Polanski at (nearly) 90

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CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD looks back at an astonishing and controversial career

Temporal landmarks may be purely arbitrary and exist only in our heads, as Einstein and his crew tell us, but it surely still comes down to a case of tempus fugit in the matter of the Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski. Turning 90 on 18 August 2023, he’s seemingly gone from being cinema’s perpetual enfant terrible to its grand old man, albeit with some significant growth pains along the way.

As often noted, Polanski’s own life has the makings of a Hollywood drama, if one with some distinctly noirish twists. His mother Bula, four months’ pregnant, was killed in the Holocaust, and his father Ryszard survived nearly three years in a German death camp. Polanski himself escaped the Nazis, but then spent the rest of his early life under Stalin’s jackboot. He eventually made it to freedom in the West, only for his wife Sharon Tate, also pregnant, to be brutally murdered in the couple’s Los Angeles home in 1969 by members of the so-called Manson family.

That might seem quite enough shadow for one life, but more was to come. In March 1977, Polanski, who was then 43, took a 13-year-old girl to a house in the Hollywood Hills to take photos of her for a magazine. Once there, he gave her champagne and tranquilizers, had sex with her, drove her home, and the following week was arrested. Polanski absconded from court on the eve of his being sentenced a year later, apparently in the belief that he was about to be locked up for life. As a dual Franco-Polish citizen, he was able to settle in Paris, where he remains at liberty to this day.

Before moving on, just a brief note on the judicial proceedings against Polanski in re. his statutory rape of a minor, which these days is increasingly portrayed – not least by Polanski himself – in almost Kafkaesque terms, and more particularly as a case of a vindictive and senile judge – one Laurence J. Rittenband, then aged 72, who presided over the Superior Court in Santa Monica, California – seeking to make an example of the ferret-faced, foreign-born sex predator standing before him in the dock.

Rittenband, it should be noted in this context, already had a long and not undistinguished legal career spanning some fifty years at the time Polanski first entered his courtroom. Of a modest background in Brooklyn, New York, he’s agreed to have been knowledgeable and personally unassuming – in one account, ‘not one of those judges who always thinks he’s in the movies’ (although by the same token, also not above keeping his own press cuttings file). In his memoirs, Polanski implies that Rittenband was star-struck by the 1977 proceedings, and, after initially exercising due judicial restraint (setting the defendant’s bail at a modest $2,500, and even allowing him to travel outside the country ‘should he so wish’), was ‘clearly over-enjoying his first excursion into the limelight.’

This account is not quite fair. In fact by the time he met Polanski, Rittenband had already presided over a host of high-profile Hollywood cases, including Elvis Presley’s divorce, Marlon Brando’s child-custody battle and a paternity suit against Cary Grant. Nor could it be concluded from these proceedings that the judge was in any way prejudiced against his celebrity defendants. In the case of Grant, for instance, Rittenband had made the eminently sensible suggestion that both the actor and the alleged mother of his child submit to a blood test, ‘after which we will determine what to do.’ When the woman in question had failed to appear for her scheduled test, and for two subsequent appointments, Rittenband curtly dismissed her suit. As well as being a stickler both for the letter and the spirit of the law, regularly advising plaintiffs and defendants alike of the need to be ‘decorous’ and punctual in his court, the judge was impressively well read in a variety of fields, which enabled him to make pertinent and original connections in his rulings. Regarding Elvis, for example, he quoted Jonathan Swift, observing to the charismatic but modestly educated ‘Hound Dog’ singer that ‘Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.’ Looking back on the Polanski case years later, Rittenband puckishly told the press, ‘It reminds me of a line from Gilbert and Sullivan: “I’ve got him on my list.”’

Three final things need to be said about the morals rap that has effectively defined the second half of Polanski’s life.

First, there was – and in some quarters, remains – a certain amount of doubt as to whether the then-widowed director had been fully aware of his victim’s age at the time he had sex with her. It’s true to say both that the child in question, Samantha Gailey, looked significantly older than thirteen, and also that she wasn’t perhaps the naïf widely portrayed by her defenders. In her own Grand Jury testimony on the matter, Gailey noted that she had had sex twice in the year before she met Polanski, that she had been drunk, and that “yeah, once I was under the influence of [drugs] when I was real little.”

However, it should also clearly be noted Gailey was still then a seventh-grade schoolgirl who “had a Spider Man poster on the wall and kept pet mice,” as she recalled in a magazine interview. Born on 31 March 1963, she was fully four years under the age of consent then required by the state of California. Polanski was later asked by the prosecuting attorney in the case how old he had believed his victim to be when he met her. “She was 13,” he said.

Next there’s the salient point of whether Polanski had in fact raped the child, or, conversely, whether, as he later insisted, she had been a ‘not unresponsive’ partner in the act. This is what Gailey had to say on the matter when questioned at the time in front of the Grand Jury:

Q: After Polanski first kissed you did he say anything?
A: No.

Q: Did you say anything?
A: No, besides I was just going, ‘No. Come on, let’s go home.’

Q: What was said after you indicated that you wanted to go home when you were sitting together on the couch?

A: He said, ‘I’ll take you home soon.’

Q: Then what happened?
A: Then he went down and he started performing cuddliness.

Q: What does that mean?
A: It means he went down on me or he placed his mouth on my vagina.

Gailey was asked whether either party had said anything following that point.


‘Did you resist?’

‘A little, but not really because … ’

‘Because what?’

‘Because I was afraid of him.’

Finally, there’s the belief, still widely in vogue today, that Polanski had been railroaded by a corrupt and/or incompetent judge who was apparently about to renege on a formal commitment not to send the defendant to prison following the completion of a mandatory 90-day diagnostic evaluation sentence. Those who insist the director was somehow misled into believing that his plea bargain in front of Rittenband would preclude the threat of further jail time may be interested in the previously sealed transcript of the critical August 1977 hearing at which Polanski pleaded guilty to a single reduced count of unlawful sex with a minor. As part of the process, the defendant was required to answer 62 separate questions posed by the district attorney in the case, among them the following exchange:

Q: Mr. Polanski, who do you believe will decide what your ultimate sentence will be in this matter?
A: The judge.

Q: Who do you think will decide whether or not you will get probation?
A: The judge.

Q: Who do you think will determine whether the sentence will be a felony or a misdemeanor?
A: The judge.

Q: Do you understand that at this time the court has not made any decision as to what sentence you will receive?

A: Yes.

Now turning from the criminal, or depredatory, to the small matter of whether Polanski’s films are actually any good. The director’s first full-length feature Knife in the Water (1962) is a beautifully crafted, if at times noticeably budget-conscious, thriller that offers the classic Polanskian brew of claustrophobia, latent menace, voyeurism, class antagonisms and sexual tension, in this case set aboard a small yacht. Seen today, it still seems as fresh as the moment it was released more than sixty years ago. Among other charms, Knife has some of the most convincing examples of the kind of pure and honest personal hatred that can pass for conversation in a marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All cult black and white Polish films should be shot on a shoestring, in an increasingly mutinous atmosphere among their cast and crew – that way they might be half as good as this one. Perhaps the best sign of the film’s artistic merits came when its distributors arranged a special showing for members of the Polish cabinet in Warsaw, and the state’s hardline communist party boss Wladyslaw Gomulka expressed his reservations about it by hurling an ashtray at the screen.

