Brexit: The Uncivil War

New Year - new naming scheme! 

This is a special episode where Emma and Steve have got together to discuss last night's James Graham TV play Brexit: The Uncivil War. 

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, this covered the ins and outs of the in or out vote in 2016. Largely focussed on the successful leave campaign, we discuss the timeliness or otherwise of the drama, the casting and the baggage that brings and how you decide what to include and what to leave out.

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A Christmas Carol

‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

Few will, surely, have a dry eye when they read the concluding sentence from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. For, as many will know, Dickens’ story has four ghosts visit the selfish financier Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve after which he is transformed and reconnected to society. This not only makes Scrooge a much happier man but by abandoning his individualism he also saves Tiny Tim’s life by paying his father Bob Cratchit a decent wage and becoming preoccupied with the boy’s welfare.

In our December podcast Emma and I discussed Scrooged the 1988 movie adaptation of Dickens’ novella as well as Scrooge a 1951 film version. In fact, since being first published in December 1843 the story has been retold many times and in many different ways - including by the Muppets. It is clearly saying something readers and audiences want to hear. Some might dismiss the tale as sentimental tosh, and Dickens was often guilty of indulging in that. But as a radical public figure Dickens used his fictions to advance political arguments. And A Christmas Carol was no exception.

For the story was published during a decade marked by great economic crises: Britain was being transformed thanks to industrialisation, a process produced great instability and suffering: if a few were made rich the many became poor. In response the largely working-class Chartist movement developed, its main demand being universal suffrage for men, in the hope that democracy would make society fairer.  

Dickens’ solution to Britain’s unequal society in A Christmas Carol was rather different. As Scrooge’s well-meaning nephew has it, Christmas should be ‘a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.’ The desirability of recognising our common humanity on at least one day every year, was, of course, something Scrooge initially rejects as Humbug.

For Scrooge is Dickens’ version of the archetypal Economic Man, a figure who was meant to be the new ideal in Britain’s emerging industrial capitalism. So, when visited by the tortured ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley Scrooge is bemused, for Marley was in his view a ‘good man of business’. Marley replies ‘Business! … Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business’. Marley’s tragedy is that he came to realise that only after death and so he visits Scrooge to persuade him to change his attitude before it is too late. 

As we know, A Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge seizing the opportunity to change, to recognise his shared humanity, and to act upon it, not just at Christmas but on every day of the year. Despite Tiny Tim’s invocation for God to ‘bless Us, Every One!’ it is an essentially secular message – references to religion as few and far between in A Christmas Carol. It is of course a highly political message, if not of the sort a conventional political party can easily turn into votes. For while the story is largely directed at readers with something to share to persuade them to help those without, it points to the need for a society based on very different principles to one emerging in the 1840s, the ones selfish Scrooge initially embodied.

It was a sentiment expressed by some of Dickens’ contemporaries. Less than two years after A Christmas Carol, the future Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote the novel Sybil. This explored the social consequences of industrialisation and in so doing coined the term ‘Two Nations’. According to Disraeli Britain was now formed by two nations, ‘between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.’ Disraeli’s solution to the problem was not quite Dickens’, and not that of the Chartists. As Prime Minister he sought to unite the nation through mobilising support for the Empire and Monarchy while modestly ameliorating some of the worst aspects of industrialisation – and giving a few working-class men the vote.

Others have exploited the desire for unity for their own ends. Nationalists do that; as do racists. David Cameron’s bogus Big Society tried to sell unity to voters while actually increasing inequality. But that does not undermine the force of Dickens’ sentiment, one that still stands as a direct criticism of the limitations of capitalism – liberal or neo-liberal – and which points to the almost universal desire for us all to feel part of a common humanity, one that transcends division.

That those on the left – who presumably genuinely believe in the sentiment expressed in A Christmas Carol - have generally failed to build on it in practical and sustained ways is perhaps the greatest indictment that can be made of them.




Happy Christmas! For this year's Christmas special, Emma and Steve look at the Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged. Loosely based on Charles Dicken's classic A Christmas Carol, this is a tale of how rampant greed ruinds lives and redemption through giving - at Christmas.

