Show Hide image

A history of 1980s Britain that rings hollow

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s - review.

Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s
Graham Stewart
Atlantic Books, 560pp, £25

In a New York bar on 1 September 1939 – or at least in his poem titled for that date – W H Auden wrote:

As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade . . .
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

It is arguable whether the 1970s were a “low dishonest decade”, but certainly the unmentionable odour of death hung in the air in parts of Britain in 1979, as corpses languished unburied during a gravediggers’ strike. Add the lorry drivers, the railwaymen, the nurses and many more, and you have a Winter of Discontent, which is where Graham Stewart’s account of the 1980s begins. It was a very different Britain then: a third of Britain’s houses were owned by the council and trade union leaders popped round to “Sunny Jim” Callaghan’s farm for dinner to advise on when he should call a general election.

Those union warhorses counselled sooner rather than later and Callaghan should have listened. He waited until May and his chances withered during that discontented winter; the rest is several volumes of popular history. Stewart’s addition to the literature is very much in the spirit and style of writers such as David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett, and follows two recent volumes that cover the same period –Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice!and Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing as Society. Stewart’s book lacks such a neat title, though. It is hard to discern the relevance of “Bang!” to the decade. Surely “Wham!” would have been better?

With Callaghan gone, Margaret Thatcher emerges as the main figure of the 1980s, for the duration of which she was prime minister. Not since Pitt the Younger had a prime minister held office for a whole decade. Stewart’s is a rounded portrait; he points out, for instance, that although she may have done away with free school milk as education secretary, she also saved the Open University against the wishes of most of her cabinet colleagues.

Such generosity is to be expected. Stewart is a former Times leader writer and assistant to the Tory roué Alan Clark and clearly a man of the right. You smell it in his analysis of the Northern Irish Troubles, where a distaste for the republicans simmers throughout, and in his glib claim that the union leader and Spanish civil war veteran Jack Jones was a paid-up Soviet agent, based on some tittletattle from Oleg Gordievsky in the Daily Telegraph (a similar slur about Michael Foot in the Sunday Times by the Russian double agent resulted in a large out-of-court settlement in Foot’s favour). In his chapter on the nuclear threat, Stewart spends more time discussing how many lesbians were at Greenham Common and how they were banned from local pubs for being whiffy than on analysing what life there may have been like. He is strong, however, on the Falklands conflict – “the last old-fashioned war”, in that both sides were evenly matched and used the same fairly primitive technology, and where Britain fought alone for its own cause.

While I was reading Bang!, documents pertaining to the Falklands war became available for the first time under the 30-year rule. Many commentators were shocked to discover how parlous the situation had been, how strong the Argentinian position was and how worried Thatcher was. Stewart shows that it was by no means a foregone conclusion to defeat a powerful, albeit conscripted, army thousands of miles from home with the shortest of windows before the South Atlantic winter made the thing unwinnable.

Yet Bang! isn’t all juntas and public-sector borrowing requirements. As you would expect, pop culture muscles its way in with padded shoulders. There is a long and generally sound résumé of synth-pop and Stewart is also surprisingly insightful on the Smiths, offering a far more sensitive and nuanced portrait than many specialist rock writers have managed. But it all unravels a little with the alternative comedy boom, where there’s a vague and rather antique objection to all this newfangled, “right-on” malarkey. The racist comedian Bernard Manning was not “deemed unfit” for television, with all the metropolitan condescension that implies. It simply and rightly became unacceptable for an “entertainer” to appear in the living rooms of a multicultural Britain and rail against “nignogs” and “Pakis”. Stewart also castigates the makers of Spitting Image for not lampooning the Politburo as savagely as they did Reagan and Thatcher. This, surely, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of satire – it’s meant to be funny, not fair, and its prime objective should be to humble our own leaders, not do their job for them.

So much of this has been the stuff of clipheavy, analysis-light television documentaries in recent years that it threatened to wash over me in a wave of red braces and Adam Ant videos. I found myself enjoying the less obviously attractive sections, such as the chapter on the economics of North Sea oil. Stewart explores how it affected us as compared to the similarly richly endowed Norwegians and concedes that better investment would have kept us buoyant.

By page 313, though, at least one reader’s patience was wearing thin. There is a long, hand-wringing, Jarndycean apology for Thatcher’s notorious remark “There is no such thing as society”. This elides into a highly partial account of the Toxteth, Brixton and Handsworth riots, which, apparently, had more to do with revolutionary communist agitators and the anarchists of Class War than with urban decay and bullying police tactics. After this comes worse: Hillsborough is dealt with in a cursory paragraph that boils down to “Well, what do you expect?” and in essence exonerates the police of wrongdoing. This is golf club punditry masquerading as history and it rings callously hollow today.

But even though Bang!’s presiding spirit of extended apology and strained decency can pall, it is a largely consuming book, crammed with detail, anecdote and juxtapositions, if hamstrung by that tic of conservative editorialising. Stewart writes well, too; only one clunker of a sentence leapt out: “Sir Ian Gil - mour and Christopher Soames struggled to conceal a de haut en bas disdain for the arriviste Thatcherites who, they believed, were upsetting a settled social order and ruling without recognising the duty of noblesse oblige toward those they stepped over.”

It is the little details recorded en passant (as Stewart might say) that fascinate. When, as controller of Channel 4, Jeremy Isaacs introduced a red triangle on screen and in listings to indicate adult content, it was intended to warn, not to entice. But why else, on its first use, did 2.4 million viewers stay up after midnight to watch Themroc, an avant-garde French film about modern cave-dwellers, with no dialogue? The idea was soon abandoned. The bracingly adult experiment called Thatcherism endured rather longer.

“Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone” is on BBC 6 Music (Sundays, 8pm)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

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.