Terence Blacker: Have the arts become mired in smugness?

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The Independent Online

There are few more enduring characters in British culture than the goofy toff. From Bertie Wooster to Ralph in The Fast Show, from Monty Python's upper-class twits to Harry Enfield's Tim Nice-But-Dim, the link between breeding and brainlessness has provided the rest of us with no end of fun and laughter. As a result, there is a tendency, as soon as one hears that familiar drawl in everyday life, to assume that nothing of interest will be said.

It is this kind of laziness of thought which the Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes attacked this week but, because he is an unashamed toff himself, his comments have largely been ignored. Responding to the National Theatre's Nicholas Hytner, who has said that he would like to commission a "good, mischievous right-wing play", Fellowes suggested the arts generally had become mired in a post-Sixties liberal orthodoxy.

Left-wing views were regularly delivered as truths, he argued, while the right was demonised. The mere label "right-wing play" conjured up images of jackboots and fascism. For any writer to disagree with this generally accepted mindset was no longer intellectually respectable.

All that is self-evidently true, but I wonder whether the new orthodoxy is merely a result of cultural laziness. When Hytner put out his rather unconvincing call for plays from the right, he mentioned the particular satisfaction that he had gained from the inclusion in David Hare's play Stuff Happens of a couple of characters who had spoken up - against the argument of the play as whole - for going to war with Iraq.

Frankly, if that is the best example that can be produced of a play tilting at the received wisdom, we are in deep trouble. There can have been fewer theatrical evenings in recent years at which all those involved - writer, director, actors and audience - were more perfectly and comfortably in step with one another than Stuff Happens. It was a celebration of easy moral superiority.

When an attitude of smug liberalism descends on the arts while a Labour government is in power, a harmful level of agreement develops between politicians and communicators. With all three parties essentially occupying the centre, New Labour are never too worried about being parodied or attacked from the left, half thinking that they deserve it. The assumption that almost any view that disputes the general orthodoxy from the right is, by its nature, suspect leads to a deceptively mild-mannered form of extremism.

I was recently reminded of how alarming that mindset can be by the response of several readers to a piece last week in which I suggested that supporters of Castro needed to ask why this sainted figure locked up writers, academics and librarians who happened to disagree with him.

A number of sincere and presumably good-hearted people took me to task. I was siding with America, I was told. The imprisonment of a few writers was a small price to pay for what Fidel was doing. One reader went so far as to suggest that all those who had been given lengthy jail sentences were almost certainly in the pay of the CIA.

These were people with whose world-view I would probably agree, and yet here they were, blandly supporting the suppression of free speech and democracy by an administration they happened to admire.

Our civil liberties sometimes seem peculiarly fragile - particularly when a comfortable, fat-bottomed arts sector avoids asking difficult questions.

All in the best possible taste

Hot news just in from Germany: privacy laws, increasingly important at a time of media intrusion, now apply to cannibals. Armin Meiwes, the man whose idea of a great night in was to invite his date round to dinner, then chop him up and eat him, frying the tasty bits, has just struck an important blow against exploitation.

Meiwes is about be retried, after a court decided in 2004 that he was guilty only of manslaughter because his meal had agreed to the whole thing, but in the meantime his story has become the subject of a film called Butterfly: A Grimm Love Story. Seeking an injunction against its distribution, the cannibal argued that the film violated his privacy and was disgustingly violent.

"I feel used," he said. A Frankfurt judge agreed, and passed the injunction.

It seems only a few weeks ago since Meiwes, above, was reported to be have sold the rights to his story to a production company. No doubt his version will avoid unnecessary violence, and will be sensitively told without the slightest hint of exploitation.

The big, bossy woman who tells parents how to bring up their children in the TV series Supernanny is apparently behind the times. She is a great believer in sending delinquent toddlers to "the naughty chair", while truly modern parents impose fines known as the "naughty tax".

* According to a new survey, children are becoming increasingly beady about money. The average annual earnings of those between five and 16 is £821.35 and, as a nation, we pay out £7.2bn to children every year. The greed-is-good culture has even reached the tooth fairy, who these days is obliged to shell out around £1.24 per tooth.

Are parents really happy to see their progeny turning into brutal little Alan Sugars or depressingly prudent mini-Gordon Browns? Those worried about the loss of childhood innocence should pay careful attention to this new form of moral corruption.

terblacker@aol.com

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