Books: The Crystal Bucket : The Truly Strong Man |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

The Truly Strong Man

As a climax to the salutary dust-up caused by his book on Unity Mitford, David Pryce-Jones was on Tonight (BBC1), face-to-face with Sir Oswald Mosley. Referee: Melvyn Bragg.

As always, the streamlined head of Sir Oswald looked simultaneously ageless and out of date, like some Art Deco metal sculpture recently discovered in its original wrappings. Nor have his vocal cords lost anything of their tensile strength during the decades of enforced inactivity. Devoid of any capacity for self-criticism, Sir Oswald is never nonplussed when caught out: he simply rattles on with undiminished brio.

So vivacious a revenant was a difficult opponent for Pryce-Jones, looking about eight years old, to deal with. He didn’t do so badly. There were about a hundred times he might have used his erudition to point out that Sir Oswald was talking grotesque malarkey, but that would have entailed finding some legally acceptable method of getting Sir Oswald to shut up. As it was, our brave young author did the next best thing. Apart from providing some useful quotations from Sir Oswald’s pre-war speeches, he just sat back and let his interlocutor’s much-touted political savvy reveal itself for what it actually is.

Sir Oswald was bent on establishing that Unity’s life was ‘a simple, tragic story of a gel who was what we called stage-struck in those days’ and that Pryce-Jones, in writing a book about such of her little quirks as anti-Semitism and blind adoration of Hitler, had done nothing but stir up trouble. Married to one of the Mitford sisters, Sir Oswald was outraged on behalf of the family. In addition, he took exception to being described as anti-Semitic himself. Unity might have been anti-Semitic, but that was madness. Hitler might have been anti-Semitic, but that was Nazism. He, Sir Oswald, had never been anti-Semitic. Nor had his movement, the British Union of Fascists — which, to hear Sir Oswald tell it, must have been some kind of philanthropic organisation.

Already slightly exophthalmic even in repose, Pryce-Jones was bug-eyed at the magnitude of Sir Oswald’s gall. To know that the shameless old spell-binder had been peddling these whoppers for years is one thing. To have him produce them right there in front of you is another. Purporting to counter Pryce-Jones’s allegation that he had sent a thank-you note after being congratulated on the impeccability of his sentiments by Julius Streicher, Sir Oswald defined Streicher as ‘a man I had absolutely nothing to do with’. The thank-you note had been a stock answer, nothing personal.

Pryce-Jones tried quoting chapter and verse to show that the message in question had been written from Streicher’s heart, but there was no way for the viewer to judge. With the details so far in the past, it was Pryce-Jones’s word against Mosley’s. What Pryce-Jones forgot to mention, for the benefit of those in the audience who don’t realise what Sir Oswald’s word on these subjects is worth, was the fact that Julius Streicher was a murderous, raving anti-Semite whose pornographic fantasies were already official Nazi policy by the time Sir Oswald sent his note. Any kind of thank-you to Streicher was a clearly recognisable anti-Semitic act.

But you will never catch Sir Oswald admitting to anti-Semitism. All he does is embody it. He talked of ‘the use of Jewish money power to promote a world war’. Taxed on this point, he disclaimed anti-Semitism by saying that he meant ‘not all Jews, but some Jews’. That’s as far as he will ever reduce his estimate. The truth, of course, is that the real number of Jews responsible for World War II was zero. Pryce-Jones tried to say something along those lines, but Sir Oswald shifted ground, saying that he himself had made anti-Jewish speeches only after the Jews started ‘attacking our people on the streets’. Like Hitler, Sir Oswald obviously regarded any resistance on the part of an innocent victim as provocation.

‘I object to this issue being raised now,’ Sir Oswald hammered on, oblivious to the fact that this issue has never gone away. As if to prove that it hasn’t, he had the hide to claim that the Jews would have been as safe as houses in Germany if they had not been so foolish as to promote the war. Before the war, apparently, Dachau had been like Butlin’s. If the Jews had really been in peril, then ‘why did they not leave Germany?’ Here Pryce-Jones, or Bragg for him, should really have told this terrifically silly man not to blaspheme.

Mosley contends that to rake these things up can only injure national unity. ‘The quarrel’, he announced brazenly, ‘has been over for forty years.’ Plainly he foresees a national government, with himself at the head of it. That is what he has been hoping for through all these years of exile. He loves Britain and has been waiting for its call — all unawares that the best reason for loving Britain has always been its reluctance to call him, or anybody like him. If it had done nothing else but encourage Sir Oswald to expose himself, Pryce-Jones’s book about Unity Mitford (‘a sweet gel, an honest gel’) would have performed a service.

In I, Claudius (BBC2) Caligula finally got his. John Hurt had a marvellous time in the role, poncing lethally about with lines like ‘And now I must away to shed more light.’ Perhaps inspired by Hurt’s furiously camping presence, the scenes of dissipation, which earlier in the series tended to recall the Windmill, rose to approximate the standard set by Raymond’s RevueBar. Which is probably what the originals were like, when you come to think about it. The famous horse made an appearance. ‘His life has really opened up since I made him a senator.’ It was clear that Caligula must have posed the same problem then that Idi Amin poses now: how to knock the mad bastard off. A question less ethical than practical. The contract having at last been filled, Claudius rose to power. A wonderful series, like a sexed-up version of The Brothers (BBC1), in which the big question now is whether April will get off with the Dutchman.

On Miss World (BBC 1) Patrick Lichfield and Sacha Distel helped herd the beef. Even further down-market, The Royal Variety Performance (BBC1) was hosted by Max Bygraves, who tried the time-honoured gimmick of singing the finale at the start. ‘And if you doan like our finish/ You doan have to stay for the show.’ Thanks. Click.

21 November, 1976

[ This piece also appears in our Observer TV column chapter ]