Writing by Trevor Griffiths

On Sunday 25 October, at the Regent Street Cinema, a screening of Reds (1981; directed by Warren Beatty) was followed by an all-too-brief discussion with Trevor Griffiths (who wrote the original screenplay in the late-1970s). The audience for this event was respectable if hardly a sell‑out, even in the middle of London, which no doubt says something about something, and this was a shame: Reds has been a rare attempt to make an explicitly political film for a mass (‘Hollywood’) audience, and Griffiths, in discussion, commented on the difficulty of making a film about a communist ‘who was right’. He made no attempt to hide feelings of ambivalence: he discussed his (writer’s) admiration for the performances by Beatty and co-star Diane Keaton, for example, but there was also his awareness that the film could have been worse, balancing a sense of loss (it could have been better).[1] For those who haven’t seen it, Reds is about John Reed (Beatty), who wrote Ten Days That Shook The World, an account of the 1917 Russian Revolution; and central to the film is Reed’s relationship with Louise Bryant (Keaton). According to Griffiths, interviewed at the time, the prominence given this relationship, as the script was revised, ‘push[ed] he political life of the characters into the middle distance from the actions, which were human love and need as conventionalised romantically’;[2] and this conflict between a radical politics and how such ideas might be (re-)presented has been a feature of Griffiths’ work for stage, television and film. In Reds, then, there is a rom-com struggling to get out, as evidenced by the somewhat limited view offered of domesticity.[3] Further, the film frequently uses Bryant to position the viewer as distanced from Reed’s ‘obsession’ (as represented) with politics.

If this introduction has emphasised what one might be least content with, Reds remains, nonetheless, an intriguing experiment; this and other plays should be seen, less as ‘works of art’, and more as interventions that are open-ended. With this in mind, one might consider Reds, then, an intervention, in 2015, in the politics of now. However, it has to be said that Griffiths himself remains, if anything, under-appreciated: while his contemporary David Hare has a knighthood, for example, Griffiths, like Edward Bond, has been marginalised.[4] Bill Brand, which Griffiths wrote for ITV in the mid-1970s has only just been released on DVD; while Comedians, Country and Sons and Lovers, all of which Griffiths mentioned at Sunday’s discussion, can be found on YouTube.[5] For any writer, just the back catalogue cited here would be regarded as impressive; and it is a sobering thought that, currently, mainstream television is unlikely to offer anything comparable in the near (or even distant) future.[6] The discussion on Sunday ended somewhat abruptly as the next film’s start-time approached, which only made it more unfortunate that Reds started 15 minutes late; had it started on time, we might have heard more from Griffiths himself.

The film was first released just as Reagan was elected US president (he apparently liked the film); in this country its appearance in cinemas coincided with the Labour right’s hatchet-job on Tony Benn’s candidature for Labour’s deputy leadership; since when, of course, Labour has prioritised the approval of right-wing corporate media. At the Regent Street Cinema, there was time for only one question from the audience, an attempt to link the moment of Red’s making with what is happening now in Europe, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, as well Corbyn’s election as Labour leader here in Britain, although the speaker seemed to think the late-1970s was a markedly different time to today. Rather, it might be more fruitful to consider ways in which the times are similar. What the late-1970s (and Griffiths texts already mentioned) has in common with the current time, then, is a coherent challenge to the assumption that the Labour Party must ‘play the game’ and earn the approval of the right-wing establishment as represented by media and Conservative Party. Until Corbyn’s emergence as a popular leader, Benn’s challenge to Healey in 1981 was the last time Labour seriously addressed its role as a social-democratic party, as anything other than the least worst neoliberal option, a product carefully packaged for a voter‑consumer. If Country considers the post-1945 period, and the way ruling-class hegemony was maintained in an era of nationalisation, Bill Brand asks what happens when a principled socialist becomes a Labour MP and finds enemies on the Labour side as well as the Conservative side of the Commons. One doesn’t have to try hard to find the same debates being recycled in the autumn of 2015, when public ownership and the role of Labour in Parliament are again issues to the fore. Moreover, if those plays for British television provide a context for Reds, the most important parts of the film itself would appear to be what remain of debates on party organisation and the declared need to compromise: this is likely (some of) the material sacrificed to highlight the Reed-Bryant relationship, and one can imagine comparable sequences in films by Ken Loach, when political discussion goes on a lot longer than Beatty was prepared to allow, simply because the audience has been trusted to keep up. Similarly, the equivocations of the Labour right (where ‘ambition’ seldom extends beyond a desire to be nicer than the nasty party) can be put down to a fear, year after year, that people will, after all, respond to leftist arguments: many times in recent weeks and months, Corbyn’s leadership has been declared doomed on the basis of the 2015 general election and existing opinion polls, as though attitudes and beliefs never shift. The hope is that this view will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that, indeed, remains one possible outcome in 2020, if not before.

Towards the end of Reds there is a scene, in Moscow, between Jack Reed and Emma Goldman, the anarchist deported from the US earlier in the film: she highlights the Bolshevik betrayal of revolution, while he emphasises the messiness of political progress. Had there been time in the discussion on Sunday, it would have been interesting to ask Griffiths if (or ‘to what extent’) this scene summed up the conflict between him and Beatty as co-writers of the film: for a Hollywood studio (speaking for ‘the American public’) Goldman might be co-opted to condemn revolution, while Reed appears to echo Trotsky’s view that ‘we shall not enter the kingdom of socialism in white gloves on a polished floor’, not to mention the view of Griffiths himself as a writer trying to deal with Hollywood (which, in turn, echoes the difficulties faced by Brand as a socialist who refuses to hide or even modify his principles once he has become an MP). No one said it was going to be easy.

[1] This ambivalence can be found also in an interview conducted at the time: Mick Eaton, 1982. History to Hollywood: Interview with Trevor Griffiths. Screen, 23/2 (July-August), 61-70.

[2] Eaton, History to Hollywood, 63-64. See also: Ed Buscombe’s review, Making Love and Revolution, in the same issue of Screen, 71-75.

[3] Buscombe, Making Love and Revolution, 74.

[4] And don’t get me started on the treatment of Howard Barker!

[5] Spokesman Books has published much of Griffiths’ work, and their website contains links to review and interviews.

[6] This is to ignore American imports like The Wire or even The West Wing and The News Room, of course.

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