Well, it’s election season once again here in the UK (a lot sooner than most of us had expected!) and so, once more, I wanted to dust off some of my favourite historical documentaries and give them a modern review. This won’t be a platform for my personal politics, but instead more of an analysis of documentary filmmaking that helped to define and explore our recent political history. In the previous series, I covered the history of the Labour Party’s 18 years in opposition that started under Margaret Thatcher in the excellent “Wilderness Years” documentary produced by the BBC. I also wrote about the Thatcher’s time in the office told from a man on the inside in Michael Portillo’s wonderful film “Portillo on Thatcher”. But there is still much to uncover and discuss, and I hope for those political buffs out there interested in such things you will find these next several posts entertaining…if not perhaps slightly illuminating.
Kicking off is a documentary I adore and one that was discovered by happy accident. During my years at university, the student library contained a large collection of BFI films. One of which was a three-piece volume of work produced by award-winning British documentarian Molly Dineen. In volume 3 of her collection, there is an 85-minute film titled “The Lord’s Tale” which follows one of the more forgotten chapters of our recent political history. Namely, the abolition of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. This film acts as an intimate piece of documentary film and shows a softer, more personal side to what is known to the public as the “Upper House” and the inhabitants who once worked in it.
For those who don’t know, the hereditary peers were a collection of politicians who inherited their titles, as well as the privilege of reviewing government policy, simply through birthright. Some would have lordships dating back to Henry VIII’s reign; others had titles created more recently. Having a title and the right to review legislation did not necessarily mean all such individuals were wealthy or elitist, in fact, Dineen’s film almost proves the opposite in many cases. But for a newly elected Labour government, led by its zealous moderniser, Tony Blair, House of Lords reform was a new key area of policy. One in which the elected House of Commons was determined to push through whatever the cost. Dineen’s film covers a two-year period in which her camera follows eccentric individuals and larger than life personalities who attempt to resist such change. Sadly for them, such attempts fall on deaf ears.
What is so striking first of all when watching Dineen’s work is how interpersonal it is. She manages to gain incredible access to what is usually perceived as being a stuffy and snobbish place, and reveals information about her subjects that any other camera crew would have struggled to obtain. I think this is partly to her being a woman who many people feel at ease with. Her on-camera relationships with individuals such as Earl Russell and the Earl of Romney are striking in how relaxed they are. Dineen is remarkably able to make her interviewees feel relaxed on camera, a skill she has carried with her right from the start of her career. Her gentle voice and quizzical nature make her almost a welcome presence throughout the house. I think too that many of the Lords who know their time is soon up are grateful to have a person who cares about them and wants to document their stories and lives.
From a production standpoint, the film is rather basic. Dineen uses a small, compact digital camera and operates it herself. This causes the editing to feel jumpy at times but the graininess of the footage adds to the realism of the hereditary peer’s situation and creates a very self-aware “fly-on-the-wall” style. The facial expressions of some of the peers, filling the screen and revealing all sorts of wrinkles and smirks, are a joy to watch as they try to explain their case. Some of these individuals are so old that it’s difficult to not sympathise with them. The government’s tough-handed approach and complete lack of sympathy is especially striking, particularly when Dineen uses public footage of the reform bill’s debate in the upper chamber cut with her intimate interviews.
However, despite such sympathies, one cannot forget the ludicrous situation that the UK’s upper house was and still is in. The United Kingdom has the world’s second largest upper chamber with sitting politicians; it is second only to China’s National People’s Congress. For years now prime ministers have been creating life peers and stuffing the chamber to breaking point in order to gain party majorities. Although these peers have very little real power the opinion that they are unelected and therefore undemocratic is a strong one. During the coalition government’s years, the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg tried to introduce legislation that would have created an elected House of Lords. Sadly for them, their partners in government, the Conservatives, blocked the bill. As revenge, The Lib Dems blocked parliamentary boundary reform. Tit for tat.
