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28 July 2021

Bridget Jones and the Blair years

Bridget Jones’s Diary is a relic from New Labour’s peak, when Working Title films were weapons of British soft power.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

Few experiences have made me appreciate the cold, implacable approach of death like rewatching Bridget Jones’s Diary. I am 40 years old. When I gathered some friends together for a small viewing party in May, I felt every single day of the 20 years since its release press down on me. I had suspected that Helen Fielding and Richard Curtis’s vision of Britain in 2001 might feel a little dated. But I hadn’t expected all the indoor smoking and jokes about Bosnian refugees and nudge-nudge wink-wink sexual harassment to feel so alien, so – as Gabrielle sang on the film’s soundtrack – “Out of Reach”. Should you too wish to feel marooned from the recent past, hurtling into oblivion, I heartily recommend it.

Back in her heyday, when New Labour was in its pomp and Working Title films were weapons deployed in a British soft-power offensive, I would have described myself as ambivalent towards Bridget and her big knickers. Fielding’s chain-smoking, calorie-counting singleton made her first appearance in a column that ran in the Independent in 1995, and became a publishing phenomenon in the late 1990s. But the Nineties, teenaged me, half a generation younger than Bridget, wasn’t impressed. I know this because in a recent lockdown clear-out, I unearthed some notes from a 1998 school debating competition. “Is this the voice of today’s women?” I demanded, apparently holding Fielding’s book aloft. “We must fear this sense of ‘post-feminism’.” I have half a memory that our school’s MP, Liam Fox, was adjudicating.

But I also recall, a few years later, going to Cineworld in Enfield to watch Renée ­Zellweger’s pitch-perfect Home Counties accent with my future husband and in-laws. How we squirmed at the gag about anal sex! But I was clearly a glutton for awkward ­situations because three years later, when the sequel was released, I found myself sitting in a cinema between my friend and her father, a high court judge.

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By then, I was a book publicist myself, just like Bridget, working for a boss who out-Bridgeted Bridget. Her misadventures included doing the splits on a pool table at one launch party and forgetting to invite any journalists to another. We got around this by inviting our friends to pose as wine columnists. At the time, it was – in the words of Hugh Grant’s character, Daniel Cleaver – awkward as arse, but with hindsight, she was probably my best boss. More recently, that period was cast in the warm glow of ­nostalgia by the documentary ­Being Bridget Jones, released last Christmas, which ­featured various early-Noughties luminaries reminiscing about terrible crushes and workplace blunders.

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So when my friends arrived with Chardonnay and ice cream, none of us were exactly hardened with cynicism. We were happy to be allowed to gather and watch a film at all, eager to be transported to an era before Covid, Brexit, Donald Trump, childbirth, austerity, clean eating, the Iraq War and – was it really that long ago? – 9/11. Back when we had all just moved to London from the provinces to take up jobs in the creative industries and PR and all it took was someone saying “fuckwit” in a posh voice to make us laugh. Back when it was OK – even kind of charming – to be blithely unaware of the evil in the world. “I couldn’t give a fuck, Jones,” says Daniel, when Bridget brings up the crisis in Chechnya, speaking for the mid-2001 cinema audience, no doubt.

A few months after the film’s release, we would all have to face up to the idea that something could just appear out of the sky and punish us for our ignorance. But back then, all we had to worry about was our own silly selves. In the world of Bridget Jones, you could be permanently hungover and bugger up the simplest of tasks but still get to live in London and ­attend ­parties with Salman Rushdie. It all felt within reach.

Sadly, the film is tragically, depressingly, awfully of its time. The script was written by a dream team of Fielding, Curtis (her university friend) and Andrew Davies, famous for his BBC adaption of Pride and Prejudice, the plot of which Fielding “shamelessly stole” for the book. But the transition to screen stripped out much of Fielding’s irony, nuance and cynicism. The casting of Colin Firth (who had been Bridget’s TV crush in the book) as Mark Darcy is all that remains of the meta-literary jokes. Instead, the film (which, it should be noted, grossed $280m worldwide and spawned two sequels) hams up the Britishness of the era. It presents a group of self-obsessed, self-doubting, upper-middle-class urbanites playing cute against a backdrop of vague social ­liberalism and a soundtrack of Geri Halliwell and Robbie Williams.

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***

That the film, which was directed by Sharon Maguire, is remembered fondly at all is entirely down to its three leads. Zellweger is more charming than she has any right to be as Bridget; Grant and Firth are typecast as her two upper-class, Oxbridge-educated lovers and it works wonderfully, with Grant as Daniel, a smooth-talking cad who sucks up to his American bosses, and Firth as Mark, a snooty barrister who can, it turns out, appeal to the emotions.

It’s tempting to see the two men as the two sides of Tony Blair. Fielding does have Bridget muse lengthily and lustily on him in her 1998 book Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. “Tony Blair is the first prime minister I can completely imagine having voluntary sex with,” she says. “Worry, though, that New Labour will be like having a crush on someone, finally being able to go out with them and then when you have your first row it is cataclysmically awful.”

In the film, however, the only mention of any prime minister is in the context of the legalisation of anal sex between consenting men and women (which actually happened, like Britpop, in 1994, during the John Major era). Still, what could be more Blairite than a protagonist who works in PR and holds launch parties at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London? And Bridget embodies so many of the dualities and tensions of the era: spin (her job) vs authenticity (her nature); self-improvement (her goal) vs self-acceptance (through male approval). “I like you very much, just as you are,” Mark tells her. What girl wouldn’t want to hear that? And it spoke to a certain British insecurity that yeah, maybe we were a bit too down on ourselves.

But this time I watched with mounting incredulity and then genuine discomfort. None of us were really laughing. Did I once find this gooey nationalism entertaining? Comforting? Aspirational? Relatable?

