Time Shift: Malcom Muggeridge

Monday, March 24, 2003 by

About 20 years ago I received a novelty card game for Christmas. On the cards were printed a picture of a television character and a series of questions. Answer one correctly and move on to the next laying the last down to make a square and winning the game. There is a point to this.

On one of the cards was a picture of Malcolm Muggeridge and four questions about him. The game was intended for children and it was a testament to the incredible, now largely forgotten, reputation of that great broadcaster and national figure that eight year olds were expected to know not only who he was but several facts about him. That he was a journalist, an intellectual, and a famous man on the telly. It would amaze me if very many people at all could recall those facts now.

It seems almost fitting then that the retrospective on his remarkable career should have been shown on BBC4, a channel ludicrously criticised for not gathering huge ratings. For Muggeridge himself has now become almost a specialist subject, although the excellent documentary Time Shift: Malcolm Muggeridge resurrected some – there could never be enough time for anything like all – of the achievements and controversies that had made him a household name. To illustrate: in the film I’m Alright Jack, starring Peter Sellers, Muggeridge was used to host the fictitious current affairs programme that brought the various protagonists together towards the end. That this meant that no explanation of the nature of the programme, or that it would naturally be of national interest, points to something of his stature.

Time Shift: Malcolm Muggeridge was made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth and gave a full and rounded insight in to the career, if not altogether the mind, of one of the formerly most vital parts of the intellectual life of television in Britain. Archive footage was chosen extremely well with excerpts of his documentaries on India and the work of correspondents in America used to illustrate the developing career of journalism which he pursued with vigour prior to the outbreak of World War II.

It came into its own though with tremendous footage of the seminal work Muggeridge produced in the post war period: his documentary on Mother Theresa of Calcutta, which created for them both an international reputation; his demolition through force of argument of the likes of Oswald Moseley and the chiding of sacred cow Bertrand Russell; the reappraisal of both history and religion in his travelogues in India and the Holy Land; and most especially the fearsome Face Your Image in which he was confronted with his detractors and forced to respond to their painfully detailed criticisms of his past actions and utterances.

Even a programme of this length – 90 minutes, narrated well by Edward Stourton – would not have been able to capture all of the facets of even his television career in any detail, but since it was obliged, naturally, to deal with every other area of his considerable public and private life this was hardly surprising. But it did manage to capture well the essence of the man and his reputation, from his disillusionment with his formerly ideal state of Soviet Russia through his finding of evangelism and organised religion to his eschewing of television – and just about everything else he had formerly believed in – and reminded the viewer that this was a man who should not to be forgotten.

In later years Muggeridge became the byword for the curmudgeon, an on-screen Kingsley Amis (and it was in these terms that he most likely found his way onto those playing cards), but the programme acknowledged his status as the man who first raised the placard of satire, paved the way for the powerful interview, pioneered the personal and indeed controversial form of documentary as a broadcast of opinion and not just the report of fact. Television and its viewers owe much to Muggeridge. We can only hope that this splendid film makes its way on to more mainstream channels to once again inform them of his former stature.

Importantly this was not a hagiography – the inclusion of Face Your Image was proof enough of that, as was the now infamous film of him criticising John Cleese and Michael Palin over The Life of Brian on Saturday Night Sunday Morning – and contributors provided much information on the criticism as well as support he received from them, and others. Friends such as Richard Ingrams and Christopher Booker of Private Eye were as damning as they were laudatory, bemoaning his descent into that figure of reactionary curmudgeon as much as recognising and celebrating his may achievements. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, another friend, was also on hand to provide that same function as was Muggeridge’s niece. No side of him was left unexplored or commented upon demonstrating that this was a character as complex as he was accomplished.

Ironically it is difficult to conclude that it would very unlikely a man such as Malcolm Muggeridge would achieve the same fame in modern television without sounding as distinctly curmudgeonly as he eventually became. The force of the man was his unbowed intellectualism, untempered by populism. We can almost hear him harrumph over the likes of Simon Schama and David Starkey and their sensational history, for example. Yet this film showed that there was more to him than that, exemplified by his fondness for a saying told to him by an unknown man in Granada studios: “Only the dead fish swims with the stream.”

It is to our own disadvantage that we forget the likes of Malcolm Muggeridge, whatever we think of him. It is to our advantage that BBC4 exists to present subjects such as Muggeridge in their schedules and let us make up our own mind with well crafted, quality programmes such as this.


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