Following that there was a wonderfully twisted thriller named Repulsion, shot in London, which charts the mental disintegration of a young woman who lives with her sister on the top floor of a seedy South Kensington mansion block. As with Knife, the film occasionally betrays its budget-related shortcomings, but still shows an originality and a lightness of touch well beyond the stock Hammer-horror genre that its producers, a faintly comic-opera pair of East End entrepreneurs named Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, had in mind. The gradual crack-up of what Polanski calls ‘an angelic-looking girl with a soiled halo’, bereft of any of the sort of state emotional-welfare apparatus we might expect today, is what seems most shocking to modern viewers: both pitiable and ugly.

Repulsion was perhaps the logical curtain-raiser to Polanski’s first significant, and commercially successful, venture, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby. Essentially, it’s the tale of a young woman whose world, like that of the heroine in Repulsion, spirals into a living hell once she becomes pregnant – inseminated by Beelzebub himself, apparently – with her first child. Things soon take a downward turn. At first the neighbours in the woman’s New York apartment building show an unusual interest in her welfare, and in time weird chanting can be heard through the walls at night. Then another neighbour commits suicide by jumping out of a window. When the new mother finally gives birth, she’s at first told that her child has died on delivery. Hearing its cries from the next room, she locates her infant son, who it appears has highly unusual eyes, causing Rosemary to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. It’s all just a touch extreme, and the veteran actress Ruth Gordon, playing one of Rosemary’s neighbours, appears to have inadvertently wandered in from the set of a knockabout comedy, but set against this the direction itself is crisp, unpretentious and rarely stoops to cliché. The film brought Polanski both fame and fortune, but perhaps more importantly saddled him with the faintly unsavoury reputation he arguably still enjoys today. To some, it was as though the director himself had sold his soul to the devil, as some real-life equivalent of the Faustian pact seemingly entered into by Rosemary’s neighbours and tormentors. One widely-seen press headline of the time, parodying the advertising for Rosemary’s Baby, ran ‘Pray for Roman Polanski’.

After that came a notably sanguinary Macbeth, which most critics took as a cathartic exercise by Polanski, whose wife had been murdered the previous year, followed by Chinatown, a hard-boiled but gently paced saga of big-city corruption, peopled by Raymond Chandler-style wiseguys and featuring a memorable cameo by the director himself as a knife-wielding thug.

We can perhaps draw a discreet veil over the years from around 1975 to 2002, although the visually sumptuous Tess (1979) – like Macbeth, inviting numerous Freudian, if not overtly autobiographical interpretations, with its central plot of a young girl sexually violated by an older man – had both its admirers and detractors. Perhaps it’s enough to say that Polanski brought a distinct vision to bear in almost all his films, good or bad, and that this included a technical expertise (he remains an acknowledged master of matters such as camera lenses and stage-dressing) not as common in even the most prominent directors as one might think, as well as a tendency to explore the darker side of the human condition: the idea that we’re essentially adrift in a hostile world, the butt of some cosmic jest of unfathomable cruelty. ‘My characters’ destinies [are] the result of apparently meaningless coincidence,’ Polanski once said, which would appear to apply to much of his own career. One of the most pronounced themes, rarely far from the surface in his scripts, is the subject of betrayal, and, by extension, death – of compelling interest to the man whose mother, wife and unborn son were all murdered – and the inevitable survivor’s guilt. When asked about the violence in his films, muted as it may seem by modern standards, Polanski inevitably notes that he does no more than show the world around him, and whatever else he’s surely one of the few directors, living or dead, to have experienced quite as many of the twentieth century’s homicidal monsters at first hand. ‘People talk about the autobiographical aspect of Roman’s work,’ the critic and Polanski collaborator Ken Tynan once observed. ‘But his life’s much more interesting than that. The cliffhangers end with real falls.’

This somehow leads irresistibly to 2002’s The Pianist, the affecting Holocaust drama for which Polanski won his first and as yet only Academy Award. Surely one of the film’s many attractions is that it dares to underplay the obvious horror of the subject matter, never pandering to the audience with the sort of pity-of-it-all approach taken by other directors treating broadly the same material. In Polanski’s world there are no soaring choirs to mark the moments of redemption, and no Jaws-like thudding to signal the perils. The film’s climactic confrontation, when a leather-clad SS officer asks the eponymous musician Wladyslaw Szpilman to prove he can play the piano, the stark implication being that he’ll be shot if he can’t, stands as an exquisite example of the power of understatement. Where another director might have given us close-ups of squinting eyes and sweaty palms, Polanski lets the scene unfold quietly, with just the right balance of tension and release. Instead of the panoramic sweep of a Schindler’s List, The Pianist confines itself to a more modest and specific set of events. In scaling down the action to a single, not invariably heroic figure, it invites the audience members to put themselves in Szpilman’s shoes, and so achieves an impact that Spielberg’s worthy but heavy-going epic had somehow lacked. Taken as a whole, the film remains Polanski’s masterpiece, one that surprises through its understated and irresistible power to move.

It remains only to note that when Polanski won his Oscar for The Pianist, he wisely elected not to personally attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Had he done so, he would presumably have been met not by the traditional Academy limousine but by an armed police detail, which would have executed the outstanding warrant for his arrest and transported him to the nearest jail. Polanski’s friend Harrison Ford collected the trophy on his behalf, and was later able to fly to Paris and present it to him in person. The Oscar ceremony itself took place on 23 March 2003. By a morbid coincidence, it was sixty years to the day since Polanski’s father Ryszard had been marched off to the Mauthausen concentration camp, thus exposing his son to the full horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland. On at least one level, the whole ordeal now finally seemed to have been brought full circle. ‘I am deeply moved to be rewarded for The Pianist. It relates to the events so close to my own life, the events that led me to comprehend that art can transform pain,’ Polanski said in a statement from his Paris exile.

It is not a bad epitaph on his career as a whole.

Escaping from reality – ‘The French Dispatch’

GUY WALKER greatly enjoys a playful new film, but finds it ultimately insubstantial

Early on in The French Dispatch we encounter an imprisoned murderer who takes the art world by storm with an abstract nude painting of a female prison officer, with whom he manages to conduct an affair, secretly painted in his French prison. After his release he conducts an affair with the female reporter – named Berensen, thus echoing the name of the art historian Berenson – telling his story. The wall in the prison canteen on which he painted a series of abstract murals is, then, air-lifted to an art museum in Kansas after slow motion mayhem has unfolded between prisoners, prison staff and denizens of the art world. Next, a middle aged female American reporter reports on and has an affair with the boyish leader of a soixante-huitard revolution, naturally conducted via chess moves relayed through a loud hailer, before she encourages the lad to sleep with a female revolutionary who contradicts everything he proposes on principle. He is then electrocuted in an accident on a radio tower. Finally French Police Noir, Maigret and Tintin-style are comprehensively elided with French haute cuisine.

