The Eileen Critchley Show
Channel Four hyped it relentlessly as a Great Drama of our times. Militant renamed it BGH: Bleasdale Gets Hatton. Hatton himself went on Channel Four’s Right To Reply to say that Michael Murray must have been based on him because the fictional character was a bullying, corrupt council leader. The Right wing objected because the series portrayed MI5 as being a shower of devious criminals –heaven forbid the thought. The SWP, who rarely comprehend anything that was not written by a dead Russian, denounced Bleasdale as a brown-nose who sold out to the ruling class. GBH (C4, Wednesdays and Sundays) seems to have upset them all. So does all great drama.
What was GBH about? Taken literally, it was implausible nonsense. Whole cities are not thrown into chaos by half a dozen or so Equity ruffians; Good and Evil rarely take on such vivid personal realisations as Murray and Nelson; even corrupt Labour leaders have more political know-how than Murray was shown as having. As fictional political history the series was drivel. Sadly, it is as fictional political history (FPH) that most lefties watched it and switched off in disgust. GBH was about power. It was about why people lust for political leadership, what they do with it, and how, after all the panting after it and delusion of luxuriating in it, most politicians come to discover that they do not really have it. Politicians are tools of power. The French professor, Maximilien Rubel, once wrote a letter to the Socialist Standard saying that the people who are our rulers are paranoid megalomaniacs who cannot be trusted. Maybe so, maybe not –certainly, even the most balanced of leaders must act like a madman if they are to dance to the cacophony of the profit system. Michael Murray, abused and beaten by power, became a political abuser and beater. It was the only way he knew. The political was personal. The brilliance of Bleasdale’s writing was that Murray, the hateful petty tyrant, was so much more than that. He was more even than a comical, power-hungry stooge; a modern Chaplinesque Great Dictator. Murray was a man with whom we empathised. His was a world of the used and the users; he had been used and now he tried to use others. His world was our world: the world of human exploitation on every level.
Jim Nelson, Michael Palin’s romantic hero of the series, was a man afraid and therefore strong because he understood –or began to do so –his fear. He spoke more than once of how in our society the poison is seeping down. The poison in question is the poison of power-madness and obsessive exploitation. The simplification that evil emanates from Tory bastards may have satisfied simple-minded rebels a decade ago, but now it is clearer to see just how the human perversions of power-madness are coming from all directions, including those movements which pose as being for the people. In short, the fleas from the Tory dog have rubbed off on to the Labour poodles who can only fight the Tories by being like Tories. As for Militant, it is infiltrating amongst the fleas, only able to get power by being more loathsome than the rest. They are playing the same game.
The message of GBH is that if you try to beat the Devil by dressing up as Satan you end up not being able to tell who is who. Murray thought he was being manipulated by Trots when he was really being used by MI5. The only reason he couldn’t tell the difference is because there wasn’t any. MI5 broke Murray. Bleasdale overstated the real power of the state to intervene in electoral politics. But then this was not FPH. What he got right was the power of the decent many to resist the arrogant few. That is one of the most hopeful political lessons; it must be, for workers are the many and the force against us is the very, very few. The scene in the final episode when the “decent workers”, as the caricature portrayed them, stopped the “ignorant little gobshites“, as the script referred to the thuggish Trots, from dictating to the majority was an inspiring moment. At that meeting leadership collapsed and illusory power was no shield: Murray wept and the boys who had only ever read one book and knew how to shout slogans were shown that democracy is bigger than them.
But wait a minute. Where was that great scene taking place? In the Labour Party hall. What was a bloke of principle and courage doing in that old wreck of a political whore-house? Here we see Bleasdale the faithful Labourite overcoming the writer of insight. On one level GBH was a series about why Labour should expel Militant. We socialists could not care less if they expel them or sleep with them or form a coalition with the Monster Raving Loonies, but if that is the political message which was being offered to us, then when are we to see the series about hypocritical, compromising, well-bribed Labour “moderates” who do not need to be crushed by MI5 because they are safe? You do not need state conspiracies to neutralise Neil Kinnock or Tony Blair –they come ready-neutered.
GBH will be talked about for a long time to come. It should be. Both Robert Lindsay (Michael Murray) and Michael Palin (Jim Nelson) performed in ways that we will not see again soon. The wit of the writing was a model of classical characterisation and symbolic plotting. It made us think, even though we were not all thinking the same thing. GBH was about a horrible corrupt country –“a cold land” –where the opposition was dirty and the “intelligence” people filthy and all of us either in it or against it.