The Crown: A glimpse of wholesale politics

I’d resisted watching the Crown out of republican resentment at the hold the British monarchy has over the Australian nation. Deference to royalty seems the major impediment to Australia taking greater control of its destiny, finding its unique place in the world and a contribution to make to humanity.

But lockdown left me scrambling for quality viewing and I’d admired Olivia Coleman’s acting in Broadchurch. Indeed, the first episodes of series three were rivetting. Coleman’s transformation from a self-deprecating dowdy lower-middle-class mum to a ruler of her nation was alchemical. She brought warm comic humour to the role that humanised the queen without taking away her dignitas.

Indeed, the life of the Windsors reminded me of the family in Years and Years. With all their dysfunction, they still manage to stay together in common witness to a world that is changing all recognisable shape. The viewing family remains the one constant, echoing the implied audience, watching themselves.

The most compelling scenes for me were the cups of tea shared between the Queen and the Prime Ministers. These were awkward encounters involving stiff formalities—with the Queen’s finger hovering over the button that would summon the butler for a swift termination.

The encounter between Elizabeth Windsor and Harold Wilson was brim with comic overtones. An overt anti-elitist, Wilson had to retain his integrity while kowtowing to the monarch. The confidentiality of these conversations makes them particularly delectable for viewers.

In one scene, the Queen confesses to the PM that she felt nothing when visiting a Welsh village that had suffered a terrible mining disaster. He reciprocates by confessing that his working-class style is all affectation: he prefers cigars to a pipe.

The hundreds of cups of tea shared with fourteen Prime Ministers, from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson, may well be filled with these moments of humanity, shared between leaders. But it also implies a space where truths could be spoken, rather than crafted for political value.

I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of “chronotope” developed by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin analysed the particular spaces in literature where plots and characters would be allowed to develop. Certain conversations would occur in these spaces, like the Schwellendialog “dialogue on the threshold” such as at the gates of heaven.

In Australia, we have a similar kind of imaginary space: the pub. “But will it pass the pub test?” is an enduring idiom of Australian politics. Democracy seems to depend as much on these spaces as the formal scene of parliament, perhaps even more.

But the “pub test” in Australia implies a beer-drinking Australian adult male who is sceptical of policy and concerned only with his own interests. Part of a future challenge for an imagined Australian republic is to create a new “chronotype” where were can have the kind of conversation that speaks truth.

Where would that be? Around the campfire, or the smouldering bushfire? Waiting to catch a wave at the beach, or the waiting room of a virus testing tent?

Australia has been increasingly captive to the kind of “retail politics” which sacrifices policy to short-term electoral gain. There’s been little sense of the life of political leaders beyond their calculations. What if Australian Prime Ministers had a regular confessional meeting with a monarch like their British forebears? I’m beginning to wonder if Australia’s own monarch might be a better alternative to an elected president.

It’s a pity that the Crown is stuck in the past.

Bodyguard: The licence to blame

Who is responsible?

After the first vague news of a terrorist incident, there’s a scramble for answers. “How many people were killed?” is closely followed by “Which side were they on”? Were they Muslim terrorists or Alt-Right fanatics? I must admit to hoping for the latter: the danger of anti-Muslim backlash seems far greater than any anti-white demonstrations. 

This anxious wait for an answer is shares the same hook that compels us to watch a streaming mystery series until the end. The “reveal” is the core to our narrative desire. It prompts a yearning for closure that transforms an experience into an event. As Frank Kermode eloquently states in Sense of an Ending, we seek “to make our own human clocks tick in a clockless world.”

In order to keep us watching these series, the mystery must be carefully hidden behind a screen of red herrings. But given the black and white alternatives of terrorism, how does a scriptwriter decide which side of the ledger becomes the truth?

This is particularly problematic in the Bodyguard series. Jed Mecurio’s previous series Line of Duty masterfully revealed the sinister side of police power. The follow-up in 2018 had the highest rating of any show since Doctor Who Christmas Day episode in 2008. Bodyguard’s success has been attributed to its more traditional distribution in weekly episodes rather than a single binge-able batch. Lucy Mangan evokes its Brexit zeitgeist in the Guardian:

The whole thing has been a retro-rush. Weekly, unbingeable episodes parcelled out like old times. Cliffhangers you talked about the next day on Twitter, the gig economy’s water-cooler. An ancient story – soldier fails in noble duty, runs towards danger and atonement, sword aloft – in modern dress captured our imaginations once again.

With a nation gripped by suspense, much hangs on the great reveal at the end. 

The hero David Budd is a returned soldier suffering PTSD after his time in Afghanistan. Budd embodies a steely heroism that emerges outside the system. You can find all the plot twists in the Wikipedia page, in search of the perpetrator of violent acts, including the death of a politician that Budd had been guarding. 

The culprit is revealed as Nadia Ali, the wife of a bomb-maker who had opened the series as a seemingly innocent woman too scared to set off her suicide vest. Our natural inclination to look beyond the stereotyped villain of the Muslim terrorist added extra narrative value to this eventual conclusion.

Yes, we might think that Muslims have been unfairly stereotyped, but what if they are actually are terrorists? As Nadia says during her confession, “How easy it was. You are all so easy so desperate to want to believe.”

The show attracted much criticism for this turn. 

To take a nation on this journey is quite a powerful act. While it is difficult to know with certainty, the conclusion certainly does not counter the suspicion of many towards Muslims.

If the tale was issued as a public statement, it would be open to question. But because the Bodyguard is fiction, it is only accountable to our narrative curiosity, and so justified by the high ratings.

This poses an ethical dilemma for the series genre. Previously, series like X-Files would have self-contained episodes. Now that stories are drawn out over many episodes, we have to defer the answer for much longer. Our suspicions move from character to character, as writers pull various narrative strings. 

Is narrative desire more important than the moral verdict? Should scriptwriters be accountable for their plot twists? The anxiety about SPOILER ALERT makes it hard to discuss these decisions openly.

The danger is that we are being seduced by narrative worlds that offer an escape from the real one. As with fake news, we are more interested in the frisson of story than how its unfolding might impact the world outside. 

One alternative is to administer the Riz Test, developed from a speech by Riz Ahmed’s 2017 to the House of Commons. According to this text, any of the following would signal Islamaphobia:

  1. Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
  2. Presented as irrationally angry?
  3. Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
  4. Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
  5. If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?

This seems laudable. But if we did demand narrative accountability, this would likely make plots more predictable. “It couldn’t be the Muslim because they would then fail the test.”

Thankfully, a second series is planned for Bodyguard. There is the possibility that Nadia’s confession might turn out to be itself a lie. Perhaps that is the virtue of this contemporary Scheherazade to which we are all captive: to forestall moral certainty.

Until the next episode…