Archive for December, 2009

20th October 2009

December 30, 2009

And so to Lyon.
Thierry Fremaux, director of the Cannes film festival, has started a new festival in his home town of Lyon. The idea of the festival is to focus on the film history of a great director and its first , and perhaps easiest choice, is Clint Eastwood. Clint in turn has asked that the festival celebrate his two great teachers Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. For me, this is a chance to catch up on early Don Siegel films. There are two that I haven’t seen before: a 1946 movie the Verdict with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre and a wonderful Robert Mitchum thriller set in Mexico. Both films show a great director at work. Despite the stereotyped scripts and the evident constraints of the budget, every frame is perfectly chosen. Rewatching Invasion of the Body Snatchers confirms it a classic, one of the perfect screen dramatisations of paranoia
The festival is superbly organized and every screening is full of appreciative cinephiles. As the one bit of business I have to do is accomplished in my first hour, I spend my time in the cinema or wandering around Lyon. I have been many times to the city but always very briefly and in a rush. Now I walk around the old town with its two great rivers running through it and seek out the restaurants for which the city is famous. Eating alone in a good restaurant with a novel or newspaper is one of the pleasures of age. One meal I spend devouring the catalogue for the festival. In addition to the main strands, the festival has a miscellany of newly restored classics, one of which Pierrot Le Fou I have already seen in Cannes. The synopsis for the plot of the film describes Anna Karina’s and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s previous relationship as a ‘flirt’ where the implication is of a sexual fling. This is, of course, very different from English where ‘flirt’ implies skirting an explicitly sexual relationship.
Each year I give a lecture on the OED to Birkbeck undergraduates and when I go to prepare it in the British Library, I decide to look up ‘flirt’. As so often the entry is fascinating. For one thing it is one of the few words that the illustrious dictionary fails to find in the philological record. The august tome surmises that its meaning is onomatopoeic adding a series of words – flick,flip, flerk, spurt, squirt – which reads more like a joke than a serious attempt at etymology. The word appears in the sixteenth century and its original meanings are much wider including the notion of a sudden blow or movement, often specifically linked to verbal sallys. But the notion of ‘playing at courtship’ is there from the earliest although this meaning seems to become dominant with its use in novels of the eighteenth century. I then turned to the Petit Robert to find out why the French had such a different meaning. I was already formulating the kind of cultural generalisations which spring to mind when engaging in this type of comparative philology. Perhaps the French are incapable of accepting the concept of ‘playing at courtship’. Almost all such generalisations are rank nonsense as this one proves to be when the Robert reveals that ‘flirt’ is an English loan word in French – largely assimilated in to the language in the 1860s – and with exactly the same range of meaning as the English . Intriguingly the Robert, published in the 1960s, does not give the meaning that I had read in the Lyon film catalogue and therefore what started as a question comparing French and English uses of the word becomes much more narrowly focussed. Sometime in the last forty years, ‘flirt’ has changed its meaning in French without a corresponding change in English. In fact when I give the lecture a French speaker says that in her opinion while the meaning has become more elastic over the last forty years, it still implies a platonic relationship. Further research ( i.e. asking some young French speakers) does not resolve the matter entirely. It would seem that for at least some speakers of contemporary French the meaning of “not serious” has been retained while the meaning ‘not sexual’ has been discarded. Why this should have happened in French and not in English is difficult to decide.
As I leave the library , reflecting on these matters, I bump into Ozlem Koksal, a young Turkish woman just finishing her thesis on film at the Consortium. I always enjoy my encounters with Ozlem who treats me like an aimiable old relic only just connected to the modern world and badly in need of all sorts of guidance. “ What are you up to?” I say. “Oh I’m just here to BLirt”. “Blurt? “ I say “ No, BLirt – flirting in the British Library “ says Ozlem in tones that suggest that my general knowledge is as deficient as the rest of my intellectual equipment.

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Friday 2nd October

December 30, 2009

Friday 2nd October

In Berlin on the second leg of our honeymoon, first leg on the Greek island of Spetsos. We go out to dinner with our hosts Filipa and Bobby Roth. I spent a lot of time with Bobby in the late eighties and early nineties. He edited Andi Engel’s Melancholia and we tried to make a brilliant script that he had written called Allied Forces just after the fall of the Berlin wall. But I had lost touch with him and we have been reunited through Filipa who knows him via the art world in Berlin. Bobby was one of my few film friends that Flavia really liked and she too is delighted to re-meet him. We talk and talk and then end up in a bar where Filipa wants to smoke a cigarette. Perhaps it is the shock of being in a bar blue with tobacco haze but I have an uncanny sensation of being back in Paris in the summer of l967, the bar has that same feeling of enormous potential.

