Joan Bakewell: A dangerous message from Prince Charles

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gordon Brown has been working the idiom hard. "Sending a message to..." has become his mantra for a heap of current problems, from Burma to dirty hospitals. Messages do matter. In PR terms, any well expressed message can affect focus groups, influence polls and sway the prevailing climate of opinion. Unhappily Prince Charles this week sent out a message of resounding wrong-headedness that is echoing round the world.

The film community is global, vibrant, passionate about values, and adoring of talent. You would think Prince Charles would relish all that. Yet he has pulled out of this year's Royal Film Performance, and the event has been called off.

There has been a Royal Film Performance almost every year since 1946. It is noticed and commented on wherever films are loved. Last year's film was Casino Royale – a box office hit with a big British star. The glittering event is seen as supporting Britain's film industry, a healthy and significant part of what Gordon knows as Britain's cultural industries. You would need a good reason to call it off.

I am not of course privy to discussions in Clarence House. The explanation given by Peter Hore, chief executive of the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund, who organises it all, is that the date no longer fits in the royal diary. The intended date was 29 October; just four weeks away. Anyone who knows anything about galas and royals knows that dates are sought and cleared months if not years in advance. So it will be interesting to see what actually claims Prince Charles' attention on that particular day.

It is generally assumed that Prince Charles is pulling out because the film chosen was Brick Lane, an adaptation of Monica Ali's novel which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2003. It's thought he didn't want to run into trouble with noisy elements in the Bangladeshi community, who called a protest when the film was being made and drove the film company to chose a different location from Brick Lane itself. It is a shabby, craven and ignorant decision.

The book, after all, is written by someone who is half Bangladeshi herself, and like many other bold and talented Asian women writers she creates characters within the ethnic communities of whom she disapproves. The tale tells of two sisters: one remains in Bangla-desh, but the other, Nazneen, comes to London to make an arranged marriage with the older, bumbling, self-deluded Chanu. Her life with him is described with touching and affectionate sadness. As her unhappiness grows she falls for the forceful wooing of the chancer Karim and comes eventually to assert her own wishes over the community's. You can see how some men in any community might disapprove of such uppity goings-on from their women. It is not a picture they want the world to see.

But the world will see it. Earlier this month Brick Lane enjoyed a two-minute standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival. In response to Prince Charles' snub, the London Film Festival has snapped it up and will show it on 26 October. Last night it was due to be shown at RichMix in Shoreditch, where they were expecting an enthusiastic local audience. It will go on general release on 16 November. It is the first feature film by its directo, Sarah Gavron, who is listed by the film industry weekly Variety as one of the 10 directors to watch. Meanwhile, earlier this year, Monica Ali became patron of a community centre in Brick Lane.

Migration, immigration and integration are among the most important issues of our day. The times we live through are marked by confusion and bewilderment as host communities struggle to adjust to newcomers, as traditionalists seek to hold the younger generation in check, as frontiers are breached by illegal arrivals who are then exploited by ruthless employers.

Prince Charles has not censored or banned this film. But he has done something almost as damaging. By withdrawing his patronage he is seen to have caved in to those Bangladeshis who dislike it. He has encouraged them to believe that they have the power to affect the prospects of any book and film they don't like. It is a dangerous message. In an open and tolerant democracy they should not have this power. And it should be made clear to them by those with royal glitz, that this is so.

The limits of tolerance will go on being challenged. The play Behzti was driven from the stage at Birmingham repertory theatre. The closest call was the matter of the Danish cartoons and their mockery of Mohamed. Each case calls for meticulous attention to what is involved and where liberty must yield place to safety. But we already have a whole swath of laws that inhibit what we are free to say and write. Sensibilities around racism and anti-Semitism are well-protected. Even so, the forces that would challenge our hard-won freedom of expression and tolerance are constantly on the alert. We certainly don't need the heir to the throne yielding before some petty street protest about a book that possibly none of them has read.

Suppose the Gala had gone ahead, and a group of protesters had turned up. What a chance for Prince Charles to go across and shake their hands and explain it was good to see them freely making their point. They would have been thrilled, and might even one day enjoy the film. Now there's a message to send around the world.