Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Meet the Candidates: electioneering in Witney constituency

'Meet the Candidates', the poster in the newsagents' window urged, as I left the shop this morning clutching my new Radio Times (which I was disappointed to see doesn't have an election cover, though there is no reason why it should). Woodstock Town Hall, 7pm, it said; so this evening I ventured into the Sir William Chambers building, from which the smallest borough in England was once ruled, to partake of democracy. The foundation stone, laid 'by order' of George, fourth duke of Marlborough, rather than by the duke in person, was oddly appropriate.

Four candidates were present: Dawn Barnes of the Liberal Democrats, independent Paul Wesson, Colin Bex of the Wessex Regionalists, and Stuart Macdonald of the Greens. David Cameron's absence had been trailed in advance, but the Labour candidate Joe Goldberg had an unavoidable emergency and so was also missing. Cameron and Goldberg were replaced by county councillors from their respective parties, Ian Hudspeth and Duncan Enright. No mention was made of UKIP's Nikolai Tolstoy.

The audience was about forty strong, including several who had travelled to Woodstock from elsewhere in the constituency; I sat next to a leading figure in the local Labour Party, who had travelled down from the distant town of Chipping Norton, eleven miles to the north. Of those on the platform, the substitutes represented their parties as best they could, though it was to be regretted that David Cameron's message reproduced much of what we had already read on his campaign leaflet, and spent too much time addressing Churches Together in Woodstock who had (to their credit) organised the event. Dawn Barnes, effectively the front runner of those present, the previous Liberal Democrat candidate having achieved a narrow second place over Labour in Witney constituency in 2005, was enthusiastic and chatty if cautious, characterizing the more mainstream persona adopted by the Liberal Democrats in recent years. Likewise distancing himself from old stereotypes was Stuart Macdonald, who stressed his party's commitment to ending inequality, using his opening statement to target the present government's poor record in eliminating income disparity, and telling of how he had seen a tooth-pulling in his local pub, as a near neighbour could not afford a dentist.

Paul Wesson and Colin Bex in their ways represented different strands of an old parliamentary ideal, seeking to be spokespeople for local interests holding the executive to account. Wesson, a Carterton councillor of long and varied experience, emphasised the need for negotiation between individual members of parliament to break up the block votes in the Commons. Bex, in contrast, demonstrated an enduring disenchantment with the upper tiers of government which led him to co-found the Wessex Regionalists in 1980 (the party's other co-founder, Alexander Thynn, the present marquess of Bath, was not mentioned). Bex seeks a wholesale restructuring of administration in England which would devolve much power and finance to parish councils and the remainder, to regional assemblies inspired by the archaic notion of an Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, though with a distinct parliament for Cornwall.

After a first question on abortion from a local activist recognised by the chair, questions concentrated on the constitution, the economy, education and the environment. A local Liberal Democrat spoke out against David Cameron's rejection of coalition politics as inherently unstable, citing the success of Germany and New Zealand; Ian Hudspeth made an unconvincing case against coalitions and proportional representation by which he seemed to liken British conditions to those of Greece and Italy as models of chaos. Populist assumptions about the British general election being principally a plebiscite to choose a prime minister were quashed with constitutional correctness by Duncan Enright, and other scenarios explored, with Macdonald and Wesson most creative in their vision for the minor parties and independents, Macdonald seeking to bring 'fresh air' into politics, and Wesson envisaging an independent Witney MP working with counterparts in Wyre Forest and Blaenau Gwent and perhaps also the Northern Irish and Scottish and Welsh nationalist MPs. A question about education brought forward powerfully-expressed criticism of the destructive effects on morale and results in schools from the targets culture championed by the present government from Macdonald, while Barnes stuck to the 'pupil premium' promised in her party's manifesto. Barnes's most effective moment came during Colin Bex's response to a question on the three main parties' honesty concerning the economy: Bex's call for (if I remember correctly) a one-year income tax of 101% on the top 10% of earners was immediately slapped down by Barnes, who pointed out that this would penalize those earning £40000 a year, a sum which she said was modest in much of the south-east of England. Bex immediately moderated his policy to a tax on the top 5%.

After two hours this correspondent decided to seek a Chinese takeaway and not repair with the candidates and substitutes to The Star across the road, where it was pointed out that it would be illegal for them to buy any voters drinks. The Labour and Conservative substitutes sometimes played into the hands of those who would portray them as cosy duopolists; of the two candidates who most impressed, Dawn Barnes could have done with more passion and less recourse to party jargon, Stuart Macdonald with more detail on constructive change. Those who want to allow room for Macdonald would probably be best advised this time to vote for Dawn Barnes. It's a remote possibility, but in the unlikely event that elections are won or lost in bookshops, and if the Liberal Democrat manifesto really is the bestselling book this week at Waterstone's in Witney, David Cameron could do worse than return from Lancashire and cultivate his constituency.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Son of Man, by Dennis Potter

Son of Man was first broadcast on 16 April 1969, in the wake of Easter, in BBC 1's one-off drama strand The Wednesday Play. I first saw it nineteen years afterward, in a religious studies lesson; Good Friday twenty-two years later seemed to be an appropriate time to watch it again.