Filipa, Bobby and I agree that we really want to work on something which would be inspired by Andi and I say that I will send Bobby the script of Lisbon and then perhaps we will all meet for a week of food and writing next summer.

Note: Andi Engel. Andi Engel who was one of my closest friends in the world of cinema died on Boxing Day 2006. My obituary of him ran in the Independent of 4th January 2007. Below my introductory words to his memorial at the Renoir cinema in early March 2007.

Good morning

I’m Colin MacCabe and I’m here to begin a day when we remember our friend Andi Engel. So I’ll begin with two of my memories,

The first time I met Andi properly was in 1979 when I was researching a book on
Godard then a mysterious figure whose activities of the previous decade were
the stuff of myth and legend. I was told that Andi had collected a massive
archive of rare interviews and articles devoted to this hidden Godard and I
turned up at the Camden Plaza to see if he would let me look at this treasure.
Andi’s office was then a huge extended space above the cinema with a huge desk at one end and a little kitchen at another. The year before it had been used to shoot scenes from Radio On and Keith Griffiths recalled the experience in a
letter to Pam as ‘an unforgettable memory’: ‘There was no escape from Andi who was determined to sit it all out at his desk, observe, drink continuously and
comment forcibly upon these crude attempts to fathom and frame a movie’. It was on either side of this desk that we talked all morning.
And when I say that we talked I mean that Andi talked for he was one of the greatest talkers I have ever met – his voice soaring and swooping like a musical instrument as he recounted anecdotes, remembered films, discussed politics and told jokes. It was one of the most enjoyable mornings of my life and I felt a member of a very exclusive club, a friend of Andi. Although it must be said that one of Andi’s seductive tricks was to let you think that you were a member of a very small club when actually you were a member of a very big one – you only have to look at the host of e-mails, letters and cards that Pam received to see how big. The one moment when I felt slightly ill at ease was when after half an hour – at ten o’clock in the morning – Andi walked the enormous length of this room and returned with a huge mug of black tea without offering me a cup. The reason for this became clear when half an hour later he again walked the length of the room and this time returned with a huge bottle of Spanish brandy with which he replenished what I had foolishly taken to be tea. At the end of the morning he told me that I could have all his invaluable archive. So that’s my first memory – talk, drink and generosity.
For my second memory we must fast forward ten years to the shoot of
Melamcholia in the autumn of l988. The young critic and programmer Jason Wood will talk about the film later but I simply want to recall my most terrifying
moment of the shoot. Many had called me foolish for thinking that we could
shoot a feature with a director who had never turned over a foot of film but I
had absolute confidence in Andi’s abilities for I knew how long and hard he had
though about film – the greatest passion of his life. I was however worried
about alchohol and I made Andi promise that he would be teetotal during pre-
production and shoot. All went well until half way through the shoot, the very
experienced lead actor Jeroen Krabbe asked if he could see a collection of the
rushes. Andi said yes but the thought of this experienced film-maker looking at
his work must have terrified him. He disappeared early from the set and I
couldn’t find him until I looked into the projection booth at Mr Young’s to
find Mr Young himself and Andi both with bottles of Scotch in their hands and both bottles all but empty. Andi appeared in the projection room with a huge glass into which the last of his bottle had been poured and on each occasion when Jeroen would appear on the screen, ( and Jeroen was in every scene) he would shout out Schiess and turn and bawl at the editor cowering at the back of the theatre – ‘ We’ll cut out all this rubbish in the editing room’ After about ten minutes of this – perhaps the most embarrassing moments of my life – Andi rose hurled his glass of scotch at the screen and disappeared into the night.
The next morning I cycled through the London dawn from Islington to
Kensington reflecting on how interesting was a life of film production compared
to,say, banking and banged on Andi’s door to inform him – dressed in his
underpants – that if he didn’t apologise then we would have no film. He
apologised. From that story I remember drink, rage, a happy ending and a
vulnerability that he sought to hide from the world.
When I lunched with him last summer as he prepared to pack his bags and
leave the city to which he had come 40 years earlier he was in a reflective
mood. His proudest boast was that Artificial Eye had run for 30 years and every
Friday all its employees had been paid. Anybody who has run a small business
