The oppression of family and class unite in this taboo-busting drama, writes Sofie Mason
The terrestrial TV channels are cheerfully filling up for the winter as producers rely on us to shuffle back from work, tired and fed up with our lack of control over our lives and lack of voice in the world, ready to hunker down on the sofa and be drawn into the illusory power of cheering on the underdog in The Wall, challenging the X factor judges, voting for the best foxtrot on Strictly and being right about who murdered who in the latest crime drama.
It is in no way surprising that so many of us accept and internalise our alienation, reconcile ourselves to powerlessness and switch channels when anything painful or challenging should chance to pop up to remind us of our responsibility to resist. Precious little does pop up, of course, not even on the news when footage is doctored to keep us supine and reassured in the establishment narrative (I won’t go on about Boris hungover and dishevelled at the Cenotaph only to undergo a miraculous ‘production error’ and morph into a smarter former version of himself) but pop up it sometimes does.....
Psychological crime drama Dublin Murders on BBC 1 sadly isn’t very challenging and doesn’t stand up to much Marxist scrutiny, although I watched all the interminable episodes and concluded it was, at best, telling us that the sheer boredom of living in the countryside combined with the oppression of the modern family can drive anyone to murder and, at worst, that the ‘tree gods’ ate the missing children (what?!).
I had far greater hopes of The Accident on Channel 4 as writer Jack Thorne had the opportunity for a searing insight into corporate manslaughter when a cheaply built factory in a corner of Wales collapses, killing youngsters who had broken in to spray graffiti. There is one good speech by independent lawyer Philip (Adrian Scarborough) when he lists all the deaths from Abervan in 1966 to the Bradford Stadium fire in 1985, the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 and the sinking of The Marchioness in 1989 – all of which deaths ended in no convictions just as Grenfell may very well end in no convictions as well.
Capitalism rolls on cutting corners, squeezing profit from the poorest and making them pay with their lives. And if one unscrupulous property speculator goes down, another will take their place. The strongest moments of the drama were when Thorne managed to capture a community broken-hearted by loss and a corporation unmoved by it. Which is why it was so strange to find Thorne short change us at the end by focusing on the law as the redeemer and allowing the private prosecution brought by the grieving parents to succeed in a kind of fairy-tale ending where the bad confess and the good find love again. Maybe it was a sardonic reminder of how life rarely imitates art? Maybe. Predictably the mainstream reviewers concentrated on how bad the Welsh accents were.
Far more interesting for a Marxist analysis is Gold Digger on BBC1. How would you feel and what would you think if your 60-year-old mother/ex-partner/friend went out with a man half her age? Would you think it would never last and that she is deranged, desperate, deluded, naive, being taken advantage of, being made to look ridiculous, especially having sex in the shower? Although to be fair, that’s a perennial question in any situation as sex in the shower is always more successfully achieved on TV than in real life where the health and safety risks can be horrendous and the opportunities for ridicule, legion. But we digress. This is a drama well worth watching as it explores the question of how society views female sexuality versus men’s and how brutal the disparity can be.
What’s more, while the mainstream reviewers are obsessing about whether the couple ‘sizzle’ or not, this drama has very little to do with sex. Sex is a simple human appetite whose importance historically has been hugely overblown. Capitalism knows it and has made a billion dollar industry out of it. There was a time, of course, when for reasons of inheritance it was important to know who the father of your child was and for reasons of health it was important not to pick up sexual diseases and for reasons of successful procreation sex was encouraged among the young rather than the old. Centuries of religion have overlaid these practical reasons for restricting sex with lashings of guilt, shame and the blood of dead gods. But there is no need for any of it now and we should wise up to sex as an appetite as innocent as eating. You wouldn’t go out to a restaurant with just anybody but then you wouldn’t necessarily go there with only one person all your life or only a person from an appropriate age group.
Having said that, invariably the norm on-screen is that of older men with younger women, so redressing that balance is the first step in this drama. The next steps are about class, alienation and the family. Julia (Julia Ormond) is turning 60, part of the privileged middle classes in a rambling cottage in Devon, going through a divorce from her husband of 35 years (Alex Jennings) who cheated on her with her best friend. She is alone on her birthday as her three variously feckless, flaky and entitled children have blown her out. She bumps into Benjamin (Ben Barnes) in a museum and is surprised to be invited out on a date by him. As their relationship develops over a year the children and the ex-husband jeer, patronise and conspire against them, fearful for their inheritance and firm in the belief that he is a gold digger who could not possibly love her for herself. Appalled as we are, we are wondering too.
Julia is beautiful and unapologetically old but she is still old. She is larger and lumpier than her younger self and her waist is disappearing into the trunk-like thickness of middle age (tell me about it!). And there is something odd about Benjamin. He dresses in designer clothes yet never seems to have any cash, is being evicted from his flat, has had his mobile cut off, denies having any family but then a brother turns up, has no social media footprint and may have been in prison. He says “I want to buy you a ring otherwise how will anyone know that you belong to me.” Is this the younger generation making fun of old patriarchal tropes or meaning it?
Throughout, writer Marnie Dickens hollows out the myth of the happy nuclear family. Particularly brilliant is the awkward attempt at a jolly Christmas that is false and dysfunctional, brittle with tensions and sadness as well as recurring flashbacks to the husband’s alcoholism and violence. Julia is ‘unseen’ by her family, providing food and money and comfort when needed but without her own needs considered. But then so much is buried and unspoken as each one of them constructs a character, a lie, with which to keep afloat. Julia is not only a woman stifled by society’s expectations of how she should behave but also unable to trust anyone after her husband’s betrayal. No wonder she cannot believe there is no ulterior motive to Benjamin’s move on her.
Inexplicably, Marx is largely silent on the subject of toyboys. However, harking back to a book review by Lindsey German in 2013 it is clear that Marx was concerned about women’s oppression in a very human way. His 1846 article on suicide looks at early nineteenth-century French cases of women suicides and concludes that even members of the bourgeoisie are alienated and that the privatised family is a centre of oppression that affects women across classes.
“The social impact of this is the stifling morality which judges women by their sexual behaviour. More widely, alienation within capitalist society affects everyone even if, as he wrote in The Holy Family, the bourgeois feels more comfortable or satisfied in his or her alienation..... families without personal property exist within a system where private property dominates and so are greatly disadvantaged in such a system.”
Family and class unite in this taboo-busting drama. Julia, the alienated older woman in her comfortable bourgeois world, gradually finds the courage to take risks, to speak out, to be recognised as a sexual being and feel ‘seen’ for the first time in decades: “I refuse to spend any more of my life doing what is best for other people.” Benjamin is poor, possibly criminal. His brother jeers at him: “All you want is money, status and a mother who loves you. But you’ll be stuck in a world where you don’t belong, with a family that will never accept you and a pensioner for a wife.” And maybe Benjamin is just pretending to love her to get over his ‘disadvantage’ and climb into her world of private property. He turns to her and tells her how much he hates his roots, “that level of shame you could not understand.”
I won’t spoil the ending but, whatever happens, this is a drama about how much courage it takes to challenge establishment views, whatever class you’re in, and how difficult it is to break out of a construct you have colluded in building to avoid really looking at the world. But break out you must.
Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.
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- Fight back before it's too late - Years and Years review
- A Marxist guide to crime drama
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