Last Night's Viewing: Wonderland: Young, Bright and on the Right, BBC2
My first thought, I confess, was, "Look out, Jacob Rees-Mogg." At present, the Member for North East Somerset is pretty much unchallenged as our leading Cartoon Conservative. But everything about Joe Cooke seemed to suggest that he couldn't take his pre-eminence for granted.
Joe has a cravat, pictures of Lady Thatcher and Winston Churchill on his wall, and the general mien of someone who wishes he'd been born shortly before the Crimean war. In fact, Joe was a little more complicated than the self-parodying reactionary he first presented, but Alisa Pomeroy, director of Wonderland: Young, Bright and on the Right, wanted us to enjoy ourselves for a while before things got dark. Her film, a profile of two young Oxbridge Tories on the first steps of a well-trodden path to high office, initially looked like straightforward twerp anthropology, a study of the deviant forms that youthful ambition can sometimes take. It became something richer and more ambivalent – an account of class and desperation and the deep roots of entitlement.
Joe had just completed a term as President of the Oxford University Conservative Association when the film began, and was beginning to work on his wilderness years, trying to achieve out of office what he'd failed to do in it. Chris Monk, on the other hand, an ingenuous Boris-blond with wildly over-emphatic hand gestures, was just starting out in his university political career, hoping to secure a lowly committee position in the Cambridge University Conservative Association. Both treated their respective organisations with a comical degree of respect. As an ex-president still at Oxford, Joe solemnly informed us, he would be "the third most powerful man in the association". Chris, meanwhile, didn't want us to underestimate the responsibilities of the modest position he eventually secured (largely due to a shortage of volunteers): "There is now a possibility that... I will be deputised to the purchase of supplies for port and cheese," he said solemnly. "So that could involve me sorting out how much cheese to buy... and indeed sourcing biscuits."
Chris delivered social comedy to the film, so eager to make a mark that he ended up blotting his copybook. But he was really a pendant to Joe's story, which had everything except sex: back-stabbing, secret taping, skeletons in the family cupboard and headlines in the national press. The exact details of the politics were never entirely clear, but it seems that he'd fallen out with former colleagues in OUCA and was determined to get his revenge. Both factions seemed equally ridiculous, but then Joe went home, to a council house in what his fellow students would probably have sneeringly called "t' North". He'd been dyslexic as a child, his mother revealed, and hadn't spoken till he was five. Far from coasting on privilege, he'd struggled to get where he was, one of very few in his year who'd been on free school meals. His absent father had a prison record. And as he talked about this the mask of callow assurance began to leak, and the voice to break: "You put on such a front down here that as soon as you delve behind it the facade crumbles," he said tearfully.
Joe did get his revenge, outing OUCA snobbery and anti-Semitism to the student newspaper, which then pushed the story on to page three of The Daily Telegraph (as if to underline the fact that Oxford politics and journalism is a microcosm of the national kind, his meeting with a student journalist was interrupted by a call about a rival scoop; a mortar board was urgently needed for the nude picture that would accompany their gay porn star story). Whether this scorched earth tactic was a good career move we'll have to wait and see – the Tories like their loyalty unquestioning. But that we'll be seeing some of these faces again is a near certainty. And distinctly depressing too.
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