Treasure that once was lost has now been found. Does it enhance our appreciation of the song in Cymbeline, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” to discover that “golden lads and lasses” are, in the argot of rural Warwickshire, dandelions? Or, furthermore, that chimney sweepers are the grey puffball seedheads of dandelions when the golden flowers go over?
Perhaps. However, some Shakespeareans are truly troubled by the notion that this insight (restored to us in the 1960s) had been lost to us for… well, that’s just the point… for how long? Was this multi-level metaphor lost even on London audiences of the early 1600s? Was it (to formulate this modest proposal even more bluntly) an in-joke flattering to the sensibilities of but a few in Stratford?
That thought, pursued to its ultimate ends, leads some of us to unsettling conclusions – conclusions about just how much of what we read we really understand at all. In other words, dear reader, that the sol in solipsism is not necessarily the sun.
One further little curlicue to my thoughts yesterday about Cathy Come Home, Peter Kosminsky and The Golden Age of British Television©. It’s a nice one, I promise you.
Let’s start with a question. Did Cathy Come Home help change housing policy? Answer: No, it did not. Not significantly, at any rate. Not so as you’d notice. The real world doesn’t really work that way.
What it did do, though, was launch scores of careers in the broadcasting wing of a burgeoning new academic industry called Sociology. By the early 1970s, books speculating about the political effects of television were arriving thick and fast. These were often hastily cobbled together collections of academic papers (specimen title: “Capitalism, Communications and Class relations”); and the movement was threatening to spawn new a university fiefdom called Film and Media Studies.
Meanwhile, perhaps inevitably, attacks on Cathy Come Home (the programme itself and the sanctimonious cult surrounding it) were coming not from the Daily Mail but from the hard left. One particularly scathing (and unintentionally funny) critique, published in Screen magazine, argued it was no better than a “Lassie movie” and damned it as “a classic of bourgeois individualism.”
Ouch. By the end of the 1970s, Bennites were arguing that the Cathy phenomenon had actually held back debate about housing in this country. By giving succour to “bleeding heart liberal” charities like Shelter, they added, Cathy had merely helped paper over the cracks, thus postponing an inevitable Reckoning.
And indeed, a cynic reading this week’s newspapers might infer that the “debate” is still pretty much where it was in the mid 1960s. We’ve actually torn down many of the tower blocks proposed as a solution and given planning permission in 1966.
As I’ve already indicated, Cathy Come Home, though it moved many people in many different ways, made little impact on policy. And if you’re at all interested in the fiendishly complicated world of housing policy under Harold Wilson, you should perhaps read the diaries of Richard Crossman, his first Housing Minister. The 631 pages of the first volume (1964-66) barely scratch the surface of this troubled topic: but they give a flavour.
And by glorious happenstance, it’s a hugely important book in British television history. Because it was a primary source of inspiration for one of the most influential (and, indeed, “revolutionary”) British television shows ever commissioned. An urbane and warm and joyously mischievous satire, it did more to change our view of the world than a hundred Cathys ever could.
Its name? Yes Minister.
Peter Kosminsky, silly billy that he is, Looks Back in something that, in a very real sense, approximates to anger
“Britain’s supine film makers need to get up off their arses and make political drama that will rattle the gates of the House of Commons”
Harking back to the dramas of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Ken Loach’s seminal examination of homelessness, Cathy Come Home, Kosminksy dismisses Downton Abbey as a “crowd-pleaser” and “an Upstairs Downstairs remake,” and bemoans British television’s “endless diet of detective dramas.”
I’m sure Peter Kosminsky is a lovely bloke. Our television industry has more than its fair share of utterly ghastly chancers – but I suspect Kosminsky isn’t one of them. I absolutely loved his adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. He thoroughly deserved the gong he took at this year’s Golden Globes.
But oh dear Peter this (last week’s newspaper piece, pictured) is dismal stuff.
He will doubtless say that he was “misquoted.” I used to be a profile writer and I know just how easy it is to lure some unsuspecting dupe down a dark alleyway and mug them there.
Or you can make a case for this being Channel 4’s fault. Kosminsky has been hired to make a programme for C4 and the station has no doubt asked him to tickle up some headlines as part of the deal. After all, it’s particularly desperate to generate headlines. Faced with the threat of privatisation, and having lost its way donkey’s years ago, it’s currently rather keen to prove it has a reason to exist.
But we can’t entirely blame our shameless friends in the C4 press office. Because what we can also hear in this instance is a man round the back of the wood shed, making a right old racket as he grinds one of his favourite old axes.
For decades now, Kosminsky has fancied himself as something of a caped crusader, a maker of television programmes designed to fight for the rights of the common man (whoever he is) and woman (ditto) by making the rich and powerful quake in their boots. So successful has he been in this endeavour that he was very publicly anointed a handful of years ago by none other than Sir Melvin Bragg.
In this context, he’s probably been a little bit embarrassed by his recent success. He clearly doesn’t want to find himself typecast as the man who films Hilary Mantel’s tales of Merrie England by candlelight.
But is this the best he can give us as an alternative? The Golden Age of British Television? Gritty drama?
