Strangely, it is easier to write a state-of-the-nation drama if you set it in the past
The BBC’s White Heat was dominated by characters from a left-wing milieu. The central figure of Paula Milne’s drama is Jack, the son of an upper-class father, who becomes in rapid succession a socialist journalist, Labour candidate and drug addict. Alongside him is his occasional feminist lover; a Belfast woman, who is so concerned about the homeless she takes them into her home; an Indian, who is terrified his traditional parents will find out he is gay; and a Jamaican immigrant, whose experience of racism turns him into a radical lawyer.
The cast have abortions and affairs, as they confront the changes brought by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and recessions and conflicts of the 1970s and ’80s. It wasn’t the greatest drama I have seen, but the plot was moving on occasion, and the acting superb throughout.
Critics bred in the long bubble of 1992 to 2008 could barely say a good word about it. They damned White Heat for taking the central idea of Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North, which also followed a group of friends from the 1960s on. Milne could not reproduce the success of one of the BBC’s greatest dramas, they said, which was fair enough. But they went on to damn her for being too political and too humourless.
Conservatives might object that the Left did not set the terms of debate in the 1970s and ’80s, and that both White Heat and Our Friends in the North take an unrepresentative section of the population and make it seem as if the arguments of the times raged around them. Milne’s critics were not worried about political bias, however. Rather, they found her high-minded intent jarring. Not one noticed the most striking feature of White Heat and Our Friends in the North: in our strange culture it is easier to write a state-of-the-nation drama if you set it in the past.
Whether a dramatist could set one in the present is an open question. Both Our Friends in the North and White Heat stop in the early 1990s. Coincidentally or not, that is the moment when former leftists veered off into irony, nostalgia, kitsch and parody; when they all but disappeared in a fit of giggles and hid any message they might hope to convey with knowing winks and “playful” references. The shift is covered in Alwyn Turner’s Things Can Only Get Bitter, the most interesting essay on British culture I have read since George Walden’s New Elites. An observation by the underrated Dan Atkinson of the Mail on Sunday inspired Turner’s polemic. All generations see their contemporaries achieve power, said Atkinson. But in the past 30 years, the leadership of Right and Left was handed from those born in the 1940s and ’50s to those born in the late 60s and early 70s. The children of the early 1960s — my generation, as it happens — virtually disappeared. Shortage of numbers is no excuse. We were born at the peak of the baby boom. Yet on the Left our sole representative at the high table was Jacqui Smith. Admire her though I do, I can’t help thinking we could have done better.
Turner links the absence of the early 1960s generation from politics to the crassness of today’s culture. We experienced the mass unemployment of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The leftists (your correspondent included) were highly politicised, serious, censorious, and more often than not on the dole or in jobs well below our talents. It seemed unconscionable that the rest of the country could not hate the Thatcher government as we hated it. Like the opinion pollsters, we expected Labour to win the 1992 general election. Instead John Major secured more votes than any other victorious prime minister in history.
To the despairing leftist the British had confirmed themselves as a crass, heartless people wallowing in materialism. Many gave up on politics, and the talented among them went into satire, comedy and journalism. No harm in that you might think, until you glance at the quality of the work they produced. Will any of it last? Look at the “new lads” of the early 1990s, as represented by Nick Hornby or the characters in the BBC’s Men Behaving Badly. “The loss of faith implied in the new lad,” says Turner, “the wilful wallowing in bad behaviour, however ironic, amounted to little more than a feeling that if we couldn’t beat the system, we might as well join in. Everything was a bit of a laugh anyway, nothing was sacred, so why not give in, drink up and think of Engerland?”
If the new lads do not convince you, examine the comedy of Armando Iannucci, Steve Coogan and Chris Morris. It is all about style and never about substance. They target the media or the processes of politics — the spin, the lies, the backstabbing — in “political” satires that are devoid of political purpose. Or consider the representative stars of the “alternative television” of the past 15 years — Jonathan Ross, Angus Deayton, Ricky Gervais and Graham Norton. They like sexist (but never racist) jokes, as long as their sexism is ironic. They revel in the power to break taboos and enjoy celebrity culture (ironically again, of course) but their claim to be alternative comes solely from a vague sense that they would never vote Conservative. (Or if they did, would keep quiet about it for career reasons.)
Turner’s grasp of politics is feeble. More even than Milne and Flannery, he is interested solely in the Left. He can think of no reasons beyond the mercenary why anyone would want to leave it. He believes there was no difference between New Labour and the old Tories. He does not understand that the socialist religion was dying everywhere in the 1980s, not just in Britain. He never mentions that the “sell-out” he condemns occurred in part because Britain was entering the longest boom in its history. Yet for all his parochialism, his description of how we moved from the harsh and confrontational world of Thatcher to the soft and mendacious world of Blair remains superb.
That boom is over, as I’m sure you will have noticed. We are due artists who can confront hard times. The critics may have dismissed Paula Milne’s drama as old-fashioned. But I suspect that it will soon be clear that it is the critics rather than Milne who are the true has-beens.