By now we are in no doubt that the movie is modern, it’s post-modern, it’s meta, full of cutesy kitsch, it appeals to the child in us and it wilfully and proudly obeys none of the rules or the unities and satisfies none of our expectations. There’s slow motion and freeze frame and switches from colour to black and white, from real life to cartoon. We are put in mind of the labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges’ psyche, and Magical Realism takes a bow. It’s a complicated delight with an endless stream of puns, verbal and visual.
There is, therefore, also a Chef/Police Officer who, in a joke typical of the rapid-fire surrealist jokes that are sprinkled throughout, is called Nescaffier and is played by an American actor of Korean heritage. All of the stories are set in a fictional French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé which is actually parts of old Angoulême, the home of the French Comic-book Festival. The French Dispatch salutes in passing the art dealer Lord Duveen who enriched himself by satisfying the thirst of American millionaires for European art, the overweight and brilliant American writer on World War 2, boxing and French cuisine, AJ Liebling and Mavis Gallant, the Canadian chronicler of Paris in May ‘68 all of whom appeared in the famed New Yorker magazine as writers or subjects. It’s all very affectionate, charming and whimsical in the tradition of Amélie and The Budapest Hotel. The whole, pitched as ‘a  love letter to journalists’ is framed within the Foreign Bureau Magazine of the Liberty, Kansas Evening SunThe French Dispatch in which the stories appear in an obituary edition for the recently deceased editor and founder.
It’s studded with the stars, many of them current hot properties, who must make up most of Wes Anderson’s address book, many of them having appeared in his earlier films. All of the thespian brilliance and talent of Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalomet, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan, Anjelica Houston, Edward Norton, Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Cécile de France, Rupert Friend, Léa Seydoux, Benicio del Toro, Henry Winkler, Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and even Jarvis Cocker is showcased and shop-windowed to great effect. And that’s only half of the cast!
So, what do we think about all of this? How do we respond to it? It’s the nature of contemporary art and that includes le septième art, even when it’s set in other periods and unfamiliar places and, as this film is, studiedly untethered from any connection with now, to tell us something about the time in which it was made and the modern consciousness that made it.
Whimsy and Magical Realism, although they entertain and tickle us, somehow fail to satisfy us at a profound level. This is, perhaps, because of what they really are. Our modern zeitgeist demands the abolition of intelligence, wit, irony and humour for fear that they undermine or, perish the thought, laugh at the witless totalitarianism of identity politics and correctness. This means, in practice, that a ban has effectively been imposed on the brilliance of Western wit to exercise itself to its full extent in relation to the real contemporary world. The result of this proscription is that European and American wit, a sad and forlorn refugee, has had to migrate into intellectual exile, retreating into a green screen cultural vacuum where it cannot be incriminated by association with anything linkable to the actual modern world. In this instance it is welcomed into a French world set somewhere between the 30s and the 70s (thus allowing the existence of anachronisms like big-hearted show-girls) that is no more than the figment of someone’s imagination and is incontrovertibly ‘detoxified’ by being totally over and hermetically sealed in that vacuum. It is given free rein to do its soubresauts and pirouettes on condition that none of them mean anything or make any comment on our times. Wit can obtain as long as it is defanged and not dangerous to the status quo. And this is the sad comment on our times that the film, unwittingly, makes……

From The Cruel Sea to St. Trinian’s…

Still from ‘The Cruel Sea’ (1953)
STUART MILLSON revels in British film music at the Proms

It seems unthinkable that a Proms season in peacetime would have to be abandoned, but this is almost what happened last year at the height of the Covid pandemic. With much-reduced orchestras – their players spread widely across an extended Royal Albert Hall platform in order to preserve social distancing – the BBC resolutely produced a Proms 2020, but with the stalls, arena, gallery and boxes of the great Hall empty. The Prommers had to content themselves with listening to the skeleton season on Radio 3, or watching the proceedings on BBC Four television. But it was better than nothing.

This year, audiences returned, but on the basis that concertgoers showed evidence of a double Covid vaccination, or a negative test for the virus. And even then, the famous Proms queues, the pre-concert drinks, atmosphere and general buzz of the season – little of what we understand by this remarkable and long-established music festival existed.

Doreen Carwithen (Mary Alwyn)

On the 2nd September your reviewer ventured into London to enjoy a Prom given by the 60-strong BBC Concert Orchestra, possibly the most versatile orchestra to be employed by the BBC – covering the classical repertoire (often lighter or more recondite works); show music and the songs of theatreland; and even touching upon jazz and pop. For my evening, the BBC CO conveyed its audience through the Odeon doors and into the world of British film music, beginning with Doreen Carwithen (real name, Mary Alwyn) and her overture to the 1954 film, The Men of Sherwood. What a good choice: asplendid curtain-raiser which immediately lifted the spirits of the 2,000 people present; the music immediately taking everyone away from their Covid concerns and back into a world of Lincoln green and derring-do. Carwithen’s overture was reminiscent of her better-known Suffolk Suite, an effective piece of scene painting – with rhapsodic evocations of the English landscape mixed with trumpets and brass, as men of valour meet in combat on battlements.

The programme notes for the evening tended to be a little sniffy about the quality of the film – underlining the point by reproducing the original theatrical poster from the time, and referring to “scrappily-drawn faux mediaeval title cards” and “an illuminated manuscript of the lowest wattage”. A trifle harsh, perhaps – given the general good intentions of the film-makers, who in those days at least tried to celebrate our English past. In fact, there is much reassurance in the mythical country evoked by the props and artwork on the 1950s. In our age of political correctness, it is encouraging that such images should have been dusted down and brought out before an audience.

Similar notions of the countryside and olde England were also found in one of the major items on the bill: Vaughan Williams’s Three Portraits from the England of Elizabeth, the result of the composer’s collaboration with nationalised British Railways. Just as the travel poster was used in the 1930s to inspire holidaymakers to head for the ‘Cornish Riviera’ or the breathtaking Lakeland, the 1950s embraced the technology of the in-house film unit – the perfect opportunity for composers to earn money quickly (instead of waiting for an orchestra to include their new work in a Festival Hall programme). And so, Vaughan Williams’s style – a gracious blend of Tudor-infused tone-painting, with the echo of the village green never far away – proved to be the ideal accompaniment to British Transport’s public information films. Yet played on their own in the concert hall (with the listener, perhaps not even aware of how they were commissioned or written), the ‘Three Portraits’ could very easily have been a short, long-lost folk symphony by Vaughan Williams.

Alan Rawsthorne, William Alwyn and Malcolm Arnold were also dominant figures in the film industry and it was fascinating to hear – live – Rawsthorne’s dark score to The Cruel Sea (1953) which starred Jack Hawkins and told the story of the Battle of the Atlantic. Rawsthorne is hardly ever played these days in his own native Britain, the Second Piano Concerto surfacing, perhaps, every 30 years at the Proms. It is high time for a re-evaluation of this masterful composer, capable of bringing a psychological sense of sea warfare and the limitless ocean into a conventional British war film.

Is there a tendency for film music to be bitty? Not so, in the case of William Alwyn’s truly large-scale symphonic contribution to the 1947 Carol Reed production, Odd Man Out – the tense, anguished story of an Irish nationalist (named Johnny McQueen) injured, and on the run through the mean streets of Belfast. Again, here is an example of music that could easily have been the first movement of a symphony: Alwyn conceiving large, heavily-woven expanses of ideas – with much complicated development, instead of simply relying on a simple, repetitive theme for the film-goer. A satisfying span of gripping, tragic proportions.

Peter Cushing in ‘The Skull’

The most avant garde work of the evening was the Elisabeth Lutyens score for the 1965 Peter Cushing film, The Skull, made in 1965. Not afraid to produce haunting sounds, by using modernist techniques, Lutyens could almost be described as an English (female) Bela Bartok. A strange, disjointed, disharmony at the edge of tonality brings to life the occult world of Peter Cushing’s obsessive character, Dr. Christopher Maitland – the Proms programme editor finding a marvellous still from the film: Cushing staring into the eye sockets of the Marquis de Sade’s skull.

