Posts Tagged ‘The Railwayman’

Coming Soon to TV this Christmas: IDS – A Real Video Nasty?

December 13, 2014

Ever since Charles Dickens invented the ‘traditional’, Victorian Christmas with A Christmas Carol, ghost and horror stories have been a part of the season’s entertainment. In the 1970s and ’80s the BBC broadcast a series of ghost stories, including a version of Dickens’ The Railwayman, and the chilling tales of the master of the British ghost story, M.R. James. The latter were told by Robert Powell, taking the part of James himself, who every Christmas settled down in his room at Oxford to tell a story of the ghastly and supernatural to his students. Last year Mark Gatiss of the League of Gentlemen and now Dr Who, presented a documentary on James’ life and career. Gatiss and the other members of the League were horror fans, and arguably much of the new Dr Who has its roots less in Science Fiction than Dark Fantasy and Horror. He therefore was a good choice as the programme’s presenter.

Other spooky delights on offer on TV in the past were Hammer’s gory and grisly tales, such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, and The Wolfman, featuring Oliver Reed as a werewolf, a part, which it could be said, he continued playing in many of his subsequent dramatic performances on chat shows around the world for much of his life. Some of his still remember his finest hour when he was thrown off the final programme of the discussion programme, After Dark.

Now watching the trailers last night for the forthcoming seasonal delights on the Beeb, I came across something that was genuinely unpleasant, far more so than anything dreamed up by Terence Fisher and the other fevered minds at Bray Studios in the 1960s. It was for a celebrity edition of University Challenge, and one of the faces looked like that of IDS.

This is genuinely grotesque. Christmas is traditionally a time of peace and goodwill to all, and yet there’s precious little of that on display with IDS and his actions. This is the politician, who has cut benefits and imposed sanctions to the point where claimants have actually died of cold and starvation on Britain’s streets, in their homes, or taken their lives through desperation. This is the politicians, who has lied and lied again about the effects of his policies to parliament. Not only that, but he is also personally treacherous and utterly without honour. When one lady, a Dutchwoman who had grown up here, worked all her life and paid her tax came to him as her MP about immigration problems, not only did … Smith refuse to help, he tried to have her deported.

Good King Wenceslaus, the song goes, took pity on a poor man ‘gathering winter fuel’, and so took him home to share his food and hearth out of charity. The real King Wenceslaus was the early medieval king of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, who converted the country to Christianity. I’ve got the feeling that the Czech version of his name is Vaclav, which is obviously still a popular name in the Republic. It’s the first name, for example, of the dissident poet and first democratic Czech president after the fall of Communism, Vaclav Havel. I don’t know whether the real King Wenceslas ever did what the carol describes, but it’s not impossible. Medieval religion strongly emphasised charity and the ‘works of mercy’ as part of the co-operative grace granted to humanity through which they could gain salvation partly through their good works. It formed what modern scholars have termed an ‘economy of salvation’ in which wealthy merchants and rich noblemen were careful to work out exactly how much money they should spend on charity for the poor in order gain time off in Purgatory. Looking after the material needs of the poor was particularly important, as it was believed that they far dearer to the Lord than the rich, and so their blessings and prayers were particularly important in securing God’s pardon.

For all IDS’ rhetoric about ‘social justice’, I’ve seen precious little evidence that IDS has anything but hatred and contempt for the poor. Far from helping the poor man collect his firewood, and show due concern for the page following in his footsteps against treacherous, icy footing, IDS strikes me as far more likely to have taken away the pauper’s firewood as above the level allowed by feudal law, and given him a strong lecture on his improvidence and lack of self-sufficiency in not having rationed his firewood properly in the Christmas season. And the page would have to have made his own way to keep up with the king, as this would have been the only way to give him the proper training to compete in the go-ahead, globalised economy of the 11th century.

It also struck me as the beginning of a charm offensive by the Tory party in preparation for next year’s election. The Tories are keenly aware that they have an image as ‘the nasty party’. IDS himself is surely aware that he is one of the most hated men in Britain. It’s why he opened a jobs fair in his constituency, Chingford, early and left before the masses arrived. It’s also why he has been forced to sneak out the back when appearing at a job centre in Bath, as well as hide in laundry baskets to escape protesters. He’s also such a physical coward that when he appeared before a select committee in parliament to give evidence, he was surrounded by bodyguards and armed cops, pointing their guns at the public, including a number of disabled people and their carers in the public gallery.

