The following review is based specifically upon the BBC adaptation for their strand The Play on One, broadcast on the 8th March, 1988.
As a piece of theatre, Trevor Griffiths’ 1974 play The Party is perhaps best known for being the final play Laurence Olivier chose to perform in for the National. His decision to play a Glaswegian Trotskyite, Joe Tagg, in a play littered with swear words, may have shocked some devotees, but it proved to be a challenging and fitting swansong.
For many years, The Party has been considered one of the definitive statements on the factionalism and disappointments within the British Left. The fact that the BBC chose to mount their own adaptation for The Play on One in 1988, fourteen years after its theatrical debut, is proof enough that very little had changed through the years. In viewing it today, I’m here to say that I think something has changed at last – and not for the better.
It’s easy to look at the set up of The Party, a socialist meeting that assembles activists, students, writers, actors and political veterans in the trendy North London home of a producer of the BBC’s Wednesday Play, as somewhat autobiographical. At this stage in his career, Griffiths was being courted to write for the BBC by the producer Tony Garnett, whose regular evenings of political discussion with guests such as directors Roy Battersby and Ken Loach, kept the surveillance officers of Special Branch rather busy. Viewed in such a context, the play’s central character Joe Shawcross (played here by Kenneth Cranham) is our stand-in for Garnett, whilst the cynical and perpetually drunk writer Sloman (Jack Shephard) is a self deprecating cypher for the playwright himself, sharing as they do their brief moments of fame on the football field and their Salfordian roots.
But The Party is more than just navel gazing. At its heart, it depicts the inherent, irrevocable difference within the Left as represented by Joe Tagg (played here by Andrew Keir) and Andrew Ford (Oliver Cotton). It is the latter who initially seizes the opportunity to dominate the evening’s discussion. A representative of the then emerging New Left, Ford appreciates Marxist theory but argues that it is somewhat redundant in a modern context because it failed to foresee how the effects of culture could placate the masses and stifle revolution. With televisions, cheap literature, popular music, newspapers and magazines in every home, the working class consciousness that Marxism relies so heavily upon has fallen into slumber. Whilst Ford seems on the verge of positing a Situationist argument, his theory leans into Marcuse far more and concludes with the argument that, to overcome the cultural apparatus, a new form of organising within the Left must be stablished, looking towards greater global solidarity from movements already demanding the right to self assertion, such as those in France (the Paris Riots provide the drama with its backdrop, snatches of which are heard on TV and radio), among the Afro-American communities fighting back in the US, or within the developing Third World. As a result, Ford sees no need of, or capability for, a leader to propel the movement.
Tagg meanwhile, has been listening patiently and biding his time. We know this is an old lion still capable of a mighty roar. When he speaks, he requests the disciplined traditions of formal political meetings – a chair, agenda etc, which is cynically brushed aside as suppression by Ford and others. Nevertheless, with quiet determination he begins to take apart the younger man’s argument, retorting that “the absence of revolution is not the final evidence of the elimination of revolutionary progress”. It is his belief that to redress this, those on the Left must consider why the revolution has not occurred. He refuses to lose faith in the working class, arguing that Ford’s Marcussian view of a docile, accepting working class is simply to admit defeat. He opines that, as the likes of Ford, Shawcross and Sloman et al are members of the Left intelligentsia, they deal solely in words and not – like the workers – deeds, and it is their inability to perform deeds that affords them such a negative, defeatist viewpoint of the ongoing class struggle. For Tagg, the desire to focus on what he sees as minor outbreaks of revolutionary fervour overseas is futile in the grand scheme of things – their existence a sop to the New Left that change is possible because “some repressed minority is still capable of anger”. For Tagg, a man of clear principle and integrity, his devotion to the party is unwavering.
