christian movement the women’s plan for peace soon spread into the Muslim community and these two often divided groups of mothers proceeded to present a formidable and determined united front. Indeed the film is certainly a convincing advocate for the continuing good of religion in the modern world when its message is simplified to easily understandable, universal goods, namely peace in this case. Wisely the directors do not ram religion down the throat of the audience however; it is a key factor behind events but comes second to the sheer humanity of the story.
What’s especially extraordinary is that not only do the women force peace talks with their organised action, but they maintain the momentum to ensure the implementation of genuine democracy for their country, even after the ceasefire, to keep the widespread violence from making a comeback. As the momentum of the campaign builds so does that of the film and it’s easy to get swept up in the struggle. This is a story full of big and shocking ideas and issues but one with an ultimately idealistic message. There are rapes, murders and corruption, religion, race and reminders that our interconnected modern world means those in developed countries cannot afford to sit back and let the suffering play out (extracts from articles show that President Taylor had links to Al-Qaeda and other threats). In the end though the very real and authentic rhythms of African rhetoric, chanted by peaceful protestors clothed in harmless white, won the day. People power and perhaps as the Spice Girls said, girl power, conquers in a world where the odds are stacked against it. There is certainly something irresistibly inspiring about it all.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter some atmospheric opening titles with colourful African images and music, along with a concise running time of 72 minutes and the powerful likeability of the women, avert a gloomy lecture of a film. In any case the drama of the story itself would make it hard to make a boring film about such stirring events. Even with the ongoing challenges suggested by the article that I read this story has a happy ending that makes it possible for help to reach those who need it most in Liberia. One would certainly hope that now heartfelt donations go directly towards the care of children and young mothers like those I mentioned at the beginning, rather than into the pockets of corrupt officials or towards the production of weapons. Watch this film over the festive season to see how deserving many Liberians are of our gifts and goodwill. Watch it to spare a moment for those less fortunate than ourselves. Watch it to be gripped by something real, not a contrived and fake blockbuster but a story with actual characters that personify a selfless Christmas spirit.
Posted in Personal, Uncategorized
Tagged Africa, archive, christian, Christmas, crisis, directors, documentary, Hugh Bonneville, idealism, important, impressive, inspiration, LEDC, Liberia, MEDC, moving, Murdoch, muslim, Paywall, Politics, religion, Spain, Times, turmoil, women
David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday was an accomplished rallying cry and an impassioned response to his critics. Of all the party leader’s speeches during this conference season there is no doubt that Cameron’s was the most polished and technically the best. He stood out as a Prime Minister and appeared like a leader, completing a transformation from head of the Opposition to the most experienced politician in Britain. He sought to counter Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour were the optimists now with his own stirring note of idealism. However in doing so he once again missed an opportunity to spell out his message clearly to the country, opting instead for reams of empty rhetoric that made excellent sound bites but often contradicted each other.
Most strikingly Cameron again tried to explain what he meant by the “Big Society” and again failed catastrophically to render it a reality accessible to voters. In his haste to counter the new Labour leader’s charge of pessimism, Cameron swung dangerously into the realms of wild over optimism. In the speech he simultaneously claimed that his coalition government was both realistic about what it could achieve in power and optimistic about what government could achieve in partnership with the people. In principle this all sounds lovely of course. Of course government should concede it cannot solve everything by decree and ask cooperation from its people, whilst also setting high standards of achievement. In reality though Cameron has no credible claim to the titles of both realist and optimist. He must choose one or the other to define his leadership. He let the tone of his speech tip into an unrealistic optimism, probably due to that desire to stop the Labour revolution in its tracks. He blasted the “cynics” who would pour scorn on his “Big Society” rhetoric and indeed it was a clever ploy from the Prime Minister to call on the people to come to the aid of the nation, with grand, fluffy, empty rhetoric, and offer nothing concrete. Those who criticise Cameron’s speech for its lack of substance will be easily labelled as non-believers, as statists who do not trust the brilliance of the British people. Cameron therefore tried to lay a trap for opponents of the “Big Society”. But there is a reason I continue to put the “Big Society” in inverted commas, and it’s the same reason voters and indeed Conservatives distrust the policy; good idea in principle, but it’ll never work in practice.
Again Cameron failed to articulate what the “Big Society” would actually mean in terms of government policy, besides him praising voluntary organisations in speeches and urging everyone to go out and get involved. Rhetoric and the lifting of restrictions alone will not drastically change people’s behaviour and therefore the country. The kind of society Cameron claims to want, one that rewards contribution and discourages excessive consumption, simply cannot happen without at least some prompting by central government. It is also confusing that Cameron should place such an emphasis on contribution and consumption, areas that would be better suited to alterations in tax policy, when his government has vowed to tackle the deficit predominantly through spending cuts. On the other hand Cameron did make it clear he wanted a state that was better run, more powerful and within the means of government. Again this is sensible in principle, but shockingly for a government claiming to be the “greenest ever”, Cameron simply refused to utter the word “sustainability”.
To have made sustainability a key theme of the speech would have given it greater direction and purpose and clarity. It should also be made a more important plank of his government’s policy agenda. At the moment it is an area that lies wide open for Ed Miliband’s “new generation” to seize upon and exploit. Cameron’s deficit slashing philosophy, he was at pains to point out, was not simply ideological but a necessity. However the public is already convinced that the cuts, whichever party implements them, will be in some way driven by that party’s ideology. An ideology containing the idea of sustainability would be far easier to justify than the abstract notion of the “Big Society”.
Cameron also hinted at a promise that after the pain there will be rewards. He should have placed much greater emphasis on his long term goals and how action now would lead to sustainable rewards in future, but he was perhaps deterred by the short term nature of the coalition. He was also perhaps put off of any mention of “sustainability” because a truly sustainable recovery, that really could end “boom and bust” as Gordon Brown once rashly promised, would require substantial investment now to ensure growth, energy supplies and long lasting jobs. Cameron is simply not prepared to take the gambles required of the “greenest government ever”. His brush with the backlash of child benefits cuts this week has reinforced to him that it is difficult to justify changes of policy, particularly from those promised in manifestos, to the media and electorate. He will therefore not be seen to spend now, even if that spending is necessary because of what he has previously said. So despite the obvious passion and idealism of his speech, his actions as Prime Minister suggest that Cameron is happy for the “Big Society” to remain a vague enigma, which will inspire some, baffle many and prove largely immune to damaging criticism, as critics will remain unsure as to what it is they object to. And if the Prime Minister was truly serious about lifting the burden of debt from our children then he would also use the shield of coalition to act in the “national interest” now to avert a legacy of unalterable climate change for them to inherit.
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