But the existence of peers who were only present in the chamber thanks to birthright was a truly ridiculous one. Some 700 peers had been voting in the chamber, reviewing or delaying legislation, for decades. Before the 1911 Parliament Act they could even prevent the government from carrying out its elected duties. In many ways I think Molly Dineen agrees with the principle that they should go, but, wants to fully understand their views on being cast out. She makes no bones about being biased in her filmmaking; the opening minutes of the film admit to telling only one side of the debate, the lord’s side. Some of the hereditaries descend from the noblest families in British history and consider their peerage a matter of honour and, indeed, civic duty. Others, although admittedly very few, are essentially lobby fodder for the main parties and come to parliament to debate, drink, and collect their £200 a day for attending.
In The Lord’s Tale, there is a palpable sense that two worlds are colliding with each other. Modern Britain, under the command of Tony Blair, and the Britain of old. The Britain of monarchy, privilege, regalia and ermine. Dineen’s focus on just one side of the debate is indeed biased, but when considering how the majority of the country and press supported the government I think it was important for the hereditary peers’ side of the issue to be told for those too young at the time to be aware. Many of the peers interviewed are charming, intelligent and sometimes delightful creatures, whose voices, although some originating from noble bloodline, had the potential of playing an important role in government legislation. That role is now silenced and replaced by life peers with far more political tribalism. A good example of tribal loyalty is when, during a brief scene, the Labour life peer Lord Ahmed is quizzing a parliamentary security guard about when the hereditary peers are leaving. The display of glee he half-heartedly conceals behind his lips is easy enough to read.
Such glee is, in a way, understandable. For those desperate to advance the political modernisation of Britain’s government in the late 90’s the very existence of hereditary peerages must have been abhorrent. But, in a more human way, Dineen’s film captures the Upper Chamber’s personality far better than any party political broadcast made about the issue could. We watch these elderly, antiquated characters, some even still wearing bowler hats, with an odd curiosity. Much like in a zoo, Dineen’s camera gazes at these bizarre creatures with an innocence that probably allowed her such great access. Although many of them use her to make their case, the wiser ones are just grateful to have someone with a sympathetic ear who is not one of their own. Some of my favourite Lords featured in the film are Lord Westbury, a distinguished war hero with a fitting moustache, Lord Russell, the son of philosopher Bertrand Russell, who acts as the one who sees the writing on the wall; and the eye-patched and incredibly polite Lord Mowbray makes a fun cameo as well. The now deceased Edward Jones, who was Parliament’s Black Rod from 1995 to 2001 is also delightful on camera, particularly when we glimpse him puffing away on a cigarette.
However, my favourite, and probably Dineen’s favourite too, is the Earl of Romney. This ancient, wiry physique of a lord has eccentricity in spades. His moustache, upper-class accent, and withering frame create the most sympathetic image out of all of the lords seen on camera. He is also the only lord that allows Dineen access to his private home, a rather humble house out in the Norfolk countryside, where we see an amusing poster titled “Alternative Uses for a Hereditary Peers” on the wall of his kitchen. It is fitting that Dineen uses what may very have been his final on-camera interview to act as the coda of the film in a scene shot outside of his house.
Romney: “The way that democracy works…it’s absolutely irresponsible!”
Romney: “Yes! People say “What’s he done for me?” “Oh, I don’t like the look of his face!” “I wouldn’t trust that fellow!” Haven’t you heard people say that?”
Romney: “Well is that the way to use your vote?!”
At the heart of Dineen’s film a conflict about what we want the upper chamber in our Parliament to do. Our’s might be the “mother of all parliaments” to the world but there are many traditions and protocols in it more fitted to being part of a living museum than a working building for democracy. Time and again members of the hereditary peers ask Dineen the question of what you want the House of Lords to do if you don’t give it more power. If you elect its members then they are beholden to the public and cannot act as impartial advisors to government policy. If you appoint them then the meaning of peerage relatively stays the same. You are simply just swapping a king or queen’s power for that of the prime minister of the day. Such questions do not receive an answer in Dineen’s film, but they certainly make you pause for thought. I think I can safely feel glad to see the majority of the hereditaries gone from our political landscape, but the continued stuffing of new peers into an already crowded second chamber at the behest of eager leaders in our government is equally troubling too. Reform is very much needed, it’s just what kind of reform we should have that has been the problem plaguing our second chamber for well over a 100 years now.