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Any sense of these publishers, barristers and journalists being progressive or modern is now fatally undermined by their casual sexism, homophobia and racism. The unnatural whiteness of Curtis’s London in Notting Hill was much criticised at the time; Bridget Jones’s Diary, which arrived two years later, is somehow whiter still. The only person of colour who speaks in the entire film is Rushdie. When Bridget’s mother, Pam, discloses that Mark’s ex-wife was ­Japanese, she adds: “such a cruel race”.

Meanwhile, the sexual politics are as stale as Pam’s turkey curry buffet. Fielding has since admitted that she was surprised by all the bum-grabbing when she watched it back. I was too. What I remembered as a bit of cheeky flirting from Bridget’s boss, Daniel, is sustained sexual harassment played for cheap laughs. In today’s female-dominated publishing world, he would be dragged through an employment tribunal faster than you could say “Mr Titspervert”. As for the references to “poofs”, it doesn’t matter that they’re ironised – not least because the film warns us not to trust irony, that most Nineties mode of detachment. “When I said that I love you, I didn’t mean it… I was being ironic,” Bridget tells Daniel. Come the fuck on, Bridget.

***

In many ways, we have moved on. Or at least we’re in a new phase of the feminist life-cycle. Reading back my teenage notes, I clearly recoiled from a heroine who required a rich man to rescue her from her own ­stupidity. What changed between my teenage mistrust of Bridget and my early adult acceptance of her? Why, in the early years of the 21st century, was it seen as not only amusing but empowering to watch a woman humiliate herself while dressed as a Playboy bunny?

My early-Noughties softening towards Bridget might have been as basic as having fallen in love, not once, but twice, with two different floppy-haired Oxford University students. As a young, provincial girl caught in a ridiculous romantic psychodrama, these two boyfriends struck me almost as juvenile analogues of Daniel and Mark – if you squinted. One was a chain-smoking charmer who cheated on me (with both sexes) but whose eyes crinkled when he smiled; the other was tall, gentlemanly and owned a lot of suits for a 20-year-old undergraduate. About a year after the film was released, The Cad even turned up at The Suit’s door to challenge him to a squash match that felt very much like a decider. I remember The Suit muttering: “Shall I bring my duelling ­pistols or my sword?”

Many of my male friends can quote chunks of the film, suggesting it isn’t just a chick-flick. Like any project Curtis had a hand in, it sold a twinkly vision of metropolitan life. A 28-year-old male friend says he loved it growing up in Newcastle because: “I wanted to live in a world where everyone was a barrister or a journalist or worked in publishing.” But (without casting aspersions on my friends) I sometimes wonder if it appealed to some men precisely because it suggests that women will drop everything for romance – or, as Daniel says, “just full sex”.

When I told two male friends I was writing about the film, they both immediately recited a line spoken by Bridget’s TV boss Richard Finch, played by Neil Pearson: “Incidentally, at Sit Up Britain, no one gets sacked for shagging the boss.”

In the book, Bridget at least controls the narrative and the reader laughs along with her. But in the film she has almost no ­agency. Her resignation from her publishing job is one of the few moments where we see her making a choice. Though it’s supposed to be structured around her point of view, the film is entirely driven by the desires and whims of Daniel and Mark.

***

Still, the thing that most unnerved me was the absence of politics. It took me a while to spot it but, like a novel missing the letter “e”, it soon becomes something you can’t unnotice. None of the characters in the film are troubled by political events. Mark – who is not, according to Fielding, based on Keir Starmer, despite a long-circulated rumour – is defending a Kurdish freedom fighter who has been extradited to his “home country”, though we never know which country that is. Politics is just something to make you look clever over dinner.

And if you get some detail wrong, so much the better. Similar to Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary is full of romantic heroes making crap speeches, a loveable incompetence being the version of Britishness that Working Title sold to a foreign market. There’s a certain irony that these films were produced at a time when Blair was doing his utmost to project an image of unshakeable competence.

But the whole point of his Third Way was that the public didn’t have to worry about politics. The government was going to take on all the responsibility of running the state. We could all keep on having fun – as long as we kept electing them, as we did again a month after the film’s release. I say “we”. Neither I nor most of my friends made it to the polling station for the 2001 election, despite it being the first time we were allowed to vote. No one gave a fuck.

When you contrast this to how politically responsible we feel today as individuals, you can see why the film feels like a period drama. Even Grant has become a prolific campaigner in recent years. It’s our current Prime Minister who now sells Working ­Title’s brand of loveable incompetence to the world.

But politics is always there, even in its absence. Although Fielding framed her creation as a muddle-headed but true-hearted leftie, the Conservatives have been trying to claim Bridget as a “Tory at heart” since 2002, when the peer David Willetts said: “she shares our ideas of continuity and the value of marriage”.

After Cherie Blair and Jess Phillips ­appeared on Being Bridget Jones, the ­Conservative MP Fay Jones published an apoplectic article on the Conservative Home website entitled: “I Am Bridget Jones. Why Won’t the BBC Admit It?” She described how the documentary prompted a “blizzard” of ­disappointed correspondence on her WhatsApp group of female Conservative MPs, “each of us with stories of adoring the books and films as teenagers, and carrying the lessons of Bridget into later life.” That sounds about right to me.

There is one character in the film I can’t forget, though she never once appears: Mark’s Japanese ex-wife, the one who was seduced by (or seduced?) Daniel. The slur about her “cruel race” made me wonder about her backstory. Suddenly, the one thing I still cherished about the film – the hilarious, scrappy fight between Mark and Daniel – exposed the romance plot as a charade. These two men aren’t fighting over Bridget, they’re fighting over their wounded masculine pride. Bridget, it turns out, isn’t even the heroine of her own story.

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This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special