Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast.
Directed by Daniel Draper.
Featuring Dennis Skinner. 96 mins.
Movies take so long to make that it is almost impossible for them to be topical. (In which case, so how come there are so many Trump references in movies this summer? I thought that was supposed to be an against the odds shock?) During the 18 months Draper spent piecing together his crowd funded portrait of the Beast of Bolsover, Labour's longest serving MP, he must have assumed that this was a requiem for lost idealism. Now, thanks to Theresa May, it has become very topical – if he had been ten years younger maybe he would be tantalisingly close to being the Prime Minister.
Or maybe not: whether left or right, you still need to be middle class to lead the Labour Party, and Skinner has stubbornly refused to allow himself to be ponsified by his proximity to London or the finer things in life. The film often made me think of a Dennis Potter profile, partly because it's another tale of a bright grammar school boy from a coal mining family who went on to great success down in that London, but also because of overlapping musical tastes. Skinner's mother was a singer, he did a bit of crooning himself, and the film is full of the kind of old ditties that you could imagine Bob Hoskins or Michael Gambon lip syncing to. There is a genuinely touching scene where he talks about when his mother had Alzheimer's and he could only connect with her by singing old songs together.
Of course, they are very different characters but they both exude a certain steely sentimentality. As well as old songs, they share a love of nature. In Dennis Potter's final TV statement (the interview with Melvyn Bragg, let's be kind and overlook Karaoke and Cold Lazarus) he rhapsodised about nature and the plum tree blossom outside his window. Skinner, it turns out, is a real nature boy, keeping himself fit strolling in the Derbyshire countryside or the parks of London.
Draper's film mirrors its subject: it is straightforward and unflashy, direct and always spoiling for, if not a fight, than a heated debate. It is unquestioning in its moral certainty. Often, after somebody has delivered an anecdote to screen, the film will wait a few seconds before cutting, as they ask the off-screen presence if that was OK. Presumably this is to show that this is not a slick product, to show us how honest it is.
I enjoyed learning about his life, getting a fuller picture of the man, it shouldn't be ignored thought that it is as one-sided as the mainstream media and Murdoch press he has always railed against. Crowdfunded ventures like this are valuable as a counter balance, and a chance to put across something that isn't often reported. Ultimately though, groups of people pitching in to make films that tell them exactly what they want to hear, isn't really a great leap forward for democracy. (If you want to push the point, isn't it a form of privatisation?) You get a lot about the Nature, not so much about The Beast.
His refusal to have anything to do with Tories, and to shun any cross party initiatives seems self evident reasonable, but after 47 years in Parliament and 30 plus on Labour's National Executive you have to wonder what exactly this epic principled stand has achieved. His greatest hour(s) was talking out a move by Enoch Powell to ban stem cell research. He tells the story with evident pride and why not? I would be proud to have done a day's work a quarter that worthwhile in my life, and having done so would have seen that as laurels well worth resting on.
It is telling perhaps that his greatest achievement is a filibuster because his whole career, his lonely, near-five-decade vigil in a place full of people and traditions he despises, is a kind of grand filibuster, holding the fort while he waits for the rest of the electorate to catch up with those in Bolsover. Maybe now it is about to - we will see if this sudden lurch towards socialism has any foundation to it; or if singing about Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury is just this decade's equivalent of a Frankie Says T-shirt
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