Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Checkmate

I am becoming aware of a certain dissatisfaction as I watch through The Prisoner looking for possible allusions to South African apartheid. Checkmate has brought these dissatisfactions to a head, and I think it is for the reason that so many elements of the apartheid regime and society can be seen in The Prisoner if you look hard enough: pseudo-science, social engineering, political force, ideological underpinnings, abuse of medicine and psychology, labelling and institutionalisation theories (these were very fashionable at the time), and so on. In fact I am coming to the conclusion that apartheid was probably not the main inspiration for The Prisoner, although it indicates the openness to different allegories that the series can so easily be read in terms of apartheid. This particular episode is I think probably best read in terms of Goffman's theories around labels and institutions which were very prominent in mental health from the 1950s for several decades and used to underpin the theories of 'care in the community'. Ironically, in terms of The Prisoner, this move was painted as beneficial to the sick, rather than a means of cheapening their care, which led both to the release of people who should never have been in institutions in the first place and found themselves often unable to cope outside, and also the release of people whose conditions meant they presented a considerable risk to the community they were resident in.
My real point here is that ideology can always be misused to support what you want. Medicine and psychology can always be used to underpin whatever fringe notion you have at stake. Notoriously the already-discredited Nazi pre-war theories of eugenics were largely used to underpin apartheid. This underpinning strikes me as having an interesting echo in this episode. The underlying theme of conformity reflects the quandary of knowing that you are living in an unjust society. Reference is made to breaking points and giving up in this episode. If you live in The Village what do you do? – resist and risk being broken, or conform for a slightly easier life, knowing that you have in reality been broken anyway? There are also questions of which side people are actually on and which side they appear to be on. A question which is not really examined in this issue is that of what side people think they are on – if the supposedly respectable, lawful institution of government and church tells you that, say, racial segregation is right and just, and decreed by law and God, an awful lot of people will not question that, or will suppress their doubts where they have any.
The action in Checkmate takes place against a background of a Village full of almost completely conforming sheep. Yes, of course the events of The Village are subordinated to Number 6's activities as the dramatic effect of the show, but I feel in institutional and behavioural terms this subordination reflects what would actually happen in reality. The chilling fact is that in reality the majority of the Villagers would at least have kept quiet and not resisted. Even allowing for the later rigid control of the media by the authorities, privileged whites in South Africa under apartheid had no excuse not to know what was going on. The examples I have been giving from Apartheid: The Lighter Side were all in the public domain. There was no excuse for not knowing. This is the painful conundrum that really underlines any connection between The Prisoner and apartheid, and also connects it to the institutional or behavioural theories of Goffman. In reality, when it comes to the crunch, most people prefer their own comfort to the bigger issues. This is the real reason Number 6 could never rely on any help. This is the real reason it took the black majority population of South Africa so long to resist apartheid in any marked way: most people are so busy getting on with their own life they will deal with that as best they can before anything else. In this context it is relatively easy for the authorities to play people off against each other and sow the seeds of suspicion, exactly as they do in Checkmate.
There is a further, even more chilling, undertone to this conformity and comfort. After a while in The Village, it would become your home. You would have pangs at the very idea of leaving. This feeling of comfort and security would lead you eventually to support the activities of The Village authorities, and of course at that point any resistance is impossible. And at this point a psychological trick comes into play where you are convincing yourself that you are not supporting The Village authorities, or else refusing to see the abuses happening in front of you. Witness to this is a documentary named Apartheid Did Not Die. I have already referenced the writings on the internet of pro-apartheid South Africans. And only today, I have discovered that when the monuments to the architects of apartheid are pulled down, they are not just junked as I assumed, there are people who actually want them:

When a bust of Hendrik Verwoerd disappeared into the night in Midvaal, the question arose: What actually happens to the statues from our sordid past?
'What are they going to do with the head?" I wondered as the noose on the strap tightened around the prime minister's stiff neck.

The image on the television showed a bronze bust of Hendrik Verwoerd being hoisted off a sand-coloured plinth and deposited on a white flatbed truck. Perhaps the old man would be carted off to a secret municipal dumpsite named in ­honour of Leon Trotsky.

There is no such place. Metaphors are not fact and history is not easily swept aside by Trotskyite rhetoric, especially when it is cast in bronze. Dismantling this sort of history, which is ceremonial, blatant and weatherproof, requires many talents, not least being a head for political theatre and nous for logistics. A contact number for a man with a crane is also useful.

Timothy Nast, the 28-year-old executive mayor of the Democratic Alliance-led Midvaal municipality, recently proved himself adept at the latter when, on May 4, he rid his metropolitan region of what was said to be the last Verwoerd sculpture on official public display. But his handling of the event was marked by naivety, allowing a nominally benign action to escalate into a national comedy.

A quick recap of where things stand.

On the morning of May 5 Nast's office telephone started ringing off the hook. What had the mayor done with the Verwoerd bust that had stood outside the Meyerton municipal offices for the past 28 years? The queries intensified as television news replayed images of the former prime minister's summary lynching. Who was the man with the white truck? And why did he pitch up for the removal job at 10 the previous night?

"It was removed when the contractor could remove it," Nast, who grew up in the patrician village of Henley-on-Klip, bluntly told an inquisitive Sapa reporter. "Ask the contractor." And he is? "A man called Piet," responded Nast, unable to offer a surname.

The low comedy of his opening gambit set the tone for what was to follow. Responding to inquiries about where Piet had journeyed into the night with Verwoerd's bust, Nast offered an unequivocal response. The bust had been returned to its owners, the Klipriviervallei-kultuurvereniging (KKV), an obscure cultural council that is technically defunct.

The KKV formed part of a network of regional cultural councils allied to the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK), a powerful Afrikaner heritage organisation and Broederbond front group founded in 1929.

In May Freddie Peters, a former KKV chairman and current Democratic Alliance member, hastily reconvened the inactive council following threats of vandalism to the bust made during the run-up to the recent hotly contested local government elections. (The elections saw ANC heavyweights such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Julius Malema trek to Meyerton in an ultimately failed attempt to drum up party support).

On May 4, the day the bust was removed from its plinth, Jackson Mthembu, the ANC national spokesperson, issued a statement lambasting "the sheer display of arrogance by Nast, who has refused to remove Verwoerd's statue". He added: "To the majority of South Africans, except in the eyes of the DA, Verwoerd remains a symbol, embodiment and apartheid architect of all ills of the country's terrible past and his statue should be confined to a museum."

Nast, who was 19 when he was elected a municipal councillor in 2000, acted swiftly, convening a meeting of the mayoral committee. It passed a "formal resolution" to have the Verwoerd bust removed and Piet was summoned.

The hurried removal of the bust has ushered in a period of political theatre.

A day after the bust's removal, Dumisani Dakile, Cosatu's provincial secretary in Gauteng, issued another of his quixotic communiqu├ęs. Dakile, who last year denounced Malema as a "premature leader" and a "grandstanding crazy individual", demanded that the statue "be removed and thrown into the dustbin of history within seven days".

Presumably the biblical timeline is indicative of how long it takes to build this mythical dustbin.

The Midvaal chairman of the Freedom Front Plus, Corrie Pyper, was equally annoyed, if for entirely different reasons. "Skelm," he cried, accusing the DA council of being underhanded. "I'm not saying apartheid was right but it is still part of our history," Pyper told Sapa. "If you want to do something like this, you tell people: 'Listen, we are going to remove your uncle. Come take a picture, come shed a tear.' "

Were it 1994, Dakile and Pyper's statements would read as urgent and timely. But by 2011 both men appear to have boarded the late flight to a place called Political Expediency. "How soon people become bored with the making and unmaking of history," says Pavel Grekov, a Russian state functionary, in Johannesburg writer Ivan Vladislavic's superb 1996 short story, Propaganda by Monuments. Grekov makes this observation about his memory of "the hundreds and thousands who had taken to the streets to watch the first monuments fall". 

It was not just the Russians who lost interest in toppled monuments. In Germany thousands turned out to see the undoing of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Three years later, when a 19-metre red Ukrainian granite effigy of Lenin was dismantled in East Berlin, men in hard hats were the principal crowd. Unmaking history had become a dull logistical exercise.

As in Berlin so too in Bloem­fontein: three years after the workmanlike disassembly of Lenin, a 4.3- metre bronze statue of Verwoerd, which had stood in front of the headquarters of the Free State provincial administration since 1969, was removed from its pedestal. The steady removal of Verwoerd busts from council offices in the ensuing period has, for the most part, happened unnoticed.

"Where do they put them all?" Grekov wonders to a work colleague.

"Scrapheap — of history," he is told.

"No, seriously," Grekov insists.

It is a fair question. In Hungary, which also saw its fair share of toppling monuments, a 20-minute ride on a Budapest bus will deliver you to Memento Park, which displays 42 public sculptures dating back to Hungary's four decades of communist rule. Not all monuments are preserved in this way. Nikolai Tomsky's stone Lenin, all 129 pieces of it, is buried south of Berlin.

The situation is no less contradictory in South Africa. After spending 12 years in a warehouse attached to a Bloemfontein furniture factory, sculptor Gerard de Leeuw's life-size statue of Verwoerd is currently in Pretoria—so too the Meyerton bust. Their display couldn't be more distinct.

The De Leeuw sculpture lies on its back on old tyres in a storage yard at the Voortrekker Monument. It is wrapped in shade cloth and dotted with mud dauber nests. In contrast, the diminutive Meyerton bust is being displayed provocatively alongside the old orange, white and blue national flag at Kleinfontein, an 860-hectare right-wing enclave northeast of Pretoria. (Quote an: here)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Apartheid in The Prisoner: Dance of the Dead

I feel this episode of The Prisoner may best encapsulate what it would have been like to live under apartheid. The ones we have seen so far have, as it were, represented apartheid on a policy level, and this one indicates the effects of those policies on individual lives. This not only perfectly reflects the apartheid government's approach: passing laws to perpetrate injustice, and letting them have their effect. '[His room is] the only place he can ever go, ' says Number 2, and that room encapsulates private life, not just in the sense of location or a racial classification, but in terms of ones own life. Owning a pet, choosing ones own clothes, who one is – these are the things that are affected by a totalitarian regime.
Nor for nothing is the reference to the dead of relevance. I cannot be sure whether it would be anachronistic to refer to the apartheid regime's notorious death squads in this connection. Certainly the earliest news reference to them I have been able to find online has been in the 1980s, after Botha's 'state of emergency' was declared. I have found reports of police brutality going back to the 1970s, after the notorious John Vorster police station opened, but I have been unable to find a contemporary source that would have provided the basis for references to death and disappearance for this episode. That said, it was clear to some at least of the inhabitants of South Africa in the1960s that they were not experiencing the rule of a benevolent law:
'...[M]any families first got in touch with the T[Ruth and] R[econciliation] C[ommission] because they could not even be certain that their sons, husbands or brothers had died. During the apartheid years, when so many took up arms in the fight against a divided society, hundreds of those killed in clashes with police, or executed later for their role in the fighting, were dumped in anonymous graves far from their homes.
'Between 1960 and 1990, around 135 political prisoners were executed for political offences in South Africa, but an estimated 21,000 died in political violence during the struggle. These long years were also characterised by in-fighting stoked by the state, which set activists and agitators from across the country against each other.
'As many of these activists had travelled hundreds of miles from their homes to work and campaign in cities, there was little chance of their families finding them if they "disappeared" in mysterious circumstances.' (Source)
It was more or less at the time this episode was made that apartheid was actually at its high point (once the 1970s dawned, the completely engineered economy began to crumble since even diamond wealth couldn't make it compete internationally). Such things as the control of the media and spying, many of which only became known later, are already present in this episode. Perhaps it reflects a historical understanding of the sort of things that totalitarian regimes do to support themselves.
But perhaps the moment which best encapsulates the apartheid allusion is where Number 6 is given his 'costume' of his ordinary clothes to wear at the ball. The fact that people were given costumes rather than choosing them, and referred to only by their allocated numbers rather than their names, is perhaps a clear reference to the apartheid regimes system of racial classifications, which could at times be as Wonderland as anything in The Village:
'Eleven-year-old Sandra Laing, who was White, then declared Coloured and has now been classified White again, does not quite understand what has happened to her.' (Sunday Times, August 6, 1967, cited in Ben MacLennan: Apartheid The Lighter Side, Chameleon Press, Plumstead, 1990, p. 13)

Friday, 16 October 2015

Seventies TV: Zodiac

I have had this show on my list of ones I have wanted to post about, for some time, at least six months. What has prompted me actually to get on with it, is that considering I have watched the whole series several times with growing enjoyment, I have been astonished to discover the rather mediocre reviews on the rest of the internet. That seems to be the role of this blog – the present an unerring eccentric view of TV programmes, in fact one could almost say that it embodies my own opinions!
I get the impression that people penalise this show for several things – it seems that the scores on reviews are lower than the impression you would get from the actual review. So let's get the show's shortcomings out of the way first. Its production values are incredibly dated, even for 1974. It was shot on video tape, it is either completely or nearly completely studio-bound. The sets are very plainly just that – sets, including sets of the outdoors. To my mind, all of these things are the sort of things the fan of vintage TV accepts, or even appreciates. Having seen a film at the cinema yesterday for the first time in some years (it was Legend starring Tom Hardy as both Kray twins and I would recommend it highly), I have been reminded of how unreal CGI actually looks if your staple viewing is of the vintage mine is. I would grant you that the production of this show is more of ten years before, and this show bears no resemblance to the contemporary live-action shows. It feels much more like a stage play in pace and presentation.
A more valid criticism in my eyes, is that this is a series called Zodiac which only has six episodes, giving an impression of incompleteness. I have not been able to find a reference online to whether the full zodiac was intended, and it is not apparent from the available shows because they are all self-contained. I also get the impression from some reviews that this is a series which has a cult following and is considered a neglected gem in some quarters: in the world of vintage TV this reputation is one which is almost guaranteed to make a TV show a disappointment unless it is absolutely superlative.
I feel that where Zodiac fails to be a resounding hit with the vintage TV crowd, is that I for one am finding it very difficult to place it. Obviously in terms of this blog I have a ready-made label for this show in the form is 70s TV, but I would find it difficult to say that if you like such-and-such a show you will like this. Certainly, in terms of my own favourite division of vintage TV, into the real and the unreal, I would have difficulty placing this one. It is trying to be both at the same time. It is a police procedural, with occult overtones. These overtones are taken completely seriously, I should say, and played completely straight. The astrologer is obviously a sensible person who is capable of reasoning, to the astonishment of the detective at times. Unfortunately the launch into astrology and tarot would tend to put off the fans of police procedural, and the at times plodding work which goes with police work, would tend to put off the more flighty magical types. This is this show's biggest downfall – it tries to appeal to two different audiences at once and is bound to fail.
Otherwise, it is superb. Each stand-alone episode is well-plotted. What is not to love in top 1970s totty Anouska Hempel as the astrologer? Normally I would find the host of familiar faces in this one distracting but it works very well, because it is actually such a strongly-scripted show that the familiar faces become the characters. I have also been watching Anton Rodgers in Murder Most English (based on Colin Watson's excellent Flaxborough novels, where I find I reacted to his presence by thinking that he is never anything but Anton Rodgers. Here I find I forget that he is Anton Rodgers and play attention to the part. Even many of the guest actors in each episodes are great names of the time and none of this annoys me, who can't stand repeated casting of actors. Totally unreasonably, of course, since it can't really be expected that an actor can only ever play the one role for which he is typecast and never anything else.
Visually the show suffers from the porridgy colours inflicted on many 1970s shows, so that it often doesn't tend to look that interesting. The sets make up for this to a great extent by the detail and complexity of the 1970s tat. In terms of pace, the show is probably slightly slower than modern ones, but this is made up for by the sparkling tension between the two main characters.
So all in all, I wouldn't personally give this one that low a score. I would recommend it to the kind of people who like the kind of TV shows which this kind of blog features! My only proviso would be to remember not to expect to be able to place it in any ready-made box too easily.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Comic Strip Presents & Others: The New Statesman

The subject of time has come up in the classic TV blogosphere this week, so of course I have to leap in and give my two penn'orth. My impression of time in the world of TV is that it depends on the programme and the viewer's first experience of it. The later Avengers were made before I was born, for example, but seem very recent to me because of my early experience of them on the young Channel Four. Many of the 1970s shows I have talked about here seem very old because they were broadcast when I was a very small child, while the shows from the 80s and 90s when I was at some very difficult ages, are etched on my memory as if yesterday. I would also suggest that older production values and social concerns can make shows seem older than newer ones.
Recently I have been rediscovering a whole movement of 1980s comedy. I have posted several times here on the subject of comedy recently, and what surprises me most is how little I have posted on it. Of course this is because much of the pre-mid-1980s TV comedy is (in my humble opinion) really not much cop. Then in the 1980s a whole 'alternative' comedy movement came along which was actually funny and remains so thirty years later. The first of those programmes was The Comic Strip Presents…, which I'm sure I will come to at some point. I have already touched on the wonderful Young Ones. But I have not yet posted on Bottom, Filthy Rich and Catflap, French and Saunders, Ab Fab or The New Statesman, which is the subject of this post.
I have a feeling that probably The New Statesman would have been a better vehicle for celebrating Rik Mayall's talent in the wake of his death than is The Young Ones. The other series for which he is known often rely on a comic counterpoint between Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, but The New Statesman gives him much more of a solo stage, to which the other characters are subsidiary. Nor can this programme be considered a mere rehash of Yes, (Prime) Minister, although it seems to cover much of the same territory. The Yes, Minister programmes give me the heeby jeebies, because it depicts what to me is a chilling world of personal careerism, backhanders, and the prevention of any real progress by the machinations of the civil service. Yes, Minister serves up an all too real world of politics and diplomacy which is easily transferrable to any forum in the world, where nothing really matters. Bizarrely The New Statesman manages to take the same material and make it hilarious for me.
I'm not sure why. Nor does it seem dated, and can make me laugh out loud at this length of time. It certainly should seem dated, since it very much reflects the 1980s, the age of the 'yuppie' in the UK. Its concerns are completely of that age: AIDS is mentioned, parliamentary corruption and perversion, police influence in public life, sexual morality, conflict with trades unionists, radioactive waste dumping, and Jeffrey Archer and the Vatican Bank even get a mention. This list includes virtually all of the major concerns of the time, and as far as this blog is concerned, represents what came next in the history of the usual 1960s preoccupations in my habitual viewing.
I think that probably I would recommend this as an antidote to dewy-eyed Anglophiles, in need of seeing the seedy underbelly of British public life as it is. I love the bit where B'Stard takes money from a blind beggar to put in the parking meter: these are often the people who represent us. I love the scenes in the House of Commons (Did you know that to this day the BBC maintains a complete replica of the House of Commons?) and non-native Brits viewing it should not be shocked at the abuse our parliamentarians give each other in the chamber. That is traditional and allowed! The show's Wikipedia page accurately summarises B'Stard's attitudes, which stand as a summary & criticism of parliamentarians' attitudes of the time:
'Over the course of the series, stage shows and newspaper columns, Alan opined on numerous topics, most of which demonstrated his contempt for the working class and indeed anyone not of the political and financial elite (the ordinaries). During an argument with a constituent, B'Stard declared that he believed he was helping British industry by driving a Bentley (a [Lagonda] In series 4) and having his suits handmade by British craftsmen. B'Stard's arrogance even extended to stating that there was nothing wrong with the education system that couldn't be put right with £2,500 a term, and that NHS waiting lists could be abolished by shutting down the health service, thereby eradicating poor people and eliminating poverty. B'Stard continued this train of thought through his defection to New Labour when he was instrumental in arranging a postcode lottery for cancer treatment so that "only the right people get better". Alan at one time proposed inverting the rallying cry of the American War of Independence by stating that "No representation without taxation" was a more fitting clarion call, believing people such as himself (the "enterprising, over-taxed minority") to be called on far too often to bail out other members of society. Alan used the same argument when proposing to cut off all social security payments to elderly people as he believes they should have considered how they would look after themselves instead of wasting their money on "ghastly holidays in Blackpool". When being interviewed by Brian Walden, Alan readily consented that should he rule the UK, the rich would only pay tax on their cocaine, children would be forced to work in mills and the elderly and infirm would be left to die by the thousands.' (Source)
One thing which I find particularly clever is the way B'Stard's reputation manager, Norman, gradually undertakes what we would now call a gender reassignment, becoming more feminine at each appearance, and even commenting on her increasing femininity. This is cleverly juxtaposed with the fear which the Prime Minister inspires every time she is mentioned. Mrs Thatcher's name is never actually mentioned by anyone in parliament, and they always refer to her as 'she' in a tone which manages to be fearful without being overdone at all. It is clear that the one actual female character in parliament is not feminine at all!
The scenes which take place in B'Stard's constituency are also charming, displaying a community of eccentrics including his father in law, and the retired hangman who runs a pub.
Normally I would criticise the fact that there are some familiar faces in the cast (Peter Sallis plays the former hangman, for example), but their presence is not intrusive. In fact I have been sitting here trying to think of some criticism to make of this show, and been completely unable to do so!