A major drama series of the 1970s which would not be made nowadays is Bill Brand, written by left wing-playwright and future Oscar nominee Trevor Griffiths and directed by, among others, future Oscar nominee Roland Joffé. Its narrative centres on a year in the life of a new Labour MP during a period of Labour government. It does cover his family and romantic life – Griffiths liked to use familiar dramatic genres – but is most engrossing when dealing with his professional life, including election, party meetings inside and outside Parliament, a factory sit-in, the national party conference and the election of a new party leader and Prime Minister.
It was first shown on ITV, the most ratings-conscious channel of the day, on Monday evenings during the summer of 1976 – although I personally caught up with it the following autumn in the early days of daytime TV, coincidentally at the same time when I was first appreciating the educational and dramatic value of the televising of real political party conferences.
11 hours of original drama on such a specialised topic yet designed for a large audience is the main reason that Bill Brand would surely never be produced today. Also, as mentioned before, TV drama of that era still drew heavily from the conventions of theatre. Characters spoke to each other in ways, however more conversational and colloquial than in earlier times, which now seem formal, complex and detailed. In Bill Brand, as most of the characters are either MPs or political activists, there are many conversations about political theory or political tactics, using the language of formal rhetoric or following parliamentary convention. Fascinating as long as you warm to that sort of thing, but certainly challenging, or, if you prefer, verbose and hard to follow.
As in the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy , it is striking to see again how male is this working world, how formally dressed people are, how ubiquitous is smoking and drinking. While gender equality is a subject for debate among characters, it is clearly not yet common practice. The opening credits set the tone: the images of heavy industry, the titles of left-wing publications, the photos of men assuming assertive poses, the martial music. These 1970s people are still heavily influenced by the struggles of their forebears from decades earlier: during the 1889 London dock strike, in physical combat against fascists in the 1930s, both in Britain and in the Spanish Civil War.
The 1970s was a watershed period within the Labour movement. Whether it was destroyed by Thatcherism or led to Thatcherism will depend on your political views. Manufacturing industry was still a mainstay of the UK economy and party membership came from trade unionist manual workers as well as the educated middle-classes. A great deal of argument was taking place about political direction and how best to respond to the changing industrial and social landscape. The Labour governments of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan had tiny working majorities, which necessitated a voting pact with the Liberals. The fractures which led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party were already under the surface.
Ironically, one belief shared here by both the moderate wing of the party who make up the majority of the Labour government and the left-wing Journal group of MPs (obviously based on the Tribune group) is the need for collective discipline, to vote together. The maverick Brand is censured by the Chief Whip early on for voting against a government motion to cut public services but is often uncomfortable too with Journal group decisions and attitudes.
For much of Trevor Griffiths’ narrative, the clash of political differences seems to be symbolised in the characters of Brand, the young college lecturer who has come to the Labour party from the more revolutionary International Socialists and is definitely still on the left within the party spectrum, and his constituency agent Alf Jowett, who is middle-aged, long-serving, loyal, moderate. Until towards the end when we are struck by Jowett’s criticism of the new “revisionist” Prime Minister John Venables, strongly reminiscent of Roy Jenkins. Every so often the Labour party is led by moderates, says Jowett, but they never win. Not because of opposition by left-wingers like Brand but “ because reality’s not on their side. They think capitalism’s like a coat of paint, like a veneer, and underneath is the structure. But capitalism is the structure. The reality. And it splits us up, sets us against each other and against ourselves…But it breeds resistance…” A point of view from one of the restrained voices in the drama which would be judged as provocative in any Labour MP today.
In the final episode, Brand, disillusioned with the direction the party will take under Venables and about his own future within it, meets a left-wing theatre group led by an old friend. He admires their dedication and comradeship, and, at his house one evening, he seems refreshed by the energy and idealism in the songs they are singing, “Purple Heather” and “Venceremos”. As Tony Williams says, Brand and the audience are “at (a) crossroads”. He and we realise that “political struggle cannot be fought only on the national level. It involves an international approach, culturally, historically and politically…”
Although it is 40 years old, the subject of Bill Brand is still highly relevant. Any present-day journalism or discussion about the Labour party centres on the tensions between the pragmatism and compromises of government and the idealism of activism. Do you change your ideals in order to attract the wider electorate or do you persuade them to follow your beliefs about equality and wealth redistribution regardless of how long that might take? Is it naïve to imagine that the mass support of the past might be ever rebuilt? These ideas are still part of 2016 debate although more often in news and politics programmes than mid-evening high-ratings TV drama.
In addition to Trevor Griffith’s great writing, another element which keeps Bill Brand compelling is that, in common with most TV drama of the period, it was crammed full of great actors and great performances. Some of the cast are familiar faces to those of us of a certain age, like Alan Badel as the left-wing Michael Foot/Tony Benn Cabinet minister David Last, Peter Howell as the suave academic Home Secretary Venables, Ray Smith as the Jack Jones-like trade union leader and Colin Jeavons as Brand’s constituency party rival. Less known but highly effective are Allan Surtees as party agent Jowett and William Hoyland as the unctuous and ambitious junior party Whip. In the earlier stages of distinguished careers were Jack Shepherd as Brand, Cherie Lunghi as his feminist lover and Jonathan Pryce as his left-wing comrade actor. Somewhere in between might be categorised Arthur Lowe, recalling his turn in the film This Sporting Life rather than Dad’s Army in the brief scenes as the northern Harold Wilson-like Prime Minister, who invites ridicule and respect in equal measure.