Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Age of Shadows (2016) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th May, 2020

The Age of Shadows 1The Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) was a painful experience for the people on the Korean peninsula. The colonial authorities imposed their will brutally, even insisting that Koreans adopt Japanese names, though they did build up the country’s industrial and transport infrastructure. That was mainly a matter of Japanese self-interest, of course, especially after the propagation of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere from 1931. However, there was an underground resistance movement among nationalist Koreans who dreamed of reasserting Korean independence, despite the daunting Japanese superiority. It is in this context that Kim Jee-woon’s epic action drama The Age of Shadows (in Korean and Japanese, with English sub-titles, available on BBCiPlayer for the next four weeks) is set, as a small group of insurgents plot a daring attack on key figures in the Japanese colonial establishment. This involves going to Shanghai to fetch explosives, so most of the action in the film — which runs for well over two hours — is set in either Seoul or Shanghai, though the most dramatic section is an extended sequence on board a train travelling between the two. For fans of late 1920s style in fashion and cars, the movie is a visual delight. No expense was spared.

The Age of Shadows 2From an early scene of police and soldiers closing in on a young resistance leader, moving almost balletically across the roofs of a traditional courtyard mansion, onward the tension mounts. The characerisation is vital to the film’s success, the key figure being a Korean police captain working for the Japanese authorities but with a high degree of ambivalence, played by one of Korea’s most celebrated actors. Song Kang-ho (known in the West mainly for being the father of the indigent family in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite). The attractive group of young resistance fighters soon win the audience’s affections, but the realisation that there is a traitor in their midst undermines their solidarity. The odds are stacked against them, so their dedication to the cause is sometimes challenged by the very human desire to survive. The Japanese security forces, behind their elegant facade, are prepared to use the most brutal of methods to crush opposition. The film includes a couple of graphic interrogation sessions which are not for the squeamish, but which underline the harsh reality of the occupation.

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Boris Johnson’s Theatre of the Absurd

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th May, 2020

45810B87-930A-4425-ACB4-08E90C9DDAF3UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has usually avoided appearing at the daily Downing Street COVID-19 press conferences — understandable while he was himself ill with the virus, of course — but today he really had no choice but to appear to face allegations that his special advisor, Dominic Cummings, had undermined the government’s message of staying safe at home to prevent a further spread of the disease. The accusation, backed by strong evidence, was that when Mr. Cummings and his wife felt Coronavirus symptoms coming on they got in their car with their infant son and drove 260 miles to his parents’ farm in County Durham. Other reports claimed that later the couple went on a day trip to a local heritage site and that soon afterwards, having returned to work in London, Mr. Cummings made a second trip to Durham. During the day today there has been a cacophony of calls from politicians of all stripes — including at least half a dozen Conservative MPs, as well as members of the public — for Dominic Cummings to resign. Social media were buzzing with outrage from people who had not been able to visit sick and sometimes dying relatives, or had been obliged to miss saying farewell to loved ones at funerals, because they were abiding by the government’s rules. So Mr. Cummings’ behaviour seemed to be a prima facie contravention of health instructions. Yet a series of Cabinet Ministers went into TV studios as the day went on declaring that Mr. Cummings had done nothing wrong, and had only been acting in the best interests of his young son.

C2D345C4-58FB-42C7-BFA9-4290BCB3468COne might then have expected Boris Johnson, when he appeared this afternoon, to bite the bullet and admit that a gross error of judgment had occurred. But not a bit of it. Instead, at the press conference he came out with the novel argument that Mr. Cummings had acted properly in line with “his instincts”. Does that mean, many viewers wondered, that in future everyone can follow their own instincts in responding to the pandemic? Far from cooling things the Prime Minister has stoked the anger. After he finished speaking, an extraordinary tweet appeared on the UK Civil Service’s twitter account decrying the situation. The tweet was removed and declared “unauthorised” within 10 minutes, but not before screenshots of it had been shared multiple times. If the mandarins find out who was responsible, they will doubtless try to fire or at least demote him or her. Hats off to author J. K. Rowling for saying she would happily pay the culprit a year’s salary!