Having outlined his arguments, it’s then left to Griffiths as a playwright to poke at them both and it is here that his avatar within the piece, Sloman, comes into his own. Disparaged by almost all as pissed and unwilling or unable to take the evening seriously, it is true that Sloman serves the role of the court jester but, as such a traditional role allows, home truths are swiftly delivered. His personal recollection of his own father’s experience removes the evening from theoretical discourse to cold, hard reality. For Sloman, the radical fervour of the working class exists purely because of their drudgery, something Ford’s more abstract libertarian arguments cannot conceive. But Sloman gives short shrift to Tagg too arguing that the Trotskyite’s refusal to “bend for anything, least of all events” is its downfall.
The fact that Griffiths gives his play a malcontent drunk to point out the flaws is, well…a sobering thought. But he’s not alone, pitched just as sympathetically, but portrayed far less abrasively is the party’s host, Joe Shawcross. Throughout the evening, with skilful reacting rather than acting on Cranham’s part, Shawcross is shown to be torn between the arguments. Not only that, but he is struggling privately with his own situation. His kid brother Eddie (Bob Mason) has paid a visit looking for investment in his tailoring business. For many an elder sibling with the wherewithal this would present no issue whatsoever, but for Shawcross it is a dilemma; family or not, how can a supposed socialist fund a capitalist enterprise? Out of all the characters it is Shawcross who is shown to be uncomfortable with the bourgeois trappings of success – his stylish home a prison in which he is unable to enact his principles. Arguably his willingness to host the party is a way in which he can absolve his ‘sins’, to feel he is still contributing to the cause and maybe to find an argument he can believe in.
In the end the evening wraps up with some guests determined to pursue their goals, though it is not because of what they have heard from either Ford or Tagg. A case in point is the young International Socialist student Susie (Kate McKenzie) – when she announces that she is off to Paris, the façade embodied by Ford is shown to crumble as he genuinely asks her why. Come the morning, Joe agrees to stake the money in his brother’s business and Sloman agrees to write his play. In the outside world of course, the Paris Riots did not bring about the global revolution and death of Capitalism that many arguably hoped for, but the 1970s were around the corner and victory still seemed possible, especially with the success of the miners’ strike ousting Heath from Number 10. By 1979 however, Thatcher arrival’s and neoliberalism took hold. The discipline that Tagg’s politics required began to freefall as political movements became more fragmented, less impactful and society more self-centred. The fact that the Tories ruled for eighteen long years was bad enough, but the Labour landslide of 1997 refused to alter the UK’s course. Neoliberalism remained the order of the day and continues to be so now.
This is why I think the relevancy of The Party has become neutered in recent years. Since the desecration of Corbyn(ism) – which, as Ford predicted did allow for political movements to coexist alongside the official quest for socialism, though Ford did not predict the need for Corbyn as a clear leader figure whose appeal was wide-ranging among the disenfranchised and angry minorities – and the rise of Sir Keir Starmer, there is now little actual difference between Left and Right in this country, as career politicians argue the battle for the centre ground is the only way (the only way to appease the Capitalist economy). With The Party, talking politics whilst Paris burned, Griffiths at least wagged an admonishing figure at a perennial problem for the Left, namely the inability to capitalise on events, preferring instead to talk and argue in civilised settings, through a chair, finding no common ground between factions, until the impetus had passed. To my mind today, Starmer’s vision of the Left refuses to even discuss potential class struggles. Look at the riots in Hong Kong, the Yellow Vests movement of, again, France. Not even BLM – astonishingly Starmer condemned the removal of the Colston statue in Bristol, referred to the movement as “a moment” (he claims to have misspoke, but he said it five times in the space of one hour across three separate interviews) and reiterated his support for the police, which resulted in him abstaining at the SpyCops Bill and was close to abstaining on the Tories fascistic anti-protest measures until the morning after the brutal policing of the Sarah Everard vigil. Perhaps in an attempt to dance to the post Brexit tune, the movement has become narrow and insular, refusing to see global solidarity. Worse, it refuses to even discuss issues with other factions. It is not the Left, it is the centre and with its expulsions and slander it is determined to eradicate all traces of the Left in every guise until all that is available in this country is neoliberalism and the illusion of democracy.