Finally, a complete change in mood – the BBC Concert Orchestra bringing the house down with the skittish score by Malcolm Arnold for The Belles of St. Trinian’s: a dazzling, tongue-in-cheek, belly-laugh of an extravanganza, complete with shifty ‘Flash Harry’s’ furtive schemes (played to perfection by the great George Cole); and all the unleashed anarchy of the worst girls’ school in cinematic Britain (headed by the ever-so-slightly alarming Alistair Sim as ‘Miss Fritton’). Arnold had the rare ability to match the mood of so many productions, from war stories to comedies, but succeeding in everything he did because of his limitless, lyrical self-confidence, mastery of the orchestra, and refusal to see anything in conventional terms. It is possible to say that without Arnold’s dizzying, barrier-breaking sound-world – music that is the equivalent of a downing a treble gin and tonic in the company of the best British comedy actors of the ’50s – The Belles of St. Trinian’s might not have been the classic that it became.

The BBC Concert Orchestra marched us out of the Royal Albert Hall with a rousing film encore – again by Malcolm Arnold, the unforgettable Bridge on the River Kwai, with conductor, Bramwell Tovey, making sure that everyone clapped and whistled along to that famous evocation of parade-ground swagger and cheerful British heroism, ‘Colonel Bogey’.

Auntie’s anti-conservatism

ALEX PUGH suggests some reasons why the BBC is so leftwing

I first worked in the BBC in 1981 in its Birmingham Pebble Mill studio. I well recall its large bar, where I sometimes drank with a middle-aged producer. One day, a Cheltenham MP named Charles Irving was in the news. This producer said to me, “He’s a hang ‘em and flog ‘em Tory like me”. Apparently Irving wasn’t (1), but that’s by the way. My point is I cannot imagine anyone in the BBC uttering such a view today.  I do wonder what this chap would make of the fact that since 2018, his old employer has its first Gender and Identity Correspondent.

Broadcasting is a strange world. It’s one where a man convicted of sadistic crimes against a male escort is welcomed back after jail (if he’s Boy George) – yet also one where leading names who say something the BBC doesn’t like hearing will not last long. For confirmation, see Pete Murray, Robin Page, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Sarah Kennedy, Carol Thatcher… And, I suppose, Jeremy Clarkson (2).

Are the broadcast media left wing – and if so, can we establish why ?  To keep things simple, I will focus on the BBC. 

Let us first define ‘left wing’. Time was when it meant socialist, with its policy of wealth redistribution, the abolition of class barriers  and even of capitalism itself. It’s fair to say such was what inspired the makers of BBC dramas like The Price of Coal, a 1977 two-parter for Play For Today. It was written by Barry Hines and Ken Loach, the duo behind Kes. Such work recalls the Italian realist school of film. It was of its time and helped explain why Play For Today was cited as proof in its day of the BBC’s leftist bias. Yet most of the Beeb’s prolific drama then was, if I recall, studio-based adaptations of famous novels. These tended not to be overtly political.

Left wing politics have since then had a big rebrand, in the mould defined by the late Stuart Hall of the Open University as “race, gender and sexuality” (3). Imported from the USA in the 1960s, this became the trinity of the British New Left. It was certainly the religion of New Labour and, thanks to their long spell in power, one that has been woven into the legal framework of modern life here, despite ten years of Conservative prime ministers. Policies such as multiculturalism lie at its core. The US notion of ‘political correctness’ derives from this broad ideology.

If that is how we’ll define ‘left wing’ today, we could look at the BBC’s output and decide whether this seems its prevailing mindset.  What’s more useful is to quote some individuals who have been the face of its leading service, national news.  Here are some interesting statements:

  • “The BBC is not neutral in multiculturalism: it believes in it and it promotes it” – or so a news executive there told Jeff Randall, a former Business Editor
  • “The BBC is not impartial or neutral.  It has a liberal bias not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias” – this was from Andrew Marr
  • “At the core of the BBC, in its very DNA, is a way of thinking that is firmly of the left”.  So said the late Peter Sissons. He added: “I am in no doubt that the majority of BBC staff vote for political parties of the Left”
  • “Of course there is political correctness at the BBC” – that’s the opinion of Jeremy Paxman
  • “The Guardian is their bible and political correctness their creed”, said Michael Buerk
  • John Humphries later wrote of the BBC’s “even greater fear of the politically correct brigade and the most fashionable pressure groups usually from the liberal Left, the spiritual home of most bosses and staff”
  • Most recently, ex newsreader Jan Leeming complained, “Why is the BBC so in thrall to the woke minority while ignoring the wishes of so many of its loyal regulars like me? [W]e are all being infantilised, treated as if we can’t cope with anything that anyone might find offensive…Treating the population like children by sanitising everything, suppressing debate, and ‘no-platforming’ is extremely damaging. ”

Such remarks from seven of the BBC’s most eminent journalists of recent years not only suggest a striking pattern: they also leave you in no doubt the BBC must indeed be left-wing, if they all say so! Surprisingly, in 2010 the Director General himself – Mark Thompson – wrote “In the BBC I joined 30 years ago [1979], there was, in much of current affairs…a massive bias to the left”.  However, he continued “Now it is a completely different generation… It is a broader church”. So, no worries there then.

A cynic might say this change had come pretty quickly, for in 2001 another BBC journalist – Robin Aitken – had written “If the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’, the BBC was ‘institutionally Leftist’”.  Later, in 2007, he stated “being a Tory in the BBC was the loneliest job in Britain” and added “ ‘Neutral’ for BBC journalists is left of centre for everyone else”. In his 30 years at the BBC, Mr Aitken had seen it “transformed from the staid upholder of the status quo to a champion of progressive causes”.

His timeframe interests me, because it makes me think of how I remember Radio 4 when working there in the early 1980s. Certainly there were a lot of left-leaning people in their 20s and early 30s, but the producers I worked for mainly struck me as mildly Tory. I was a bit surprised when the presenter of our show said, approvingly, “there are many Territorial Army men at the BBC”. He also suggested I join the RNVR: “I can see you in a sub-lieutenant’s uniform”. This was 1982. Alan Protheroe, the BBC’s Director of News who clashed so bitterly with Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands coverage that year, was himself a TA colonel.

My memory of that era was of a BBC that was quite a broad church, in a national industry with many Conservative-voting TV employees. It was ITV’s World In Action that was then considered the hotbed of TV left-wingery, although News At Ten was fronted by Alastair Burnet, a Tory. I cannot imagine the criticisms of the BBC quoted above being made back in the 1980s. There was of course a system then to keep the dreaded lefties out of the BBC: security vetting. For my job as a Radio 4 researcher, my name was sent off to some vague Whitehall desk to see if alarm bells rang. In the late 1960s, people accepted for the BBC graduate training scheme sometimes had the job withdrawn after MI5 said “no”. 

I’ve talked so far about news programming. But when we remember ‘the golden age of telly’, we most likely recall the comedies.  It speaks volumes about today’s BBC that it still shows Dad’s Army, but that was just one of many comedy series. The Good Life, To The Manor Born, Are You Being Served? and co. were all safely apolitical.  Today, what passes for TV comedy is frequently left-wing – for nowhere has dumped its traditional conservatism more than British comedy. I cannot imagine a right wing comic getting very far these days, whether in festivals or on TV.

A current affairs TV presenter told me in 1990 that clever graduates of the right entered law, those of the left the media. The BBC was always accused of being left-wing, albeit by Tories rather than by its own presenters. It begs the question how the left-wing BBC so trenchantly described by Messrs. Buerk, Paxman, Sissons and co. came into being?

