Books: Glued to the Box : Beastly to everybody | clivejames.com
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Beastly to everybody

Back at the start of the viewing week, Unity (BBC2) made a sort of half impact, like one side of a bomb going off. Dramatised by John Mortimer from the book by David Pryce-Hones, it told the story of the Mitford sister who fell for Hitler. Other Mitford sisters fell, at various angles, for Stalin, Sir Oswald Mosley and the Duke of Devonshire. In the eye of history it turned out that Unity drew the short straw, but this was by no means apparent at the time, when certain sections of the British aristocracy thought Hitler admirable. Pryce-Jones’s book caused its furore largely because of its explicit doubts about whether the nobs concerned should be allowed to forgive themselves for this. Sir Oswald himself turned up in London to assure the television audience that Unity had been nothing more than a stagestruck gel and that he objected to the issue being raised.

A lot of other top-drawer people objected right along with him. Most of them had never been Nazi sympathisers, but they all shared what Lord Annan has usefully defined as the aristocratic theory of politics, by which people’s social acceptability can be held to excuse their political views. Actually the play would have done a better job of rebutting that theory if it had made Unity nicer. What it made her was very nasty indeed. Lesley-Anne Down made her look suitably beautiful but she sounded like a raving bitch at all times, which rather blunted the point when she was shown being beastly to the Jews. She was beastly to everyone and everything, with the possible exception of the beasts. Large dogs lolled everywhere, so that the Nazis could fondle them, prod them with the toe of a jackboot, etc.

Hitler spent a lot of time prodding his wolf-hound. For just a moment he looked believable. Also he had the correct voice — a slightly husky rich purr, it could obviously have filled a stadium at the swell of a lung. But in all other respects he just wasn’t the man. His incipient dementia was conveyed by pop eyes. Since he chewed the carpet in real life, there are difficulties in the way of making him credible, but there is no point in trying to dodge the fact that he had real charisma. He made a genuine appeal to the dark places in human nature. If he could have been shown doing that, there would have been something both plausible and instructive about Unity’s multiple orgasm of Sieg heil!

Sieg means victory. Unity thought she was on to a winner. Other golden products of her generation put their money on an alternative brand of totalitarianism, but what united them all was power-worship. They were a minority even within their class. On the whole the British upper crust has traditionally remained impervious to big ideas, although it is a nice question whether this can be put down to good sense or philistinism. Anyway, the British aristocracy is in no danger of being thought dispensable. The inspiration it provides for television drama series would alone be sufficient reason to keep it going, just as the upper middle class is vital in providing material for the spy series which have contributed so heavily to the balance of payments.

29 March, 1981