Wireless: In Thrall to a Despot

The BBC wilfully ignored Corin Redgrave’s paranoid politics and his evil friends

Nick Cohen

The best way to picture the London intelligentsia is as an outwardly respectable Edwardian family at the dinner table. Many subjects are taboo, so sexually rapacious uncles and demented aunts are never mentioned. The dependence of the family’s lavish income on the labour and taxes of others is always forgotten. It seems a traditional scene, but today’s intelligentsia break with old bourgeois patterns in only one respect. Rather than engage in small talk, the family denounces the immorality of others. Everyone else is either gullible or wicked while only their motives are pure. This unbending self-belief ensures that self-satisfaction trumps self-examination and the self-improvement that goes with it.

When Corin Redgrave died, the BBC might have ignored his politics. Actors, by definition, repeat other people’s words. Nothing they thought or did offstage prevented Corin from being a good actor and his sister Vanessa a great one. Although it is interesting to hear about their lives, as far as their substantive artistic achievements are concerned, their biographies are little more than gossip. Radio 4 pretended to take Corin’s life in full, however, and proved that it is incapable of honestly reporting the failings of the upper-middle-class Left.

The flagship arts programme Front Row announced: “He often played powerful men, but in real life he railed against privilege, social injustice and war.” Last Word, Radio 4’s obituaries programme, found former associates who praised Redgrave’s activism. He was constantly “looking at all forms of injustice and oppression”, we were told, and “trying to make a better world”. The BBC added its editorial authority to their encomiums when its supposedly impartial presenter declared that Redgrave was “a passionate campaigner on political and human rights causes”.

Journalists are often criticised for simplifying. The hack’s craft has its failings, but the demand to condense also instils in reporters the discipline of focusing on the story’s point. “Give me the headline,” shouts the editor, as the bewildered reporter stares at his notebook trying to make sense of his scribbles. “Where’s your bloody intro?” The story of Corin’s and Vanessa’s politics is so straightforward that only the wilfully blind can miss it. The Redgraves spent their adult lives serving a repellent totalitarian party led by a rapist and a friend not of “human rights” and “justice”, as Radio 4 pretended, but of dictatorship and terror.

The supreme leader was Gerry Healy, who kept the Redgraves and thousands of others in his power by deploying the classic cult tactic of spreading paranoia and fear about everyone outside his Trotskyist sect. The walls of the party headquarters in Clapham were lined with steel to block out MI5 listening devices. A fleet of vehicles waited in the car park outside so that Workers Revolutionary Party militants could make their escape if the oft-predicted fascist coup came. Traitors and Special Branch plants were everywhere, and members had to cut off all ties with everyone accept the chosen few.

Corin’s first wife, Deirdre, said that when she refused to go along with Healy, “two grim looking henchmen took me by the arms, albeit gently. He looked at me with a steady, even gaze and demanded, ‘Why don’t you join the party? Why won’t you support your husband?’ I told Healy quite clearly that I had two young children to bring up — and I didn’t want them to grow up disturbed. I wanted them to be normal kids.”

The marriage broke up because no cult can tolerate a member with a wife on the outside gently pointing out that he is wasting his time and being taken for a fool. Healy knew that the more you invest in a political or religious cause, the harder it is to break from it. He ensured that his members would find it hard to break with him by working them close to exhaustion. The BBC and many others wondered why Redgrave disappeared from the stage for much of his career. Self-censorship prevented them from explaining that he was in thrall to a despot who would not allow him the space to flourish. One WRP member, Kate Blakeney, described the process. She spent so much time and money supporting the party that she could not afford to feed her own children. “We were too busy, always busy, and could hope only to catch a few hours’ sleep.” One day Healy asked to meet her in his London flat. She went hoping to convince him to give her and her comrades in Oxford a respite from his demands: “[He] opened the door for me. He had been drinking. Something was all wrong. I pushed by his large body, sat down in the chair and started to make my report. Healy came towards me, was hovering over me. He was not listening to a word I was saying. He wanted only one thing from me, my sexual submission. For a moment, I just stared at him: fat, ugly, red-faced. Something inside of me snapped. I, my husband, my children, my comrades had sacrificed so much, had worked so hard for this…animal.”

The Great Leader exercised his droit de seigneur over many of his women followers. Twenty-six accused him of “cruel and systematic debauchery” as the party fell apart in the mid-1980s. One of them was the daughter of two of Healy’s oldest friends. She told how he had rewarded her parents’ loyalty by sleeping with her and beating her. She had been hurt so often she was close to being a cripple.

Inevitably, British totalitarians supported foreign totalitarians, with far greater power to torture and abuse. Healy took money from Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In return for funding from Arab dictators, the WRP led the charge of the far-Left into the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the far-Right and, as seriously, agreed to spy on Iraqi dissidents living in London and hand over their details to the Baathist state without a thought of what could happen to their families back in Iraq. Even after the scandals about the rapes and links to Saddam broke, the Redgraves stuck with Healy, as did Ken Livingstone.

Radio 4 cannot tell the true story of the Redgraves’ politics because, although Marxist-Leninism has long gone, a part of the poison of the Trotskyism of the 1968 generation lingers in the bloodstream of the wider Left — the propensity for Jew-baiting and conspiracy theory, the shrieking dogmatism, and, beyond all that, the self-censorship, which stops a broadcaster legally obliged to be objective dealing plainly with news that reflects badly on its class and kind. 

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