Magazine article The Spectator

Campaign Trail

Magazine article The Spectator

Campaign Trail

Article excerpt

Just when you thought it was safe to come out, here he is again. Still on Radio Four but in a surprising new guise; not performing but acting. On Sunday afternoon, John Prescott, MP, took a leading role as 'The Policeman' in the Classic Serial.

Or rather he gave us nine economical lines in a very wordy dramatisation of Robert Tressell's 1914 campaigning novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. But they were nine rather good lines. Prezzie's got a natural radio voice. Clear, with a naturally high decibel level. He never has to force it.

He also didn't have to put on the regional accent demanded of his part. I would almost say they were the best nine lines in the hourlong drama. Said with purpose and from an actor truly inhabiting his part: 'What you say may be all right or it may not. . . ' It was strange to hear a group of house builders and decorators bemoaning their lot, as if they were the underdogs. Stranger still when all they seemed to do was sit around and drink cups of tea. Tressell's book was based on his experiences as an underpaid and overworked painter and decorator in Hastings in the early 20th century. He was appalled not just by the way that he and his fellow workers were treated by their greedy and unscrupulous bosses, who were fiddling figures, scrooging wages, in cahoots with the local council. He was also shocked by the way that his fellow workers virtually connived in the exploitation by their inability to unite against a common enemy. Tressell died, from TB, before his book was published (he took an adopted pen name from the 'trestle' tables on which he rolled out wallpaper, his real name was Noonan). He would perhaps have been dismayed that the book's success depended not so much on his working-class colleagues for whom he wrote it but on the middle-class Marxists who admired his arguments about free trade, abstinence and atheism.

The serial's director, Dirk Maggs, has pulled together an extraordinary cast: Timothy Spall, Bill Bailey, Andrew Lincoln and, of course, his coup de théâtre, John Prescott. But nothing could really save the script, which sounded like a string of political clichés loosely put together to make the socialist case. 'The men work with their hands and the masters work with their brains.' 'They're pinching our jobs and stealing our women.' (Immigration was regarded with hostility even then. ) No wonder the former Labour party deputy PM sounded so at home.

Move forward 50 or so years to 1958 and the Guyanan writer E. …

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