So has Boris Johnson drawn a line under the Cummings saga? Absolutely not. The chorus of disapproval has got even louder this evening, with even Tory stalwarts denouncing the way that the Prime Minister is seemingly in thrall to his special advisor.  Cummings was of course not elected to any public office but now seems to be calling the shots in 10 Downing Street, with even Boris Johnson dancing to his tune. This was an unpopular situation among many Tory MPs even before the current scandal. That can only get worse. One has almost become weary of Boris Johnson’s bluster and Trumpian lies, but now he is playing fast and furious with the whole nature of government. He may feel he has defended Dominic Cummings but in behaving as he has the Prime Minister has in fact damaged his own standing, as well as undermining public confidence in government. His way of governing has become a theatre of the absurd. But what started out being amusing for some people has now morphed into something about which Britons have the right to be absolutely furious.

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Why Cummings Must Go

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd May, 2020

Dominic Cummings 2Britain is going through a difficult period just now, as we enter the third month of COVID-19 lockdown, with millions of people worried about their future, not only because of the ongoing threat of the virus but also the danger of economic ruin. Many businesses, not least in the hospitality sector, face going under if they cannot soon start trading again and countless freelancers in the creative industries, as I know from my own situation, have seen their earnings plummet. But since last night, the political and media focus has been not so much on the government’s coronavirus strategy as on the behaviour of No 10 Downing’s Street’s unusual Special Advisor, Dominic Cummings. Though unelected, he is said to be the second most powerful man in the government, so strongly does Boris Johnson rely on his advice. Cummings was one of the architects of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum as well as the Get Brexit Done strategy in last December’s general election. He is unconventional in his dress and manners, and is in favour of blue sky thinking. He it was who called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs to work alongside him in Number 10.

No 10 Downing Street However, the reason he is all over the news at the moment is because he allegedly broke the COVID-19 isolation and “stay at home” rules in force when he and his wife, both of whom were infected with the virus, drove with their young son 250 miles to Durham to place the boy with his elderly grandparents. There is some dispute about whether he was already ill with coronavirus, or just his wife; either way, their action flew in the face of everything that Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other government Ministers and senior scientific and medical advisers have been saying over the past eight weeks, as well as demonstrating a curious lack of concern for the vulnerability of the grandparents. Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and other senior Conservative figures have been trying to make out that what Cummings did was alright. But for much of the public this looks like a situation of “one rule for the toffs in charge, another for the general population”. It also makes another dent in the Prime Minister’s reputation for allowing this to happen, if he he knew about it in advance.

A number of Tory MPs are understood to be livid about the matter and opposition party figures have been calling for Cummings to go. They are right to do so. Not only has he  apparently taken liberties when it came to the lockdown rules at a time when millions of Britons have been following them assiduously, at considerable personal inconvenience or cost; he also seems to have flouted what I call the Alastair Campbell rule, in honour of Tony Blair’s former Press guru, who realised that when he had become the story rather than the policies Blair’s government was trying to implement, it was time for him to bow out. If Cummings has any sense of decency he will resign. Otherwise, he should be fired.

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Rachmaninoff and Brief Encounter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st May, 2020

Brief EncounterThough many films have a musical soundtrack that has been specially commissioned, some directors opt to use a well-known piece of music which they feel fits the mood of their film perfectly. One obvious example is Bo Widerberg’s lyrical Elvira Madigan (1967), in which Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major helps lure the viewer into a place of special beauty. But I had forgotten until I watched David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945 — now available on BBCiPlayer) again last night, for the first time for many years, just how important Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto in C Minor is in creating a dramatic atmosphere of passions that are doomed. To state the obvious, the minor key stimulates different emotions than the major. But Rachmaninoff also conveys a sense of movement, of building crescendos that are mirrored by the express trains rushing through the railway station that is the site of so much of the drama.

