Sunday 10 January 2016

Visions of Britain: Stephen Fry and Stephen Tallents

Elizabeth Bowen writing about Aldous Huxley in the Spectator (December 11, 1936):

Mr. Huxley has been the alarming young man for a long time, a sort of perpetual clever nephew who can be relied on to flutter the lunch-party […] He is at once the truly clever person and the stupid person's idea of the clever person.

I read that last sentence with a jolt, because I've long thought that it was an insult first perpetrated by the late satirist William Donaldson (of 'Henry Root' fame) and used by him to describe national treasure Stephen Fry. Which brings me neatly to the ostensible subject of this blog.

First of all, watch this two minute film featuring the aforementioned Stephen Fry aimed at Heathrow airport arrivals from overseas. 

Done that? Thank you. What follows is my blog proper.

To begin with the Heathrow short. This lazy, complacent and grindingly humourless exercise is unlikely to feature prominently on Stephen Fry's CV, or that of the scriptwriter Graham Linehan (co-creator with Arthur Matthews of the wonderful Father Ted). It's a rubbishy bit of corporate blah worth watching only for the unhappiness and boredom of the many mute extras populating the ghastly 'pub' in which Fry props up the bar and addresses us directly in that bonhomous Brown Windsor soup voice of his. One can only speculate about his decision to co-operate with the Heathrow people. Alan Partridge, surely, would have been their first choice as presenter? With a script by Peter Baynham?

The national attractions and traits enumerated by Fry never rise above the most humdrum commonplaces. "We Brits do love a queue" for instance. That zinger may well be the case in Fry's spiritual homeland of the 1950s, when all motor cars had walnut dashboards and Londoners lined up in alphabetical order to board jolly red tramcars to the Elephant and Castle. Try struggling onto a bus in Wood Green on a busy Saturday in 2016. The kind of queuing Fry and Linehan imagine harks back half a century to a more biddable and deferential age, before the current maelstrom of pushy self-entitlement and coarseness that characterises life anywhere outside the Costwolds and the Garrick Club.

Now, the point of all this is not to be nasty about Stephen Fry (an offence that carries the death penalty in Britain, something he modestly fails to mention in the film) but to bang on about another Stephen altogether, a visionary civil servant and a hero of mine. Bear with, as the young people say.

Stephen Tallents (1884 - 1958) was a pioneer in public relations and the idealogical driving force behind the creation of the General Post Office Film Unit. In 1933 Tallents published a pamphlet called The Projection of England in which he set out what amounts to a documentary movement manifesto, addressing Britain and the British Empire as his hypothetical client. It's a fascinating and ground-breaking document, couched in the language of the time yet strikingly modern in its description of a global village, of sovereign interdependencies and the vital importance of communication within and across borders. This publication was produced at a time when a quarter of the world's surface and a quarter of the world's population were under British rule, and is nothing less than a guide to how England (that is to say, the United Kingdom) can effectively promote its values  to the rest of the world.

There is an urgent need, Tallents asserts, to produce and disseminate material reflecting 'the English characteristics in which the outside world is most interested', and this can best be achieved by 'breaking up of the fame of England into its primary colours', by which he means national institutions. He cites the Monarchy (as does Stephen Fry, cringingly) the British Navy and the English Bible, Shakespeare and Dickens) and national virtues. Of the latter he offers the following patriotic litany of 'reputations':

In international affairs - a reputation for disinterestedness
In national affairs - a tradition of justice, law and order
In national character - a reputation for coolness
In commerce - a reputation for fair dealing
In manufacture - a reputation for quality
In sport - a reputation for fair play

All very rose-tinted, to be sure, and there was no shortage of contemporary opinion supporting less buoyant appraisals of the national character. Yet these ideals, despite accumulating and often overwhelming evidence to the contrary had - and continue to have - a tenacious appeal, and were certainly not without contemporary validity when it came to the discourse (as we would now say) surrounding the Empire.

Tallents continues in similar vein, supporting his thesis with examples of other British (or English) traditions and institutions that he believes exercise an imaginative appeal to overseas audiences:

At the other end of the spectrum might be found such events as the Grand National,        
the Trooping of the Colour, the Boat Race, Henley, Wimbledon, the Test Match and the 
Cup Final. 

