Director Roman Polanski playing a hoodlum in his film, Chinatown

This was a bad start to the week

More work for the BBC pronunciation unit

On Radio

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Their notion of balance, Rod Liddle has said of the BBC, where he once held a senior editorial role, is simple. You pair a soft leftie, an intellectual korma-muncher, with an ideologue who prefers to fork down a vindaloo.

Start the Week, on Radio 4, does its best to underline his point about approved lists. Invited to discuss “protest and patriotism”, the call went out to Jackie Kay, the Scottish versifier, and Caroline Lucas, the Green MP. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Lucas has written Another England, a book about English identity, rooted in myth and literature. With some judicious prodding she might have said something valuable. Alas, Adam Rutherford, the locum host, bowled too many balls wide of the off stump, which she let through to the wicketkeeper.

Caroline Lucas
Jackie Kay

Kay, author of May Day, was as grim as one would expect from a writer whose instinct is less poetic than political. Her adoptive parents, lifelong firebrands, were, she assured us, “properly switched on”. No sooner had she toddled out of her pram than they whisked her off on marches.

Read us the poem about Peggy Seeger, prompted Rutherford. So she did, and it turned out to be the kind of doggerel that might scrape into a school magazine in a thin term, when the teacher’s back was turned. “Beautiful,” he said.

When Simon Heffer, brought on to supply a broader view, reminded listeners that Emmeline Pankhurst became a Conservative, Kay muttered “strange”, as though the suffragette had committed an offence against nature. In Kay’s world of posture and permanent outrage, she undoubtedly had.

Was protest, Rutherford wondered, fundamentally British? It was Scottish, countered Kay. Actually, protest belongs to no land, though the nature of each gathering will assume different characteristics depending on the cause and the people taking to the streets.

Heffer touched on this whilst discussing his own book, Sing As We Go, which covers life in this land between the two world wars. We are not, he reminded listeners, a people given to extremes. Kay and Lucas, you felt, were not so sure. Perhaps they were thinking of how the Sturgeon Terror has damaged Scotland.

The programme would have benefitted with more of Professor Heffer. As an historian he was better equipped than the other guests to supply a sense of perspective about the nature of English identity, which was the subject of Lucas’ book. Instead, he was joshed by Rutherford for wearing a pair of St George cufflinks.

Lucas, brushing up her internationalist credentials, told us we were not exceptional, that thousands of airmen from overseas had enlisted with the RAF in 1940 to overcome the threat from Nazi Germany. Of course they did. Is there anybody over the age of 18 who does not know of their sacrifice? Or that Blucher rode to Wellington’s aid at Waterloo? Or, as Heffer pointed out, that the much-derided British Empire was shaped by Scots?

“The kind of person who describes accidents to witnesses,” Mort Sahl, the satirist, said of Oliver Stone. Lucas and Kay played that role with gusto, and the possibility of having a sensible conversation about “protest” went up in smoke.

As for “patriotism”, it should surprise nobody that Rutherford pronounced it the American way. More work for the BBC pronunciation unit.

Balance was a problem on another Radio 4 programme, Screenshot, which investigated Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, Chinatown. Or, to be precise, it investigated Polanski. Can a man who drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl make a masterpiece? The proof is buried in the pudding, however indigestible that sixpence was for Ellen E. Jones, one of two critics on hand to guide us through these murky waters.

Jones is one of those presenters who delights in sloppy speech. “Illegal” comes out as “legal”, and “sparkling” is given an additional syllable for being a good little adjective. She also referred to one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars as “Jimmy Stewer”, which an alert producer would have spotted.

The real problem was her inability to argue clearly. “I love this movie,” she said, before adding it was “difficult to watch in the same way”. The same way as what? Polanski committed a crime in America and scarpered to France. He also left behind a great film, which cast a jaundiced eye on the City of Angels from which he fled.

There is a moral argument to be had, just as there is about Caravaggio, who killed a man in a brawl, and Wagner, whose antisemitism was grotesque. But you can’t hear prejudice in Tristan und Isolde, any more than you can spot an assassin’s sword in The Vocation of St Matthew.

“There’s a lot kinda evasions,” pronounced Miss Jones of the golden tongue. Indeed, there is (there are?). To prove she could shift with the best, she then damned the “privilege” some men felt they had to “ignore the context” of the film.

Whoooa, hold those horses! Since Polanski did a bunk in 1977, some men have spoken of little else when the discussion has turned towards Chinatown.

Mark Kermode, her partner at the helm, held the advantage. After all, Kermode knows his subject.

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