Brief Encounter 1 The film is rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece, not only for Lean’s brilliant use of light and darkness (which Carol Reed would emulate four years later in the equally memorable The Third Man) but also for Noel Coward’s poignant storyline — so much more serious than his often deliciously flippant theatrical comedies. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are a perfect pairing as the couple trapped by accident in a situation of illicit love. One sees most of the unfolding events through the woman’s eyes, as her comfy but uninspiring middle aged life of overseeing her little household, with the treat of a weekly excursion by train to a larger town to shop, see a film and change her library book at Boots, is rocked by a glimpse of adventure, dreams of travel and a passionate romance. The tension is broken by some of the minor comic characters in the film — the ghastly chattering gossip, the station’s refreshment room manager with her airs and graces — but Rachmaninoff’s music keeps bringing us back to the tragedy of missed opportunities and the irreconcilable demands of duty and passion.

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The Japan Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th May, 2020

The Japan AffairIt has often been said that there are certain similarities between Britain and Japan, as island nations off the coast of a major continent, despite the self-evident differences. Relations certainly reached a nadir during the Second World War, but at other times the two countries have felt a degree of affinity, if only in being unlike the brash United States, which was still visibly an occupying force (notably in Okinawa) when I first went to Japan as a teenager in 1969, en route to Vietnam. Japanese prints and other aspects of the country’s aesthetics had a big impact on late 19th century English fashion and classics of English literature, from William Shakespeare to Charlotte Bronte, resonate surprisingly well with the concerns of a Japanese audience. With notable exceptions such as the Orientalist Arthur Waley and the novelist Francis King, surprisingly few British authors have really immersed themselves in Japanese literature or life, however. So a volume of short essays by a British politician that have appeared over the past 30-odd years as a fortnightly guest column in Japan’s English-language paper, the Japan Times, is a welcome novelty.

David HowellDavid Howell’s The Japan Affair (Gilgamesh, £19.95) offers a varied selection of these pieces, from 1985 to 2019. Though several of the early ones are broad-brush op-eds on geopolitics and economics, with intimations of Margaret Thatcher fandom, the style and to a certain degree the content become more personal and, let’s be honest, more interesting as the years go by. The truism that one learns how to write by writing seems borne out here. As David Howell — on several occasions a Conservative UK Government Minister, first in the Commons then later in the Lords — was Chair of the UK Japan 2000 Group between 1987 and 1997, inevitably issues studied by that bilateral forum form part of his text. But he comes to life when addressing more human stories, whether it is in reaction to the terrible Kobe earthquake of 1995 or the Japanese passion for Peter Rabbit and his creator Beatrix Potter’s cottage. There are interesting reflections on the transformation of soccer into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise, as well as musings on the core sociological issue of identity. Lord Howell continues to write his column, which only had a break during his time as a Minister in the 2010-2015 Coalition government. But he is able to use a postscript to this collection of pieces to make an over-arching point that perhaps Japan and the UK should put greater effort into nurturing their relationship, in an unsure world of Trump, Putin and Xi. “In areas of technology, defence, security, culture, research, innovation, the two island states are becoming steadily bound together,” he writes. “A little bit of recognition, a little bit (but not too much) of strategic push at government and ministerial levels, could make this a wonderfully strong platform for both nations in a very dangerous and uncertain world.”