particularly a small business in independent cinema knows what an achievement
that was. But great businessman that he was Andi’s drive was never for money.
It is almost impossible to believe in this money-grubbing age but Andi was
little interested in riches, He travelled on buses rather than taxis, he knew the best restuarants and hotels but he despised wasteful and excessive expenditure. If he had a hit then the money was ploughed into another great film which was guaranteed to lose money,
But for thirty years he brought the best of European and world cinema to
London and he ran some of the greatest screens, the greatest of all being the
much missed Lumiere, Terence Davies, one of the supreme English directors
is going to read a poem for Andi and I know that one reason Terence held Andi
in such affection was that for more than a decade when it was every director’s dream to premiere their film at the Lumiere, Andi had made clear that the great screen would always be at Terence’s disposal.
It is also fitting that we have that doyen of film critics, Derek Malcolm,
to speak about Andi’s achievements as a distributor and exhibitor. I know at
first hand that Derek was always the one critic that Andi and Pam wished to
privilege with a new movie or director because while he never surrendered his own independent judgment he was the mainstream critic who most appreciated what they were striving to achieve.
Ben Gibson Head of the London Film School and veteran of the Other Cinema) will speak as a pupil of Andi’s. I can’t resist in this context repeating Godard’s comment to me about the other cinema. No royalties had arrived and the lugubrious Swiss director sighed “ I wouldn’t mind if they called themselves The Same Cinema but why do they have to call themselves The Other Cinema”. Ben will speak as someone who learned in the eighties in that brief moment when British film and television danced to the same tune, what it was to be an independent from one of the most independent of men. That independence was partly a matter of character but it was also a product of ideology and history – of Berlin in the sixties when cinema and politics were conjugated together and it is extremely fortunate that we have one of Andi’s friends from that period Georg Alexander to talk to us today,
Andi was of the generation of 68 and he never for one moment wished to deny
that affiliation but he realised sooner than most that the legacy of 68 was
failure – In Cannes in 1989 he had to write a short statement about his film –
it ended with these words “ So in my film I am not talking about how to win the
battle. The battle has been lost. What I am talking about is whether to have an
orderly or disorderly retreat. I advocate an orderly retreat.” When last summer
I saw him leave his own farewell party, I thought to run after him and call him
back to a party he had enjoyed and which was full of people who loved him. I am
glad that I did not for I saw that he had made his orderly retreat.
In another of the many letters to Pam Mike Leigh recalled his fond
memories of Andi’s “impish behaviour and his unbending commitments” It is well
today that we recall not only the unbending commitments but also the impish
behaviour. In his files on Melancholia he had preserved in pride of place the
transcript of a comment recorded in a video comment box at Channel 4 after a
screening of Melancholia which coincided with Thatcher’s fall from power. A Mr
Jack Reynolds gave this opinion “ I have had just about enough of Thatcher.
Now, I have tried to watch this film, and after 30 minutes I cannot continue.
It is so boring. My god, after all we’ve had today and under the circumstances
you could have at least had a good film on”.
So much for the imp but there was also the impulsive romantic who 40 years
ago followed Pam Belfry to London and who could , as his fictional self does in
Melancholia, fall in love in the course of a thirty second conversation.
Another letter came from Andi’s great friend in Portugal Maria Seixas who wrote
“ I miss Andi every day and it is very rewarding to have so many beautiful
memories of his wild and tender companionship.” Difficult to do better than
that: he was a wild and tender companion.
But perhaps above all he was a man of the cinema, it had provided him with
his education and it continued to provide him with a passionate belief right to
the end of his life. Pam and Robert who have picked the long clips for this occasion with great care decided to end with a clip of Tarkowsky’s The Sacrifice which had a real claim to be Andi’s favourite film and it will be introduced by Layla Alexander who worked as Tarkowsky’s interpreter on that film. But to start they decided on the opening scene from Bela Tarr’s Werkmeister Harmonies. Bela Tarr because he had been Andi’s last great enthusiasm in the company, the opening scene of Werkmeister Harmonies because in its slow movement through a drunken bar full of hopeless and melancholic men and then in its evocation of imagination and intelligence, hope and grace it evokes all that Andi loved in the cinema.

September 8th 2009

December 30, 2009

Par ou commencer, Where to begin? Racine and Barthes’s question is particularly apt in the present case. Should I start with when I first saw Flavia? Actually I can’t remember but only because sight had been comprehensively outgunned by rumour. Her beauty, her ridiculous upper class accent, her extravagance – all had reached my ears long before I saw her. Anyway it would take too long. I think for the purposes of this story I will start with the e-mail that I sent Sandro Kopp on August 31st:

Dear Sandro,
Flavia and I are getting married in Venice next week ( Tuesday 8th). I’m afraid as Keith Richards said – all these bits of paper finally catch up with you. Only guests are our children. I’ve been trying to arrange a photographer (how fucking boring) and suddenly thought that, if you can imagine some way to paint it, that I would much prefer a Kopp. Terms to be negotiated.
Love
Colin

I was willing to fly him to Venice but there was no need. Miraculously he was going to be in the Serenissima on the 8th; even more miraculously he was completely at our disposal. He and Tilda were promoting her latest film at the Festival. They had decided to keep the 8th free to lounge around in Venice: so they would lounge around with us. Or rather he would be the wedding snapper and then use the photos to help him with the painting. For years we had planned to be 5 but now we were 7. Flavia’s sister was of the opinion that this would improve the tone and behaviour of the party as unalloyed MacCabes is a recipe for unacceptable behaviour.

The party started on the 7th. Flavia and I had installed ourselves in the Palazzo San Angelo. We’d booked the best room – on the first floor with balconies on the grand canal and a view of the Rialto. More important than this luxury, I had provided myself with enough spare cash to travel everywhere by water taxi. Venice, if you have never seen it and it is the single most astonishing sight you will ever see, is built on water. There are three ways to move around Venice. Water buses – very like the 71 D in Pittsburgh, gondolas – impossibly slow and expensive, and water taxis very fast and even more expensive. When I first came to Venice and saw the rich using water taxis, I consoled myself that they were heading for the tumbrels. Later visits I just envied them. Now I was paying $100 for a five minute ride and, yes, once again – the rich do have it better – Venice by water taxi is considerably more enjoyable than Venice by 71D.
It took two watertaxis to get the ball rolling. Finn and Johanna were flying in from London; Fergus was arriving by train from Siena. I had decided that we would lunch at Murano, which is an island in the lagoon and where the children had loved watching the glass blowers when they were young. The restaurant was on a canal and had its own jetty. However our taxi driver refused to draw up there, for reasons I thought inadequate. I was explaining to him in full red-faced, macho boss mode what he should do, when, either by accident or design (this was a subject of much later debate at lunch), he touched the throttle and my hectoring remarks were abruptly curtailed as I was upended into the bottom of the boat. This put everybody into a very good mood.
A huge lunch consumed, we now headed back in one watertaxi to our hotel. There is one thing that can be said for my children – they are very good looking. The three of then together make quite an effect. The hotel was visibly impressed. Most unusually, Flavia was obviously proud of her children – not a common sight. The rest of the day is a bit of a blur but I do remember another huge meal.

I woke early on the 8th and went downstairs to sit outside and watch the city waking. Once again I could not believe in our luck with the weather. Venice is usually very humid and often horribly hot. But for our three days, it was perfect sunlight, a temperature in the mid-seventies and no humidity. I watched the barges taking out the rubbish and bringing in the day’s supplies and thought , as one cannot help doing, of Venice’s history. Once the greatest maritime power in the Mediterranean, it is now a hollowed out husk of a city, the biggest museum in the world. Wonderful to visit but slightly creepy after about three days. I tried to reflect on my life but failed. The only real thought I had was that as a young man I had always thought the marriage vows obviously bogus. How, in the face of the evidence, could you promise to spend the rest of your life with someone. You might say that you hoped you would, or even expected that you would, but the definitive vow was a nonsense. What I liked about our wedding was that even if I ran off with a chambermaid the next day, I had spent most of my life with Flavia. When I communicated this to Flavia, she was of the opinion that my likelihood of finding a chambermaid was nil.
Sandro rang to say that they were on the water bus heading towards us and he asked if I was nervous. I suddenly realized that I was. Even more surprising so was Flavia. Sandro and Tilda then arrived in holiday mode and Sandro began sketching the children. Johanna was first and looked great in a grey dress but when she was finished there was no sign of Fergus, who was next. I went upstairs to their room to find the sons screaming at each other about who could use the bathroom first. The spectacle of two images of myself behaving as badly as me was sobering as was the thought that they looked like a stereotypical pair of Irish brothers. Finally they arrived to be sketched.
Then Flavia arrived in a very elegant bright green wedding dress that I had not been allowed to see. Her hair had been very well done by the Venetian hairdressers and I thought that if nothing else we made a handsome couple. This belief lasted until the wedding photographs where I just looked fat. Soon we were in the watertaxi and on our way to the Commune in the Palazzo Cavalli. As we waited for the previous wedding to finish, I expected Italians to come swarming out, but lo and behold it was an English wedding. I reflected that I should not have been surprised. There are no Venetians left in this morgue of a city, so presumably most of the weddings are for foreigners – indeed it must be a substantial part of their tourist trade.
Now it was our turn and the very amiable Italian official, who we had met on our recce last year, and with whom we had finalized all the papers the day before, appeared in a huge tricolore sash. The preliminaries over, he read the relevant articles of the Italian state’s laws on matrimony (I was so pleased not to be getting married in a church) after which all we had to say was “Si”. According to Johanna, Flavia pronounced the most reluctant and disgusted “si’ in the history of the Italian language but I was so busy following the Italian (I had scorned a translator) that I didn’t notice this last act of insubordination.
Sandro was hopping around with his camera and we had to pose for various pictures. Tilda and Fergus had gathered up some confetti from the previous wedding and then we were back in the water taxi and heading down the Grand Canal towards St Mark’s and the Baeur hotel. Never had Venice seemed so beautiful and, as a bonus, it was Finn’s first time in the city and so there was the pleasure of his delight as well. The we arrived at the hotel. The maitre d’ was already primed but the welcoming party suddenly became even larger and more animated when they realized that we had a star with us ( Tilda’s face had been all over the papers for the previous two days). We sat down and the wine started to flow. Joan Baez’s words came to my mind “Speaking strictly for me /We both could have died then and there” but I didn’t share them with Flavia as she would have demurred.
As I gazed on the Salute and the open waters of the lagoon with the sun dancing on the waves I did think that it didn’t get much better than this. But it did.
So then we said goodbye to Tilda and Sandro, who had enjoyed themselves hugely, and set off back to the hotel. We all agreed that it was a real stroke of good fortune that Tilda and Sandro had come. I was pleased that Tilda, a member both of the school of Cambridge and the school of Jarman, had been there and there was no question that it had improved behaviour. The rest of the afternoon passed as the day before with everyone saying they couldn’t possibly eat anything more. Later that evening we sat down to another four course meal. Johanna asked “ You haven’t had a chance to consummate your marriage yet” She grinned and the boys looked disgusted. “Don’t worry” I said “we had a quickie in the loos at the hotel Bauer”. The boys grinned and Johanna looked disgusted.

September 7th 2009

December 30, 2009

You need windows explorer and a program like Windows Media Player

I take much consolation in the fact that we are getting married in the most
dysfunctional of European states in the city of Casanova.
Flavia takes much comfort in the divorce laws.

One of my favourite poems is Browning’s “A Toccata of Galluppi’s”. An English fool listens to Galuppi and imagines Venice, the city of eroticism, riches and death for so many generations of Englishmen see Tanner, Keates and Ackroyd amongst recent contributions.

I

Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I take your meaning, ’tis with such a heavy mind!

II

Here you come with your old music, and here’s all the good it brings.
What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings,
Where Saint Mark’s is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings?

III

Ay, because the sea’s the street there; and ’tis arched by . . . what you call
. . . Shylock’s bridge with houses on it, where they kept the carnival:
I was never out of England — it’s as if I saw it all.

IV

Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?
Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say?

V

Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red, —
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed,
OÕer the breast’s superb abundance where a man might base his head?

VI

Well, and it was graceful of them — they’d break talk off and afford
— She, to bite her mask’s black velvet — he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?

VII

What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh
, Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions — “Must we die?”
Those commiserating sevenths — “Life might last! we can but try!

VIII

“Were you happy?” — “Yes.” — “And are you still as happy?” — “Yes. And you?”
— “Then, more kisses!” — “Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?”
Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!

IX

So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
“Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
“I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!”

X

Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.

XI

But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
While I triumph o’er a secret wrung from nature’s close reserve,
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro’ every nerve.

XII

Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned:
“Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
“The soul, doubtless, is immortal — where a soul can be discerned.

XIII

“Yours for instance: you know physics, something of geology,
“Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their degree;
“Butterflies may dread extinction, — you’ll not die, it cannot be!
XIV

“As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
“Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
“What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?
XV

“Dust and ashes!” So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too — what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.

Bob Dylan New Morning 1971.

If not for you,
Babe, I couldn’t find the door,
Couldn’t even see the floor,
I’d be sad and blue,
If not for you.

September 3rd 2009

December 30, 2009

When I started this blog I was told that I had to post entries at least every two weeks and from October to May, this proved no problem. However, once teaching had stopped it became much more difficult to hit the required note. Summer for me is a time for reflection of a kind ill suited to the diary form and I had decided that if there were any readers of my blog, and one or two had surfaced, they were going to have to cope with a summer recess just as long as Parliament’s. Even the New Labour outrage of forcing through the election of a Speaker without any support from the Conservatives had failed to wake me from my summer torpor.
However, just as the pulses were quickening and a new academic year starting I received an e-mail from a former student Matt Walker “Tonight I discovered your blog. As much as I’ve enjoyed reading it, please tell me they make you write it…please? I love the ferocity of it all, but you sound like a pissed-off ex-pat”. As Burns said it is a tremendous gift to see ourselves as others see us although it’s a gift which can often feel like a slap in the face. Matt had endeared himself to me as a student on my Pitt in London course when, after I had taught Wordsworth’s Upon Westminster Bridge (“Earth has not anything to show more fair”) he went down at dawn to Westminster to check on the poet’s observation. Indeed he was one of the brightest and sharpest students I had taught in my entire time at Pitt so I had to take him seriously.
The problem is, however, that I am pissed off. Very pissed off. The two passions of my life have been education and the media. Both have been ruined in my lifetime in my country by my generation, often by people who I have known personally. My generation was given everything and is handing on nothing. I hate New Labour with an unfortunately enduring passion but then so does nearly everybody that I know – the only difference is that I started early. In June 1998 to be precise when they sacked me. After mulling Matt’s e-mail for nearly two months I have decided that I will dedicate this blog for the next academic year to following the crimes of New Labour. To set the scene I will take us back 11 years to my sacking:

“It’s not working”, said the new Director of the British Film Institute brandishing the papers in his hand. That was all the explanation I ever received.
“So I’ve examined your contract and we can terminate at three month’s notice. I will write the formal letter today. You will leave the building forthwith”.
As my mouth opened and shut silently I must have ressembled a particularly dim goldfish. I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all I had interrupted the partygoers revelling in my house as we celebrated the defeat of the Conservatives in the early morning of May 2nd 1997 to declare that New Labour would be the worst government for education and culture that Britain had ever seen. By that token I should have been delighted that New Labour were sacking me only a year after Blair took office.
I’d met Blair first at a London Weekend Television lunch in l992.
I was raising money for the new Master’s degree that I was setting up at the BFI and had been invited to LWT’s monthly wining and dining of the great and the good. Melvyn Bragg was there, Hale and Pace the comedians and , amongst others, David Willets and Tony Blair the new shadow Home secretary. Blair was already being touted as a possible future Labour leader but, much more important in this context, he was the man now in charge of Labour’s television policy.
Television was the medium that had opened up the world for me in the sixties: Hancock and Steptoe, the plays of Potter and Mercer, Monitor, That Was The Week That Was. For a London schoolboy this was an education even more important than the transatlantic rhythms of pop music or my school essays. And in the past decade it was Channel 4 who had been the bank of first resort for all the films that I’d produced. So the future of British television mattered to me. And that future was under threat, Thatcher’s Broadcasting Act of l990 was deliberately aimed at humbling one of the few institutions that had remained relatively unaffected by her economic policies. Stripped of its frills, it was an attempt to recast the regulatory mechanisms of television. For forty years tight government regulation had tied the very small number of broadcasters who enjoyed a monopoly of production to tight public service remits. That regulation was being dramatically loosened while the broadcasters were having to abandon their monopoly on production. It was classic Thatcherite neo-liberalism attempting to produce markets where there had been monopolies, breaking producer power in favour of the power of the consumer. The trouble is that great culture be it Attic tragedy, Elizabethan theatre, classic Hollywood or British television depended on just such producer monopolies. The historical trick was when producer monopolies had been linked to stiff competition as between the Chamberlain’s men and the Admiral’s men in Elizabethan London, the studios in classic Hollywood or the duopoly of ITV and BBC in Britain. However the existing monopoly in television was bound to be broken by satellite technology and the argument that the production base should be broadened was in essence a socialist argument. Would the new man have the kind of fresh imagination which could shape these new configurations so that they would produce even better television?
It was obvious that Blair was one of the new group of Labour politicians who were now taking control of the party. What would someone of my own generation, the first television generation, have to say about this most crucial of mediums? We had lunched well when our host, Brian Tesler asked the politicians to sing briefly for their supper. Willetts spoke first and delivered the standard Thatcherite message: globalization, international competition, changing world etc etc. It was the current neo-liberal rubbish but to give Willetts his due it was fluently delivered. Now it was Blair’s turn. So far, he had sat there looking like the head prefect dining with the masters. “Well” he said smiling in a self-deprecating manner which was, I think, calculated to be ingratiating , I’m afraid that I left my briefing papers in my office” Another smile. “ And I can’t remember what our policy is” Another smile “But I suppose it will be like all our other policies – just like the Conservatives but we’ll say it’s different”. Then he gave us what would soon become known as the full Bambi and simpered to a stop.
At one level I just wanted to look away; a train wreck is not a pretty sight. Forgetting one’s papers was hardly the most heinous of sins, although admitting it by way of excuse reminded me of all those incompetent lecturers who thought that they could save an abysmal lecture by apologizing beforehand. But the statement about imitating the Conservatives was abject, a simple abandonment of any political principle. Much worse though was the fact that Blair obviously had no interest in television or its development. He was sitting at the table of one of the greatest of the ITV companies surrounded by men liked Melvyn Bragg and Barry Cox who might well be enlisted for an alternative future to the one promised by Rupert Murdoch, and he had effectively told them to abandon all principle in favour of getting their snouts into the trough. Blair had obviously taken the slogan of French nineteenth century liberals to heart: Enrichessez vous or in plain English – “Do you sincerely want to be rich”. The future of television simply didn’t concern him.
These rather hazy recollections went at some speed. Thought is quick said Thomas Hobbes and if Thomas was right about nothing else, he was right about that. Back in the world of action, however, things were moving pretty slow. My main problem was that all the saliva in my mouth had suddenly dried up as though I was sitting in a super- efficient dentist’s chair. Worse my tongue seemed to have swelled to about three times its normal size. I was trying to speak but having severe doubts as to whether any comprehensible sound would emerge from a mouth not often lost for a word. I knew that I wanted to say something about education but I also knew I would be wasting my breath.
The second time I’d run into Blair had been in l996. After my intial meeting I had been astonished by his meteoric rise. In long retrospect, that LWT lunch may have been much more calculated than I had naively imagined, his only concern to assure the rich and powerful that Labour would be on their side. There was no doubt that his transformation of the Labour Party after John Smith’s death was the work of a consummate politician. Indeed his determination that Labour would say in public what it argued in private had briefly caught my imagination deadened by two decades of ever more irrelevant leftism.
We were organizing a conference on media and education at the National Film Theatre and Blair had agreed to use the occasion to make a policy speech on education. When he finally arrived, a mere 5 minutes before he was due to speak, I was astonished by the transformation from the figure of four years earlier. This wasn’t the head boy – this was the headmaster. The immaculately cut suit, the pristine shirt, the trailing flunkeys – power came off him in waves. And boy, was he prepared this time. The speech was well constructed and delivered with real energy and conviction. Unfortunately by the time he was finished I knew that New Labour was a completely empty vessel. It was Harold Wilson lite. The white hot heat of the technological revolution minus any commitment to socialism. There was nothing new and nothing that hadn’t already failed us for forty years. Education, apparently, was important because it was essential to a modern economy. All questions of what kind of education and how it was to be differentiated were simply ignored. Blair may or may not have used the slogan Education, Education, Education but it was already clear that he was an estate agent flogging a desirable property. Questions of social justice; a crusade for a better society; the political or spiritual role of education weren’t dismissed – they weren’t even discussed. Education for New Labour was about making more money – end of story.
