Friday, October 27, 2006

Some television programmes are not by Russell T Davies.
Channel 4 decided that it would be a good idea to promote Peter Morgan's drama about the life of Lord Longford by taking out full-page adverts in the broadsheets depicting Myra Hindley as a saint. Possibly even as the Virgin Mary. It makes one want to experiment with using the words "prophet", "Denmark" and "cartoons" in various combinations.
The advertisement carries the strapline "What did he see in her?" which makes me think that Channel 4 got cold feet before transmitting the film. The halo'd face in the montage is that of Hindley herself, not actress Samantha Morton. It's the police mugshut, of course: assume I'd written a sentence including the words "peroxide" and "iconic" in this space. In the film, Lord Longford doesn't recognise Myra when he first visits her in prison, because she no longer looks like that picture. (Her hair turned red while she was on remand, which some people said indicated that she had no remorse. "I wasn't aware of any correlation between hair colouring and contrition" says Longford.) There seems to be no connection between the ordinary, rather pleasant woman who Longford gets to known and the woman in the picture. The film spends an intelligent and un-sensational couple of hours speculating about what the connection might have been. But there are some powerful people who think that even attempting to understand Myra Hindley is the equivalent of condoning what she did. To avoid being accused of supportiing child murder, the publicity material turns the film on its head, and pretends that it is Lord Longford, not Myra Hindley, who requires "explanation". No sane person could have visited such a monster, let alone called for her parole. So he must have had some ulterior motive. Perhaps he believed that she was a saint. Perhaps he "saw something in her."
The film itself only flirts with this explanation, briefly, and puts it into the mouth of Ian Brady, who says directly that Longford is sexually attracted to the murderess. This seemed to be a slightly heavy-handed intervention from the dramatist, pointing up a possible symmetry. If Longford fancied Myra, then we would have a woman who was only ever loved by two people: one of whom embodied most of what we understand by "evil", and the other was about as close to "good" as anyone you are ever likely to meet. (Who was it who, when asked how they imagined the Christian God, said they thought he must be something like Lord Longford?) But what comes through in the rest of the film is that Longford doesn't really need to be "explained". He was a Christian, possibly a slightly naive one. He thought that loving outcasts and visiting prisoners was part of his Christian duty. He didn't, in that sense, see anything in her -- he aoffers to help the psychotic Brady as well, but Brady won't let him.

Isn't agape by definition love for the un-lovable?
The remarkable thing about the film–apart from Jim Broadbent's astonishingly convincing impersonation of Lord Longford himself–is the way that it presents a complex argument, but nevertheless comes out feeling like drama, not editorial.

The drama follows two trajectories: on the one hand, the relationship between Lord Longford and his wife. She initially opposes his Hindley campaign and persuades him to give it up and concentrate on pornography instead. But having studied the case, she suddenly comes over to his side and recites, over Christmas dinner, a whole series of arguments in favour of Hindley's release which hadn't previously occurred to her husband. ("How much do you know about sado-masochistic relationships?") But this doesn't feel like a speech in a debating society: it feels like an old married couple who have quarrelled having a genuinely touching reconciliation scene. Similarly, a delicately balanced debate about porn–the Lord thinks it is very dangerous, the Lady that it's essentially harmless–comes across as a masterpiece of understated comedy because it takes the form of two old posh people in bed together surrounded by copies of Fiesta and Playboy.
The other strand of the story is, obviously, Longford's relationship with Hindley. The film's thesis is that Hindley deceived him. She finally scuppers her only chance of parole by admitting to two further murders. This means that she not only lied to Lord Longford but that, presumably, she didn't make a full confession to her priest and therefore her return to the Catholic Church is suspect at best. But the film also argues that Longford wilfully allowed himself to be deceived. Early in the story, an anonymous benefactor sends him a cassette tape labelled "The bitch should rot in hell", which he puts in a drawer and doesn't listen to. We all know what "tape" means in the context of a story about the Moors murders. I assume that this is a dramatic device, but the point is a valid one: Longford could have gained access to those terrible recordings but he chose not to; he was therefore able to continue to believe that Hindley was only an accessory to the crime–guilty of murder in they eyes of the law, but not evil in the way that Brady was.
I was rather concerned that we were going to be asked to draw the conclusion that "forgiveness" implies minimizing or condoning sin: that Longford forgave Myra because he didn't think that she was as bad as everyone said she was, and that he gave up on her when he discovered that in fact she was even worse. But the film actually draws a much more interesting and challenging conclusion. Because Myra has ruined Longford's good name by allowing him to campaign for her release on false premises, he finds that he has to forgive her for something that she has done to him--not merely an abstract crime against strangers.
The film concludes with another rather writerly scene in which the aging Longford and the terminally ill Myra meet for the last time in an open prison. He thinks that he has grown spiritually by being forced to learn to love and forgive this sinner; she still remembers her terrible crimes and claims that evil can be a spiritual experience as well.
The film doesn't ultimately "explain" Myra Hindley. We are allowed to consider the possibilities that she is a sinner who repenteth; and a sinner who is unable completely to repenteth or that she is a weak woman temporarily turned into a monster under the influence of a psychopath. Perhaps the most convincing theory is the one put into Brady's mouth: Hindley is literally an "hysteric", one who takes on the attributes that she thinks the person she is with wants her to have: a butch lesbian for her prison guard; a good catholic for Lord Longford; a sadist for her psychotic boyfriend. The one possibility that is not considered is that she is simply an evil figure with an evil haircut who a naive philanthropist mistook for a saint.
For me, the film was summed up by an unintentional irony in the casting department. When Hindley's accomplice first walks onto the set, we see, not the iconic face of Ian Brady, but the familiar, staring, but un-augmented features of Andy Serkis. Longford could have been mistaken for an old wizard, come to that.
Deserve to die? I dare say he does....