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The Lure of St. Trinian’s

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th May, 2020

Ronald Searle St. Trinian'sThe years immediately after the Second World War in Britain were fairly grim and grey, despite the relief of victory. The physical damage of war was still visible in cities and some rationing was in force, as a new Labour government set about establishing the Welfare State. But as welcome relief from the shortages and financial hard times there were the wickedly satirical drawings of cartoonist Ronald Searle, in particular his depiction of life in a hellish girls’ school of his imagination, St. Trinian’s, where the girls are little monsters and the teaching staff delinquent. Although Searle’s first showcasing of St. Trinian’s was in Lilliput magazine in 1941, carried in many a serviceman’s jacket pocket, before the artist himself joined the army, his output was stopped by being captured at the fall of Singapore and his incarceration in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. On his release and repatriation, the cartoon strips really took off, leading to a series of books, but the caricatures were now darkened by truly horrific scenes of mistreatment and slaughter in the bedlam of a school that had lost all vestiges of morality and humanity — yet drawn in such a way that one could only laugh at the little girl horrors, with their wild hair, disheveled uniforms and fiendish grins. All very different from the jolly hockey sticks schoolgirl world of popular novelist Angela Brazil.

Blue Murder at St. Trinian'sBetween 1954 and 1966, four feature films were made by the brilliant team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, inspired by the stories, several of which can be seen on BBC iPlayer for the next few weeks. My favourite by far is Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957), as it has a strong plot as well as the finest line-up of actors playing the adults, most of whose lives are tormented in one way or another by the miniature demons of the St. Trinian’s fourth form. A young George Cole, splendidly dodgy as Flash Harry, is running a variety of shady businesses with the help of the older girls, including an illicit marriage bureau. Richard Wattis is in his element as the bespectacled, bowler-hatted civil servant from the Ministry of Education, totally out of his depth. And although Joyce Grenfell is a recurring  character in the film series it is in Blue Murder that she is given the greatest opportunity to be her lolloping, ridiculous best as Police Sergeant Ruby Gates, besotted with her handsome but caddish superior officer and fiancé, who is determined not to tie the knot. By a dastardly trick, the girls of St. Trinian’s win a competition whose prize is a trip to Rome. With faux upper class conman Terry-Thomas at the wheel of their battered coach, what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, of course, with hilarious results. It must have been a welcome cathartic experience for many who saw the film when it first came out and it remains a true gem of British Lion comedy to savour against the backdrop our bizarre world of COVID-19 New Normal.

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The Eagle Has Landed (1976) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th May, 2020

The Eagle Has Landed 1With feature films, as with the theatre, a degree of suspension of disbelief is needed. That is particularly true in what one might call the genre of “what if” movies, which site the action in a specific time and place, with fictional characters mixed in with real historical figures. Jack Higgins’ classic wartime thriller novel, The Eagle Has Landed, was an obvious candidate for this type of film, with its clever central plot of a German attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill at a time when the Nazis were clearly losing the war, in the hope of using that trump card to extract favourable peace terms. Director John Sturges picks up the ball and runs with it confidently (movie available on BBCiPlayer for the next four weeks).

The Eagle Has Landed 3 The kidnap attempt would be made during Churchill’s visit to an isolated village in Norfolk (actually picturesque Mapledurham in Oxfordshire was used as the set). The man in principle master-minding the operation is Heinrich Himmler (beautifully played with a most sinister little smile by Donald Pleasance) but the lead operator will be a much-decorated but insubordinate officer (a conveniently blond, dashing and cheeky Michael Caine). In order for the audience to feel some empathy for this Nazi commando, in an implausible early scene he attempts to rescue a Jewish girl from a transport of Jews being taken by train from the Warsaw Ghetto to a concentration camp.

The Eagle Has Landed 2Such compassion and underlying niceness (also demonstrated by one soldier who plays Bach expertly on the village church organ) will prove to be the expedition’s undoing. In the meantime, though, there are nearly two-and-a-half hours of action-packed manoeuvres. There is a bit of heavy-handed comedy to relieve the tension, for example the blundering behaviour of a completely unbelievable idiot US colonel (Larry Hagman). But the film is actually hijacked by the Canadian Donald Sutherland, who puts in an unforgettable performance as an Irish Republican who has been enlisted to the operation by the Nazis. Inevitably there has to be a love interest, to appeal to a transatlantic audience, and he is the unexpected beneficiary. But this relationship is not allowed to distract too much from the action which builds to a crescendo, all against the gorgeous backdrop of the village. By now verisimilitude has largely gone out the window, but does it matter? Not if you like action films, especially war films. So if you do, suspend your disbelief and wallow in it.

