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TV review: A Miliband of Brothers

On Wednesday 22 September 2010, four days before the Labour Party announced the result of its leadership election at its conference in Manchester, Channel 4 TV broadcast A Miliband of Brothers. A ‘satirical docudrama’ starring young actors Henry and Ben Lloyd-Hughes, it was presented as ‘an entertaining new perspective on the relationship between the Milibands who, up until the leadership vote, [had] been supportive of each other's political careers’ and the programme would shine ‘new light on their political ambitions and influences’.

You knew there was a playful streak in ‘A Miliband of Brothers’ (abbreviated hereafter to AMOB) from how it was promoted. The photograph of Henry as David and Ben as Ed showed them in the familiar head-and-shoulders double pose of one brother in the foreground while the other looks over his shoulder from behind, leaning a little to the left, as in David Bailey’s iconic portrait of East End gangster-brothers, Ronnie and Reggie Kray. It’s Ben, the actor playing Ed, who is shown leaning to the left of the photograph (which, of course, since it’s a photo, means he himself is actually leaning to the right.)

Poking fun at the ‘men in suits’ style of politics has a long and venerable history. Indeed, vitriolic attacks on politicians in word and image during the 18th and 19th centuries make contemporary journalists and cartoonists look rather timid. But this ‘satirical docudrama’ seems part of a relatively new trend, perhaps unique to how broadcast media represent politics, in which – as in commercial advertising - boundaries between fact and fiction are systematically blurred.

The same blurring or fudging, or attempts at it, also occur of course in real-life politics: Saddam’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’; public spending cuts ‘for our own good’; the BBC’s presentation of Israeli piracy against the Gaza Humanitarian Flotilla as ‘self-defence’.  To a reasonable person real politics will often seem farcical, but what is happening here is something different – a trend or style of representation and reportage of which the shared assumption is that politics is simply not to be taken seriously.  An election competition between two brothers seems tailor-made for such treatment: even if Ed and David differed more on policy than they seem to (which is not to underestimate the contrast), AMOB of course would still have milked sibling rivalry for dramatic effect.

At the risk of seeming po-faced, it’s important to recognise that beyond this humorous treatment which politics now seems to require, there are three key respects in which AMOB departs, sharply and significantly, from light-hearted, harmless, entertainment.  These are worth considering because if we thought domestic (let alone international) politics has been getting a lot more serious recently, the signs are that it's fast becoming even more so – perhaps more serious than anything we have witnessed for half a century.

So it’s odd, to say the least, that the mass media should have been ensuring for some time that contemporary politics is treated as something inherently hilarious. You can’t do this sort of thing without people noticing, since it’s meant for public attention, or entertainment. The now-familiar repeats and gong-awards to ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, or ‘In the Thick of It’; the selective newsworthiness of the private lives or expense accounts of public figures as opposed to the results of their political actions; and the presentational styles in which our correspondent or incisive interrogator is seldom short of a smile, smirk or joke - all this is what broadcasters have to offer to compete for audiences, that is, to increase their profits.

But by reserving serious politics for itself and leaving the rest of us with 'politics lite' - hoping political fiction will deter people from getting involved in political fact - perhaps the ruling class also calculates it can run things for longer than it might.  
One key moment in AMOB that’s worth considering concerns 1968, and another, 1982. But let’s turn first to the more general problem of how the programme deals, in its humorous mode, with ‘Marxism’ or being ‘left-wing’.  For those who don’t know, Ed’s and David’s father was Ralph Miliband, who for many years taught sociology at the London School of Economics and was one of the founders of the New Left who had not formerly been a member of the Communist Party. He was consistently critical of the attitude of the reformist Labour Party towards parliamentary politics, and wrote incisively about this, about the British state, and about other issues of abiding interest to the left.

AMOB presents Ralph as a ‘Hampstead Marxist’ and therefore – for all we know accurately – as an eccentric and rather severe intellectual given to family picnics near Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, and teaching his young sons certain Marxist slogans.  What we are not told is that Ralph’s father, a former Polish volunteer in the Red Army, is buried in the same cemetery, close to Marx himself.

