POLITICAL veterans — grandees or has-beens, depending on your affiliation — will often give the best interviews. Unshackled by the current agenda, they can choose to be more nuanced about the past, and more forthright about the present.
Tony Blair has no such luxury. With the Chilcot report barely a year old (News, 8 July 2016), he is giving the same interview he has given for many years. Thus Reflections with Peter Hennessy (R4, Thursday of last week) was designed for those of us who have not yet absorbed all of Mr Blair’s back-story.
One such is the fact that, having stayed up all night reading Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky, the future leader of New Labour spent a year as a Trot. More revealing, perhaps, was his admission that his obsession with the media resulted in a press that was emboldened and empowered, rather than cowed and manipulated. He, Alastair Campbell, and Peter Mandelson had seen what the media had done to Neil Kinnock, and they were determined to change the relationship. The Age of Spin was born.
On Iraq, however, Hennessy was getting nothing new — though Mr Blair’s affected hesitation and half-stutter forever appears to promise some new, long-suppressed truth. The mannerism has lost its charm, and sounds as rehearsed as the answers. He still believes that the overthrow of Saddam was a worthy cause, and that history will judge events differently. He also admitted that he would have preferred to study history than law at university — perhaps because history tends in the end to be more forgiving.
But it is not always. The well-meaning policies of our forebears, from the perspective of modern cultural expectations, can appear thoroughly wicked and barbaric. In Alone on a Wide Wide Sea, Michael Morpurgo’s novel, dramatised on Radio 2 (Monday to Thursday of last week), we learn of the forced migration of children from England to Australia through the stories of two boys. The school they must endure makes Dotheboys Hall look like the Dorchester, run by a Christian fanatic who has misinterpreted “Suffer the little children”.
You wouldn’t expect Morpurgo to cut corners in his emotional presentation; and the starry cast give it some welly. You need a strong stomach for theatre-school child acting, and a stronger one still for Dickensian sentiment, but there is no doubting the skill, ambition, and passion of this adaptation.
The summer schedule seems an inhospitable place for a drama with high production values, but with the BBC exploring the opportunities of schedule-free podcasts, we may see more of this. In a similar situation is Radio 5 Live’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt? (Tuesdays), an investigation into the murder of Kathleen Peterson in North Carolina in 2001, and the conviction of her husband, Michael.
This weekly series sounds to all who know it as a direct copy of Serial, a US podcast which has been wildly popular (Radio, 16 June). If you can forgive the crime of plagiarism, then devotees of the one will soon be hooked by the other.