I think three things have happened since the 1980s. TV has become detached from its regional roots, driven in part by the rise of London-based later arrivals like Channel 4, Sky and Five. Forty years ago, both the BBC and ITV drew huge cultural input from outside London. Pebble Mill, for example, made radio and TV for local, regional and national audiences. It fused broadcasters closer to their audiences, and provincial life is more conservative. Modern leftism by contrast is metropolitan: an increasingly London-centric broadcasting sector came to reflect this.

Secondly, Britain itself became more left-wing from the 1980s onwards. Just look at the ever-expanded higher education system. Broadcasting mirrors that trend. The Tories have an 80 seat majority based on almost 14 million votes. Yet well over 16 million voted for Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Scots/Welsh nationalists. We live in a decreasingly conservative country, where even large corporations want to prove how right-on they are, and diversity is their new mantra.

Thirdly, wherever left-wingers or ‘progressives’ move into a field, be it universities, TV, or the civil service, they soon exclude anyone of differing views. Consequently, If someone were to attend a job interview in TV and express admiration for Margaret Thatcher or Enoch Powell, it’s hard to imagine he or she would be chosen.

In this new Britain, is it any wonder the BBC is left wing/liberal/PC – however you term it ? The new director-general, Tim Davie, stood as a Conservative councillor in London in 1993.  I doubt it will affect BBC editorial output, even if it does enable someone to say the organisation can’t possibly be left-wing if it is run by a Tory.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Sir Charles Graham Irving, 1923-1995, MP for Cheltenham. The Independent’s obituary certainly does not suggest ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ tendencies
  2. In 1983, the BBC cancelled veteran DJ Pete Murray’s programmes after he called for listeners to vote Conservative. Ecologist Robin Page’s BBC appearances (including six years presenting the popular One Man and His Dog) dried up after various ‘controversial’ comments. Robert Kilroy-Silk was sacked by the BBC for a 2004 Sunday Express article entitledWe Owe Arabs Nothing”. DJ Sarah Kennedy claims she was forced out of the BBC in 2010 (ostensibly for health reasons) for her views on race and Enoch Powell. In 2009, Carol Thatcher was ejected from the BBC’s One Show for referring to a black tennis player as a “golliwog”. Jeremy Clarkson was replaced on the Top Gear motoring programme in 2015 after a fracas with a caterer, but also for a habit of ‘offensive’ remarks
  3. Stuart McPhail Hall, 1932-2014, Jamaican-born academic and co-founder of the New Left Review

Seen and unseen – horrors of the Holodomor

The Last Road, by Nina Marchenko

Mr Jones, 2019, directed by Agnieszka Holland

GUY WALKER admires an overdue film about a usually ignored atrocity

This film deals with a real event – the ‘discovery’ and reporting by a Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, of the Holodomor (man-made starvation) which took place in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-3. There is scholarly dispute about the degree of intent, but, essentially, Stalin’s policies caused a famine in one of the world’s most productive breadbaskets which resulted in the deaths of between three and ten million Ukrainians and the conviction of 2,500 for cannibalism. Stalin’s policies caused the famine by vindictively suppressing 6 million kulaks – enterprising peasants who bettered themselves and thus became considered as bourgeoisie – through the forced collectivisation of farms and by the requisitioning of grain – ‘Stalin’s gold’ – which he used for export to pay for the industrialisation of the USSR. One of the first journalists to draw attention to the event was Malcolm Muggeridge. He managed this in spite of working under a regime where the Press Department of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs once told him “You can’t say that because it’s true”. Later, to convince the West that the Holodomor was not true, the USSR was aided by George Bernard Shaw who visited and helpfully reported back that he “saw no evidence of starvation”.

We live in a world where television fascist dystopias are ten a penny and every time Donald Trump uncaps his vulgar gold pen or Boris Johnson steps up to a lectern the media class hallucinate goose-stepping Nazis. The same people contrive, simultaneously, to blink at the wall-to-wall post-Gramscian Marxism with which our culture is sodden. This might mean that the rarity of a film about real events casting a 70-year Communist experiment which led to the Holodomor in a bad light is to be considered a welcome corrective. Of course one can argue that the function of art is not to redress political balances but it’s hard to argue that this fine piece of art does not intend to make a political contribution. Holland was born behind and was a refugee from the Iron Curtain and, therefore, perhaps tacitly, assumes the wickedness of the USSR as a given we all know about. This being the case the only question is, considering the need of a dumb and somnolent, Hollywood-blunted Western audience (who may be resistant to it) to have everything spelt out in ten-foot letters, does Holland pull her punches too much? The film feels on the cusp of being Polish and addressing an American audience.

She and the screenwriter, Andrea Chalupa, go quite a long way to make the politics clear. The whole is framed by George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), disillusioned by Gareth Jones’ Ukrainian revelations, tapping out drafts of Animal Farm. Jones loudly and helpfully proclaims “the Soviet union is not the workers’ paradise” and the odious American apologist for Stalin, Walter Duranty, actually mouths the classic heartless platitude about omelettes and broken eggs. In addition, there is a character, Duranty’s secretary Ada, played by Vanessa Kirby, who personifies the way in which the panic about the Nazis pushed out the ability to recognise the Communist menace. Jones, who had already interviewed and even flown with Hitler before coming to Russia, also contains the history of the period in his personal experience. Ada walks a fine line and, having promoted the USSR under Duranty’s influence, gets it in the end.

The film reeks of Holland’s directorial class. She brilliantly sharpens the contrast between the freezing monochrome of the Ukrainian famine where people live on tree-bark and human flesh, and the warm polychrome of an England where food is almost literally waved under your nose. Another contrast is heightened; this time, that between Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones. Duranty, the New York Times (famous in our time for its uncritical embrace of authoritarian, woke culture), Pulitzer prize-winning journalist in the pocket of the Soviets is a true press lizard. In exchange for a life of extravagant decadence in Moscow he detoxifies and renders the USSR palatable to his readers sufficiently to ease the delicate consciences of US businessmen so that they can feel comfortable about exploiting attractive Russian markets. The US recognised the revolutionary USSR in 1933 because of Duranty’s account of it. On the other hand there is the inconvenient truth–telling of Jones who is what a journalist should be.

Techniques are honed and the cinematographer, Tomasz Naumiuk, deserves great credit. Lovingly detailed, dark-walled Moscow interiors lit by candles oppress claustrophobically. The 1930s modernist gleam of the Hotel Metropole where journalists stay only as long as it suits the NKVD, enchants, deceives and chills. The smoke and mirrors of the Russian state is evoked by shifting, kaleidoscopic reflections of people in mirrors and spectacle lenses, and long, soulless corridors. Frantic internal emotion is suggested by speeding up film. And, in the portrayal of the Holodomor we have trademark Holland realism. Typically, she doesn’t flinch at the horror created because the horror was real and the reality was both horrific and banal. Circled Ukrainian children sing to him a ghastly song about starvation in angelic voices before swiping Jones’ food. Then, after he has unwittingly participated with some children in an act of cannibalism, he sees children as carrion creatures encircling him in the snow. Both, admittedly poetic sequences could be seamlessly grafted straight onto a horror film. This shuffling nightmare is horrific and chills most because it was real. Holland ensures that it sinks slowly into and lingers in the consciousness.

