A government stumbling on with a slim majority; a grand cultural jamboree showcasing Britain to the world; the public increasingly obsessed with celebrity; the aristocracy struggling to maintain their sangfroid amid the changing values of a changing world. Sound familiar? In fact, I’m describing 1951, when the Festival of Britain opened, and politics was in flux after Clement Attlee’s narrow election victory the previous year. A rerun contest in the autumn was to return Winston Churchill to power. Against this background, Noël Coward wrote Relative Values, a comedy of manners that marked a triumphant return to form for this pre-eminent English playwright.
This week, the play previews at the Theatre Royal in Bath, where I’ll be joining the glorious Patricia Hodge and Caroline Quentin in a cast directed by Trevor Nunn. I’ve not acted in a play for 30 years – and even then, just university productions – so, to quote my character, the butler, “My spontaneous pleasure is tinctured with a modicum of apprehension.” But I’m reassured by the sheer delight of Coward’s pin-sharp observation of English manners and Nunn’s inspiring direction.
Many of the themes retain their relevance still, as do some of the best lines, such as: “We live in an age of publicity, and we might just as well enjoy it” or: “You don’t have to be conservative to vote conservative. You just plump for the lesser of two evils”. One of Coward’s sharpest lines was also prophetic, even though partly directed at himself: “Comedies of manners swiftly become obsolete when there are no longer any manners.” We shall see: there are hopes the play will come to London later in the year.
One of the other current events of 1951 was the recent repatriation (aka theft) of the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey by Scottish Nationalists. This symbolic stone had been taken by Edward I from Scone Palace in 1296 and forms part of the Coronation Chair. It is now kept, between coronations, at Edinburgh Castle. As it happens, I’ve just finished a programme on Scottish politics in the run-up to next year’s Independence Referendum. It was bothering me greatly, that on the eve of such a significant vote, my knowledge of politics north of the border was, like Alex Salmond’s neck, virtually non-existent. Independence is a topic that ignites more passion, and divides opinion more, than any other in Scotland, with the possible exception of wind farms. It certainly generates more energy. Last year I stuck an unwary head above the parapet with a few relatively harmless satirical comments about Salmond sitting in an office at the top of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument with a 360-degree view, stroking a cat (or possibly Nicola Sturgeon). Oh boy. Within hours, I was having a new backside torn for me by Nationalists deriding me for being a Unionist lackey (very 21st-century word, that) and an English Toff (not true. Scottish toff, if anything). These guys don’t mess about. And nor, by the look of some of the hateful tweets Salmond himself has been subjected to, do the hotheads on the other side. So I decided to go and find out who’s who and what’s what in Scottish politics.
The first question is harder to answer than the second, as few people I stopped in the street recognise their MPs (or rather MSPs). Remarkably, and encouragingly, three of the four biggest players are women: the deputy first minister, the Labour leader and the Tory leader, who also happens to be a lesbian kickboxer, which leaves Theresa May and Maria Miller looking frankly dull. There’s also something reassuringly Scottish about a parliament where an MSP (Frank McAveety) can be sacked for eating a pie when he should have been answering minister’s questions. As for the substance, I did have days when I drank the Kool-Aid, or rather the Irn-Bru, and imagined the possibilities of a Nordic-style social democracy powered by oil, renewables and the kind of resourceful and ingenious Scots that gave the world television, the telephone, penicillin, Dolly the Sheep and the Higgs boson (the English, in return, gave us MRSA).
Fair to say that having started out as an unthinking atheist, I have at least moved to agnostic. The debate itself, with just over a year to run, has barely reached room temperature. It won’t stay there for long.
This spring I discovered, to my delight, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, built on the site where Britain’s first passenger and freight railway terminated. The railway’s inauguration was notable chiefly for the accident that befell former MP William Huskisson. In a maladroit attempt to greet the Duke of Wellington on his train, Huskisson was left hanging from an open carriage door in the path of the only other train in existence, Stephenson’s Rocket. He duly became the first fatality on Britain’s railways. The delay caused by this early health and safety disaster led to minor riots as the dignitaries were showered with rotten fruit and insults all the way home.
The engines and exhibits in Manchester tell an inspiring story of the industrial revolution, when we had real engineering, as opposed to the financial kind. Some of the great inventors featured died penniless themselves, having greatly enriched society. These days it’s often the other way round.
Sign of the times? Overheard at the weekend: “My son’s going into the City. But I’m worried. I don’t think he’s aggressive enough.”
‘Relative Values’ opens at the Theatre Royal, Bath, on June 19