Adapted by David Edgar from his epic RSC stage production (the original draft of which ran to five hours in length), Edgar’s anatomy of the rise of British fascism in the ‘60s and ‘70s takes elements from his early work in agitprop theatre, and expands them into a more complex, epic form of social realism to make a rare, concerted attempt to explore the reasons behind, rather than simply demonise, the fascist mindset. It begins in India during the final moments of the Raj, but centres around a picket by Asian factory workers in the fictional West Midlands borough of Taddley.
A terse encounter between three military men in India – bluff-but-agreeable Colonel Chandler, and the rather more hard-nosed Major Rolfe and Sergeant Turner – berate, to varying degrees, manservant Khera. Then, moving forward through the ‘60s to the present day, we see the various fortunes of these men on their return to England – the Colonel becomes Tory MP for Taddley, and on his death his nephew Peter Crosby is to stand for election in the same seat, his politics very much of the Heathite, progressive conservative school. Rolfe, meanwhile, his defeated rival for Tory candidacy, is far more to the right in his views, and feels both socialism and wet Toryism have betrayed the lower-middle classes (“The NCOs”). Both have dealings with mysterious banker Frank Kershaw, “whose many commercial concerns are too numerous to mention”.
Turner, for his part, sets up a small antiques shop, which has to close when a (Jewish) businessman informs him a large conglomerate has bought up the entire street, to make way for a precinct “geared towards the younger end. Boutiques, hair stylists, soda fountains, drive-in legal aid facilities, antique emporia, self-service massage parlours, that sort of thing”. Then we eavesdrop on a clandestine meeting in an upstairs pub room, where two well-spoken men, David Maxwell and Richard Cleaver, invite a wealthy Canadian businessman to a social gathering which turns out to be a ritualistic birthday/remembrance celebration for Adolf Hitler.News of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech filter through, though, and the businessman sees the way clear for this cult to hide its symbolic trappings and go ‘overground’.
Finally, we see Khera, now a shop steward at the Baron Castings foundry, seeking an overtime ban for his predominantly Asian union members, and the first stirrings of industrial rebellion. From there, the disparate stories proceed apace. Turner, stung into action by his bad fortune, becomes chairman of local pressure group the Taddley Patriotic League. At a town hall meeting, he introduces Maxwell, now general secretary of the distinctly National Front-esque Nation Forward movement, who, after hearing the race-based grievances from middle class housewives and factory workers alike, makes a rousing ‘whites unite’ speech, and proposes Turner as a Nation Forward candidate for the bye-election.
Khera meets Labour candidate Bob Clifton, who promises full support. At NF headquarters, Cleaver berates Maxwell over the content of some propaganda leaflets – not the rather deranged rants from Turner linking immigrants with ‘parasitic worms’, but Maxwell’s lines castigating multi-national corporations and businesses as the prime causes of immigration, a stance too close to Marxism for Cleaver to tolerate. Crosby turns up to remonstrate against the NF’s anti-Asian rhetoric, and is given short shrift. Back at NF HQ, Turner is being coached out of his awkwardness, but another spat between Cleaver and Maxwell results in the latter being kicked out of the party.
An NF party meeting is sabotaged by Marxist hecklers, and descends into a riot. Nation Forward turn up at the picket line with a foundry worker who attempts to break the line, and violence inevitably results. One of the Asian factory workers is arrested and threatened with deportation. Khera pleads with Clifton to help, but on the eve of the bye-election the moderate Labour man gets cold feet. Crosby wins the seat by a thousand votes, with Turner coming a close third. In the closing scene, Turner and Cleaver woo merchant bankers for further funding – Kershaw, and Rolfe, whose company Turner suddenly recognises as the people who forced him out of business in the first place.Far from representing the voice of the dispossessed petit-bourgeois, Nation Forward is climbing into bed with the very corporations that are truly the cause of the “little man’s” alienation. Shell-shocked, dispossessed, Turner seems to be on the verge of leaving the NF (possibly?) as the play ends.
A labyrinthine, complex work with many things to say about the causes of and contradictions within organised fascism, what it undoubtedly has in scope and moral imagination it rather lacks in terms of rounded characterisation, although a great cast, headed by Colin Jeavons, Nigel Hawthorne, Iain Cuthbertson and Saeed Jaffrey, and touches of humanity and humour (and lashings of Rudyard Kipling – at one pint turned into a right-wing protest song) mean the drama of the piece is never engulfed by the ideas. Attacked at the time for both overdoing the NF/Nazi link and portraying right wing causes in too favourable a light, it is really that rare thing – a partisan drama about racism and race which never lets the sentimentalism of the protagonists seep into the narrator’s voice and undermine an intelligent, thoughtful story.
Although Edgar was (and still is) a firm believer in left-wing egalitarianism, he was no idealist about the power of mass media to transmit complex political ideas (unlike, say, Trevor Griffiths) and maintained that the play’s impact remained greatest among the relative handful who saw the stage production, rather than the four million or so television viewers.