Although Labour Party members were certainly among Ralph’s social circle – which included active left-wingers such as Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Benn – pop Miliband apparently took such a dim view of the Labour Party that for both sons to join it, one after the other in order of seniority, while Neil Kinnock was at the helm, is presented as an act of filial defiance, or at least an alternative to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in which neither of them seems to have been remotely interested. There is no way the viewer can tell whether this phase of the brothers’ political development is accurately conveyed or a desperate attempt to redeem them from soporific dullness.  The boys’ mother, Marion Kozak, is at least portrayed as trying to encourage them to behave like normal teenagers, though again AMOB doesn’t mention that she is a long-standing left-wing Labour Party member, once active in CND and still active in Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

The ‘docu’ complement to AMOB’s ‘drama’ – or the factual seasoning in its fictional pork pie – consists of occasionally insightful interviews with real people (among them Corbyn, Benn, Oona King and, if only to make up the numbers, journalist Andrew Rawnsley) who knew the Miliband family or the brothers at school, university or Westminster. But attempts to give a flavour of political discussion around the family dinner table quickly collapse into caricature as actors strive furiously to furrow their brows more convincingly than those sitting next to them. And another thing: we are shown the stairs and landing in the Milibands’ house: interior walls unconvincingly draped with the hammer and sickle and, perhaps more convincingly, with a Palestinian flag, although sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed it was hung upside down. Channel 4 productions are obviously tightening their belt in these difficult times.
So the nonsense goes on. Witness the absurd effort to show Ralph’s failings as a ‘man of action’ when entering a classroom to teach students during a widely mythologised student occupation of the London School of Economics in 1968 (‘LSE 1968’ being a subjectively radical moment rather than an objectively revolutionary one).  All the same, to be embarrassed, as suggested in the drama, by a bare-breasted female student, lectured to by a second-hand slogan-monger, and even prevented from sitting on a couch by a horizontally amorous couple who had already commandeered it, both reduces even the overblown rhetoric of this ‘revolutionary moment’ and completely ignores the real significance of broadening student support, at a time of rising opposition to the US war in Vietnam, actually to win the right of a Students’ Union to control its own funds. If the facts are not allowed to get in the way of a good story, at least the story should be better than this.
And another thing: when Ed is fund-raising at his college for striking miners in 1982 (he followed his brother to take Politics, Philosophy and Economics at All Souls, Oxford), who should be playing table-football with one of the students in the bar but a miner with coal dust on his face and miner’s helmet on his head. Does anyone imagine that miners popped up from the coal face and scooted along to Oxford without bothering to take a shower beforehand?  Did the NUM get its activists to ‘play at’ being miners like this as if in amateur theatricals? And what was he doing down a mine anyway during a strike?

Ah, but that’s the docudrama for you, seducing you into taking seriously what’s only meant as a bit of fun.  Cue to journalist Andrew Rawnsley in an oversized, book-lined office, asserting with a completely straight face that the reason for the miners’ defeat was the NUM’s refusal to ballot its members on strike action.  Seamus Milne’s essential book on the miners’ strike - The Enemy Within - exposes so clearly the ruling class’s dirty tricks campaign that if there were any justice in the world Mr Rawnsley would be sentenced to five years’ community service, or ten if he answered back.
In the credits at the end of the programme, two illustrious surnames jump out:  Platts-Mills (but not John, QC) and Sapper (but not Alan). Any relations?  Do the above mentioned distortions or travesties insinuate themselves into AMOB because of or despite the family credentials of those with a hand in it?  In any case, since the whole moral of the programme seems to be that you just can’t teach kids anything these days, perhaps we need to pay less attention to their parents and more to the sons and daughters.
If the Miliband brothers were once as dull as AMOB suggests, at least they are in for a much livelier time ahead. And if, as new leader, Ed can start serving the interests of those whom Labour is supposed to represent, perhaps even old Ralph will stop spinning in his grave.