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Is history forgiving?

18 August 2017


Rehearsed manner: in Reflections with Peter Hennessy (R4, Thursday of last week), Tony Blair defended the Iraq war

Rehearsed manner: in Reflections with Peter Hennessy (R4, Thursday of last week), Tony Blair defended the Iraq war

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.

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