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Sunday, 14 September 2014

The lady's not for turning ! or, Saying when you are wrong

This is a Festival review of Tony Benn : Will and Testament (2014)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

14 September

This is a Festival review of Tony Benn : Will and Testament (2014), which was shown at Festival Central (The Arts Picturehouse : @Campicturehouse) in Screen 1
at 7.30 p.m. on Saturday 6 September, and followed by a Q&A

Tony Benn, even when just fighting with the limitations of the law, and of parliamentary practice, to become the MP that he had been elected to be by the constituents of Bristol South East (a ward that later disappeared in Bristol South), has a fascinating story to tell, one which, in this respect, had been so often trivialized at the time as a rich boy believing that he could possibly speak for the ordinary people.

This film deliberately does not rely on other people to narrate Benn’s story, as some documentaries would (as if for taste of variety in the telling*), for, when someone is speaking about what happened, it is Benn himself. (Apparently, he had been wary of anything being shot that might be seen to be eliciting a reaction through sympathy, wanting to stand rather on his words and his record.)

Director ‘Skip Kite’*, answering a question from the auditorium, said that it had been his decision that it was best to hear just from Benn himself (and rhetorically asked why, when one could listen to Benn, one would want to have someone else talking about him) – just as had been getting Benn to read his choice, for Benn, from Auden and Shakespeare (Benn’s family had been surprised, because he was not a reader of poetry), filming him in Southwold (and other places where he had given public talks), and, most importantly, the staging of much of the filming :

When not filmed in his actual kitchen (we were informed in the Q&A that it had been the only part of that property then capable of being filmed in), Benn spoke in what was also confirmed to be a film set (at Ealing Studios), with enlarged front pages of newspapers on one side, hanging as if they were military colours. Though in fact – more often than not – they reminded us (as they gently changed around and became updated) of the scurrilous way in which he had been treated and represented in the British press.

No one watching Tony Benn : Will and Testament can doubt that he was prepared to stand up and be counted for what he believed. *Certainly, his life and work had been an encouragement to the creative team that was represented at Festival Central, who had united under its director’s assumed name of Skip Kite : they all said how much they had learnt from Benn and valued meeting him in making the film, but how every meeting unfailingly had to start with ‘a cuppa’ !

Without venom or great resentment, Benn told us how there had been times in his family life when the doorbell was rung at regular hours throughout the night, and his wife and children were followed in the hope that they might make a mistake or otherwise let something awkward slip. He well knew that, when he was dubbed in the press The most dangerous man in Britain, his principles would not be easily contended for, and, of course, he became a convenient target for people’s class and political animosity. Yet in later life, when we saw him after his record-breaking Commons career (back at Parliament, for a cuppa), he was almost rueful about being viewed as a kind, grandfatherly figure… but still believing himself to be ‘dangerous’.

It also shows that, whatever one thinks of what Benn said or represented, one can – as much of the publicity for the film suggested, e.g. on the film-poster – consider his integrity apart from his politics and policies. Talking factually about how he had asked what a mark was on the pavement, when being shown around Nagasaki and having been directed to it, he said that he had been told that a child had been sitting there and been vaporized by the A-bomb : he had clearly been moved by this experience, and it lay at the root of his conviction of the evil of nuclear weapons.

Tony Benn : Will and Testament does show his remarkable will, that of paying the cost of contesting what he thought morally wrong – for example, whatever one’s beliefs about the rights and wrongs of The Miners’ Strike might be (in 1984 to 1985, and a theme of several Festival films this year), one can scarcely doubt that he meant it when he said how proud he was to appear at the annual gala at Durham Cathedral or pictured on a miners’ banner (and alongside heroes such as Keir Hardie and Aneurin Bevan).

Likewise, when Benn says that he came to realize that he had been wrong in government to work on setting up nuclear-powered power-stations in the UK, because he had failed to appreciate that plutonium, the principal by-product of uranium fission, would be used to make warheads for more nuclear weapons. Several times in the film, he says that he had had to admit that he had been wrong, and that he thought it only right to do so.

That said, a comment on Michael Foot’s leadership and how the dimension of his CND stance at the 1983 election** helped (along with the jingoism of the recapture of The Falkland Islands from Argentina under Margaret Thatcher) lead to another term of Thatcher government could have been elicited, but appeared passed over.

And, surprisingly, one Festival regular said that he would not attend the screening because of its subject, and one guesses that it must likewise have attracted, or kept away, those with leanings to the left or, respectively, lacking them, thereby giving rise to an audience that was generally interested in Benn and how he was to be portrayed :

To those not interested, whether because not holding left-wing views or not wanting to follow their history through a major figure, one has to suggest that they are mistaken in not watching this film. It has much to say about humanity and what makes life worthwhile, whether Benn’s shock at the death of his brother Michael in the Second World War, and his love for, and loss of, his wife, Caroline Middleton DeCamp (to whom he proposed within ten days, because she was otherwise returning to the States) – or his saying that what mattered to him most about Concorde, when he was Minister of Technology, was the people who built it.


* Let alone on t.v., where people pretend to remember what their first thoughts were about x (where x could be anything from children’s programmes to a giant of British comedy), when one guesses that they have seen it since, and that they have been ‘guided’ as to what their recollected response was, typically We had never heard anything like it….

** According to Wikipedia®, the party had the lowest share of the vote since 1918 (though some appear to blame the SDP for splitting the vote and letting the Tories in).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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