Terrence Rattigan and the New Statesman

The magazine features in a revival of While the Sun Shines.

Terrence Rattigan had a close association with the New Statesman, most strongly just after the Second World War when his friend T C Worsley, who often spent winter breaks at Rattigan’s house in Bermuda, became the magazine’s literary editor and drama critic. In 1950 the playwright provoked the contemporary equivalent of a Twitter storm in the letters pages of the NS when, following a bad reception for his play Adventure Story about  Alexander the Great,  he published his article “Concerning the Play of Ideas” which took a swipe at the idea that drama had to address topical controversies, singling out Ibsen and Shaw for particular criticism. Shaw waded into the controversy closely followed by Sean O’Casey, James Bridie (playwright and translator of Ibsen), Benn Levy (playwright and Labour MP for Eton and Slough 1945-50), Peter Ustinov and Ted Willis.

Rattigan had success in the 1950s with The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables (which also features a copy of the New Statesman read by the Major disgraced by the disclosure of his conviction for a minor sexual offence), but his spell at the heart of the Zeitgeist was over, aggravated by his self regarding remarks after the first night of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

The hundreth anniversary of his birth last year has produced a spate of Rattigan revivals and his reputation has been restored almost to the heights it reached in the 1930s and 1940s. The hugely successful recent production of his 1944 play Flare Path has now been followed by a revival of the play that immediately preceeded it, While The Sun Shines, at the Lion and the Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town. Set in the London of 1943 when many couples were getting hitched only to be parted by the war, sometimes forever, this is not one of the playwright's social commentaries but a very funny comedy featuring the young Earl of Harpenden’s faltering progress towards the altar with Lady Elizabeth Randall. Matters are complicated by the earl’s entanglement with the comely Mabel Crum and Lady Elizabeth’s unwitting bewitching of both a Free French officer Lieutenant Colbert and the Earl’s new found American friend Lieutant Mulvaney. The Duke of Ayr and Stirling, Lady Elizabeth’s permanently impecunious father is desperate for the match to succeed so he can obtain a share of the Harpenden money to fritter away in the bookies – at one point he plays dice to decide which of the suitors will actually make it to the altar. A copy of the New Statesman is brandished at several points in the action, twice as Mabel Crum is dispatched to hide in the kitchen with the NS to keep her company and most memorably when Harpenden clashes with Colbert who proudly admits to being a socialist, convinced that the British aristocracy will soon be extinct. “Well I read the New Statesman, you know” retorts the distressed Earl.  The combination of misunderstandings, bed sharing, military uniforms and a splendid butler called Horton might make you think you’ve seen it before, but never better written than this and probably not better acted either. If you’re in need of cheering up you should go and fall in love with the cast, especially Greer Dale-Foulkes as Lady Elisabeth and Patrick Rogers as her aristo father – when you first see him, he seems a bit too young for the part but his comic ability soon erases those doubts. Rattigan would be delighted, and you will be too.

"While the Sun Shines" runs at the Lion and the Unicorn pub theatre in Gaisford Street, London NW5 until 17 June. Tickets from www.giantolive.com/tickets.html

Sophia Sibthorpe, Iestyn Arwel and Freddie Hutchins in When the Sun Shines
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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge