Wednesday, 24 September 2014

"The Ruling Class" to "The Riot Club" - Plus ca Change

It comes as a relief, after looking at murder, war and education, to write a review of an old film. I was asked to write this review by a friend in Southport, who was pleased with my previous review of "If". It is gratifying to be appreciated, and I hope that I do a good job here. The film under review is "The Ruling Class", a satirical comedy from 1972. I borrowed the dvd for this review, but anyone interested can see the whole film on YouTube. It stars Peter O'Toole, Coral Browne (Vincent Price's wife), the splendid Alistair Sim, Arthur Lowe and many other stars of the period. I choose the word "period" with care, as this film is very much a period piece, although it has acquired a devoted cult following.
1972 was a turbulent year, which saw the Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry, a miners' strike in January, Idi Amin expel thousands of Asians from Uganda, the Duke of Windsor (Edward VIII) die and Geri Halliwell born. It is important to place this film in a historical context, in order to assess its relevance and impact at the time.
I expected to dislike the film, but found, happily, that I rather enjoyed it, despite the poor sound quality and the instamatic colour photography. Reading the plot beforehand, I thought it artificial, but it works when you realise you are watching a satire, not a story.
Basically, the plot runs like this: A member of the House of Lords dies, leaving his estate to his son. Unfortunately, his son (Jack Gurney - played by O'Toole) is insane. Jack thinks he is Jesus Christ, spending much of his time hanging on  a cross. The other, apparently more respectable, members of this family plot to steal the estate from him. Their attempts to have him committed to an asylum fail when an independent psychiatrist, meant to section Jack, finds that they are both old Etonians and passes him as sane. For some reason, Jack then becomes convinced that he is Jack the Ripper and murders two women. In between murders, he makes his maiden speech in the House of Lords, in which he calls for the return of capital and corporal punishment.
As a story, this film is bewildering and tiresome, but as a satire, it makes sense. The screenplay was written by Peter Barnes, and based on his own stage play. I have not seen the play, but my guess is that it was more pointed and political when produced for the stage. This type of theatre is usually described as "agitprop", found in its most explicit form by travelling radical theatre companies such as "Red Ladder". The film, though less didactic, is clearly an attack on the British aristocratic Establishment. The characters, apart from O'Toole's character and Arthur Lowe's marvellous communist butler, are shown as scheming, effete and hypocritical. One criticism of O'Toole that I have is that his rants, as Jack, are so histrionic (and, to me, tedious) that you miss some of the biting  satirical dialogue. For example:
Lady Claire Gurney: How do you know you're God?
Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney: Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.
And again:
Dr. Herder: He can't forget being rejected by his mother and father at the age of 11. They sent him away, alone, into a primitive community of licensed bullies and pederasts.
Sir Charles: You mean he went to public school.
Dr. Herder: Exactly.
But the core issue raised by the film is the portrayal of a lunatic's acceptance into the House of Lords, which Barnes clearly infers is a lunatic institution in need of reform. The latter part of the film is heavy (some might say laboriously so) with symbolism, in which we see alternating shots of the peers of the realm as dozy old men, then robed skeletons. In sum, then, the film's message is that Britain is being ruled by a bunch of degenerate dotards who preside over an antiquated system. Whether Barnes is calling for reform or revolution is not made clear.
I know that some movie buffs will be unhappy with this kind of analysis, but, as George Orwell pointed out: "All art is propaganda", and to ignore the political message of this film is impossible. A "Time Out" review of the film says: "This (ie, the film's message) is buried beneath a load of old jokes, song'n'dance routines, bad jokes, physical obsessions, random send-ups", but goes on to say:"the latent and overt ideas are fleshed out all too obviously."
Yes, but that is the point of the play. Beneath the bad jokes and song and dance routines which some critics have compared to classic Ealing Comedy (Alistair Sim - the archbishop - was a star of this genre), there is a definite similarity to the works of the great German Marxist playwright, Bertolt Brecht, whose influence on 20th century dramatists was immense. Like those of Brecht, Barnes' characters are not meant to be real people but representations of political and social attitudes in human form. Again, anyone who has seen radical theatre productions will recognise the method. Brecht called this "alienation", where the actor is seen as an actor, not as a character in what is called a "naturalist" type of play. Perhaps it is a tribute to Peter O'Toole that his character does seem "naturalistic" - even if he is as mad as a hatter.
Unlike the theatre companies, Barnes does not prescribe a remedy to the problem. Like Brecht, he leaves that up to the audience - to us. Well, in the 42 years since this film came out, the House of Lords has been reformed to some people's satisfaction. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher, "money men" now have moved into positions of power and influence, replacing what was left of the old aristocratic privileged clique, so things have changed since 1972. Or have they really? Britain's richest 1% of the population own as much as the poorest 55%, and, as "The Guardian" said recently:
 "Despite the fact that around only 7% of British children are privately educated, 34% of MPs went to fee-paying schools, and the figure for Tory members of parliament is 54% (the Labour figure, to put that in perspective, is a mere 12%). People who have had expensive educations dominate journalism, law, finance – and, of late, even the supposedly meritocratic powerhouse that is British pop music (witness Mumford and Sons, Florence Welch, Lily Allen, Laura Marling et al). "It is remarkable how many positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated," said the education secretary, Michael Gove, in May last year."
And if Michael Gove, the ex-education secretary said that, things have not really changed that much since 1972. Today's ruling class may be younger, livelier and more fashionably dressed, but they are still in charge.
It is ironic, really, that this review is written when a new film about our present day ruling class goes on general release. Even more ironic is the fact that the author of "The Riot Club", Laura Wade, like Peter Barnes, adapted the screenplay from her own stage play, "Posh". Even more of a coincidence is the fact that, according to some reviews, the play was said to be more "agitprop", like I suspect Barnes' play to have been. Despite Wade's denials, the film is about a bunch of rich young hell raisers at Oxford University who belong to a drinking club, rather like the Bullingdon Club, to which David Cameron, Boris Johnson and George Osborne belonged. I have not seen the film yet, but it shows that our ruling class is still worthy of satire. Like I said in the title, plus ca change.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Oscar Pistorius and a Lesson for Abusive Partners

Some years ago, a serving police officer was talking to me about the difficulties of bringing charges in an assault case when there were no witnesses. Essentially, what he said was this:
 "If A attacks B and someone witnesses the attack, then we charge A for assault. If A attacks B and there are no witnesses, we don't know who started it, so we charge the person with the lesser injuries."
There are a number of concerns with this method, but there are some similarities (and some very obvious differences) with the Oscar Pistorius case. The similarity lies, not in who is to blame for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, but in the Prosecution's difficulty in proving that Pistorius intended murder. In other words, without witnesses, justice might not be done in either case, because there is insufficient evidence to prove otherwise. The person with the lesser injuries might have simply been defending him or herself; Pistorius might well have intended murder, but there is no conclusive evidence.
A few months back, I wrote a blog post about the Pistorius case, in which I set out my doubts about Pistorius' explanation of how he came to kill his partner. I have similar doubts about the verdict delivered by Judge Masipa yesterday, which, as we all know, found Oscar not guilty on the charge of premeditated murder. I am not alone in having doubts, of course. Reeva Steenkamp's distraught mother has said:
"It doesn't add up," said Mrs Steenkamp, composed but evidently bitterly disappointed.
Holding her husband's hand in a hotel room hours after the not guilty verdict was read out, she told American channel NBC: "She died a horrible death. A horrible, painful, terrible death. And she suffered, you know? "
Mrs Steenkamp is right - it does not add up. I find myself puzzled by Judge Masipa's thought processes and am dubious about her conclusions. She accepted, albeit with reservations, that Pistorius did not intend to kill Reeva Steenkamp, and could conceivably have mistaken her in the darkness for an intruder. 
She accepted Pistorius' story that he was terrified for his life, and thought Steenkamp was safe in the bedroom when he fired four bullets through the wooden toilet door.
The only possible verdict, according to Judge Masipa,  was culpable homicide - in Britain, we call it manslaughter. This verdict carries a sentence of up to 15 years in South Africa, although it could lead to Pistorius doing nothing more than community service.
Now, in expressing my opinion, I am well aware that I am thousands of miles away, and perhaps do not fully appreciate the situation in South Africa. A South African lady explained to me that, living in a violent society such as South Africa, when an intruder enters your home, you panic. It might explain Pistorius' behaviour that night.
It might, but I don't think it does. As Owen Bowcott says in today's Guardian, South African legal experts are gravely concerned at the verdict:
"As state prosecutors announced they were considering appealing judge Thokozile Masipa's decision, legal experts suggested she may have focused too closely on the relationship between Reeva Steenkamp and Pistorius.
Had there been an intruder behind the toilet door, as Pistorius told the court he believed, then firing four shots into such a confined space would probably have been considered murder by other courts, some lawyers argued."
This is quite correct - even if Oscar did not intend to kill Reeva Steenkamp, he certainly intended to kill somebody. This is quite clear from his actions. If he had been as frightened as he said he was - why did he not stay in the bedroom? If he was in sufficient control of himself to confront an intruder, why did he not fire a warning shot above head height, or call out a warning? Once that hypothetical intruder had locked himself in the toilet, he was effectively trapped and, practically and legally, at Pistorius' mercy (such as it was).To me the conclusive evidence of a desire to kill is the fact that his shots were angled to hit a seated person in the toilet. The photographs of the toilet door clearly indicate this. Not only this, Pistorius fired four times, with reasonable accuracy. One shot could have been fired in panic, but I do not accept that he was out of control when firing four. No, I am convinced that Oscar Pistorius was out to kill that night, and deserves a long sentence. The best that can be said for him is that he was criminally irresponsible. At worst, he is a wilful murderer.
To conclude, I have to say that the defence lawyers in this case have been very skilful in a number of ways, not least by using the world's media as a theatrical means of presenting their client to the world as a heartbroken man - despite the evidence of his darker side.
Lastly, I return to the point at which we started - the possibility of injustice arising from lack of witnesses. As Deborah Orr says in today's Guardian:
 "Many people feared a failure of justice comparable to OJ Simpson’s acquittal for the murder of Nicole Brown, his former wife, and Ronald Goldman, who had been visiting Brown’s house on an errand. They are relieved that Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of culpable homicide. I’m not. I’m troubled by the fact that all over the world, people now know exactly what to say when they shoot their partner dead, at home, without witnesses."
In other words, this case has set a precedent for abusive partners everywhere. The guilt of Oscar Pistorius runs wide and deep.