Vanessa Kirby portrays a consciousness overwhelmed and haunted by twin nightmares very effectively. James Norton, reprising his Russian associations in McMafia, is excellent as the earnest and driven seeker after truth. Peter Sarsgaard is the suitably loathsome and Mephistophelean Soviet puppet, Duranty. He conveys menace, corruption and moral abandonment with finesse. 

Some people will still need it all spelt out. Perhaps only those who deserve to understand the film will do so.

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”

ALEX WOODCOCK-CLARKE says No Time To Die may have become too woke to live

Thrown off buildings, cliffs and dams, out of planes in their death spiral, into pools full of sharks, and once into bed with Grace Jones dressed as Satan. Assaulted by giants with steel teeth and midgets in bowler hats. James Bond has survived all this for 58 years. Yet soon, perhaps as soon as April 2021, No Time To Die, the latest Bond film, may achieve the dream of international maniacs everywhere: killing off the multi-billion dollar franchise he’s led since 1964.

The culprit will not be Netflix-age franchise fatigue nor even the larger ‘wokeness’ now infecting Hollywood, but a surprise villain in the heart of Bondage itself. You know her name. It’s charged with the phonemes of any femme fatale who’s ever shot, stabbed or drugged OO7. Rosa Klebb. Elektra King. Vesper Lynd. Faintly European, oddly evocatory, marked by stressed syllables. She is Barbara Broccoli, and she may be about to blow Bond 25, No Time To Die, sky-high.

Broccoli has been in charge of the billion-dollar Bond franchise since 1995 when her father, the famed Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, handed her control of EON (“Everything Or Nothing”) Productions which owns the entire Bond Intellectual Franchise. Broccoli’s control of IP is very nearly total (she shares ownership with her adopted half-brother Michael G. Wilson), and gives her a billion-dollar net worth that makes Auric Goldfinger look amateur. Such leverage makes her perhaps the most powerful female producer the film industry has ever seen, comments  the Guardian.

She and Wilson have been credited with saving the IP twice. Firstly, by relaunching it as a glamorous, slick Nineties actioner fronted by Pierce Brosnan with 1995’s GoldenEye and then again, when the Brosnan-era Bond staled into CGI invisible cars and diamond faces, by rebooting the franchise as a gritty, grim, shaky cam thriller fronted by her personal pick for the role, knobbly-faced, jug-eared Daniel Craig. “We got too fantastical,” commented Wilson ruefully. “We had to come back to Earth.”

As far as the accountants are concerned, the two co-producers went La Grande each time. While The World Is Not Enough (1999), Brosnan’s last 007, film made $431.9 million, the rebooted, re-Bonded Casino Royale came in at $669,789,482. Craig’s Bond film, 2012’s Skyfall scored the highest gross ($1,218,849,723) of all of them, and a profit of $910,526,981. Forbes magazine calculates that, adjusted for inflation, the Bond franchise has grossed $16,315,134,284. That makes it the fourth richest movie franchise of all time (behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars and Harry Potter). Together Broccoli and Wilson have pulled off a golden grand slam.

But now it’s 2020 and, make no mistake, of the two co-producers, Broccoli calls the shots. How the ownership of EON is divided is not known but Broccoli was Cubby’s blood child while Wilson is his adopted stepson. Even if ownership is equally divided, Wilson is now 77, and press articles suggest his energy is waning while his half-sister, a remarkably well-preserved 60, is just getting into her stride. “Barbara scares the hell out of people,” Wilson told the New York Times in one joint interview only to receive what the reporter calls “an O.K.-that’s-enough look”. In another interview, Variety noted her casting “a reproachful eye at Wilson when his attempts at humour strike her as ill-considered”.

It’s just as well Broccoli now holds a firm grip on EON’s production decisions because No Time To Die is a production already estimated to cost around $250,000,000 and juggles competing distribution, marketing and merchandising responsibilities between Sony, MGM, Omega and Heineken to name a few interested parties.

No one was surprised then when, EON announced on 4 March 2020 that after “thorough evaluation of the global theatrical marketplace”, No Time To Die’s release would be postponed until 12 November 2020. This was the first major production to be delayed as Hollywood responded to the pandemic. Media commentators approved the announcement. “Sensible” said Deadline Hollywood. “Necessary” commented the Radio Times. Launching the film into a dead market might have been catastrophic. The Hollywood Reporter estimates $5 billion has been wiped off the value of cinema receipts by COVID.

Except a closer read of the EON announcement reveals some real red wine-with-fish clues that all is not well with No Time To Die.  The press release was issued before most governments, particularly in the US or UK, had issued advisories, let alone sanctions, relating to the COVID crisis. A careful second reading also reveals it doesn’t mention the pandemic at all.

Delaying a film is expensive. Shifting the release date and sacrificing the time-fixed launch events, advertising and material (all of which are pre-bought sometimes years in advance) is calculated by The Hollywood Reporter to cost EON around $50 million; the whole marketing campaign had to be scrapped just after a $4.5 million Super Bowl ad had been screened. Yet this isn’t the first time No Time To Die’s launch has been delayed. Not even the second, or the third. On 2nd October, a fourth release date was announced, of 2nd April 2021.

The first delay occurred when EON producers fell out with the first choice to direct the film, veteran Danny Boyle. Citing “creative differences”, Boyle departed, and the launch was moved from October 2019 to 2020. A February launch was on schedule until without warning the film’s composer, Dan Romer, was suddenly dropped and replaced by Hans Zimmer. Again, “creative differences”.  The launch date was then moved to July. Then November. Now April. That means a film whose principal shooting was completed in October 2019 could be delayed almost two years before it ever hits the movie theatres.

And now there is another rumour. Emanating from Midnight’s Edge, an internet movie site, and picked up by a number of national newspapers, it reveals that EON ran a number of super-secret test screenings and that

Sources have informed Midnight’s Edge that a recent test screening of No Time To Die did not go well

While skating around specifics, the site concludes bluntly:

…they are using the outbreak as cover to avoid bad publicity

So, what’s gone wrong? And who’s to blame? The answer to both questions is Broccoli.

Broccoli has been positioning No Time To Die as the culmination of a five-film arc that began with Commander Bond’s career from recruitment into the service (Casino Royale) and now ends with his retirement in No Time To Die. This coincides very nicely with Daniel Craig’s own tenancy of the role (“That’s what he’s saying. Yes, he’s saying this is his last movie as Bond. Sadly”, commented Broccoli). More significantly, it’s also the climax of Broccoli’s most radical rebooting of the brand, to make Bond ‘woke’.

In 1962, Sean Connery was interviewed on about his forthcoming appearance in Dr No. He presciently analysed the character that he was to make into an icon:

I see Bond as a sensualist – his senses are highly tuned and he’s awake to everything. He likes his wine, his food and his women. He’s quite amoral. I particularly like him because he thrives on conflict – a quality lacking in present-day society

In just a few words, this galumphing Glaswegian bodybuilder-turned-milkman summarised the essence of what made Bond a hero to men for the next fifty-eight years. His selfish, stylish, combative pursuit of his own appetites that the rest of us must reel in and subsume in our responsibilities to our families, to our jobs, to our assigned roles in society. This archetype is unique amongst modern fictional heroes, and it’s uniquely British. It couldn’t be American which requires an element of self-sacrifice from its modern legends. Bruce Wayne’s crusade against crime derives from his tragic bereavement. Walter White builds his drug empire to support his family after his death. Even Homer Simpson, for all his oral-compulsive slobbishness, is all about family.

