Suez: A Very British Crisis

Monday, October 16, 2006 by

Given our accelerating obsession with media and pop culture trivia, it’s conceivable that in 50 years time school history lessons will concentrate more on the succession of the Foxes than the ramifications of the Suez crisis. After all, Middle Eastern intractability is as naught compared to who can possibly replace Edward and James as TV’s identikit politician/patricians whose accents were created on the playing fields of Eton (Profumo today, Prince Charles tomorrow). J (or was it E? Even the announcer got mixed up) was on autopilot again as Anthony Eden in the first of a trumpeted BBC2 dramadoc trilogy on the Empire’s last hurrah half a century back.

This meticulously-researched, businesslike dossier of a programme allowed both ranking and rank-and-file Egyptians and Brits their say much in the vein of a Michael Crick investigation, but from the off its wheels were churning up deep sand. The standard end-of-Empire line was obviously going to run through the three parts like the squits through a Toc H concert party, but, despite stock footage of souks and Wilson Keppel and Betty’s Sand Dance, nothing was said as to why on earth Britain occupied Egypt for 74 years from 1882 onwards – no mention of General Gordon, the adventures into the Sudan, Khartoum, of the Mahdi, or even any fuzzy-wuzzies. If this was about the end of Empire, why, the uninformed or innocent might ask was Egypt part of the Empire in the first place? The mention of the centrality of the Suez Canal’s very existence as the “jugular vein” of Empire, a short-cut to the Indies, was nicely phrased, but wasn’t really enough.

Recreated shootouts were filmed like pappings; lots of blur and jolt and dazzle – a conceit, and a worse one when contrasted with the reassuringly boilerplate imagery elsewhere. 1950s interiors are either blindingly airy with a revolving fan (Cairo) or deeply-hued with plenty of damask leather, teak, malachite greens offset by the sparkle of cut-glass decanters and ashtrays while starched stenographers clatter away at lumpy Imperials and ampersands of smoke are everywhere (London).

Fox, as Eden, looks and sounds startlingly like John Fortune in Bremner, Bird and Fortune, rather than the matinĂ©e idol gone to seed he actually was. Elsewhere, major political figures, when played by actors, are never billed until the credits roll (just where did Gaitskell appear? When? Who’s he supposed to be? What’s going on? These are not questions a supposedly factual programme should leave hanging).

Elsewhere, this is a bracingly brilliant piece of TV history, suitably talky, unobtrusively soundtracked (thank God), and often – crucially, for this reviewer – a reminder of how close in time antediluvian colonial attitudes are to us. To the OTT reader too young remember the casually bluff white supremacism of Tory MPs like Julian Amery, a fanatical, wogs-begin-at-Calais opponent of Colonel Nasser’s leftish nationalism and any resistance to British colonialism), your god is truly merciful. There are also offbeat heavyweight contributors with personal involvements in the crisis, such as David Attenborough and Marina Warner, whose testimonies add dimension, colour and seriousness.

Which begs the question – just how much less would it have cost the BBC to have given Equity two fingers and given doc and not drama its head and simply had more talking heads with interesting stories to tell? What will Mr Fox’s remuneration for Suez add to my next TV licence fee? Actors do not come cheap – actors like Mr Fox not at all cheap. Neither do crews to set up, rehearse and film them. An educated historian or a man whose family was blown to pieces in front of him are slightly less costly – and infinitely more watchable.

The dramadoc format, a bane on the licence payer, a curse of modern television, can rarely have proved to be so utterly superfluous as in Suez – yes, the dramatic passages may be blessedly short, but this only emphasises the craziness of spending so much money on hiring a big name actor and a score of extras in the first place.

One of Nasser’s prerequisites for power – which Eden was unable to accommodate and which eventually drove the Egyptian leader to seize the Canal – was to enable the Egyptian people, those at the sharp end, to take control of their own lives, their own history. The BBC would do well to let those who made the stories, ie. those at the sharp end, squaddies, diplomats, gofers, flunkeys – take control of the history and leave the luvvies out of it. That way, you might make the silk purse that it’s still possible to create out of what is as yet a bit of a sow’s ear.


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