James Bond, Alan Bennett, and a nostalgic view of Britain

London Letter: New films seem to lament times past, which Corbyn also exemplifies

If you want to drop a plumb line into the soul of England today, you could do worse than to watch the two biggest-grossing films in Britain last weekend – Spectre and The Lady in the Van.

Stylistically, the pacey, tightly-written James Bond thriller is a world apart from the gentle, meandering dramaturgy of Alan Bennett's tale of down-at-heel eccentricity and middle-class guilt.

But each is soaked through with an idea of England and English values under attack, a nostalgia which is shared on the political left as well as the right.

Spectre takes up where Skyfall left off, with the MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross a ruin, and Bond's mentor M, as played by Judi Dench, dead.


Her successor, played by Ralph Fiennes, finds himself marginalised by a new intelligence chief, Max Denbigh (played by Andrew Scott), who is determined to merge MI6, which is responsible for foreign espionage, with MI5, which takes care of domestic spying.

Denbigh wants to fold both organisations into a new, international surveillance network called 9 Eyes, a play on the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

This plan is part of a global conspiracy bringing government and business together in a sinister public-private partnership.

A gathering of this evil conglomerate looks for all the world like a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, the principals seated around a vast circular table, delivering dreary contributions in various languages.


Spectre’s ideology is not Ukip’s but it is close to the libertarian conservatism of former shadow home secretary

David Davis


Bond and his allies are not only locked in battle with the malign forces of internationalism but with the totalitarian ambitions of the modern British state itself.

Reviewing the film in Prospect magazine, former MI5 director-general Jonathan Evans acknowledged that, although Spectre is "not exactly a documentary", Britain's spies are flattered by how they are depicted.

“If you don’t want to talk in any detail about what you actually do day-to-day, then having your agency personified in a daring, glamorous, sexy and successful super spy, protecting the country, and the world, against evil plots, is a pretty good alternative,” he writes.

“It does say something about our current collective anxieties that the global catastrophe that Bond and Q are working to prevent is not some nuclear explosion or biological attack but the successful implementation of a global surveillance system.”

What is arresting about Spectre, beyond the killing, car chases and special effects, is the film’s melancholic, almost elegiac mood, as if the spirit that made Britain powerful, democratic, free and tolerant - in a word, great - is smouldering in the ruins of the MI6 building on the Thames.


In The Lady in the Van,

Maggie Smith

gives a bravura performance as the eponymous van dweller, a smelly, cantankerous, ungrateful, reactionary Catholic who lived in the driveway of Bennett’s house for 15 years, from 1974 to 1989.

Despite her unsavoury views and unpleasant habits, she is the film’s heroine, a fierce individualist who resists the intrusive power of the state, in the person of a bossy, judgmental social worker.

Bennett's nostalgia is for the England that created the welfare state, nationalised the railways and introduced comprehensive education, all rolled back by Margaret Thatcher and her successors.

“There has been so little that has happened to England since the 1980s that I have been happy about or felt able to endorse,” he said in a sermon at King’s College, Cambridge, last year.

These sentiments are, in part, what led so many to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

Corbyn himself also embodies a very English style of left-wing radicalism.

“I approve of him, if only because it brings Labour back to what they ought to be thinking about . . . I’m sure Corbyn is a risk, but I very much approve of him,” Bennett told The Guardian last month.

In his sermon at Cambridge, Bennett spoke about visiting the ruins of English medieval churches and how the fragments left behind served as a warning about the present, “with the fabric of the state and the welfare state in particular stealthily dismantled as once the fabric of churches more rudely was, sold off, farmed out; another dissolution, with profit taking precedence over any other consideration, and the perpetrators today as locked into their ideology and convinced of their own rightness as any of the devout louts who 400 and 500 years ago stove in the windows and scratched out the faces of the saints as a passport to heaven”.