At the turn of the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, my school English class had a debate. It was an age of genuine nuclear terror – we had a much-thumbed copy of the terrifyingly deadpan civil defence leaflet Protect and Survive in our school library – and the subject under discussion was unilateral nuclear disarmament. With half the kids in the class wearing CND badges, there was no hotter topic; feelings ran high on both sides and Mr Marshall, our teacher, had his work cut out keeping things under control.
However, during questions from the floor, one kid asked, “What if a crazy maniac gets into power and presses the button just for a laugh?”. It was a fair question, perhaps one we might reasonably ask even today. But for me, the debate was rendered a sham when Mr Marshall – our supposedly neutral chairman – chuckled to himself and, under his breath, muttered, “Wedgwood Benn”.
I was apoplectic at this dereliction of teacherly duty. How dare he reveal his own hand while instilling in us a respect for the orderly back-and-forth of formal debating? But “Wedgwood Benn” himself might have been cross for another reason. Although the famous Labour politician was born Anthony Wedgwood Benn in 1925 – son of the 1st Viscount Stansgate – he had renounced his inherited peerage and, in 1974, made it known that his name was plain old Tony Benn.
By 1980, the only people who called him Wedgwood were those who deliberately sought to take his name in vain.
In truth, our teacher’s intervention was indicative of the way Benn was represented in much of the media at the time. He was caricatured as a swivel-eyed fanatic, a barely-disguised Bolshevik, and the fact that he held such sway in the Labour Party made him a national catastrophe waiting to happen.
Tony’s Last Tape is a new play by Andy Barrett that reveals Benn in a rather more sympathetic light. I saw this Nottingham Playhouse production during its brief run at Liverpool’s Everyman, though it continues touring until late October. It is performed as a monologue by Philip Bretherton, who takes on the persona of Benn near the end of his life, a crumpled, care-worn insomniac narrating his thoughts into a cassette recorder, just as the man himself did throughout his political career.
This habit of personal curation was a well-known fact about Benn, and his self-recorded diaries have made regular appearances on BBC Radio 4 in recent years. It is something that, along with pipe smoking and tea drinking, we might come to have taken for granted about him, but under the weak single bulb that illuminates this play, we realise it reveals much about the inner workings of the man and his sense of his own place in history.
He realises he is a witness to important events, whether parliamentary in nature or occurring way beyond Westminster walls. He knows that, with the metaphorical big guns of ruling-class interests ranged against him, there is only one person who can tell his story.
Tony’s Last Tape is not a biography, though it is deeply biographical. It twists and meanders, reflecting the flow of thoughts that pass through Benn’s mind as he sits at his desk, surrounded by books and papers, and lets the remembered years wash over him.
There is simmering anger of course, but tempered by much self-doubt and despair at the role his beloved party has chosen to play. At one point, mulling over the reasons he is unable to sleep, he tells us that he wasn’t woken by cramp, or his bladder, or “that nightmare with Tony Blair” – a line that gets an easy laugh. But he then follows up with “…or the one with Neil Kinnock, or Michael Foot, or Harold Wilson, or Hugh Gaitskell”.
If all of these leaders gave him nightmares, could there have been much about the party that ever left him feeling content?
As I wandered down to the theatre on my way to see the play, I joked on Twitter that I was expecting the show to be packed with dancing, special effects and spectacular production numbers. While I would love to report that this turned out to be true – I imagine Benn shimmying down a glitzy staircase while a chorus of Tolpuddle Martyrs do backflips – it will come as no surprise that Tony’s Last Tape is as frugal and plain as you would expect.
Having seen what drink did to his RAF comrades towards the end of the war, Benn became teetotal while still a serving pilot. And he turned vegetarian in 1970, for ethical reasons, when it was generally still seen as the preserve of sandal-wearers and yoghurt-weavers. And with vices that tended towards the homely and eccentric rather than the altering of consciousness (constant pint mugs of tea, his pipe, a fondness for bananas), Rachael Jacks’ simple study-based set perfectly matches the man’s persona and the thoughtful mood of the play.
Tony’s Last Tape is solidly directed by Giles Croft and runs without an interval for an hour and a quarter, which is about right for a monologue that is more personal reflection than compelling plot. However, while the political ruminations and reminiscences continually give way to deep pain over the death of his brother Michael in 1944 and wife Caroline in 2000, I never quite feel the melancholic weight of the piece deep inside. Perhaps Benn would have thought that was quite right too – after all, he always yearned for discussion to focus on issues, not personalities (by which he most often meant his own) – but I wondered if maybe the mazy structure was working against my emotional engagement.
Nevertheless, as a meditation on a man who journeyed from dangerous lunatic to national treasure within four decades (this latter status being achieved only once he was too old to make a practical difference), Tony’s Last Tape is a worthy memorial to a complex man. And if my old English teacher was still around, I’d like to think he might have bought himself a ticket. At the very least, he could have learnt a thing or two about the necessity of the democratic process from one of the true masters of parliamentary debate.
Images by Robert Day
What: Tony’s Last Tape
Where: Everyman Theatre, Liverpool
When: touring until October 21, 2016, including Northern dates in Durham, Blackpool and Chesterfield