His appearance on a festive edition of University Challenge looks like an attempt to present him as genial and family-friendly, a jolly type quite prepared to make a fool of himself on a quiz show at this time of year, rather than the vindictive, mean-spirited curmudgeon his really is.

It also seems to bear out a comment by Mark Kermode about the personal character of the makers of Horror and Family movies. Kermode’s the film critic on Radio 5 Live. He’s a long term Horror fan, having written books on Horror cinema and spoken before the British Boards of Film Certification about the censorship of particular video nasties. You remember them. They were films like Driller Killer, I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left, that were so disgusting that when they appeared in the 1970s and ’80s they were banned. Kermode has said in his reviews that the makers of Horror movies all invariably tend to be really nice people. Wes Craven, who made Last House on the Left and then the Nightmare on Elm Street series, was actually a genuinely nice, highly educated, intelligent man. Craven has said in interviews that the extreme and genuinely disgusting violence and brutality in Last House on the Left was partly inspired by the images that were coming out of Vietnam in 1973. He saw the film as a polemic against violence, and showing how violence simply begets even more violence. To that point, he once walked out of one of Quentin Tarentino’s flicks. When one of the horror great Horror directors asked him how he could walk out of Tarentino’s movie, after he had directed something as revolting as Last House on the Left, Craven replied, ‘Well at least my movie’s about something!’

M.R. James seems to be another case in point. Rather than being a pale, sour misanthrope, Gatiss’ programme described James as quite a jovial, very sociable figure in real life, who enjoyed physically romping with his fellow students. Gatiss talked to the son of one of James’ students, who said that his father believed him to have been a non-practicing gay. Regardless of the speculation about James’ sexuality, what was clear was that James was a genuinely friendly man, who enjoyed his friends’ company and affection.

By contrast, according to Kermode, you can bet that the people who make family films are personally nasty. Well, this seems pretty much the case with IDS, which is no doubt why he wants to appear on TV in a positive light. Forget Hammer, Frankenstein, Dracula and Freddie Kruger, this is one Horror story I’ll be glad to miss.

Charles Dickens on the Brutality and Rapacity of the Tories

September 29, 2013

Charles_Dickens_1858

Charles Dickens is one of the great titans of modern English literature. His works have been prized, celebrated and imitated since the publication of The Pickwick Papers . The book’s appearance prompted a horde of copies lower down the press hierarchy in the penny journals. The copyright laws were much less rigorous then, and so these, lesser novels all had titles similar, but not identical to those of Dickens himself. His book, Sketches by Boz, was taken and copied by one of the 19th century popular journalists, as ‘Sketchbook by’, followed by a name very similar to Dickens’ ‘Boz’. His books have been adapted into stage plays, films and musicals, most famously A Christmas Carol, which has twice been filmed as a cartoon, and Oliver Twist, which became Lionel Bart’s musical, Oliver! His novels have also been frequently adapted for television. In the 1970s, for example, many of the Beeb’s period costume dramas broadcast on Sunday evening were adaptations of Dickens. I particularly remember Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield.

Despite his deserved popularity and immense respect, I suspect Dickens’ status as one of the Great Men of English Literature has probably done much to put people off him. People have a tendency to distrust automatically anything that becomes official, established art. One way to guarantee that people refuse to read a particular willingly is to put it on the school syllabus. Moreover, modern audiences are also likely to be left alienated by some of the characteristics of much 19th century writing, such as verbosity and their sentimentality. Boys in particular are likely to be put off him because of his novels’ period character, which associates them with the great 19th century lady novelists Jane Austen and the Brontes. In Superman II, for example, Clarke Kent’s identity as a wimpish square is firmly established, when Superman’s alter ego announces he wasn’t around to cover one incident as he was at home that evening reading Dickens. One suspects that its the kind of literature that such narrow-minded upholders of bourgeois respectability as Mary Whitehouse liked. For those younger readers suspicious of Dickens, I strongly recommend his short story, The Railwayman. It’s one of the classic British ghost stories, and completely amazed me when I read it as a teenager with its complete absence of all the dullness, verbosity and sentimentality I’d expected to come across in his works. Today one of Dickens’ great champions is the thesp Simon Cowell, who has toured in a one man play about the great writer and his life, and even appeared as his hero in a episode of Dr. Who, with Christopher Ecclestone playing the Time Lord. The video below comes from the Guardian, and is on Youtube. In it, Simon Callow takes the viewer around Dickens’ London.

