Food for Ravens

By Marc Karlin

NYE BEVAN: (Fierce, unbudging, glaring down the table) “No no no, I ‘aven’t finished, I ‘aven’t bloodywell finished – I’ve barely bloody started... you have to remember it all, bach, not just the easy bits. Not just the cause but the cure...” (Sounds fade slowly) – From Food for Ravens by Trevor Griffiths

“In the understandable passion he expresses about Food for Ravens, Brian Cox overlooks one important fact. BBC Wales decided to commission this production solely for the benefit of viewers in Wales, after it had been offered to the Network and rejected at script stage twelve months ago. There was no betrayal of promise or principle in this – everyone involved in the project knew they were making it just for the audience in Wales.” – Mark Thompson, Controller of BBC2, letter to The Independent 23/11/97

“BBC2 Controller, Mark Thompson, has admitted to making a mistake in putting the BBC drama Food for Ravens in the late night slot.” – The Independent, 26/11/97

ko-a4-portrait.jpgFood for Ravens, 1997

The film Food for Ravens, an elegy for Nye Bevan, the founder of the National Health Service, first appeared to this writer, and sadly for most of us, not as a film but as a row. The papers were full of accusations of censorship and of defences from such accusations by various chiefs from within the BBC. The row started when Brian Cox, who portrays Bevan in the film, accused the BBC of doing its best to hide the film under its ever growing commercial bushel by showing it, and only after much pressure, at 11.15 pm on a Sunday night.

The film now lives on in the memories of those few who have seen it, presently is awaiting its resurrection from the archives when it will have been deemed fit to serve and will live on in the future through its reputation as a “film maudit”. To confront the silence with which this film was seen, as opposed to the loud noise with which it was heard, Vertigo is presenting Food for Ravens at the Lux on June 27th, followed by a discussion with Trevor Griffiths.

“I think what is clear about my work is that it has changed – not in terms of my preoccupations with political practice but in terms of the formal address. I have worked from the sixties to the eighties more or less in a form I have called critical realism, a reflexive realism and not in what I feel to be an inert dead naturalism where the text pretends that it doesn’t understand itself. My texts always curl back on themselves, that’s why I call it critical realism – there is no attempt to persuade people that this is the truth - things are stranger than that” – Vertigo interview with Trevor Griffiths

Food for Ravens is frankly one of the most puzzling films I have seen ‘off TV’. It takes the form of a ‘homage’ to a politician. Before this film I would have been very wary of any ‘homages’ to politicians. Reaching half a century, I like many others, have lurched around drunkenly in this crazy political culture of daily saints and eternal sinners – I have seen the Macmillan stiffs and players, the Wilsonian squigglers, and the various impersonations of Thatcherite leadership – all attended and defended by their respective courtiers – all muffling – whispering their respective Masters’ and Mistresses’ thoughts - not lives anyone would care to share. But there right in front of you in Food for Ravens we see revealed a poetic unfurling of a politicians life. Normally that would be an oxymoron, but not here. The tension between a poetic understanding (that which is more complex – that which illuminates rather than merely illustrates) and the politician’s work and life is held constantly, driving you in to the politician’s soul.

trevor-griffiths.jpgTrevor Griffiths

Trevor Griffiths: “That collapse of the Soviet Union, which you could see from 1985/6 very clearly, though not stated definitively, has opened the way to a kind of global capitalism, an encirclement of all needs and aspirations or imagination. It is the ultimate democracy”.

Food for Ravens focuses on the last days of Aneurin Bevan – ill and dying – refusing the good and noble death – grasping at any future however illusory. He is confronted by a boy who he sees first as an angel of death. Questioned and haunted by this child we begin to understand that it is Bevan’s childhood that is confronting him and half way through the film we see that it is the child that is anticipating the future man – ‘the man Bevan who died as a boy’. Between various hospital visits we see Bevan walking in the woods, sitting by lakes, taking rest by a tree – sitting – spluttering – and constantly ‘pilling’ his abdominal pain. We see him testing, interrogating, remaking his past, conversing with his childhood and the child in turn arguing with the man. As in Dennis Potter’s last interview, when the writer spoke of investing his dying days with the last surprising sightings of flowers and trees, we hear what Bevan hears: the sounds of leaves, the sounds of woods and water. We hear him remembering his political career, his speeches, his hatred of the Tories, his childhood struggle to overcome a stammer. Slowly a life accumulates itself in front of his and our eyes: the deep surfaces of a consciousness about to close. We see him remembering his harrying of the Tories over their Poor Laws, the struggle to create the NHS, his passion and ambition to lead Labour from the Left, his vanities, his pleasures in changing life through reading poetry, art and good champagne. We see Bevan and Jenny Lee, his wife, fucking loudly and gloriously whilst they are meant to be surveying their potential new home. An impatient estate agent waiting below shouts, ‘Almost there are we Mr Bevan? Don’t want to rush you of course but I do have another client coming at five.’

TG: “And one of the things that we have to do, along with Marx, is to re-understand the world – the hardest thing about the world we live in is that it changes in mid-sentence.”