But between these two extremes comes a medley of institutions and excellencies, which 
every man may compile for himself according to his humour and his ingenuity. My own list       would include:

Oxford and St. Andrews
Piccadilly, Bond Street, Big Ben and Princes Street, Edinburgh
The English Countryside, English villages, the English home and English servants
The Lord Mayor of London
The Times, Punch and the Manchester Guardian
The Metropolitan Police and Boy Scouts
The London omnibuses and Underground Railways
Football and Foxhunting
English bloodstock and pedigree stock
The arts of gardening and of tailoring

As a list this 'medley of institutions is', shall we say, partial. Few would make the final cut of any 'Welcome to Heathrow' short today and some of his choices - not only fox-hunting and English servants - will strike 21st century readers as parochial, smug, reactionary and class-bound. Some contemporary critics were also unimpressed, but they had to acknowledge - and so do we, avoiding the pitfall of condescension - that for Tallents and his Whitehall peers these were precisely the qualities that could define Britain to the Empire and the other nations of the world. He avoids such abstractions as democracy and tolerance, he (shrewdly) doesn't mention the Church of England, free speech or democracy. He also, and tellingly, avoids any mention whatsoever of the Empire itself, of its origins and history. 

The 'special assets' he believes Britain can count on to manage a projection of these values are the English language and 'the dispersal of British citizens around the world, with whom a common history is shared'. He then launches into a rousing description of Britain's international role that could be the briskly-spoken commentary for some as-yet-unmade documentary short:

She controls or can influence the machinery of government, including the service of education, in the Colonies and close/sympathetic contacts with the sister Governments of the Dominions. She provides a market for the produce of countless countries, with all the net-work of commercial and personal relationships and needs, the interdependence in well-being, which that provision involves. Her cable companies and news agencies girdle the earth. Her shipping companies control one-third of the world's tonnage, and have their agents in every part of the globe. Her steel rails bind whole countries together. Her bankers and merchant houses, her insurance companies and chartered accountants operate the world over. Englishmen are at work in most of the greater English-speaking newspaper offices. Wherever ships are steered or metals won from the earth, there the ships' engineers and the mining engineers of England are posted.

Yet it is only Russia, Tallents points out, that expresses its point of view and purposes seriously through film, the greatest modern medium of international expression. By the mid-1930s Russian film in particular enjoyed a cultural prestige equal to that of Russian ballet and literature before the Great War. Tallents was a Film Society regular and Russian films were a mainstay of Society screenings, not least because few suitable English films were available. He cites as examples The Cruiser Potemkin [sic], Pudovkin's Storm over Asia, Turin's Turk-Sib and Dovjenko's Earth, adding that Britain is capable of taking such subjects from home and Empire and improving on them. The central themes of such films would be 'English adaptability, industry, industrial quality, modernity.' 

In promoting this initiative to sceptical Whitehall mandarins Tallents really hits his stride:

We need, I suggest, to create, in the borderland which lies between Government and private enterprise, a school of national projection. They must have something of the sense of
responsibility, the prestige and the opportunities of Government, and entry to the fields of Government activity; but they must be more free to make experiments and, like all experimenters, to make mistakes, than the ordinary Government Department dares to be. It must seek to inspire, but never to regulate them (i.e. the agencies).

There is a need to balance prestige and creative experiment, to offer this 'school of national projection' a freedom to explore the medium without restraint and interference by its government paymasters, the Whitehall officials who are sure to take a cool view of an activity with no objectively measurable benefits. Tennant concludes by setting out the conditions under which such films would be produced, anticipating the workplace atmosphere of the Unit as it developed under Grierson:

[T]he only sensible prescription is to pick out the best team that can be found, to put them to grips with their problem, and to leave them, free of undue pressure or interference, to follow, like Socrates, withersoever it leads, the argument in which their own intimate handling of the material all quickly engage them.

Tallents was a public relations genius whose role at the Empire Marketing Board and in the later creation of the Post Office Film Unit has been either undervalued or wholly overlooked. Without him the Unit would have been a very different entity - churning out tub-thumping propaganda rather than films that, over eighty years later, continue to attract attention and admiration. In what amounts to the most innovative and original collaborative film movement of the century, Tallents was a chariot for Grierson's fire.

Back to Stephen Fry and that dismal corporate short. "We’re not all red phone boxes and cucumber sandwiches on the lawn…" says the chirpy Heathrow press release that accompanies the film. But whoever said we were? Marketing professionals, and especially those in the business of 'brand management' could do worse than read the thoughts of a man who died more than half a century ago, and raise their game. They have to raise their game because the stakes are higher. 

Whether addressing visitors or migrants or refugees we can surely offer more than moth-eaten platitudes about politeness and queuing and talking about the weather and unpronounceable Welsh place names. We can - we must - assert that we are a liberal democracy and share the values of a tolerant, ironic, complex society. Add something about the stuff we are, or used to be, really good at (railways, and football and cricket, and television and Concorde and, if you insist, beefeaters and Trooping the Colour). Maybe throw in something about our behaviour towards women . . . 

Extracts © The Estate of Stephen Tallents

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