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March 07, 2006

Will Tory! Tory! Tory! be an equally nostalgic BBC4 series to Lefties? Harry Phibbs doubts it

Posted by Harry Phibbs

BBC4, Wednesdays, 8th, 15th, 22nd February 2006

Tory! Tory! Tory!
BBC4, Wednesdays, 8th, 15th, 22nd March 2006

Lefties is a classically self-indulgent BBC documentary series. Lefties portrays some highly unpleasant extremists - assorted Communists, law breakers and feminists of the man-hating variety - as starry eyed eccentrics who were perhaps guilty of being a little too idealistic. It is difficult to imagine that those preaching race hatred - as opposed to class hatred - would have had such an easy ride in a BBC documentary. In many ways the series offers therapy for those involved in agitprop in the 1970s who now feel guilty about getting rich and pampered on the proceeds of capitalism.

One episode in the series, A Lot of Balls, includes a detail that is beyond parody. The programme concerns the ill-fated left-wing newspaper News on Sunday, which appeared briefly in 1987. Alan Hayling, one of the founders, is portrayed as largely blameless for paper's demise. However, BBC4 leaves it to the final credits to point out that:

Alan Hayling is now head of documentaries for the BBC.
As with the other programmes in the series sectarian skirmishes are included but very much in the tone of them being unfortunate for undermining a noble endeavour. The detail about Labour councils pouring in vast sums of their ratepayers money is mentioned without any sense that there is anything shocking about such an abuse of public funds.

Despite all this, I did have mixed feelings for the Lefties portrayed in the first of the three documentaries. It concerns squatters in Villa Road in South London. In the 1970s there were 30,000 squatters in London. People would be worried about going on holiday and coming home to find that squatters had invaded. As one period joke went:

Something terrible has happened, we've been burgled.
The wife would say; the husband would then reply:
Thank God. I thought you were going to say we had squatters.
Certainly the former squatters so lovingly portrayed in the film are pretty obnoxious. They reflect wistfully about the lack of hygiene and their belief in property being theft. The idea of a Communist revolution is uncritically portrayed as idealistic. Awkward questions such as the violence and mass murder that would have had to go with it are no raised. Mike Reid, one of the squatters winsomely described by the BBC as a "Villa Roader" says:
The idea was that there would be a revolution. One was always a little bit vague about exactly what form that might take in Britain, maybe a general strike or whatever. It sounds and it was wildly utopian.
At 12 Villa Road there was a primal scream commune, run by Jenny James, who now runs a commune in Colombia. Mixing in such harmless nuttiness helps to convey that implicit message that Communism is a harmlessly naive idea as well.

On the other hand there was an element of these squatters doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. They were occupying Victorian terraced housing that Lambeth Council had compulsorily purchased and were keen to bulldoze to make way for tower blocks. Half the street survives to this day because of the squatters efforts.

In the next programme, Angry Wimmin, Lambeth Council are transformed from villain to hero to the extent that a starring role goes to its former leader Linda Bellos. One of the feminist recalled that

Kill men now
Ask me how
was a
badge we had made for a meeting.
She spoke in a curious cross between self righteous defiance and embarrassed titter. Lesbian separatist households were commended for the strict male ban. Mothers who converted to lesbianism were allowed to bring in their daughters but obliged to abandon their sons. Law breaking, such as graffiti and vandalism against "sexist" advertising is fondly recalled. The general message of the documentary, with its fawning interviews, is that some of the feminist ideas might go a bit far but one had to understand how they were on the right lines.

Some may protest that these films weren't taking a view one way of the other. They were simply allowing people to tell their own story in their own words, etc. But such a defence would be disingenuous. The commentary, the tone, the editing all make it pretty obvious this BBC series is an endorsement. Imagine what similar treatment for a series on Righties would look like.

Imagine their film sympathetically reliving the heroic strike breaking of the Freedom Association members managing to smuggle out the post from the film processing company Grunwicks after the Post Office unions blacked the mail in the 1970s.

Or the efforts of Jessica Douglas-Home and George Miller among others organising people to smuggle leaflets into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Communist era.

Or Chris Tame and Brian Micklethwait starting the Libertarian Alliance and the Alternative Bookshop in Covent Garden producing startling tracts declaring that taxation is theft, the welfare state a terrible mistake and that drugs should be legalised.

Or the new breed ideological true believers gaining prominence in the Federation of Conservative Students provocatively confronting the National Union of Students and its assorted agitprop undergraduate Marxists rather than accommodating and appeasing them as had been the previous arrangement.

Or the plucky efforts of Julian Lewis's Coalition for Peace through Security to arrange high profile counter demos to CND marches in the 1980s.

Or the Tory councillors who swept to victory in Wandsworth Council in 1978 and pushed through pioneering Thatcherite changes through the teeth of rowdy, intimidatory opposition.

Will BBC4's new series Tory! Tory! Tory! be such a sympathetic, nostalgic portrayal? Will it be an equivalent to Lefties? I very much doubt it. For the BBC it is impossible to see the Lefties portrayed in Lefties as anything other than noble. They are part of the same family. It is difficult for the BBC to see any nobility on the right.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist. To read Richard D. North's take on Lefties see: Richard D. North on two very different dream worlds: The House of Chanel and Lefties on BBC4.

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Or indeed a nostalgic look at Harry Phibbs' own antics during the 1980s. To quote from Jo-Ann Nadler's book Too Nice to be a Tory (p 61-2): While I was merely organising Wimbledon debates with the local branch of CND, Harry Phibbs, a London schoolboy, had flown to Moscow with a pile of pro-dissident and multilateralist leaflets. Not surprisingly he was arrested and detainedwhen he began to distribute the literature. It was a defining moment in the changing culture of the YCs, attracting a lot of attention to the newly radicalised youth of the right. I was definately impressed, although left wondering, along with the Soviets, whether Phibbs was a brave freedom fighter or hopelessly misguided?

Posted by: Anonymous at March 8, 2006 09:14 AM

I watched the first instalment of 'Tory!...' and I found it interesting and constructively presented. For just about anyone under 35, history must have begun with Mrs. Thatcher

Posted by: Sally at March 9, 2006 01:27 PM

Counting the dead, slain by their own communist governments from 1917 to the fall of the Berlin Wall, it comes to nearly 4000 a day -- the equivalent of seven 9/11 attacks a week. But of course Britain's chattering classes will never really gainsay communists because so many of them were communists or vocal communist sympathisers. They have blood on their hands as surely as if they made speeches in defense of bin Laden from some local mosque. but so long as they remain in charge, this will be conveniently ignored.

i should like to see someone dredge up all those 1970s National Union of Students speeches by today's NeoCon Labourite politicians and columnists, defending IRA terrorism and piously debating whether we can wait for Fabianism or if we need, like Trotsky, to start killing the rulers. It should all be on file and in the public record.

Posted by: s masty at March 10, 2006 08:09 AM

"Imagine their film sympathetically reliving the heroic strike breaking of the Freedom Association members managing to smuggle out the post from the film processing company Grunwicks after the Post Office unions blacked the mail in the 1970s."

Funnily enough (as viewed by someone who was there) that's pretty much what Tory! Tory! Tory! did do last night. If not sympathetic, at least a reasonably neutral piece of nostalgia. The libertarians among us can't be totally enthused about some of the more traditionally right wing company that the National Association For Freedom (as it was first known) attracted, but until we founded the Libertarian Alliance it was the only game in town.

Posted by: graham at March 16, 2006 09:30 AM
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