“From being the most dangerous man in Britain to a national treasure.”
“I am not afraid of mistakes because that is how you learn” – Tony Benn.
It is, perhaps, an unexpected approach to documentary filmmaking when we hear Tony Benn reciting the famous “To be or not to be” monologue from Hamlet whilst Sir Laurence Olivier delivers a speech to the United Nations. But, then, that perfectly reflects the idiosyncrasy of the life and unique character of politician Tony Benn. Even in his later years Benn struck a recognisable image in his opinions, speeches and attitudes as much as the aesthetic presence of his ever present pipe. The documentary Tony Benn: Will And Testament notes that “He immatures with age,” but – love him or loathe him – his tenure in Parliament lasted longer than Tony Blair and any other Labour MP.
When political campaigner and former politician Tony Benn passed away in March 2014 he left a legacy and a political intellectual stance that seems to have been largely rejected in the world of modern British politics. He was a self-confessed socialist and a contradictory character who stuck by his ideologies even when his own party rejected their own. In a time when MPs are criticised for being from wealthy, privately educated backgrounds with no real understanding of the people, especially those issues that the working class (“You must not confuse parliament with democracy”) deal with, his passing away, regardless of your political opinions, is something to be missed. Tony Benn was raised amongst the elite, went to private school and was destined by birthright to become a peer in the House of Lords: “The biggest battle I ever had was staying out of the House of Lords,” he notes. But he rejected the hereditary peerage and became a left wing politician, countering the odds in order to represent the people. Tony Benn: Will And Testament is a documentary in which his career and opinions are detailed by the man himself, who recalls his life and influences during what was to be the last days of his life. So a will and testament it really is.
So how did a posh boy become a socialist figure who ended up rejecting the “rejuvenation” of his political party, a party that had invented the NHS, when Tory Blair introduced “New Labour” to an electorate following the Tory governments of Thatcher and Major? It all started during World War 2 and war is a theme that runs throughout the documentary in terms of understanding Benn’s opinions, opposition and alteration of his attitudes. He trained as a pilot during the war and, after viewing the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, with its ashen silhouettes of children burned into the pavements, he defined his decision to oppose nuclear weapons and to become a parliamentarian to serve the people.
Tony Benn: Will And Testament covers as much of Benn’s life and politics as the running time allows. The film depicts historical family events in an Ealing studio, faked front fireplace with huge newspaper cover reproductions of often antagonistic headlines hanging down with his recollections coupling a bookshelf of his decades of diaries and recollections. Intercut with this history are scenes from Benn’s career and include photographs from World War 2, elections in the 50’s and 60’s and commentary on how UK politics changed dramatically during the 80’s, with particular attention to the miners’ strike, an event that his favourite film Brassed Off (1996) was based upon. His – and others’ – response to the death of Margaret Thatcher is also addressed. More importantly, perhaps, the film raises issues about the Blair dominance and subsequent decimation of traditional Labour ideals which hit Benn hard.
Whatever side of the political spectrum you stand (right wing diatribe, left wing half pro, middle-ground right-wing) this is a fascinating documentary, mainly narrated by its subject (with early years being played by actors, of course) that ask questions and probes issues that are still relevant and inherently political even if the establishment is not part of the discussion. And, importantly, it paints a portrait of a fascinating and hugely principled man, a rarity in modern politics.