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Dickens is partly celebrated for his work defending the poor and describing the hardship and poverty of the lives of ordinary people in 19th century Britain. Indeed, his surname has become a byword for conditions of grinding poverty and squalor in the word ‘Dickensian’. Dickens himself consciously wrote some of his novels both as works of social criticism, but also actively to improve the conditions of the poor. Horrified at the respectable middle classes’ indifference to the suffering of the labouring poor, he wrote A Christmas Carol. This transformed Christmas from a relatively minor holy day into the massive festival that it is today. As a socially engaged writer, Dickens could and did write bitter pieces sharply attacking the Conservatives. In 1841 the Liberal magazine, The Examiner, published his ballad, The Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version. It was a parody of a traditional ballad celebrating the virtues of the gentry. The hero of the traditional ballad shared his good fortune with his social inferiors, in the line ‘while he feasted all the great, he never forgot the small’.

Dickens wrote his satirical versions after the reforming Whigs had lost office and been replaced by Peel’s Conservatives, and the country was in the middle of a depression. The poem attacks the Tories for their corruption, brutal and oppressive laws, and their savage oppression of the poor to enrich themselves and the other members of the aristocracy. Cheekily, Dickens states as a direction for the poem’s performance that it should be said or sung at all Conservative dinners. It shows that what could be described as agit-prop literature long preceded the Communist party. The blackly humorous suggestion of performance venue and the bitter satire of the poem itself very much reminds me of the same mixture of humour and bitter social criticism in much contemporary radical, popular protests following 1960’s Situationism. This leads to the question of whether Dickens, if he were alive today, would be marching with the demonstrators, neatly attired in top hat and tail coat, and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Here’s the poem:

‘I’ll sing you a new ballad, and I’ll warrant it first rate,
Of the days of that old gentleman who had that old estate;
When they spent the public money at a bountiful old rate
On ev’ry mistress, pimp and scamp, at ev’ry noble gate,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old laws were garnished well with gibbets, whips, and
chains,
With fine old English penalties, and fine old English pains,
With rebel heads, and seas of blood once in hot in rebel veins;
For all these things were requisite to guard the rich old gains
Of the fine old English Tory timnes;
Soon may the come again!

The brave old code, like Argus, had a hundred watchful eyes,
And ev’ry English peasant had his good old English spies,
To tempt his starving discontent with fine old English lies,
Then call the good old Yeomany to stop his peevish cries,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old times for cutting throats that cried out in their need,
The good old times for hunting men who held their fathers’ creed.
The good old times when William Pitt, as all good men agreed,
Came down direct from Paradise at more than railroad speed …
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
When will they come again!

In those rare days, the press was seldom known to snarl or bark,
But sweetly sang of men in pow’r, like any tuneful lark;
Grave judges, too, to all their evil deeds were in the dark;
And not a man in twenty score knew how to make his mark.
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

Those were the days for taxes, and for war’s infernal din;
For scarcity of bread, that fine old dowagers might win;
For shutting men of letters up, through iron bars to grin,
because they didn’t think the Prince was altogether thin,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

But Tolerance, though slow in flight, is strong-wing’d in the main;
That night must come on these fine days, in course of time was
plain;
The pure old spirit struggled, but its struggles were in vain;
A nation’s grip was on it, and it died in choking pain,
With the fine old English Tory days,
All of the olden time.

The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the
land,
In England there shall be deear breat – in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, raly round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English ~Tory days; Hail to the coming time!

Great literature transcends the ages, and speaks eternal truths about human nature, politics and society. What is shocking reading this is just how much is true today. The line about the silence of the press in the face of horrific oppression and abuse just about sums up much of the modern press under Murdoch, Dacre, the Barclay twins and the rest.

Source
Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove with David Horspool, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013).