Review: Seasons in the Sun by Dominic Sandbrook

Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain, 1974-79

Dominic Sandbrook

Allen Lane, 992pp, £30

Dominic Sandbrook bids fair to put other historians out of business. He is one of the profession’s Stakhanovites. Seasons in the Sun is the fourth doorstopper he has produced in just seven years in his series on British history from 1956, none of them less than 700 pages and all based on voracious reading. Inevitably, perhaps, quality has been sacrificed in the search for speed, and there are many topics treated here that one feels would have benefited from further reflection. Still, it is a remarkable achievement.

Sandbrook’s method is by now familiar. He has read and selected from a vast supply of secondary literature, covering not only politics, but also popular culture and social reportage. Most historians would need a horde of research assistants to complete such a task. Sandbrook has done it alone. The result of his prodigious industry is an immense assemblage of information, most of it relevant and nearly all of it entertaining. Perhaps few will have the stamina to read Seasons in the Sun right through but there is something worth reading on nearly every page.
Sandbrook rightly insists that the years between 1974 and 1979 were important: as well as a prelude to Thatcherism, the period was “a decisive moment in our recent history”. For it saw the crisis not only of a Labour government, but of a whole philosophy – the philo­sophy of social democracy as it had been understood by the founding fathers of the Labour Party and by men such as the trade union leader and later politician Ernest Bevin.
Reacting against the treatment of workers as mere “hands” during the interwar years, Bevin had insisted that governments consult with organised labour before making major policy decisions. When he joined the cabinet in 1940, Bevin said that, just as William Gladstone had wanted to remain at the Treasury for 40 years, he wanted to remain minister of labour and national service for 40 years – and so he did, in a way, his philosophy being 
accepted as much by the Conservative Party under Winston Churchill and Harold Mac­millan as by Labour under Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson.
But Bevin’s philosophy broke down utterly in 1978-79 during the “winter of discontent”, with its strikes of public-sector workers that left rubbish in the streets of London and saw cancer patients being sent home from hos­pital and a stoppage in the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children, of which the prime minister James Callaghan’s wife, Audrey, was a governor. All of this made a mockery of the ideals of collective solidarity and community spirit on which the Labour Party had been founded.
Of the American Democrats, David Frum, a former speech-writer to President George W Bush, said after 2000, “When a political party offers the voters ham and eggs and the voters say, ‘No thanks’, its first instinct is to say, ‘OK, then – how about double ham and double eggs?’” That was exactly what Labour offered in 1983 when it suffered an even worse defeat than in 1979.
Indeed, it took 18 years for the party to stop offering the voters ham and eggs. In 2012, the Labour Party can perhaps derive some comfort from how, by contrast with 1979, it did not suffer a left/right split and is not offering the voters double ham and double eggs. That is 
a largely unnoticed consequence of Ed Mili­band’s emollient handling of the party he leads. The left is in a stronger position now than it was in 1979, when Sandbrook’s narrative ends.
The collapse of Bevinism paved the way for Thatcherism. Sandbrook takes what has become the conventional view that the real turning point in British politics came not in 1979 but in 1976, when James Callaghan and Denis Healey refused to reflate their way out of trouble and used the IMF to instil a spirit of economic realism into the Labour Party. Sandbrook believes that: “There was rather more continuity between Margaret Thatcher and her avuncular predecessor, ‘Sunny Jim’, than we often think – even though it would pain both left and right to admit it.”
This perhaps overstates the case. It is true that Callaghan wanted to make many of the changes that Thatcher was to make. But he hoped to be able to make them in a non-divisive way, so as to maintain a spirit of social solidarity. He was, oddly enough, far less class-conscious than Thatcher was.
In his memoirs, They Say the Lion, Anthony Parsons, who worked in No 10 as Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, complained that all she cared about were “her people” – the self-employed and the petit bourgeoisie. She was their trade union leader, equating the national interest with their class interest.
Seasons in the Sun shows convincingly how contingent Thatcher’s triumph actually was. Indeed, she would not even have competed for the Conservative Party leadership had her ally, Sir Keith Joseph, not insisted, in a speech in Birmingham in 1974, that many of Britain’s problems arose from how too many children were being born to young women in social classes four and five, and that “our human stock is threatened”. 
This phrase, Sandbrook suggests, “sounded like something from the Third Reich”. The furore that it aroused led to Joseph being characterised as a “saloon-bar Malthus” and persuaded him to withdraw from challenging Heath for the party leadership. It used to be thought that the phrase came from Sir Keith’s ex-communist adviser, Alfred Sherman, but, in 2010, another adviser, Jonathan Sumption, bravely confessed that it was his handiwork. Sumption is now a judge of the Supreme Court and so must appear politically neutral. Nevertheless, he ought not to be deprived of the credit for creating Thatcher.
Sir Keith had the pretensions of an intellectual but not the substance. He had misinterpreted a study by the Child Poverty Action Group, whose conclusion was that the birth rate for mothers in classes four and five was falling, not rising. The study had in any case concluded that birth control offered “no cheap solution to all the problems of child poverty”.
As secretary of state for social services in the Heath government, Sir Keith had rejected proposals for free access to contraception – “sex on the rates” – and it was left to Barbara Castle, his Labour successor, to provide it. But perhaps the best comment on the Birmingham speech was made on the cover of Private Eye, which pictured Joseph as “Sir Sheath”, spouting the phrase, “If the cap fits, wear it”.
The narrative in Seasons in the Sun is, for the most part, excellent. But it contains little that is new. Rather than revising accepted accounts, Sandbrook embellishes the views that have been defined by other historians. But it is highly enjoyable to read and the BBC television series that is based on it, The 70s, deserves to be successful.
Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King's College, London. His books include 'The Coalition and the Constitution' (Hart, £20)

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.