Peterloo: review by Steve Fielding

Labour MP Chris Williamson certainly seems to have enjoyed Mike Leigh’s new film Peterloo, which recreates the 1819 massacre in St Peter’s Field in Manchester. Williamson, the Corbynite member for Derby North quoted in his enthusiastic tweet the Shelley poem, The Mask of Anarchy. Shelley wrote it to commemorate the massacre during which 15 people were killed and an estimated 700 injured when armed yeomanry attacked 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters

Williamson is a keen supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party – one that celebrates proletarian struggle and solidarity, even when it has sometimes led to conflict. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, infamously described the violent student protests of 2010 as “the best of our movement”. So it was always likely that Peterloo, a film about the bloody suppression of a popular demonstration would find favour on the left.

Read more on The Conversation.

Journalists have always fascinated writers, filmmakers, poets and dramatists. On the big screen, small screen, in novels and plays, thousands and thousands of cultural outputs concern that often morally compromised, usually slightly shabby and very occasionally heroic maker of news. Even Shakespeare featured one, the loveable rogue Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale, who sold dodgy ballads about scarlet women and criminals, ‘very true, and but a month old’ to gullible rustics.

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Agitprop meets Victoria Wood

Miners used to be left-wing dramatists’ catnip. The visceral, often fatal, nature of their work, as well as their leading position in the labour movement, saw them become the roaring lions of socialist drama. Death and Revolution is a heady mix. As ever, real politics and drama were intertwined: it was no accident they were a popular subject for TV plays and series during the 1970s as that was when the National Union of Mineworkers brought down the government of Edward Heath. But after the disastrous 1984-5 strike, the mining industry rapidly shrank into insignificance and the once-mighty NUM became a sad shadow of its former self.  When NUM President Arthur Scargill left Tony Blair’s Labour party in 1996 hardly anybody noticed.

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That's entirely a matter for you...

The Secret Policeman's Ball wasn't the first of the annual comedy galas held in aid of Amnesty International, but it was certainly the most significant. There had been no event in 1978, as Amnesty wanted to explore ways of using the shows to raise money beyond the sales of tickets on the night; John Cleese and comedy impresario Martin Lewis were put in charge of the project, and decided that the following year's show should both be marketed like a rock concert, with accompanying spin-offs in other media, and match the energy of the new wave of 'Alternative' comics.

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This month Steve and Emma discuss the Warren Beatty classic Reds. Released in 1981 - the height of Reaganism in America, this audacious film tells the story of John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant. 

Reed wrote the seminal Ten Days That Shook the World about the Russian Revolution and Bryant was an activist and feminist. This film tells their story and that of left-wing politics in the early part of the 20th century in America and Russia. 

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Hateful and Hollow: Morrisey's lifelong campaign to piss off his fanbase

n the bleak mid-80s, life was tough for young people in general, and in particular for those of a more sensitive disposition. Sensitivity wasn't cool. Cool was brash, buccaneering, blokey. 

So when The Smiths came along, they spoke to a generation of (mostly white) dispossessed young people of a sensitive and mostly left wing bent.

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Podcast Animals

This month, Emma and Steve look at the BBC's ill-fated attempt to do a "This Life" on Westminster - Party Animals. 

It's an enjoyable drama and in many ways an admirable one. Certainly its stated intention to show Westminster in a more positive light is something that has been missing from most depictions of British politics. 

But coming out in 2007, just before the crash and the expenses scandal, it never really chimed with the national mood and wasn't commissioned for a second series. 

If you enjoy The Zeitgeist Tapes, please rate and review us on iTunes. It helps others find us too.

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Podcast, Nigel Barton

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Following the sad death of Keith Barron at the end of 2017 we thought this was an ideal time to re-examine the Dennis Potter plays, Stand up, Nigel Barton and Vote, Vote, Vote For Nigel Barton. 

First broadcast in 1965, these still speak to very live discussions about class, social mobility and the role both play in our lives. The second play in particular looks at the role of class in electoral politics. 

There are no easy answers in Potter's plays. The fact is we're still asking all these questions today. But these were a fascinating - and highly autobiographical - look at the system that has stymied too many British lives for far too long, and the inability and unwillingness to change that from all classes. 

It's a Wonderful Podcast

Merry Christmas! 

Listen here.

And what would Christmas be without an exposition on the ills of untrammelled capitalism, a discussion of the merits of small town America over the big city and a end so collectivist in nature yet small town in values it melts the hearts of socialists and conservatives alike. 

It's a Wonderful Life was not a success on release but it has since become the quintessential Christmas film. Here we discuss why it's endured, what it has to say about the politics of the time it was made and what it still has to say to us now.