Saturday, February 06, 2021

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies). Starring Valerie Gearon (Ann Barton) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton).

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies). "At the Annual Council Dinner, Nigel listens to the Tory candidate give a self-congratulatory speech in which he claims that things are getting better for everyone, although his assessment clearly excludes people from minorities. Nigel furiously attacks the speech for its complacence and backward-looking agenda." (BFI Screenonline synopsis).

 The Wednesday Play: Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton.
    GB 1965. PC: BBC. P: James MacTaggart, Graeme MacDonald.
    D: Gareth Davies. SC: Dennis Potter. Story editors: Roger Smith, Tony Garnett. Cin: James Balfour – 1,33:1 – b&w. PD: Julia Trevelyan Oman. Film ED: Bill Brind. Telerecording ED: Julian Farr.
    C: Keith Barron (Nigel Barton), Valerie Gearon (Ann Barton), John Bailey (Jack Hay), Cyril Luckham (Hugh Archibald-Lake), Harry Forehead (Sir Harry Blakeswood), Huw Thomas (newsreader), Betty Bowden (lady chairman), Margaret Diamond (lady secretary), Madge Brindley (Mrs. Thompson), Sonia Graham (Mrs. Phillips), Aimée Delamain (Mrs. Morris), Walter Hall (Mr. Smith), George Desmond (Mr. Harrison), Fred Berman (toastmaster), John Evitts (journalist), Alan Lawrance (fat man), Arthur Ridley (mayor).
    Soundtrack selections include: "The Red Flag" (comp. Melchior Frank, 16th century, lyr. Jim Connell, 1889); final credit theme: an instrumental variation of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (pre-1865 African-American spiritual, a Christmas carol, collected by John Wesley Work, Jr.).
    News clips: Nye Bevan's speech at an anti-Suez rally ; Oswald Mosley's speech.
    75 min
    Telepremiere: 15 Dec 1965 on BBC1.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 6 Feb 2021.

AA: "Candidate Nigel Barton goes from idealism to cynicism as he becomes disillusioned and suspicious of hollow campaign promises." This Internet Movie Database synopsis seems accurate at first sight, and it seems to reflect the general opinion of Dennis Potter's remarkable sequel to his semi-autobiographical breakthrough play Stand Up, Nigel Barton.

Nigel Barton's Bildungsroman does indeed belong to the great tradition of Balzac's Illusions perdues: the growing up of a provincial youth who enters the big world of modernity. In the first film we witnessed the bitter contrast between Nigel's working-class roots and his Oxford elite existence. Nigel was left with the feeling that he does not belong anywhere.

The death of a Conservative member of parliament in a foxhunt accident necessitates a by-election. The Labour Party nominates Nigel Barton as their candidate for "the totally hopeless seat" in a traditionally and overwhelmingly Tory-dominated district. A seasoned party veteran called Jack Hay (John Bailey) becomes Barton's personal coach.

We follow Nigel's evolution step by step. His first performance is too intellectual: "try not to be too clever", advises Jack while observing a yawning and distracted audience. Next Nigel turns to heavy-handed propaganda, but because he has not done his homework, he fails to answer sharp questions and needs help.

Together, Nigel and Jack start canvassing with a tour on a campaign van: visiting voters at their doorsteps and in groups such as women riders. The idea is to "catch floating voters". ("Let them sink" is Jack's suggestion). Nigel even gets a list of the bereaved, but writing condolence letters for the sake of getting votes goes too far. A visit to an old folks' home shocks Nigel deeply, but even there he fails to connect.

The local Labour workers and a ladies' group see through Nigel's phoniness. He does not even know the lyrics of "The Red Flag". But in the final climax, the Annual Council Dinner, listening to his opponent, the smooth and experienced Tory candidate Hugh Archibald-Lake (who declares that "we are all workers now"), Nigel catches fire and speaks from his heart for the first time, debunking the "myth of affluence", although his offensive manner will bring him no votes. But the angry young man has entered politics and found his own voice.

Although Jack at first appears a cynical opportunist, it turns out that he has never lost his ideals. And although Ann, Nigel's wife, tells her husband that "yours is the worst form of betrayal", after his big speech Ann must confess she "did not know what you are capable of". Nigel was "pretty formidable". "You are not meant for the sidelines". In the process, Nigel really understands for the first time the hard life his father has endured.

One of the most refreshing features of the movie is the dynamics between Ann and Nigel. Ann ironizes Nigel's "advantage of being born to the working class", and Nigel lambasts her "condescending Hampstead socialism". (Ann's irony is similar to Tony Randall's envy towards Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back to Me: "You had everything going for you. Poverty. Squalor. There was only one way for you to go – up.") Ann makes fun of Nigel's "prize bull" campaign badge, while Nigel calls Ann "a prissy cow". Ann has accused Nigel that he has lost his virility during the campaign stress, but the bull / cow dialogue seems to rekindle the fire between the spouses.