For all their differences in tone and style, Connery, Moore, Lazenby, Dalton and Brosnan were always true to that unique archetype. The lone warrior who does not apologise for being good at what he does and doing it for no other reason than he’s good at doing it.

Onscreen, castration is a motif introduced in Casino Royale (1953), the very first of the original books, and recurs through the films (once, in Goldfinger (1956), while strapped to a gold slab in danger of being bisected by an industrial laser, crotch-first). But since 2006, Barbara Broccoli had made some sharp and deep cuts beneath the waistband of the old fellow, and audiences have noticed.

It’s not just that Bond now prefers not vodka-martinis but Heineken beer (thanks to a product placement deal that reportedly netted the film nearly $45 million). It’s not that he now drives an Aston Martin Rapide E, an electric car (since when did the man who blew up a volcano care about his carbon footprint?). It’s not that he has less sex than any other Bond (six across five films compared to Roger Moore’s nineteen). It’s not even the bizarre plot jumps and anti-twists, Broccoli has forced into the story structure. (The villain’s big plan in Quantum of Solace? To steal all the water in Bolivia! Blofeld’s motivation for revenge in Spectre? His dad was Bond’s ski-instructor!)

No, the real reason fans are souring on Broccoli’s vision of Bond is that she has made him weepy, humourless and regretful. He shares tearful showers with his girlfriend at the awfulness of it all and he weeps buckets over the death of M in Skyfall (That said, the vision of Craig’s rubber walnut face melting with misery over Judy Dench’s upturned face is one of the funniest scenes in all Bondom). He doesn’t like his job. Bond doesn’t even want to be Bond anymore. In the new film, according to deliberately leaked information, No Time To Die Bond is retired and his OO7 status taken over by a – gasp! – black woman, Lashana Lynch. The Daily Mail reports this development like this:

A movie insider said: ‘There is a pivotal scene at the start of the film where M says ‘Come in 007’, and in walks Lashana who is black, beautiful and a woman. ‘It’s a popcorn-dropping moment. Bond is still Bond but he’s been replaced as 007 by this stunning woman’

Anthony Horowitz, the novelist and screenwriter hired by the Fleming Estate to write new James Bond books Triggor Mortis (2015) and Forever and a Day (2018), best sums up many people’s objections:

Bond is weak…He has doubts. That’s not Bond… It’s that sort of thing that made me angry

Madeline Grant of the Telegraph puts it another way:

If James Bond has gone woke, he might as well be cancelled

Why has Broccoli turned Bond into this lachrymose capon? The answer is simple. Sometime in the mid-2000s, she saw The Bourne Identity and its follow-ups. This thriller by Doug Liman starred an amnesiac American secret agent who fights shadowy governmental enemies while struggling all the time with severe emotional problems. These films intercut hyper-violent, visually incomprehensible shaky cam action sequences with scenes of Matt Damon, the star, in front of rain-streaked windows, looking out soulfully with brimming eyes into the darkness, like a basset hound finally realising he will never learn to use a doorknob. On a relatively small budget, the Bourne films turned a huge profit and wowed audiences with their ‘realistic’ take on the spy game.  One can imagine Broccoli sitting in a darkened viewing room, rising dramatically from her seat and declaiming to the world: “I’ve found my Bond!”.

The trouble is, Bourne isn’t Bond, and the world is beginning to see through the switch. It already registered its objections when the last Bond film before this one, Spectre, received ‘mixed reviews’ and grossed $879.6 million, an impressive figure until you realise it’s $200 million less than its predecessor, Skyfall (which grossed $1.111 billion).

If No Time To Dies does not match or exceed these figures, considering the vastly excessive additional costs imposed by the COVID crisis added to those of the director and crew changes, then the whole billion dollar franchise could go up like a volcano base. All across Hollywood once great and permanent franchises, from Star Wars to the DCVerse to Universal’s Dark Universe, are learning that one or more bad films can wreck previously rock-solid brands and sink the careers of once untouchable producers, like Barbara Broccoli.

Yahoo Movies recently reviewed the progress of production on the movie. It noted the delays, the sackings, the creative differences, the endless rewriting of the plot by five different writers. It quoted one

…straight-talking source [who] revealed that ‘the crew reckon they’re working on a well-polished shit show’

If true, then Bond may be looking down a gun barrel for the last time – and the finger on the trigger will be Broccoli’s.

Blake’s 7: moral darkness in outer space

Gareth Thomas as Roj Blake

PAUL GARNER pays tribute to an innovative sci-fi series which gave grim glamour to late Seventies and early Eighties evenings

In the dark winter months at the beginning of 1978 I began to regret signing up as a cub scout. We met on Monday evenings in the school hall, and, thanks to the vagaries of BBC scheduling, that was also when episodes of the brand-new science fiction series, Blake’s 7, were being broadcast. I remember hurrying home from all the ‘dyb-dyb-dybbing’, anxious that I was going to miss the beginning of the latest instalment.

For Doctor Who fans like me, the new series would help to fill the gaps between Saturdays when the TARDIS would whisk us off on another adventure. But if we expected Blake’s 7 to emulate the fantastical whimsy that characterized late-1970s Doctor Who, we were in for a shock. The BBC’s new ‘space opera’ was tonally very different and about to subvert all our cosy assumptions.

Creator Terry Nation claims to have pitched the series to BBC executives as “The Dirty Dozen in space”. Blake’s 7 is set in a dystopian, post-atomic future in which the Terran Federation controls the human population with a combination of drugs, mind control techniques and old-fashioned thuggery. The earth and its colonies are police states, with Stasi-like informers everywhere. Citizens can trust no one and betrayal is the order of the day. In the opening episode, we are introduced to Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), a man who has been brainwashed and can remember nothing of his previous life as a resistance leader. When his former compatriots help him to break his conditioning they are mercilessly eliminated, and Blake is subjected to a show trial with trumped-up accusations of child molestation. It is hard-edged stuff.

Blake is convicted and sent on a transporter to a prison planet, Cygnus Alpha, but en route organises a rebellion and manages to escape with two of his fellow convicts. Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) is a computer genius and embezzler and Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette) is a space pilot and smuggler. Commandeering an abandoned alien ship, the Liberator, with its master computer Zen (Peter Tuddenham), they mount a rescue bid, and on Cygnus Alpha recruit Olag Gan (David Jackson) and Vila Restal (Michael Keating). Vila is a thief and expert lock-breaker, Gan guilty of killing the Federation guard who had raped his girlfriend. Soon they are joined by Cally (Jan Chappell), a telepath from the planet Auron and lone survivor of an anti-Federation guerilla force. Pledging to destroy the Federation, the seven head off into space, hotly pursued by the leader of Space Command, Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), and her psychopathic henchman, Travis (Stephen Greif in series one, Brian Croucher in series two).

Given this set-up, Blake’s 7 could easily have lapsed into two-dimensionality, but one of the most notable things about it is that nothing is cast in black and white. We are never entirely sure that the ‘good guys’ really are good guys. The Federation is ruthless and brutal, but the rebels are not averse to some ruthlessness and brutality of their own. The body count is unquestionably high whenever Blake’s crew are around, and not just on the Federation side. Blake himself seems fully prepared to risk the lives of others in pursuit of his political ideals, and his quarrelling followers often seem ready to abandon one another to save their own skins. They are at best anti-heroes. The most morally ambiguous of them all is Avon, whose obvious self-interest leads to some tense confrontations with Blake early in the series. Avon is not the kind of man on whom it would be wise to turn your back. Even Vila, for whom Avon shows some grudging affection, is not safe. In the episode Orbit, Avon is ready to throw Vila overboard so their shuttle can overcome the gravitational pull of the planet from which they are making their escape, and his stalking of Vila through the darkened corridors, while his companion cowers terrified in the shadows, is genuinely chilling. Avon’s callousness is also spotlighted in other episodes, such as Stardrive, in which he coldly sacrifices Dr Plaxton, and Rumours of Death, in which he seeks revenge against Shrinker, the man he suspects of murdering Anna Grant, the only woman he ever loved. Shrinker is soon reduced from sadistic torturer to quivering wreck, begging Avon for mercy, in a fantastic performance by guest actor John Bryans. But viewers are left wondering, with the crew of the Liberator, whether Avon is any less monstrous than the man he is punishing.

Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan, and Paul Darrow as Kerr Avon

Later episodes introduce changes to the regular line-up. At the end of series one, Orac, a flashing box of tricks with an irascible personality, is acquired by Blake and his companions from the computer genius Ensor. Midway through the second series Gan dies under falling masonry during a raid on Federation Central Control and at the end of the season Blake and Jenna go missing after bailing from the Liberator during an intergalactic conflict. With Blake’s departure, Avon appoints himself leader, and in the third series the crew is joined by Dayna Mellanby (Josette Simon), the daughter of a fugitive and revolutionary, and Del Tarrant (Steven Pacey), a defector from the Federation’s Space Academy.

At the end of the third series, Avon’s recklessness in the teeth of opposition from his fellow crewmembers leads to the destruction of the Liberator, along with Zen, and the unhappy survivors are trapped by Servalan on the planet Terminal. This was originally intended to be the climactic episode, but late in the day the decision was made to commission a fourth series. By this time the production office had already closed down and there was a scramble to reenlist cast and crew, and get a production line of scripts going, which accounts for much of the unevenness of the first half of series four.

The fourth and final series opens with Cally’s death in a booby trap left by Servalan. Then we are introduced to Soolin (Glynis Barber), an expert gunslinger whose parents had been murdered by hired mercenaries. The rebels acquire a new ship, Scorpio, along with its computer, Slave, and they establish a base from which to launch an offensive against the Federation. Meanwhile, Servalan, who by this time has been deposed as Federation president, takes on a new identity as Commissioner Sleer and resumes her vendetta against Avon and his crew.

Forty years on, Blake’s 7 remains loved by many, though it is difficult to regard it as high art. It has a reputation, not wholly undeserved, for looking cheap, though it must be remembered that it was made in the unionized days of the late 1970s, when budgets were stretched by rampant inflation and there was an ever-present threat of strike action bringing a halt to production. The clichés about dodgy special effects, wonky sets and quarries masquerading as alien worlds are clichés for a reason, and the constraints that faced the production team are often all too evident in what appeared on screen. Despite this, the series has a loyal fan following and conventions continue to be held annually, sadly with a dwindling number of original cast and crew as the years pass.

Inevitably, comparisons are made between Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, though in reality the two programmes are very different. Blake’s 7 is darker, grittier and more clearly written for an older audience. There are references to sex, drugs and alcohol in Blake’s 7 that would never have been allowed in classic Who. Blake’s 7 is also much less reliant on aliens and monsters, preferring to concentrate on human drama and action. On the few occasions when Blake’s 7 does venture into monster territory the results are less than satisfying, object lessons in how ambition cannot always triumph over practicalities. Director Vere Lorrimer wisely keeps the Phibians lurking in the shadows in Orac, teasing the viewer with occasional glimpses of claw or tail, but on other occasions the programme makers are less circumspect, and, unfortunately, the giant insect in The Harvest of Kairos possesses all the menace of a pantomime horse and the climax of Moloch is rather spoiled by a laughable monocular glove puppet.

However, the play’s the thing, and the great strengths of Blake’s 7 are in characterization and story. The regulars turn in some magnificent performances, even if, at times, a certain amount of scenery-chewing is indulged. Paul Darrow’s Avon is beautifully crafted, dark, self-centred and cynical, with a nice line in sardonic asides, such as when he says of Tarrant that he “is brave, young and handsome; three reasons not to like him”. Michael Keating brings great humanity to his portrayal of Vila, whose cowardice and complaining could have been irritating in the hands of a lesser actor. Yes, Vila is often employed as comic relief (there are lighter moments, even in Blake’s 7), but he is not stupid, on one occasion feigning drunkenness so that he could pass on to his crewmates the solution to an intractable problem while making sure he didn’t have to endanger himself by dealing with it. From the outset, Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan is deliciously sadistic and scheming, and one can’t help relishing her performance even when it goes over the top. Finally, special mention should be given to Peter Tuddenham, who manages to invest all the series’ computers with distinct personalities, from the detached logicality of Zen to the fussy obtuseness of Orac and the Uriah Heep-like obsequiousness of Slave.

There were some notable guest appearances too, including Roy Kinnear as the bumbling, avaricious security officer of a passenger liner in Gold, Aubrey Woods as a corrupt and flamboyant casino owner in Gambit, and Julian Glover as an unpleasant neurosurgeon and Federation informer in Breakdown. As in any long-running series, the scriptwriting hits highs and lows, but Blake’s 7 delivers many stand-out episodes and even the most mediocre often contain memorable lines.

Among my favourites are City at the Edge of the World, in which Vila almost gets the girl and we meet Bayban the Butcher (Colin Baker in pre-Doctor Who days), Terminal, a well-crafted and pacey episode, with a heartbeat soundtrack that sets a funereal tone, and Sand, in which Tarrant and Servalan are thrown together in unlikely fashion on a planet with a very strange and threatening lifeform. Nor are the scriptwriters above the shameless plundering of plotlines from classic fantasy literature, especially in the fourth series which gives us episodes based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (Rescue) and H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (Animals). Even Headhunter trespasses into the domain of Frankenstein, with its lumbering android grotesquely wearing the decapitated head of its creator.

Blake’s 7 ran from 1978 to 1981. Looking back now, one is struck by how unremittingly bleak it all was. Every series ended in some kind of catastrophe, and there was never any guarantee our heroes would even survive. In the final series, we witness Avon’s slow descent into paranoia and madness, culminating in the shocking denouement on the frontier planet of Gauda Prime. For more than two years, viewers had eagerly anticipated Blake’s return, but when he does finally reappear it is not the glad reunion for which we had hoped. Blake, battered and world-weary, stands once again face-to-face with Avon, only for his old comrade to shoot him in the stomach at point-blank range, under the tragic misapprehension that Blake has betrayed him. What follows is one of the most shocking endings to any television series, with all the Scorpio crew except Avon being gunned down in slow motion by jack-booted Federation soldiers. As Avon stands over the bloody corpse of Blake, with the guards closing in around him, he raises his gun and smiles. And that’s where the curtain falls, the closing credits breaking in with another volley of shots. There is no happy ending. The ‘good guys’ don’t always win.

Of course, fans of the programme have been endlessly inventive in coming up with scenarios in which their favourite characters survived or the story continued. Sequels have been written, new episodes recorded for radio, and there have been rumours for years about a television revival, although a reboot seems as far away as ever. But I can’t help feeling that the ending we got was the right one. The rebellion is ultimately a failure. The Federation is still in control, even expanding after the setback of the Andromedan war. And Servalan, who mysteriously makes no appearance in the finale, is presumably still out there and plotting her route back to power. It’s bleak, but anything more hopeful would rob Blake’s 7 of its soul.