To watch Steven Spielberg's Lincoln was to experience the odd sensation of wanting to burst out laughing at moments when, from the director's point of view, even a wry smile would perhaps have been a step too far. This feeling was particularly strong in the opening scene, which finds the president in conversation with two suspiciously voluble black northern soldiers, one of whom harangues him so animatedly on the subject of civil rights, racial destiny and the post-bellum future that you almost expected him to conclude with the words "Yes sir, and in a hundred and fifty years time my great-great-great-grandson sure will be voting for Mr Obama."
Here, clearly, is a film that for all its carnage, its duplicity and its constant reminders that principle invariably gets shouldered out of the way by expedience, practically falls over itself in its anxiety to make Americans feel good about themselves. All this offers a neat little reminder of the profound psychological differences that still separate the British and American outlooks on life, especially in the field of the creative arts. No home-grown talent could make a film like Lincoln, not because there is no comparable event in recent British history, but because, as Max Hastings entertainingly pointed out last week, making the native citizenry feel good about their historical selves is not a trick that most British artists ever feel like bringing off.
Thus, should any British film director attempt to make a film about – say – the Crimean war he or she would inevitably concentrate on military mismanagement, bureaucratic incompetence and the cholera wards at Scutari. In much the same way, any British film set in the 1930s assumes as a matter of course that the real subjects are appeasement and social division rather than the slow swell of bourgeois entitlement of which revisionist historians now imagine the decade to have consisted.
Even when an artist sets out on a feelgood mission, there is usually a worm uncoiling in the bud. Zadie Smith's novel NW, for example, notwithstanding the violent death of one of its principal characters, was widely commended as a celebration of vibrant, multicultural north-west London. I put it down feeling rather glad that I didn't live in a place where every trip to the park seemed to involve taking your life in your hands and where the reek of marijuana rose to befuddle each thronged and teeming street corner.
Last week's Tatler poll on the nation's "most fascinating people" threw up what, to the disinterested observer, must have seemed some very curious results. The top spot was occupied by Clare Balding, with Pippa Middleton a whisker behind, and the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in third. The Queen languished in fourth, and there was also space in the top 10 for her grandson Prince Harry.
A first thought was that the sample must have been fairly limited: the cast of Made in Chelsea, perhaps, or some similar coven of celebrity-besotted light-mindedness. But this is sheer snobbery. Miss Middleton, for instance, with her frenzied attempts to establish a career in the slipstream of her even more distinguished sister, is a version of a long-running historical archetype – the great person's dependant, whose aspirations have to be calibrated to the example of what has gone before.
The only mystery of the Tatler list is why the Queen made such a comparatively poor showing. For Her Majesty is one of the great enigmas of her age, a powerful and enduring woman who is constantly in the public eye, yet of whom almost nothing is known, and whose occasional interventions always strike one as remarkably shrewd. I was particularly amused by the revelation that she disapproved so much of the award of a knighthood to Mick Jagger that she contrived to get the investiture done by Prince Charles. Never mind what we think about the Queen. What does the Queen think of us? If there is one unwritten book whose absence diminishes the Waterstones shelf, it is "Elizabeth R: My Story".
What with Lord Fellowes's Great Houses currently ornamenting the schedules on ITV and Chatsworth aristocratically proceeding on BBC1, a whiff of what might be called stately-home chic hangs once more in the media air. As to where this pious absorption in the gracious living of a bygone age originates, Lord Fellowes has democratically opined that great houses "were not put there for posh people to live in. Their history belongs to all of us".
Well intentioned and properly egalitarian as all this is, I was irresistibly reminded of a scene in Simon Raven's novel Friends in Low Places (1965) in which the wily Lord Canteloupe, who has recently opened his own house to the public, explains the scheme's philosophical underpinning: "Emphasise the luxury, the social injustice, the immorality of it all – and then invite them to join in. Encourage them to feel like lords and ladies living in the lap and grinding the faces of the poor."
Can it be that Lord Fellowes, rather than encouraging a sense of communal feeling, is unwittingly playing a kind of confidence trick on his viewers? It is all very well Chatsworth "belonging" to us in the way that the Tower of London or the Houses of Parliament do, but surely the title deeds are still safely in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire?Reuse content