IT MAY be PR, but ITV is saying it’s braced for complaints after deciding to show a “tough” anti-war drama, My Boy Jack, on Remembrance Sunday. If I were one of its executives, I wouldn’t worry about knee-jerk protests but about whether my dramatists can handle the complexity of war in the first place.
On the face of it, the life of Rudyard Kipling’s son makes a pleasingly simple morality tale. Kipling schooled him to fight for king and country. When Jack went missing in action in 1915, he was overwhelmed by guilt. Still waiting for confirmation of death he wrote
‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.‘
When d’you think that he’ll come back?’
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
In 1919, when the war was over, he said of the slaughtered young that, “if any question why we died, tell them because our fathers lied”. So there you are: the poet of empire transformed into as steadfast an opponent of war as today’s artists. It “will cetainly resonante with people serving in Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Jack. He didn’t seem to know that Kipling’s reactions didn’t always resonate with polite modern sentiments. As well as blaming old for sending the young to die, he learned to loathe Germans. In 1915, he produced Mary Postgate, a short story about a respectable spinster who finds a wounded, pleading German airman lying in her garden and leaves him to suffer. When he dies, she has an orgasmic “rapture” and “shivers from head to foot”. Critics have been revolted ever since. Angus Wilson called Mary Postgate “evil”. Christopher Hitchens said it was “a paean of hatred and cruelty”. Yet to show that Kipling and millions of others were caught between crushing remorse and inhuman fury is not only true but more dramatic.
In the age of Bush, however, television and theatre are the last places to find true drama. You only have to see Sir David Hare’s name on a billboard to know exactly what the political message will be; you only have to hear that Channel 4 has commissioned a play about suicide bombers to know they will be frustrated Liberal Democrats rather than fascistic followers of a death cult.
In the past, most good political writers have always come from their leftish middle class. The trouble today is not that their successors reach identical liberal conclusions, but that they are not talented enough to do to do the hard work needed to get there. The first task of dramatists is to put themselves in the minds of others and show conflicting points of view – if only the better to confront them. No longer. Group think has made challenges to orthodoxy so unimaginable writers can’t stage them
It’s their loss, as well as ours. Without conflict, modern drama is worse propaganda than anything Kipling wrote, and vanishes from audiences’ minds faster than the latest spin from Downing Street.
I WAS AT a press briefing given by a senior American official on Monday, and everyone asked about the chaos in Pakistan. One my colleagues was enjoying the possibilities for disaster with a touch too much relish. His every sentence began with “you’re in trouble with this…you’re in trouble with that…”
The American paused and I could see him thinking about the British suicide bombers who return to London from training camps in the al Qaeda strongholds on the Pakistan-Afghan border, and the supply routes for British troops in Helmand which pass through Pakistani territory.
“What do you mean ‘you’re in trouble’?” he replied “We’re in trouble.”
THE LATE James Cameron said he was a “conservative in everything except my politics,” and I’m the same. Naturally, when newspapers managers sent me to work in the newly opened Canary Wharf in the early Nineties I couldn’t stand the place. Cut off from the rest of London, not an old building in sight and empty of everything but security guards and security cameras, it was my idea of hell.
“Don’t worry,” the boosters said. “Soon there will be shops, bars, restaurants and a tube link, and then you’ll love it.”
I went back on Saturday, and although it had all four, it was still a giant gated village with no organic connection to the world outside. As with the Barbican and Southbank Centre, it was made ugly and it will stay ugly. There’s nothing else to be done but knock it down and start again.