The film has deep texture about Britain's postwar politics. Perhaps the most moving passage of the whole show is an insert from Nye Bevan's speech at an anti-Suez rally which leads to an elliptic resume of the history of the Labour Party since 1945 (Bevan was the father of the National Health Service, that has been newly universally admired for its heroic efforts during the current corona pandemic).

An ominous presence in a historical insert is Oswald Mosley, whose political past included both Labour and Fascism, and who in the late 1950s became the father of the still ongoing anti-immigration movement, topical with Brexit.

The dimensions are both timeless and topical. Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton evokes Plato and Aristotle, their studies on rhetorics. It evokes Tony Blair and Boris Johnson. "Double talk, that is my language".

The film language of Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton is less experimental than that of Stand Up, Nigel Barton, but the finale is special. At the council dinner, Nigel both loses and finds himself. There is a final blitz montage in front of a mirror. Facing the camera, Nigel rehearses three forms of address, transforming from an angry Barton to a well-tempered Barton. His speech slows down and he catches his breath when he utters: "vote ... vote ... vote".

Dennis Potter asks us a question. Each viewer must find an answer for oneself.




"When a Tory MP dies in a hunting accident, a by-election is called and Nigel Barton decides to run as the Labour candidate. His wife Anne sees how excited he is by the prospect, but is critical of his motives. Nigel's political agent, Jack, takes him to speak to a ladies group. They reject his intellectual approach to politics and are offended by his attempts at humour. Jack tells Nigel that he must take a simpler and more populist approach. Nigel tells Jack how much he admired Nye Bevan for his speech at an anti-Suez rally, but Jack tells him how far this put Labour back in the polls."

"Anne and Jack fight over her upper-class background. Jack and Nigel go canvassing and meet with little sympathy. Nigel realises that Jack, beneath his cynical exterior, is still committed to the ideals of the Labour Party. At a meeting with a group of local Labour Party workers, an elderly woman chides Jack for hiding his deeper feelings about politics. She also criticises Nigel for his timidity and lack of ambition, even if the odds are stacked against him in a predominantly Tory district. Jack tells Nigel to write letters of condolence to the families of people who have recently died, but he eventually rejects this idea in disgust. They go to an old people's home and Nigel is greatly affected by the sad conditions in which many old and infirm men find themselves."

"At the Annual Council Dinner, Nigel listens to the Tory candidate give a self-congratulatory speech in which he claims that things are getting better for everyone, although his assessment clearly excludes people from minorities. Nigel furiously attacks the speech for its complacence and backward-looking agenda. The other guests are clearly unhappy by Nigel's speech and Jack is furious. The guests eventually drown out Nigel's words by beating the cutlery on their tables. In anger, Nigel turns to the Tory candidate and makes an obscene gesture, which is captured by a newspaper photographer and put on the front page. Afterwards, Anne tells Nigel that he has restored her faith in him, even though she feels that the gesture was a mistake. Jack agrees that Nigel will probably lose his deposit and walks away in disgust. Nigel urges everyone to vote and use the privilege.


"Dennis Potter made his debut as a television playwright in 1965 with the screening of four works in the Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70) strand. 'Vote, Vote, Vote, for Nigel Barton' (BBC, tx. 15/12/1965) should have been the second of these, but it was pulled from the schedules and shown last instead. Due to a technical fault parts of it had to be re-recorded, at which point some objections were raised by the BBC over its content, leading to a number of changes. Chief among these was the decision to preface the screening with a 'prequel' play, 'Stand Up, Nigel Barton' (BBC, tx. 8/12/1965), to give its barbed political commentary and satire a more specific basis in Barton's (Keith Barron) own background."

"The play begins blackly when a Tory MP falls from his horse during a foxhunt. His companions are seemingly unconcerned about his fatal injuries, being much more worried about the fate of the horse. Their cruel comments are amusingly matched with an out of focus point-of-view shot, which might represent either rider or horse. Stylistically less adventurous than 'Stand Up, Nigel Barton' (although it retains the asides to the audience), by using footage of speeches by Nye Bevan and Oswald Mosley it creatively comments, positively and negatively, on idealism, its relationship to party politics and how professional politicians must function within it."

"'Vote, Vote, Vote' concludes with Barton's vitriolic attack on the reactionary rhetoric of the Tories and the British political establishment in general, climaxing with his celebrated two-fingered salute to his political opponent. Barton's fictional electoral defeat mirrors Potter's own when he ran for the Hertfordshire East seat in 1964 (he grew so disenchanted with the process that he didn't even vote for himself)."

"The play's relevance remains undimmed, its references to Britain's botched invasion of Suez and to Oswald Mosley finding contemporary echoes in the controversies over the Iraq conflict and the rise of the BNP, while blood sports remain as topical an issue as ever. Although the character was softened considerably in the re-shoots, John Bailey's cynical political agent is instantly recognisable in the modern age of spin doctors, while the hilarious scene in which Nigel tries to bluff his way through a chorus of 'The Red Flag' inevitably recalls John Redwood's humiliation when, as Welsh Secretary, he was caught on camera not knowing the words to the Welsh national anthem.

Sergio Angelini (BFI Screenonline)

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