Essays: Agitprop artists |
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Agitprop artists

Having left Blake himself far behind in the black hole of an early write-out, Blake’s Seven (BBC1) continues to stagger through the universe. Occasionally I tune in, never quite without profit.

For example, there was an interesting moment in the latest episode. The interesting moment was not intended, but then the interesting moments in ‘Blake’s Seven’ never are, with the possible exception of the voom-voom space outfits worn by Servalan, top lady and chief heavy of the Federation. That aside, the points of significance usually arise from what the programme inadvertently reveals about the culture that produces it, if I may sound sociological for a moment. Every few weeks the vagabond Seven commandeer a new starship, which invariably turns out to look like a chandelier in bad taste. On their latest interstellar light-fitting there is a computer called Slave, who talks with a lower-class accent.

The automatic and unquestioned assumption that a computer which does your bidding should talk like a member of the unwashed tells you an awful lot. Such considerations give a production like United Kingdom (BBC1) added weight. Impressively done though it was, added weight was something it needed. Written by Jim Allen, produced by Kenith Trodd and including Colin Welland among its convincingly regional cast, the piece had a familiar ring even before it started. Plainly we were in for another instalment of ‘Leeds United.’

As the epic story of working-class councillors fighting the cuts imposed by an uncomprehendingly authoritarian government unfolded its two-and-a-half-hour length, nobody with an average endowment of human sympathy could fail to be gripped: after all, the current Government is uncomprehendingly authoritarian, and any council which found itself being forced to cut off social services to the helpless could be excused for at least thinking about going to the barricades.

In ‘United Kingdom’ the council went to the barricades. That was the science-fiction element of the story, since so far no council in Britain has carried rebellion to quite that point. The most challenging act of insurrection we have yet been faced with is Ken Livingstone’s unilateral lowering of public transport fares, and you will find few Londoners, beyond an insignificant minority inhabiting the upper offices of Fleet Street, who call him a dangerous radical for that. If Mr Livingstone admires Trotsky, it could well be through ignorance, since Trotsky hated all forms of democracy with inexhaustible fury and was so devoid of human compassion that he regarded the measures taken against the peasantry as insufficiently severe.

So far neither the Greater London Council nor any other local government body has formed itself into a soviet. In ‘United Kingdom’ this was shown happening. It was shown well, but once again the assumption underlying the dramatic illustration was more interesting than the dramatic illustration. Why are the left-wing playwrights so keen to take their dramatic events further than the actual events? Why do they think that in doing so they make the actual events more intelligible instead of less?

Kenith Trodd is in many ways a masterly producer, but he seems always to underestimate the extent to which he and his fellow agitprop artists are implicated in the class system they deplore. They can be forgiven for this, because not even Brecht, who was a lot smarter than all of Britain’s committed playwrights rolled into one, could escape the paradox that his attacks on the bourgeoisie appealed exclusively to a bourgeois audience, and that the only aspect of his didactic theatre which the general public ever took to their hearts was a tune by Kurt Weill. You can’t create folk art just by wishing to. It is a hard lesson to learn and perhaps becomes harder the longer you go on failing, so that in the end the overwhelming temptation is to blame the people for being hard to convince, instead of yourself for being unable to get them interested.

Yet surely Trodd and the rest of the boys should have realised by now that instead of knocking the wedge between the two nations sideways they are driving it further in. Watching ‘United Kingdom’ I kept being reminded of Eisenstein’s classic film ‘October’, in which Kerensky’s government was swept aside as a bourgeois remnant by the irresistible force of the proletariat. The Trodd school of drama is just as keen for the toiling masses to realise their isolation and become aware that anyone who is not for them is against them. Hence they must face a notably intransigent and uncomprehending Chief Constable, played by Colin Welland with the full resources of his off-putting self-confidence. Hence they must face a particularly devious smoothie from Whitehall. Hence they must face a Parliamentary Labour Party which will not acknowledge them because fundamentally it is in league with the boss class. Hence, above all, they must look and sound like proletarians.

The Trodds are careful to show that some of the oppressors have a background among the oppressed and that among the oppressed not all is harmony. But what the Trodds say about the system — that the subtleties only reinforce it — can be said, and said more justly, of the system of thought underlying their own work. They want the proletariat to become conscious of itself. They bend all their considerable creative talents to that end. But like every other class in Britain, what the proletariat needs is to be made less class-conscious, not more. The committed playwrights are part of a bigger, and more obsolescent, system than they know.

‘United Kingdom,’ a purportedly daunting evocation of Britain’s immediate future, was in fact a muted cry from the past. There is no left-wing answer to Britain’s problems, any more than there is a right-wing answer. Bored by the one side and insulted by the other, the people might just possibly go to the barricades, but it seems more likely that they will vote for a central party. Drama in real life is a luxury that they cannot afford. Only a dramatist like Jim Allen would believe they can. His declared intention of sending people to bed angry shows the contempt at the centre of his compassion. They have already been going to bed like that, for years and years.

John Osborne was on the South Bank Show (LWT) saying highly unkind things about his mother. Somehow it is hard to imagine Cliff (BBC2 recurring) doing the same. Indeed it is hard to imagine Cliff Richard doing anything except being his wholesome self. Why he should bother about being a Christian is a mystery, since he is transparently a case of natural goodness. In him the principle of evil is simply not present. In Elvis Presley it was, with the result that when Elvis sang rock ’n’ roll you knew dark fires were contained within his gyrating trousers. From Cliff’s immaculately maintained leather pants there is nothing fighting to get free except a general love of mankind.

‘Beware the devil woman!’ Cliff warns, but it is clear that he has never met her. Nor is there any real reason why he ever should. He sings the non-alcoholic version of pop music, but there is an audience for it, and though he and they may be trite, they are no more so than the pill-heads and the junkies. Elvis died young from drugs. Cliff lives forever. Which is the cliché?

The Observer, 13th December 1981