One morning in the 1990s, I was on Start the Week with Norman Tebbit. As usual, Tebbit was railing about how awful modern Britain was. I interrupted to say I couldn’t understand why he so hated his own country, since he had been part of a Thatcher government that claimed to have transformed it. Tebbit had an answer to hand: “We fixed the economy. We didn’t have time to fix the culture.”
Tebbit’s words also explain the current political agenda. Only a few hours after Johnson’s election victory, his close friend and fellow journalist Charles Moore was out of the traps and on the Today programme demanding an end to the BBC licence fee. This was as perverse a piece of misdirection as George Bush responding to 9/11 by going after an entirely different enemy. The victory in one area – leaving the EU – is going to be appropriated to do damage in another. Tories know that the economic case for Brexit is non-existent, so the tactic is to change the subject and fight on the culture front where they think they can, once again, deploy their winning tone of aggrieved victimhood.
Listening to Moore, I remembered the conversation between Cyril Connolly and Bernard Berenson recounted in John Drummond’s autobiography. When Berenson said that culture was like a match burning in infinite darkness, Connolly asked why people always wanted to blow it out. Berenson replied: “They don’t want to, they just have to blow.” Moore’s words presage an orgy of ruling-class hypocrisy.
Mixing it at the BBC
Like all writers, I’m a free-speech fundamentalist. I have to be. In my youth I thrived on giving offence, so I can hardly deny that pleasure to others. I believe writers should be free to write about whatever they want. If Lena Dunham writes a film about a Syrian refugee – as she was commissioned to do in 2018 – then the task before her is to honour Syrian experiences and Syrian suffering. If she writes clumsily or ignorantly, then Syrians have every right to criticise her. But what they cannot do is attack her for wanting to do it. This seems to me so clear that I am bewildered by why fellow freedom lovers who support individuals at risk of moral censorship then show no support for the BBC in what is becoming the most urgent free-speech cause of our time.
You may argue that the corporation got its election mix wrong in one direction or other, but you cannot deny that the BBC is the broadest free-speech hypermarket in the country. Its aisles are stacked with Isabel Oakeshott as well as George Galloway. By comparison, Fleet Street outlets are so narrow in their voice-choice as not even to qualify as boutiques. How, as a writer on a British newspaper, can you not step forward to defend the unique range and reach of fact and opinion offered by the BBC? We need the BBC because, compared with private enterprise outlets, it’s so free.
Curtains for regional theatre
Arts Council England has become a laughing stock for its ten-year plan, “Let’s Create”, which resolves to forego the term “the arts” but is happy to refer to “creative practitioners”. The council’s dishonesty is as dangerous as its silliness. It claims that our theatres are becoming more diverse and better represent women as a direct result of its policies. But when it’s pointed out that the best plays of the past 500 years are no longer available to the young at reasonable prices in our towns and cities, it says it’s not at fault. It wants to seize credit for theatre’s improvements and deny blame for its failings.
The underfunding of regional repertory companies is a huge scandal. Instead of emitting 80 pages of gaseous management-speak about its own ineffable goodness, the council should be firefighting that crisis on the ground, right now. But it has neither the guts nor the imagination.
Its officials should watch the BBC, which has recently shown two magnificent arts documentaries, both available on iPlayer. The first – about the opera singer Janet Baker – showed what’s involved in the graft of devoting yourself to singing as well as you possibly can. It was an object lesson in dedication and grace. Let’s create, indeed.
The second, about the poet Seamus Heaney, had just as many wonderful moments, but none more so than when the whole stadium at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, Dublin bowed their heads for a minute in Heaney’s memory. A football crowd knows there’s such a thing as an artist, even if Arts Council England doesn’t.
When driving to set on the A40 we passed three other film units. The drawback of the boom in TV production is that, once you start, nobody seems able to stop. I resisted producers arguing for the return of Carey Mulligan as Kip Glaspie after just four episodes of Collateral. She was perfect. Why spoil it? But Roadkill – a four-part series about the Conservative Party (but not Boris Johnson or Brexit) starring Hugh Laurie – is not even finished and executives are already asking me for ten more.
There’s nothing flattering about it: it’s just that new airtime has to be filled. Most things nowadays are far too long. In the case of Johnny Worricker, about whom I made a trilogy with Bill Nighy, I confess I am thinking of a fourth instalment. But then MI5 remains, alongside the Church of England, the most consistently interesting institution in British life. In a profound way, their quarrels are ours.
A legacy of spies
At the postbox on the corner of my street, I bumped into John le Carré just after I had finished writing the first in the Worricker trilogy, Page Eight. Inevitably, he asked me what I was working on. In a rash moment, I informed our greatest spy novelist that I had just finished a new screenplay about MI5. I mistook his politeness for interest, and said, if he liked, I could send it to him. His reply was deserved. “By all means send it to me – but I shall be withering.”
This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose