Culture Other


I’m currently reading a biography of Bess of Hardwick. I’m not that far through it yet (don’t tell me how it ends!*), but one thing is striking, reading about Tudor England†: how capricious the politics is and how much it’s dependent on patronage and favour. Admittedly, the period I’ve read about so far covers the end of Henry VIII, a cameo by Lady Jane Grey, the reign of Bloody Mary and the dawning of the age of Elizabeth, so with the dynastic politics and the swings between Protestant and Catholic, it is perhaps unusually unstable. But the basic point remains that all power derives from the monarch, who can have people banished, impoverished or executed at will. At the Holbein exhibition, there were little bios of the subjects next to the portraits; it was noticeable how many of them seemed to have ended up under the axe.

It isn’t just that politics and law are unstable because of the whims of the monarch; it also creates an environment where access to the monarch is everything and where the people with access and influence don’t just get a bit of second-hand power: they also potentially get serious serious money. It breeds conspiracies, factions and coups. The stakes are so high and power is so unanswerable. Men, entire families, could be raised up or destroyed in a moment. And there were indeed plots, revolts and conspiracies; armies were raised and marched on London. And it trickles down; the great lord in favour with the monarch had local influence in their own part of the country, and used it to favour lesser lords who in turn favored their own cronies.

It’s rather like the situation in a poor country which has a lot of oil or diamonds but not much else; all possibility of wealth or success gets tied into one thing — how close people can get to the oil. The economy and politics get twisted out of shape, not because the oil company necessarily intends to be exploitative or ruthless but because the gravitational pull of the oil is so disproportionate to any other source of money.

I remember at university, possibly in my finals, there was a question which was something like: ‘Shakespeare’s tragedies are essentially political. Discuss.’ At the time I was annoyed by it because it seemed like a reflection of a certain critical tendency to find politics in everything, and to foreground politics, in its broad sense, at the expense of other kinds of analysis. Now, though, I’m more sympathetic. A play like Julius Caesar, about courtiers conspiring to kill a king, would have had immediate relevance to the original audience. Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear: all revolve around court politics. All operate in the shadow of civil war. Which isn’t to say that they are narrowly ‘political plays’, but the action does take place in a highly political environment.

It makes an interesting problem for anyone staging them. You want a setting which is contemporary enough to be immediate for the audience, but western politics these days just isn’t brutal, unstable or corrupt enough. Some kind of dictatorship seems the obvious choice, but of course that setting brings a load of baggage of its own. Hamlet set in the court of Kim Jong-Il doesn’t seem quite right somehow.

*Really, don’t: I don’t know that much about her and have no idea what’s going to happen next. I haven’t read that Wikipedia article I just linked to for precisely that reason.

and indeed medieval England, but one thing at a time.

Culture Other

FSotW: Fibre “Quick on the Draw” Drawings

Flickr set of the week is actually two sets; Fibre “Quick on the Draw” Drawings and Fibre “Quick on the Draw”. ‘Quick on the Draw’ was “Fibre’s stall at the 2006 V&A Village Fete. Each artist had one minute to draw a picture of Queen Victoria without taking their pen of the paper.” As usual, you can click on any picture to get to the relevant Flickr page.


The Queen

I went to see The Queen last night, which is about the Queen and Tony Blair in the week after Diana’s death. I enjoyed it more than I was expecting.

I couldn’t help thinking that a film about one of the biggest and most relentlessly commented on news stories of the past ten years was unlikely to offer much of a surprise. And it didn’t, really. The details have obviously just been made up, and who knows how close they are to what happened, but the presentation isn’t a particularly radical one. But it was well written, looked great (not least because so much of the action took place either in the Scottish Highlands or royal palaces) and had some amusing moments, mainly to do with the bubble of anachronistic weirdness that surrounds the Queen.

And most of all, I thought Helen Mirren as her Maj and Michael Sheen as Blair both did a good job of presenting them as human and likeable while treading the fine line between acting and doing an impression. There are lots of films that require actors to play famous people, of course, but it must be unusual to play someone quite so familiar who is still alive and still in the news all the time. Sheen was the more like of the two, and captured the newly elected Blair (rather different to the current model), but as a result occasionally strayed close to caricature. I never quite felt with Mirren that I was watching the Queen; there’s not much of a physical resemblance and she avoided doing that strangulatingly posh voice the Queen has. But it worked as a performance anyway. Of course most of the supporting parts are pretty famous too — Philip, Charles, the Queen Mother, Cherie, Alastair Campbell — and so the likeness or, more often, unlikeness of their performances was often a touch distracting. Diana only appeared in archive film and the young princes barely appeared and didn’t have speaking parts. That’s probably a good decision: keep the focus on the Queen and Blair.

At one point in the film, the Queen is watching that awful, coy, manipulative Diana interview with Martin Bashir. Every time I see it it makes my skin crawl, despite the fact that I can’t stand Prince Charles and I think Diana was completely shafted by the system. Who knows what the situation would be like today if she hadn’t died; what she’d be up to, and how well the Royal family would be coping. Even without Diana as a constant presence offstage, I think Charles will find his mother a hard act to follow. There’s so little support for abolishing the monarchy that it feels inevitable that they’ll be around for ever. But perhaps all it would take would be one disastrous incumbent to change the mood; Charles just might have the potential to be that person.


Charlie sticks his oar in again

The Queen’s greatest virtue is that that I have no idea what her political views are. On that basis, Prince Charles could be the one to kill off the monarchy. Sometimes I agree with his opinions, more often I don’t – but I don’t want to know them. The monarchy is tolerable as long as it’s powerless, but Charlie-boy needs to understand that his anachronistic existence comes with conditions. If he wants to become a political activist, he can abdicate any time he wants to; otherwise he should keep his fucking mouth shut.