Books: Glued to the Box : All the Anthonys |
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All the Anthonys

Rather less trite and more expensive than his epic documentary drama about Churchill, Ian Curteis’s Suez (BBC1) was an epic documentary about Sir Anthony Eden. It added to one’s growing impression that recent British history has tended to resemble a not very inspired epic documentary drama.

Somewhere in the early 1950s, it is the end of the line for the British in the Middle East. The writing is on the wall, and it is in Arabic. Glubb Pasha is pwetty angwy at the pewemptowy manner in which he is thrown out of Jordan. One strives to sympathise, but can’t help noting that this understandable fit of pique is emanating from an actor who is pretending to have a speech impediment while balancing a tea-towel on his head. No doubt the original Glubb Pasha had a speech impediment which the actor is only copying, but while you are admiring the accuracy of the details it is impossible not to notice a certain cartoon-like simplicity in the general drift.

Back in London, Eden is not well. ‘We wed in the papers in Jordan,’ says a man with a red face, ‘that he’d been pwetty ill.’ Straight away you recognize the speaker. It is Glubb Pasha without his tea-towel! Unfortunately Glubb Pasha soon fades back into history. From now on it will be harder to match up the actors with their originals.

Even though he looks more like Harold Macmillan, you can tell Michael Gough is supposed to be Anthony Eden. Always at the centre of the stage, he is addressed either as ‘Prime Minister’ or ‘Anthony’. Thus it is usually possible to pick him out, even when he starts calling other people ‘Anthony’ in his turn.

Anthony Eden has an assistant called Anthony Nutting and there is a least one other Anthony in the cabinet. Anthonys are coming out of the woodwork. This is one way of telling you that you are watching an epic documentary drama about real life, instead of a play. In a play all the people have different names, with a maximum of one Anthony to any given cast.

So ‘Anthony’ is most often Eden. But who is ‘Bobbity’? When the Anthony who is usually Eden calls someone Bobbity, one searches the screen desperately for an actor who might conceivably be impersonating the character thus dubbed. Meanwhile the plot is advancing. It does this by means of old newsreel clips and doomy voice-overs. ‘5.00 pm. The Paris Bourse closes.’ Nasser nationalizes the Canal. Eden thinks Nasser is Hitler, but we know that Nasser is Robert Stephens. Blacked up with dubbin, Stephens shrieks defiance at the British.

Yet Mr Curteis, to do him justice, made the essential points. Eden had no legal justification whatsoever for launching the Suez adventure. On top of that, he had misjudged Britain’s real strength entirely. Piling Pelion on Ossa, he handed the Soviet Union a moral advantage, which they were able to exploit when crushing the Hungarian rebellion. Eden’s fabled statesmanlike qualities were left looking questionable, even though no reference was made to his disastrous post-war initiative by which many thousands of Soviet nationals were shipped home to be massacred. Eden made that blunder with his gall-bladder still reasonably healthy. By the time of Suez he was, apparently, a cot-case.

How did Eden, who had been right about Hitler, get everything so wrong later? Those fond of theorizing about the British ruling class could put it down to insularity. People who call each other Bobbity and assume that the Egyptians will run away are perhaps unusually prone to attacking the wrong canal. But it seems more likely that any ruling class becomes insulated, simply because it rules. Habitual power is a bad vantage point.

Suez was not the last gasp of the British Empire, which was already dead. It was the moment when even Britain’s rulers caught up with the truth about their country’s reduced capacity to influence events by force. They learned the hard way and might possibly have taken the whole world down the drain with them if Eisenhower had not known what to do. Eisenhower was no great visionary but he was, at least, a realist, especially about modern war.

The one possibility Mr Curteis did not cover was that the Soviet Union, thanks to Philby and the rest of the lads, knew about the whole Suez plan from the day of its inception and made their own preparations accordingly. But to deal with that subject in dramatic form you would need a big enough sense of humour to avoid unintentional farce, since all your leading characters would be either fools or spies. In real life this might well have been true, but to make it convincing as fiction would take a sure touch with language. Mr Curteis gives the British characters American things to say and vice versa. He has a tin ear. But he can cook up a watchable epic documentary drama.

The difference between documentary drama and drama is the difference between ordinary intelligence and that unfathomable combination of intelligence and intuition which the literary critics call sensibility. Testament of Youth (BBC2) is drama. It is based on history, just like Suez, but it lives an independent life. By now four episodes have gone by. I have watched each of them twice and never ceased to marvel at the writing, directing and acting.

Last week, Vera Brittain, played by Cheryl Campbell, was suddenly joined by another nurse of even more heroic stature, one Sister Milroy, played by Frances Tomelty in a high-spirited, long-striding style that recalled a Homeric goddess stepping down a mountain. One of the marks of a living drama is that a new principal character can enter at a late stage without unbalancing the story. Another mark is that it can display any amount of frankness without seeming sensational. In the latest episode, mustard-gas victims were carried in, coughing yellow froth. Vera got a telegram announcing her brother’s death. That makes it a clean sweep: all the men in her life are gone.

Nancy (BBC2) portrayed Lady Astor as a sacred monster. Here was yet another opportunity for those fond of theorizing about the British ruling class to do their stuff. Like Vera Brittain, Lady Astor saw a lot of ruined young men during the First World War. It made an appeaser out of her, but there is no reason to think she admired dictators. She thought that if Ribbentrop were invited to Cliveden and allowed to win at musical chairs then Hitler would moderate his demands. Plainly, like many instinctively virtuous people, she was an innocent. Equally plainly, everyone who knew her misses her like mad.

2 December, 1979

[ The complete original version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]