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Radio review: Great Lives and Taste

06 October 2023

BBC

On Great Lives (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Ken Loach discussed the life of Gerrard Winstanley

On Great Lives (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Ken Loach discussed the life of Gerrard Winstanley

AS AN assessment of the socialist project, it cannot but charm you with its the optimism. “It’s half-time and we’re one-nil down,” the filmmaker Ken Loach says. The context was a discussion, on Great Lives (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), of Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the 17th-century Diggers, in which Matthew Parris, gently teasing his guest, observed how Winstanley’s encampment at St George’s Hill, Surrey, was now the site of a swanky gated community. Mr Loach, appreciative of the long Utopian game, is evidently looking forward to a second half played out over several more centuries.

There was no attempt to pretend that Winstanley’s part in this conversation was anything other than as a proxy Corbynista. He would not, Mr Loach says, have made it into the current Labour Party: his Genesis-inspired vision of a paradise uncorrupted by private ownership is too red-hot for today’s career politicians to handle. But one cannot remain unmoved by his eloquence, which resonates particularly with current environmental discourse: “The earth shall be made a common treasury of livelihood to all mankind.”

The programme ended curiously, with Mr Loach’s quoting Pope Francis on the evils of the profit motive: a reciprocal compliment after Mr Loach’s recent audience with the Pope, who congratulated him on his prophetic stand against injustice. I doubt that Winstanley would have approved.

I missed Zakia Sewell’s four-part series Taste (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) when it was first broadcast in the summer. Over the past few weeks, it has enjoyed a second outing — happily so, since this represents a significant chunk of air time devoted to a topic that can seem impenetrable. As one critic put it here, it boils down to whether you think this concert, or that show, is worth the entrance fee.

Naturally, the participants here wanted arguments over cultural value to sound pertinent in today’s contested culture; but it is hard to share the sense of urgency expressed by Professor Dave O’Brien, when he speaks breathlessly of the increasing difficulty of assessing “the objective value of culture”. We might have benefited here from the historical patience of Mr Loach.

Taste is forged by elites through the exercise of hard and soft power. This was the idée fixe, and one that most would acknowledge, at least up to a point. What is less convincing is the characterisation of those who take this line as being on the side of the insurgency: as members of the dispossessed, fighting against an Establishment of dead, white dudes. Like the victim of cancellation who is given numerous column-inches in a newspaper to announce to the world their cancellation, so the creators of a four-episode series for Radio 4 must rethink their relationship with power structures.

In this respect, it was unsettling that the programme concluded on a note of such condescension. The work of discomfiting entrenched taste “is not easy work, but it’s worth doing”. The music that played us out was Steely Dan: “I’m a fool to do your dirty work.”

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