Anonymous said...

"Deserve to die?" I suppose the irony here is that Brady, unlike Gollum, wants to die and is not being allowed to. Maybe capital punishment is cruel but surely being forced to live when you want to die is far more cruel. No one deserves that.

The Longford in the play is not much like the smug, self-righteous Longford I remember seeing on television. I cannot help wondering why he did not forget Myra and concentrate on the families of the murdered children. After all, from a Catholic point of view, Myra Hindley, who died with a Catholic priest present, is almost certainly in Heaven or on her way there, while the mother of Lesley Anne Downey, who could not forgive Myra ('we must forgive all our enemies or be damned' as Lewis said) is almost certainly in Hell. Didn't Longford try to help someone who had little need of help and ignore those who had more need?

Andrew Rilstone said...

1: If Lord Longford had turned up at the house of Mrs. Downey and said "I am here to help you forgive Myra Hindley, so you can go to heaven", I imagine he would have been shown the door.

2: It is false to imagine that Longford "concentrated" on Myra Hindley "instead of" the families of the murdered children. (That makes it sound as if he first decided to make his life's work "The Moors Murders", and subsequently said "Shall I help the victims, or the perpetrators.") In fact, he "concentrated on" visiting prisoners and campaigning for prison reform; it just happens that one of the many hundreds of prisoners he visited happened to be a notorious murderess.

3: I am not aware of any Christian denomination that says that one should try to save people's immortal soul to the exclusion of all else; so I do not see that it follows that, once Hindley had repented and secured her place in heaven, Longford's work was done. He was a prison reformer; he wanted to help people in prison; when he met one particular prisoner who he felt was the victim of a structural injustice, he too up her case -- as he did for many other less high profile cases.

4: It is always possible to say "Why are you wasting your time arranging for poor children to have Christmas presents, when you could be giving the money to a charity which helps disabled children, who have an even worse standard of life" or "Why waste your time worrying about disabled children, when there are children with AIDS who are even worse off." People, for various reasons, take up different good causes. Longford's good cause was prison visiting. Other people's good cause is victim support.

5: So far, as country, we have not agree on a way forward with regard to medical euthanasia (allowing a doctor to kill a terminally ill patient). We have also not reached an agreement about the question of assisted suicide for people of sound mind. So I suspect that it will be a very long time before we decide to legalize assisted suicide for the criminally insane. One of the good arguments against assisted suicide is that an old person or a cripple could be put under unreasonable moral pressure -- granny might be quite enjoying life, but feel it would be only polite to top herself so her family could go on holiday. I suspect that voluntary euthanasia for criminals would turn out to be capital punishment by another name. If we weren't careful, we would find that criminals were all being kept in intolerable conditions, given cups of hemlock and invited to do the decent thing.