In the Critics this week

Richard J Evans on Michael Gove, Amanda Foreman on Lina Prokofiev and A L Kennedy interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Richard J Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, examines Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new draft national curriculum for history. Evans notes that this has been “greeted with dismay by history teachers at every level, from primary schools to universities, and from every part of the political spectrum”. The latter point is particularly important. Even the conservative historians who had previously rallied to Gove’s cause – that of focusing the curriculum on “supposedly key personalities and events within the British past” – were dismayed, Evans notes. The new curriculum, which appears to be the work of Gove alone, “tells pupils what to think”. It is, Evans argues, “preparation for Mastermind or a pub quiz; it is not education … If he really wants more rigour in education, Gove should tear up his amateurish new curriculum and start listening to the professionals.”

This week’s lead book reviewer is the historian Amanda Foreman. She reviews The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev by Simon Morrison. Morrison, Foreman argues, has “told the story of a woman who was a desperate little nobody when she was married, and became a courageous heroine when she was single”.

Also in Books: Nicholas Timmins, former public policy editor of the Financial Times, reviews God Bless the NHS by Roger Taylor (“[Taylor] manages to grapple with … some of the most difficult issues in modern health care”); Sophie Elmhirst reviews The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon (“Hemon tries to work out what to call his life throughout these essays. He doesn’t come up with an answer”); Amanda Craig reviews Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Life After Life (“I would be astonished if it does not carry off at least one major prize”); Vernon Bogdanor reviews Mr Speaker: the Office and the Individuals Since 1945 by Matthew Laban (“Given the centrality of the speakership to the Westminster system, it is surprising that so little has been written about it”); Max Liu reviews How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields (“Shields wants to forge a literary form that can articulate experience and assuage loneliness”).

In the Books Interview, Philip Maughan talks to A L Kennedy about her new book On Writing. Writing, Kennedy tells Maughan, is like “walking out across a great, white wasteland, making little black marks”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey reviews Lee Daniels’s film The Paperboy (“no one in The Paperboy gives a hoot about anything not related to sex. This movie is in heat”); Rachel Cooke reviews A History of Syria with Dan Snow on BBC2 (“In Syria, your enemy’s enemy is your friend”); Antonia Quirke listens to Baroque Spring on Radio 3 (“who cares for Purcell’s words?”); Andrew Billen reviews The Audience with Helen Mirren and Patrick Marber’s repurposing of Arthur Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar (“mostly [The Audience] gets by, and gets its laughs from, libelling prime ministers”); Alexandra Coghlan reviews the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera as part of the Southbank Centre's "The Rest of Noise" festival (“I wonder whether a better dramatic compromise could have been found than the semi-staging offered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Choir and Vladimir Jurwoski”).

PLUS: "Obit", a poem by Blake Morrison, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Education Secretary Michael Gove (Photograph: Getty Images)
Show Hide image

Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue