Robert Fisk: Where is our man for all seasons?

Ghosts from our recent tragedy spring at us from this screenplay
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The Independent Online

I suppose it was inevitable that when that glorious Shakespearean actor Paul Scofield died last week, we would reflect on his role in the finest film ever made in the history of the world. I am, of course, talking about A Man for All Seasons , whose magnificent screenplay by Robert Bolt so illuminated the spirit of the Renaissance and of humanism and which is now – in Scofield's performance as Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England – more relevant to the times we live in than ever before. So much for the superlatives and the hyperbole. But are there any Thomas Mores left?

I fear not. The real More, of course, could be as ruthless as his ultimate nemesis, "His Liege Lord Henry, the VIIIth of that name", as the vicious Thomas Cromwell refers to him. More had no time for heretics – the word "heretics" was used by men and poets (Milton included) as a Renaissance version of our present-day "terrorists", thus closing down all discussion – and believed in the purgative nature of live cremation. Scofield (and Bolt's script) never hinted at this side to Utopia's author. But they did produce an utterly convincing portrait of an honest, frightened, loyal, humorous, sometimes vain and ultimately very brave man. There were no sound bites in More's dangerous world; his rigged trial was the nearest he ever got to a press conference – but by God, what eloquence!

It's tempting to fit contemporary personalities to the dramatis personae of A Man for All Seasons. Take Henry's arrival at More's Chelsea home to discuss the divorce – which More cannot see his way to accept – and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. Laughter and merriment and terrible threats come from this brilliant king as he cruelly bullies More. They're in More's garden, by the Thames. "Ah, what an evening!" Henry enthuses. "A man could fight a lion!" and More replies: "Some men could, your grace," and at once Henry slips in "...touching this other matter of the marriage". This transition from nature to fearful politics returns within a minute. This time, it is the shrubbery which catches the king's attention. "Lilac. We have them at Hampton. Not so fine as this, though. I'm in an excellent frame of mind."

Then again, suddenly, arguing theology for his divorce, he turns on More. "Thomas, you must consider, I stand in peril of my soul. It was no marriage. I have lived in incest with my brother's widow... I never saw the hand of God so clear in anything... I'll have no opposition, no opposition, I say. No opposition... they that say she is my wife are not only liars, but traitors! Yes, traitors! That I will not brook. Treachery! I will not brook! It maddens me! It is a deadly canker in the body politic, and I will have it out! See? You see how you've maddened me?"

Poor More. He is doomed. This is pure Saddamite brutality, the crazed journey from small talk to betrayal – the fear of all our political leaders – and the implied but real threat of the axe. There's even a wonderful coda when Henry asks More his opinion of the music which the royal orchestra is playing in the garden – and which More immediately identifies as the king's own work. But he promises to tell the truth. "To me it seemed delightful... I should add in fairness that my taste in music is reputedly deplorable." Yes, I can almost hear the bellows of false laughter in the Baghdad presidential palace. And no wonder More seeks some way of accepting the oath of allegiance, eventually hoping that "silence gives consent". It is the argument of a nit-picking lawyer – the only characteristic More shares with Anthony Blair.

Blair's own Attendance Lord, Alastair Campbell, might feel at home in the role of both Richard Riche – the schoolteacher who clamours to court and eventually condemns More to the block with the only sound bite in the script – and Cromwell himself. It is Cromwell who explains his tasks to Riche: "And our job as administrators is to minimise the inconvenience... that's our only job, Riche, to minimise the inconvenience of things. A harmless occupation, you would say. But no. We administrators are not liked, Riche. We are not popular..."

But Riche's own subsequent testimony against More is truly Blair-like. He is asked to repeat More's alleged denial of the king's title as head of the church. "He said: 'Parliament had the competence.' Or words to that effect."

Ah yes. "Words to that effect". This, I fear, is how government and journalists work together. Set the narrative and the world will go along with it: "More denies king's title." "Saddam Refuses UN resolution." "45-Minute warning!" "Good vs evil". No wonder More replies with valour. "If what Master Riche has said is true, I pray I may never see God in the face. Which I would not say, were it otherwise, for anything on earth!"

Ghosts of our recent tragedy spring at us from this screenplay. When More asks Henry why he needs him as chancellor, the king's response is simple. "Because you're honest. And what is more to the purpose, you're known to be honest." Was this why Blair needed Robin Cook, who resigned, and Clare Short, who did not?

I cannot do justice to this film's script. Even Charlton Heston could not destroy it when I watch him play More on the stage in London in 1987. Who can forget More's discovery that Riche, for his perjury, has been made Attorney General for Wales? "Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales!" Nor More's beheading after he is convicted of high treason and offered some brief last words. "I die His Majesty's good servant but God's first... He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to Him."

Some suffered for their own ferocity. Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The cowardly Archbishop of Canterbury was burned at the stake. The king died of syphilis. But others – like the knaves who took us to war in 2003 – got away with it. Sir Richard Riche died in his bed.

So no more Mores? I was wrong at the start of this article. I now think of the Iraq war and of a contemporary man who tried to save himself but valiantly told the truth and paid for it with his life. The martyr's name was David Kelly.

Robert Fisk's new book, 'The Age of the Warrior: Selected Writings', a selection of his Saturday columns in 'The Independent' is published this week

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