Saturday 9 September 2017

Political animal: "Nature of the Beast"

At a time when the British Left has never seemed more fractious and divided - if not over the matter of Corbyn, then on the matter of Brexit - Daniel Draper's documentary Nature of the Beast presents by way of a blessed relief: here is a thoroughly genial portrait of a figure who predates all socialism's current crises, and who continues to stand for more or less the same values now as when he first entered Parliament in 1970. No matter whether you are of the Left or Right, you know where you stand with Dennis Skinner, the so-called "Beast of Bolsover", who emerged from the coal mines of Derbyshire to head up Labour's militant wing. Yet while Draper's film is dotted with examples of this firebrand's most memorable Parliamentary interjections and outbursts, behind-the-scenes footage throws up plentiful surprises. Here we find Skinner the nature boy, wandering the parks of London to marvel at magnolia blossoms (an interest apparently cultivated at a formative age in reaction to spending eight hours a day in the darkness of the pits); here is a committed Republican lending his voice to a word-perfect rendition of "Getting to Know You" from The King and I; we also find out in passing that Skinner once competed as a racewalker, and that he's seen his contemporary Woody Allen's entire works ("Some are not as good as others").

As that last factoid would suggest, Skinner is very much a politician of the old school. One of nine children - the majority of whom brushed off the graphite to pass into county politics - he's practically the last survivor of an age before potential candidates were plucked near-exclusively from the middle-classes and heavily vetted as to their suitability and likability; Draper discovers him entering Parliament at 8 a.m. ("when the Post Office opens") to get a headstart on the day's duties. The biographical backstory unfurls a philosophy tested and forged during the bitter labour disputes of the 1970s and 80s - Draper's commendably detailed coverage of these casting today's divisions in a new light - yet talking heads reveal Skinner's constituents don't regard him as a "left-wing rebel" (a construct of the mainstream media, unable to properly address and process anybody who falls beyond its centrist purview), rather a man who just happens to talk like them, and has more than an inkling of the work they do.

Arguably, there are gaps and omissions. The tallying up of Skinner's victories and defeats leaves scant time to get into his personal relationships, and - mainly shot before 2016, presumably around a crowded Parliamentary schedule - there is little-to-nowt on the debates surrounding Brexit (for which Skinner voted), though we do see Dennis wagging an accusatory finger at David "Dave" Cameron: "This man has done more to divide this nation than anyone." Draper can, however, plug many of these holes with the hard-won wisdom of his subject, who would surely have no time whatsoever for the arcane ideological spats breaking out on Twitter every half-hour: indeed, his final-reel definition of socialism, and his counsel to those who would tar all politicians with the same brush, is so simple as to be deeply affecting. Observed on the stump, Skinner is still sharp, still passionate, as pugnacious as ever: to watch the pride in his eyes as he recalls singlehandedly defeating Enoch Powell's motion to kill off stem-cell research at an early stage is to reengage with politics, and the possibilities it affords for positive change, at some vital level. The list of the prominent MPs and PMs Skinner has outlasted, meanwhile, grows with each passing year: its own advert for holding onto your principles, and showing up to fight for them, day in day out.

Nature of the Beast is now playing in selected cinemas.    

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