I can't pretend to an encyclopedic knowledge of Potter's work, but torment and ecstasy enjoyed an intimate relationship for his protagonists. Humdrum human existence has a tendency to the brutal; compassion in its purest form in short supply. Potter's Jesus is introduced in agony in the desert, physically contorted into a hollow in a rock, begging for a clear word from an inner voice. Throughout it will remain open to question whether Jesus is who he claims to be, a man sent 'from God', or instead a man possessed of a particularly infectious form of delusional paranoia. The audience is at first invited to dismiss him, and is then disarmed by his ability to persuade Peter and Andrew (Brian Blessed and Gawn Grainger) to give up their nets and follow him. Even as Jesus builds his reputation and challenges crowds to change their understanding of what the natural order of human affairs is - and telling a conquered people in revolt against Roman rule to love their enemies is presented by Potter as Jesus's most potent heresy - Colin Blakely can gently elide his portrayal from one of an inventive, creative persuader whose faith in the imminent kingdom of God animates his appeal both to the imagination and reason, to a shivering wreck crushed by the weight of his apprehensions of his own nature. There is only one miracle, the driving out of a demon from a woman, and as a play of the 1960s this is presented without question as a psychological disorder; Jesus's therapy of physical contact and conversation, assuring the woman that she is loved by God, is that of a man who has negotiated his own path away from schizophrenia.

Opposed to Jesus in the structure of the play is Pontius Pilate, played by Robert Hardy as a normally assured but hot-blooded member of the imperial officer class. Potter depicts the governor of Judaea and his wife Procla as a formally devoted couple struggling to maintain a comfortable middle age in what they regard as a primitive subject territory. Pilate is not a man of faith; for him Jewish monotheism is a sign of a lack of imagination. Procla, a languid Patricia Lawrence, displays sympathy for the locals but it is at best the condescension of a tourist , urging her husband to show some appreciation for local culture. Their behaviour deliberately echoes those of the prosperous upper middle class of the fictional Home Counties. While Jesus is brought to intellectual clarity and personal charisma by psychological pain, Pilate's energies are enhanced by seeing people hurt each other; he enjoys violence, which he remarks makes a man. His own deployment of pain is casual; when a woman servant asks Pilate to hit her again, having heard Jesus urge her to offer her other cheek, Pilate is so intrigued that (we learn from later dialogue) he flogs her to death. The flogging is unremarkable; the servant's stubbornness is not.

Potter's response to the problem of Judas is to make him an agent provocateur, a member of Caiaphas's temple police, who nevertheless nurses a great love for Jesus and his message. Edward Hardwicke suggests Judas's fragility; he is a reed caught between strong winds, and while Peter condemns him at Gethsemane - 'You bastard' - Jesus only smiles with weary expectation. In the end Judas is a prisoner of the institutional structure which Jesus has no time for: part of the peace against which Jesus raises a sword.

The immediate triumph which Potter allows Jesus is his effect on Pilate, who is disturbed by Jesus in a way which he finds incomprehensible. Facing Caiaphas, the leader of his own religion (interpreted by Bernard Hepton as a cold and embittered head of an administrative machine, nursing a hatred for his position as a collaborator with the system, but dependent on both rank and hate) Jesus had been inarticulate: Blakely's performance is ambiguous as to whether he is paralysed by fear, suffering a catatonic episode, expressing his despair at Caiaphas's questions or else a determination to be carried off to death. Pilate he first meets blindfolded; when the blindfold is removed Jesus's remark is 'Good afternoon'. Pilate throughout the trial is uncertain whether to treat Jesus as a political threat, a potential court jester, someone potentially useful in other ways, or just an irrelevance. (Christianity, as Potter knew, has been all these things to the civil power.) He strikes Jesus for insolence, and then apologises. His reaction to Jesus's 'Don't be afraid, Pontius,' is to move away, repulsed at the insight into himself, and to confirm the sentence of crucifixion. Jesus changes people by example. Pilate is last seen with an expression of contempt on his face as Jesus is flogged by his soldiery; it could be contempt for a Jesus whom Pilate says has condemned himself, but equally the discovery of self-hatred, and also the discovery that violence either no longer thrills or that the pleasure it brings him disgusts him.

For Potter, the crucifixion is the greatest example of all; loving your enemies means at its most extreme letting them do their worst to you without resistance. The final juxtaposition of the replayed desert scene from the beginning, as Jesus asked 'Is it me?', with the crucifixion and Jesus's final 'Oh God... why have you forsaken me?' is oddly underwhelming. This was one of the scenes rewritten for the subsequent stage version, with Jesus being allowed to add 'It is finished' before expiring on the cross.

Back in 1988, my religious studies teacher introduced the play to his class arguing that it posed the question 'Was Jesus mistaken?' The only concession to the supernatural, possibly, is that as Jesus dies, darkness falls. The effect of Potter's change for the stage was to confirm Jesus's career as worthwhile even if he was deluded about his special relationship with God - whatever he thought that relationship was. My memories of the 1995 stage revival - directed by Bill Bryden for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Joseph Fiennes as Jesus - suggest that the crucifixion was much more powerfully-executed. More widely, Bryden expressed first-century Judaea through comparison with the mid-twentieth century Forest of Dean into which Potter was born, combined with frequent singing from Moody and Sankey to represent Potter's family's evangelicalism. Despite Caiaphas's sneers (before he encounters Jesus) at 'the manners of a carpenter' and Blakely's displays both of Jesus's erudition and his appreciative delivery of the evaluation of the cross as a piece of timber which Potter gives Jesus, the Jesus and disciples of Gareth Davies's television production are never quite the working men which Bryden's staging presented or which Potter's dialogue seeks. Rumours of a film version of Bryden's interpretation failed to come to fruition.

While Son of Man has problems - there are several moments, particularly Jesus's meeting with Peter and Andrew, where weak performances would make the scene incredible. Pilate, Procla and their entourage draw on a cultural impression of the colonial governor more current for a 1969 audience than for one in the early twenty-first century, though it should not take long to think of workable equivalents. Son of Man may not seek to make converts, but it might change minds, even through the slow process of laying down thin new layers amidst the soft strata of opinion.