The clamour for hard-hitting, controversial television drama reached its height in the years between the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Or, if you prefer, the years book-ended by Look Back in Anger and the defenestration of Hugh Carleton Greene from Broadcasting House.
It was the era in British television that gave us the Wednesday Play. Till Death Us Do Part. And, yes, all the Cathy Come Home rest of it and so on.
Kosminsky now wants to see more programmes like the latter, a Ken Loach film written by Seldom Credited and broadcast on the BBC in 1966. It was dreary stuff (YouTube it if you feel inclined to contradict me), but headlines in the newspapers the next day (slamming it for its feeble attempts to stir up controversy) helped it claim a place in Sixties mythology.
It defined a cul-de-sac explored with diminishing returns for a decade after. No one, we suspect, really wants to go back there. Not even Peter Kosminsky.
The Golden Age of British Television was anything but. And yes, occult Socialism is very much back in fashion again. It’s an unlikely revival – and we’re all suckers for a bit of nostalgia now and then – but I don’t think anyone (outside C4) really believes that flirting with posture politics will ever help you make compelling television.
Deep down, Kosminsky must surely know that the political is the enemy of the creative. The two spheres of activity are inimical. Creative people and political people face different ways: you can force them to breathe the same air but they will have nothing meaningful to say to each other. Not for nothing were artists banned from the gritty urban reality of Plato’s ideal city, way back in the days before Channel 4’s first commissioning editor was ever thought of.
Sadly, though, the arts in Britain are run by political people… and that’s pretty much been the case since the days when (to re-ring an earlier bell) Hugh Carleton Greene was fannying about as director general at the BBC.
If you set out with political ideas and political aims, you end up with, at best, agitprop. You become a choreographer of abstract nouns, a stager of declamatory diatribes.
And, yes, it’s true: we sometimes expect too much of directors. The sad reality is that few are natural storytellers; and some of the very best are well aware of their limitations. They buy in writers, hire cameramen and keep the acting talent sweet. They are ring-masters. Often gloriously so. But still.
Storytellers, on the other hand, work with characters: and a story will grab your lapels only if it features the self-actuating sort. Characters, in other words, who at least believe they hold their own destinies in their own hands. But here’s a thing: the tacitly understood rules, as they currently exist, deter writers from seeking out (or engaging with) such characters in contemporary settings.
Strange but true. Well, not so strange actually. It’s an inevitable facet of our niggardly Puritan era.
But this truth we hold to be inalienable: truly creative people, once they’re out of their teens, tend to realise that if “shocking the bourgeoisie” is your primary (or only) goal, you’ve probably got nothing to say.
We’ll watch Kosminsky’s Channel 4 project with interest when it airs. It will, we have been informed, follow four British Muslims to the Levant and will empathise with their search for freedoms they can fight for. It will in no way be a bit like Shirley Valentine. It will be grittier. Considerably grittier.
Kosminsky has clearly earned the right to speak his mind – and to expect all of us all to nod sagely as he does so. Equally, though, there will be those inclined to remind him that if he’s serious about giving creative people interesting contemporary spaces to inhabit, he is, when he comes out with this sort of gate-rattling stuff, part of the problem not the solution.
The terror of history: every act of recognition implies that something like this has been seen before
Cyclic theories of time accomplish for the learned what the mythological rituals of the seasons accomplish for the intellectually unsophisticated. Both mitigate the terror of history, in which events, and most of all man’s personal decisions, are set forever in an irreversible pattern. [So said Eliot.] And poems tend to be cyclic, remembering their beginnings; and every act of recognition implies that something like this has been seen before. So the poet of Four Quartets drew four elements, four seasons, four places, into a four part symmetry which closes as it had opened in a transcendental garden and only escapes the world’s sad repetitions by leaving the world (the river at the end of Little Gidding is not a real river, nor the children real children). So says Hugh Kenner in The Pound Era.
And then we have Yeats, who wanted to be both inside and outside the great wheel of history, viewing it perhaps from the mountain carved in lapis lazuli whence his three Chinamen look down “on all the tragic scene” through eyes that are gay; and that gaiety is quite Nietzschean in “The Gyres,” where “we that look on but laugh in tragic joy.”
Then, too, we have Joyce, Finnegans Wake and Vico: “Bloom’s creator, who was later to use Vico’s cycle, used Mme. Blavatsky’s with rigorous literalness: Ulysses plays on Yeats the immense joke of taking his pet doctrines as naively as John Donne took the idea that lovers are martyrs. For the book’s premise must be that Bloom is really Ulysses, though he knows it no more than that wily wandering Greek foresaw being reincarnated as a wandering homebody Jew.”
And then… but I forget the rest.
One of the most troubling questions ever to bedevil that nexus where philosophy meets psychology is: “Can the human mind conceive of non-existence?”
A breakthrough moment came in the mid-19th Century when a comparative philologist studying the evolution of pictograms pointed out that the Chinese for non-existence is : “lost in the forest.”
Sadly, an expedition sent out to investigate this proposition was never heard of again.
Perhaps they simply chose the wrong forest.