I suppose it could be viewed as a subconscious purchase, for the timing of it certainly wasn’t consciously intentional. Mind you, a 1976 drama about an aspiring Labour MP from the far left of the party is undoubtedly a fascinating near-factual snapshot of times that continue to resonate down the decades. The drama in question is called ‘Bill Brand’ and it aired on ITV at the beginning of the Long Hot Summer we all remember (if we’re old enough). It stars Leeds-born Jack Shepherd, an intense actor whose face is as familiar to those who binge on 70s TV via DVD as most of the supporting cast of what I’ve found to be pretty compulsive viewing.
The title character (played by Shepherd) is a principled, committed socialist of the old school at a time before it was regarded as such. I guess he has more than a touch of how I imagine a young Dennis Skinner might have been, but it’s also tempting to speculate this is a series that could well have been must-see TV for a certain Comrade Corbyn back in the day. Actually, this is a series in which grown men address each other as Comrade or Brother and manage to keep a straight face; it’s easy to forget this was a common courtesy within great swathes of the Labour Party when the programme was produced. It just sounds vaguely comical now.
Brand is from working-class, back-to-back Manchester stock, and I suppose represents that first generation which benefitted from the educational reforms of the Attlee administration. It’s made clear he made it to university, and is evidently a scholar of socialism committed to ‘the struggle’. His commitment to the cause isn’t paralleled in his somewhat messy private life, however; separated from his wife and two young children, Brand is shacked-up with his right-on girlfriend (played by a young Cherie Lunghi), who is rather amusingly called Alex Ferguson. His relationship with her is kept quiet during the by-election campaign that puts him in Parliament, something that serves as a reminder of how ‘living in sin’ was still frowned upon by the middle-aged and elderly members of the electorate Brand has to charm.
Once he makes it to Westminster, Brand is confronted by the disappointing realities of a Labour Government when seen from the perspective of radical lefties from the provinces. The series features a gallery of characters that are thinly-veiled portrayals of prominent Labour Ministers of the era, including Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Roy Jenkins. There is also a memorable one-episode turn by Arthur Lowe as a Harold Wilson-like Prime Minister name of Arthur Watson. As someone who was addicted to ‘Our Friends in the North’, Peter Flannery’s landmark 1996 BBC series, I immediately realised the character played by Arthur Lowe in ‘Bill Brand’ shares it with another ageing Labour MP in Flannery’s epic, implying he too was a viewer twenty years earlier.
It’s interesting to see Nigel Hawthorne briefly appear as a pre-Sir Humphrey civil servant, for as with the authors of ‘Yes Minister’, it’s hard not to conclude that the writer of ‘Bill Brand’, Trevor Griffiths, must have had the assistance of an ‘insider’ or at least a few former insiders when researching the series. The way in which we are educated in the Westminster Dark Arts by seeing them through Bill’s wide eyes seems a pretty accurate portrayal of how a fresh honourable member would encounter the compromises and mutual back-scratching that make the whole institution function. It’s also a sobering insight into how so many newly-elected MPs who arrive in the Commons with such high hopes of changing the world are quickly battered into submission by the system.
The often-humiliating rounds of constituency politics – judging beauty contests, opening shopping centres etc. – are familiar enough to anyone who’s ever caught regional media; but the detailed dullness of parliamentary committees and so forth are represented in a manner characteristic of 70s TV drama – i.e. long, drawn-out scenes that nevertheless suggest a level of realism at odds with the quick-fire cutting of contemporary television. To begin with, Brand makes enemies of some fairly sinister and cynical whips, especially when he has yet to curb his habit of siding with ‘the workers’, such as when he publicly supports a strike at a textile factory; but as the series progresses, his rapid awareness of his own impotence fuels his disillusionment.
Considering ‘Bill Brand’ began its eleven-episode one series-run just three months after the surprise resignation of Harold Wilson, it’s amazing that one of the major storylines in the series concerns the surprise resignation of the Prime Minister and the battle between left and right to control the Party. In reality, Michael Foot lost out to Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins was eliminated from the contest in the early rounds; in ‘Bill Brand’, it is the Jenkins character who ultimately triumphs – though I would imagine many fancied Jenkins to succeed Wilson at the time the series was written. As I haven’t finished watching the complete series yet, I don’t know how it ends for Bill, though I have a feeling he doesn’t go on to eventually become Labour leader.
As a period piece, there are some aspects that inevitably date it. The working-men’s club network in which each major political party had its own members-only drinking dens – something that once thrived throughout working-class communities and survived well into my own childhood – is represented in the constituency scenes, mainly by mild-supping, gruff old northerners in flat caps. Although Bill is progressive by the standards of the 70s, he treats his wife fairly appallingly and his proto-PC opinions are regularly tested by the archaic values his background drilled into him. However, there are uncanny echoes in the series that have a relevance to 2019 – especially the constant emphasis on the dire economic situation and the crisis the country is in, not to mention the jaded cynicism of voters towards their elected representatives.
Bill’s ‘brand’ of socialism probably seemed hopelessly naive even when the series was made, and the fact that the wider electorate outside of idealistic Labour activists didn’t believe in it then inevitably forces today’s viewer to ponder on the aims and ambitions of the current Labour Party. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see Jeremy Corbyn as the real-life equivalent of Bill Brand 40-odd years on; I suspect Bill in Jezza’s shoes would also have stuck rigidly to principles that hadn’t altered in four decades, even if the prospect of power had forced him to keep schtum on some (membership of the EU, for example). As a fascinating barely-fictional slice of 70s political life, ‘Bill Brand’ is worth investing in for those who like that sort of thing; as a comparison between then and now, I can’t think of a better time to watch it.
© The Editor