And so as you go through these moments which feel like a squash ball being hit very hard, and then seeing the ball bounce back in slow motion; certain ‘other’ pasts make their entrance. Such as your awareness of your long conditioning by TV bio-pics – or the narrative train with which TV delivers most of its fictional histories – a beginning, a middle, and an end – and in that order – that narrative stranglehold on what TV deems to be the domain of the ‘informational’. Politics on television has almost its own constitutionally reserved space with all its attendant rituals and norms: politics in ties and bad suits being interrogated by our great democratic cutaway ...Jeremy Paxman. The space and respect held for the national game of ‘your lying waffling’ – ‘I’m truth speaking’ reveals that ghastly division of labour between those who do and those who don’t. Our patent boredom and puzzlement with all this is all part of that game. It is when watching Food for Ravens that our expectations of politics and the portrayal of politicians are being directly confronted.

brian-cox-roshan-seth.jpgBrian Cox as Bevan and Roshan Seth as Nehru

TG: “What I am looking for in the audience is some growing sense that the struggle isn’t over, a realisation that somehow the past is always with us. It sounds like a cliché when you put it that way, but there is something very regenerative in a socialist understanding of the world – an understanding that says, ‘until these issues are resolved – people will be born, raised and will live with that struggle inside them.’”

When it comes to ‘portraits’, despite its whiz bang AVID effects, we are made to realise that TV has not even reached the cubist stage let alone an ‘abstract’ moment. As for surrealism, it is reserved for commercials; acceptable and understandable because it is tied to the Protestant ethic of selling. The net aesthetic effect, then, of normative television is polite to the point of being narcoleptic. So whilst watching Food for Ravens the slow cancer of habit, of how we see politician’s and expect to see politics, worms itself in the head and you ask yourself: how will a young generation, mostly ignorant of this man and his work, react to this poetic unfurling? You ask yourself, what would involve them, as you think back to the other country that is history. The answer to that question lies in the tone of the film itself.

TG: “Dreams are hugely important – they are vehicles for killed meanings, cauterised meanings – possibilities being rerouted and going nowhere.”

The spring source of this film lies in the process of dying. We see a life being confronted, reviewed and being lived as intensely as the voraciousness of death itself – the biblical pale horse in the film. It is these ever quickening double loops of life and death, boy and man, that make the watching of this film so pleasurable and ultimately so sad. It is these loops that in a very direct way make this film so relevant to today. For what is a totally different political culture, that of the fifties and sixties, is, in Food for Ravens, being memorialised with a very modern sensibility. That sensibility which can both recreate a lost history and yet open our eyes to how we see our lives today. That feeling we have of being sleepwalkers in our lives – that sleepwalk that comes when we audition our lives to the market mechanism – the only judge in town. Every gesture we make seems to be ghosted by that judge – a feeling of both making and being judged at one and the same time. An intuition of the abyss: a feeling of that bizarre and ever speedy relationship between neo-liberalism and powerlessness. It is that sensibility that is being aesthetically drawn in Food for Ravens – a man who looked at his fate, grabbed it, and is now dying. It is in his reviewing of his life and his fighting against the ever present pale horse that touches us to the very core – a feeling of total disempowerment and yet, without that fight, there would be something even worse, meaninglessness.

brian-cox-sinead-cusack.jpgBrian Cox and Sinead Cusack

Bevan: Once, I set out to seek the source of power, the union, the council chamber, the party, parliament, cabinet room, and everywhere I came onto that journey, power had just that morning moved on, a black taxi at dawn, no forwarding address...

The pale horse which for Bevan brought cancer is still a hardy visitor today. When questioned by the child of the man as to whether he, Bevan, will be remembered for his part in the creation of the National Health Service he answers:

Bevan: Maybe, if it lasts.

Boy: Says here (looking at press cuttings) it will last forever.

Bevan: No such thing as forever boy. It will last only as long there’s folk with faith left to fight for it.

The BBC hierarchy, ghosted by the pale horse of the market, answered this question politely – yes, to be remembered, but quietly – silently – no fanfare. This reaction brings us back to where we are now and how we deal with that ever present pale horse, a horse that is now so voracious.

TG: “When you are trying to create a form that will accurately reflect contemporary experience – it is going to be flow rather than solid structures. I can’t think of a period when that maxim, ‘all that is solid melts into air’ has more powerfully applied.”

When filmmakers fought for and created a room for their own independence, little did they know how overcrowded that room would be and how its doors would only be opened at various times by some very tired, sad and fearful officials. There would be no words spoken between the officials and the independents – just a bidding finger and then the door would be slammed closed. Appropriate and just how it should be in a market democracy whose only big idea is itself. But as this idea gets bigger and louder, all ‘reasons’ for what it is for are slowly disappearing. And when some of these independents in the room clamour for a reason they are given the answer: ‘There are no reasons in the idea. Whatever reason you gather is up to you and what you make of it.’ And behind the officials’ backs at the same time they are saying this, the pale horse goes on devouring. And as all reason disappears so it seems does meaning. It is that sensibility, that tension between the doer and the seer, when meaning is grasped at and fought for, that makes Food for Ravens such a contemporaneous film.

“The text of the screenplay was offered to David Thompson, then Senior Producer of Drama, now Head of Film BBC2 or some such, in the late summer of 1996, with a view to finding Network co-production money to fund the filming. According to my notes, it took him three months or so to read the piece and give an answer. No, he would not be providing Network money for the project, it was altogether too recherché for the film audiences targeted by the Network.” – Trevor Griffiths, letter to the Guardian, 13 November 1997

“You’d need a degree in political science to know what was going on” – David Thompson, Head of BBC Films

“Every intervention I make as a writer is to seek to bust the game – not for the sake of the institutions I am working in – but for the audience you know... So one now finds that one is working to say things about ‘now’ through a prism of some other moment...” – Vertigo interview with Trevor Griffiths

Trevor Griffiths writes for theatre, television and film. His work includes: Comedians, The Gulf Between Us and Occupations (stage).

For television he has written Bill Brand and Hope in the Year Two. Screen plays include Reds and Father Land. He will be appearing at the Lux Centre 27 June at 6.30pm to present his film Food for Ravens.

Photographs by Nobby Clarke.