Saturday, 9 February 2008

The Queen versus Norman Baker

Contains Spoilers for The Strange Death of David Kelly

I haven’t really seen it properly, but doesn’t The Queen strike you as a completely bizarre idea for a film? When I first saw it advertised in a cinema somewhere, I literally could not get my head round the fact why anyone in their own right mind would want to go and see it, but what do I know? I’m sure there’s a readymade American market that laps this stuff up, and who’s to say that’s a bad thing? Certainly not me.

Like The Last King of Scotland (another Peter Morgan script), The Queen mines a rich seam of unsympathetic protagonists in a study of tradition (represented by Helen Mirren, or as she is now better known: Her Maj) versus populism (represented by Tony Blair and his gang of gurning modernisers). Well, I’m guessing that’s what it’s about – I’ve seen it on three different occasions now and haven’t actually managed to see the whole thing, so no doubt there are huge gaps in my viewing experience. But bear with me.

A little while back, I wrote about the world of Spooks, and how I perceived that there had been a perceptible tonal shift in the ‘culture’ that made such a series possible. Although I liked Spooks, something about it seemed strangely reactionary – and the same thing struck me about The Queen.

The film portrays Blair the head cheese and his gruff, tabloid-wise sidekick, Alistair Campbell, as brave modernisers, wary and respectful of the old traditions, but recognising that by necessity, they must change. With the benefit of hindsight, Tony Blair’s premiership is not likely to be remembered for the Campbell-scripted speech he gave after Princess Diana’s death, but for an ill-advised, illegal and disastrous war.

Which leads me neatly onto The Strange Death of David Kelly, by Norman Baker, the famous Liberal Democrat windbag). This book is a thorough if at times rambling investigative study into the death of the Government weapons expert, David Kelly, found dead in suspicious circumstances in July 2003. The picture it paints of the Blair administration is not at all flattering, and to a certain extent this is to be expected. What is surprising, however, is the forensic diligence that Baker applies to the central question, which leads him to a startling conclusion: that Kelly was murdered by Iraqi intelligence operatives, and his death made to look like suicide, most probably by members of the UK intelligence community.

Baker grinds through a variety of scenarios – even a few that sound positively demented – and emerges with a thesis that is logical and well argued, even if there are a few unavoidable leaps of guesswork. It’s a persuasively and passionately argued book that leaves few stones unturned – a book that, in adapted form, would give a valid counterpoint to The Queen.

Conspiracy theories may well be a little old hat these days, and have almost certainly been overtaken by the imprecisions of ‘historical fiction’. But when a film as reactionary as The Queen pops up, I often wish there was something that could stand alongside it to give an opposing point of view.

As above, hindsight is a wonderful thing – The Queen is set in the initial days and months of Blair’s premiership, where anything seemed possible. Blair and Campbell are matey iconoclasts, all too aware of what they perceive as being the ‘right thing’, and what they need to do to achieve it. However, in The Strange Death of David Kelly, Blair and Campbell are obsessed with the retention of power; their treatment of David Kelly was disgraceful at best, and their political hobbling of the BBC and the ensuing Hutton enquiry were the breathtakingly arrogant actions of men convinced that they were right (and what is particularly galling about the whole episode is that it was the BBC that was right all along).

The Queen is undoubtedly a work of fiction – where politicians strive for the common good, how could it be anything else? Discounting the obvious guesswork that Baker’s conclusion necessarily demands, The Strange Death of David Kelly seems anything but, a world where the good guys get killed and the bad guys get the million pound book deals. Maybe I’m a bit weird, but I know which one I’d rather pay money to see.


martin said...

consider yourself memed sir

Jon Peacey said...

I was incredibly sceptical about The Queen, not least through an intense dislike of Stephen Frears, yet when I saw it I was impressed.

I found the politics of The Queen strange and complex. I think you may need to watch the film fully, though, as Campbell (and Cherie) comes across as entirely disrespectful of tradition and desirous of sweeping the whole thing away and wanting to use the Diana crisis to discredit and destroy the Monarchy. The film seems to acknowledge that the Monarchy must change and that the country has changed but seems to recognize the New Labour crowd as venal and hate-filled (the people who gave us a 'good day to bury bad news'). In some respects the very neutrality or sympathy of the film towards both The Queen and Blair seems to allow for people to impose wildly different interpretations.

The portrayal of Blair et al. does have the added weight of 10 years of enforced dramatic irony.

I'm not so sure The Queen is as reactionary as it sometimes appears and the politicians certainly don't come across as striving for the common good very much.

It's also not very fictional, virtually ever line of dialogue is genuine, based on the results of nearly 200 interviews with key people and backstairs listeners-in, both at No.10 and the Palace... however, the emphasis and what is left in or out lends to the interpretation. It is, for example, far less fictitious than The Last King Of Scotland.

I hope some of that ramblesome nonsense made some sense!

Chip Smith said...

I think what you're trying to say, Jon, is that I should watch it all the way through! Point taken.

I thought Blair was treated fairly respectfully actually (well, in the bits I've seen at least), and of course there's nothing wrong with this. The impression I got was the New Labour 'project' recognised that the monarchy needed to change, with the added benefit that such change would reflect well on NL.

What with the recent news on the BAE enquiry and Prince Bandar's supposed threat to the British Government, it might be the case that Blair's rehabilitation has begun...

Jon Peacey said...

I suddenly remembered something I was going to mention about ‘modernization’. There is the issue that while modernization (or modernity) can be a good thing some can be a step backwards: some good examples would be PFI initiatives which are costing vast amounts for less reward; police paperwork; downgrading of cannabis classification and our old friend 24 hour drinking which has convinced me to avoid the local city centre during the hours of darkness. I mentioned this to someone the other day who’d been on a couple of management courses about a decade apart: on the first, they were told there was always a second option to the one on the table… ‘that we do nothing’. In the second course, they no longer mentioned this option because all change is now good. Even when it’s patently stupid!

There was a recent interesting article on not removing the monarch as Head-of-State (and Commander-in-Chief) because while we have a monarch to which soldiers, police, etc. can swear allegiance they can feel free to not be sworn to any particular political viewpoint and can merrily criticize the Blairs of this world. The commentator counter-pointed this with his recent experiences in America where, despite his staunch Right-wingness, he criticized Bush (and Blair) and was roundly attacked for it because by attacking President Bush, as Head-of-State and Commander-in-Chief, this was seen as the equivalent of attacking the country, the soldiers and the people. Fascinating stuff from a commentator I would usually like to see flung down a deep-well- which is ironic because one of the reasons I dislike him so much is his staunch support of the death penalty! :)

Jon Peacey said...

Oh, and, yes you should watch the film properly.

As for Blair's rehabilitation... well, I think that could take a very long time: if at all! I mean seriously, I think we haven't felt anywhere near the full effects of what the guy's done... I'm beginning to suspect the country's been left like one of those houses in a horror film where it's just booby-trap after booby-trap. Whether he did this because he hates anybody earning less than 100k a year or because he hates Brown is anybody's guess!!! ;)