A guest post by Matthew Bailey:
Tony Benn – to whom the House of Commons pays tribute today – was a man of parts. As Steve Fielding has argued, there was ‘Mark I’ Anthony Wedgwood Benn: the early career revisionist, with an accompanying modernising zeal – especially with regard to how the Labour Party presented itself to the electorate – and then the increasingly leftward moving ‘Mark II’ Tony Benn. But there was in addition Benn Mark III – at the tail end of his ‘official’ political career that then shaded over into the national treasure, and Benn Mark IV, who has been a prominent feature of the recent obituaries.
In the televisual tributes to him, you caught a whiff of Benn Mark I: the bright-eyed, camera-ready Benn in command of his whizz-bang, Omo-bright ‘Britain Belongs to You’ political broadcast of 1959. He was a youthful, up-to-the-minute politician, who had in the words of the title of one of his own publications read the ‘signposts for the Sixties’. Just contrast Benn’s ease on screen and deft delivery with Hugh Gaitskell’s nervous bonhomie and jittery eyes, for instance.
But after this glimpse of the future, the tributes shifted gear, and focussed on the late Benns of Mark III and IV. What was missing therefore was the sturm und drang of Benn Mark II. There was, for example, no footage of his ‘thousand peers’ speech to Labour’s 1980 Conference. But this was the Benn who really made his mark on British political history: the Benn who had some members of the political classes cheering to the rafters – fighting to be heard through the wild cheering for that 1980 conference speech – whilst others were in paroxysms of outrage. The absence of this version of Tony Benn from the programming left a gaping hole. And is why a viewer would struggle to understand precisely what Benn’s political importance was.
The BBC ought to dig out of its archives a 1975 episode of the sit-com Till Death Us Do Part. Entitled ‘Wedgie Benn’ the subject of the episode is obvious: Alf Garnett (the irascible working-class right-winger played by Warren Mitchell) and his left-wing son-in-law (Tony Booth – aka Tony Blair’s father-in-law) descend into one of their familiar rows about politics, this time centred on the perceived discrepancy between Benn’s well-heeled pedigree and his now pronounced radicalism. It is a hotline to the true significance of Benn Mark II as a living, crucial and highly divisive figure who loomed large in the country’s political life and its popular consciousness. It is a sign of just how totemic and symbolic a figure Benn was during the 1970s and early 1980s that TV writers and producers should be confident that Benn’s name could resonate enough with the audience to be used as the title and main subject matter for an episode of a popular prime-time comedy.
Nor is Till Death US Do Part an isolated example. There’s the ‘Wedgie Benn’ t-shirt worn by Reggie Perrin’s son for instance or this exchange (noted by Alwyn W. Turner) on rising unemployment between the eponymous George & Mildred’s Tory supporting neighbours:
Jeffrey Fourmile: I blame Anthony Wedgwood Benn
Ann Fourmile: Oh, Jeffrey. You blame him when you get dandruff.
And, to take one of my very favourite scenes in British comedy (in David Nobbs’ brilliant The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin), Benn was not only to blame for everything from joblessness to and itchy scalp, but he was one of the undesirable elements undermining the very fabric of the country:
In a 1974 episode of Steptoe & Son, Harold (already identified as a Labour supporter in previous episodes, a potential candidate and even planning to bequeath half his estate to Harold Wilson upon his death) offers a Leftist’s vision of the country gone to the dogs, no less apocalyptic than Jimmy’s:
‘It’s falling apart; it’s collapsing – there’s revolution in the air. You mark my words. Two years I gives it mate, two years. The only well-dressed people in the country will be the army and the police. I’m telling you – you watch out mate.’
At this Harold breaks into an imagined news broadcast, replete with martial music, reporting on the instillation of the new Prime Minister, Sir Percival Ashby DSO DSM and his promise of free elections ‘within the next 20 years’. The report continues with the news of Barbara Castle’s mysterious suicide in Charing Cross hospital, the ‘accidental’ torpedoing of the TUC’s boat on route to exile on the Isle of Man’ and the continuing public trial of Harold Wilson at Wembley Stadium. And, of course, perhaps imagined as some resistance figure or king over the water: ‘Meanwhile, the search for Anthony Wedgwood Benn continues’.
Tony Benn mattered in many ways. But he arguably mattered most and was an important figure because he was such a controversial, powerful, and for many deeply worrying politician at a particular moment in our political history. Obiturary and history, hindsight even, can cast its eye over the past. It can correct that moment because it knows what went wrong; what was achieved or fell by the way. It can attempt something final. But it is also, too often a summing up; a process of making things neat and tidy.
At his peak, there was a palpable fear (and equally forceful commitment) surrounding Benn and what he stood for. A ‘true’ picture or understanding of a person’s life is of course a desperately difficult task. It is perhaps all the more difficult if the usual measures – in Benn’s case a ‘distinguished’ political career and all that entails – do not necessarily pertain. In trying to grasp the tangible – the offices held, the diaries left – we surely get somewhere but we may also fail to capture the impact and vital charge that surrounded Tony Benn in his pomp, a structure of feeling which might be more easily detected in a few lines of a BBC script.