Once again my rambling consciousness focused on the question at hand. I’d just been sacked – difficult to find the mot juste in reply. Suddenly I remembered that I was due to chair a seminar for the new Master’s degree which had taken its first students four years before. My tongue finally clicked into gear “ Well, I’m due to teach in the Boardroom at six o’clock this evening. I always honour my teaching commitments so if you want me out of the building before then you will have to summon the security guards to carry me out bodily”.
The new director looked slightly puzzled by this and a long silence ensued. You could almost see the attempt to calculate the adverse publicity against the desire to see me literally slung out of the building. I could understand why they loathed me. One of New Labour’s first decisions on taking office was to appoint Alan Parker as chairman of the British Film Institute. Parker, a director whose visual flair was routinely flawed by an imagination wedded to the most banal stereotypes, had loathed the British Film Institute with a public passion for over twenty years. His appointment signaled a government either criminally incompetent or determined to do away with the British Film Institute as it had existed for sixty years. Rumour already said that Parker and the sidekick that he had installed as director had simply taken interim appointments while they created a new industry body to which the British Film Institute would be subordinate and which they would run. Pollyanna that I am, I found it impossible to believe that a minister and two individuals had connived secretly to make huge policy decisions of such importance. Subsequent events were to prove rumour right but ostensibly Parker was engaged on turning the BFI, following new Labour’s watchword, into an educational institution. The trouble with this programme was that the BFI had always been an educational institution and it currently possessed an array of educational initiatives inspired with the vision of linking the most rigourous of traditional educations to the new audiovisual technologies. That was certainly not what new Labour meant by education, education, education. Parker’s vision of the BFI seemed to mean abandoning its historical role in the forefront of British education in order to become a glorified cheerleader for contemporary British cinema. I say “seemed” because there was no public debate of our much invoked educational role. I was told that my experiments were considered “elitist” – the ultimate New Labour boo word – but this was whispered gossip. Nobody dared to put this ridiculous charge in public because the simple truth was that they had no interest in education, a fact which any public debate would have made all too evident. So I could understand why they didn’t like me and for a brief moment I thought that they were going to make my day by ejecting me physically from an institution I had served with distinction for some thirteen years. The Director, who larded his conversation with City jargon, obviously fancied himself a square mile baron in red braces and was reluctant to give up the pleasure of treating me like a humbled banker. However, New Labour are nothing if not spinners and you would have to be a media idiot to physically prevent a teacher conducting his scheduled class.
The long silence came to an end and I was told that I could teach my class. I attempted to gather my thoughts as I returned to my office. I had to give my enemies some credit. They’d managed to surprise me. That my time at the Institute was at an end had been obvious from the moment of Parker’s appointment and indeed I was in the process of negotiating for a new job but I’d told my new employers that I had teaching commitments on the BFI’s graduate courses that I would have to honour. I had assumed that the BFI would take the same view. Indeed I had expected my just concluded interview to have been a civilized discussion as to how I would wind down these commitments, commitments not only to the students but to our partner institutions: Birkbeck College, the Architectural Association and the Tate Gallery.
But then probably I’d asked for it. Earlier that month I had sent a memo to the Board of Management commenting on a management consultant report that we had just received from KPMG. Even by the very low standards of such documents, this report had been a masterpiece of incompetence . For my own television department they had suggested that we should cut costs by making sure that when we interviewed film-makers like Scorsese, Tarantino or Tim Robbins that we should interview them at the same time and in the same place. A more comprehensive ignorance of the reality of Hollywood diaries would be hard to invent. In addition to listing a few more such idiocies, I had suggested that we could have saved a lot of taxpayer’s monies if the new director has simply repaired to The Wheatsheaf, the staff’s pub of choice, and spent a few lunchtimes hearing their views. Finally, I had inquired whether the Treasury rule which require competitive tendering for such consultancies had been complied with. I suspected that it was this final question was the “it” that was “not working”.
I was no sooner in the office than I was reaching for the phone trying to think of the most suitable paper to break the story. It seemed to me, particularly if there had been no competitive tendering, to promise a few juicy morsels. But as my hand reached out I heard clearly the very distinct tones of Lady Bracknell from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest: “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness”. I paused. The sad fact of the matter was that my many accomplishments to date were as nothing beside the media storm which I had provoked when I had been sacked twenty year earlier by the English Faculty of Cambridge for arguing that a modern literature degree must include the teaching of film. While there might be a pleasing symmetry in the fact that I was now being sacked by New Labour for arguing that the teaching of film and the teaching of literature should go hand in hand, I doubted whether the symmetry would be the major focus of the media attention. The headlines I feared would ring changes on “MacCabe sacked again in academic row” and I would be put in a permanent media pigeonhole.
In any case it would serve no purpose whatsoever to have a public row. This was a new government with an almost unprecedented mandate. If they wanted to close down an organization which didn’t suit their purposes, so what? And if they did it without any debate either before or after, so what again? Even a scandal around management consultants would be very small beer. And anyway I was exhausted from years of working as a middle rank civil servant and I didn’t trust my own ability to distinguish the wood from the trees. If the BFI had been holed beneath the waterline then I had been one of the officers on the bridge when it happened. It would take a good year or two before I could get any perspective on that
There was a much more important consideration. The style of my sacking was pure New Labour thuggery, but the real conflict went much deeper than that. My real argument was with the total failure to realize the Utopian dream of comprehensive education. As a schoolboy playing truant from school to canvass in the l964 and 1966 elections, I had thought that comprehensivisation would usher in a New Jerusalem. In fact, it had disenfranchised a generation of working class children from the highest levels of university education. In the past ten years I had felt that the real key to an emancipatory education was one in which traditional literacy and the production of audiovisual material went hand in hand. I had been astonished to find that any approach which stressed the possibility of teaching children to read and write was regarded with deep hostility by the educational research establishment. But to take an overview of the last forty years of British education, to try and understand what had been gained and what had been lost, above all to sketch a traditional humanist education in an age of mass media that would take me more than a year or two. I put the phone back in its cradle.