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To Mask or Not to Mask?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th May, 2020

face maskTo mask or not to mask, that is the question. The advice that is around is contradictory, to say the least. Some countries are making wearing a face mask in public — especially on public transport — mandatory, while others say the face coverings are pointless in protecting oneself and others against the coronavirus. The WHO itself has been ambivalent about the issue, saying there is no clear evidence that masks can help stop the spread of the disease. But my attitude so far has been: surely they can’t actually do any harm, so why not wear one, especially when in the supermarket but also when a jogger or cyclist comes by as I am out for my daily walk in the woods. Looking at the people around me I see that only a small minority are actually wearing face masks — or do-it-yourself alternatives, such as a scarf wound round the mouth and nose — though the percentage is far higher among people of Chinese or other East Asian origin. As I know from travels in China and Japan, they are used to wearing masks even when they just have a sniffle so as to avoid infecting anyone else. But how about Brits as a whole?

no masks allowedThe N95 Mask Company — purveyor of an upmarket version of masks, at £15.99 a pair — has just published a survey that shows interesting variations. According to their figures, the top five cities or towns where people say they would wear a mask in public are as follows:

Durham 78%; London 76%; Newcastle upon Tyne 75%; Dundee 74%; Derry 71%

The bottom five towns and cities, i.e. those with the highest number of people who would not favour wearing a mask were:

Leicester 68%; Dudley 60%; Wrexham 56%; Southampton 55%; Warrington 54%

One should be wary about reading too much into this, as the sample size was not huge, but one thing that immediately struck me was that whereas the five enthusiastic mask embracers all voted Remain in the 2016 EU Referendum, with the exception of Leicester, the least willing all voted Leave. Make of that what you will. But I suspect that if one did a poll of people who have been demonstrating against lockdown one would find a majority were also Leavers. Over in the United States the lockdown rejectionists have been much more vocal, of course, and it is in America that one store has actually put up a sign that people wearing masks will not be allowed in.

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A Different Europe Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th May, 2020

Europe Day 2020In recent years on Europe Day, 9 May, I have usually been attending a concert at St. John’s Smith Square, sponsored by the European Commission office which occupied the former Conservative Party headquarters opposite. These days the latter building houses the EU delegation to the UK, because Britain left the European Union on 31 January, in keeping with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s determination to Get Brexit Done. Because of COVID-19 there could not have been a Europe Day concert and reception this week, anyway, as all such public events are potentially dangerous and in fact prohibited under the “new normal”. But millions of Brits who, like myself, bitterly regret the EU’s uncoupling from our 27 European friends and neighbours — though “resent” would be a more accurate verb in my case — still like to see ourselves as Europeans and cherish the values at the heart of the European project, many of which are under assault not only from distant rulers including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping but also from within, notably from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Those values and the peace that our continent has enjoyed for the past 75 years need to be resolutely championed. And even if I shan’t have my spirits raised by the traditional rendering of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the finale of a Europe Day concert this year I shall celebrate my European heritage and future with a suitably sourced Mediterranean lunch washed down by a fine bottle of pinot noir.

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Non-Election Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th May, 2020

Election 2020Today was the day that voters in London, Scotland, Wales and many local authorities across the United Kingdom would have been going to the polls, but democracy has had to be put on hold as a result of COVID-19. The elections will take place on the first Thursday of May next year instead. Already the independent candidate for London Mayor, former Tory MP Rory Stewart, has dropped out. Without a party machine to back him he may have realised he couldn’t keep up the pace for another 12 months, or maybe he has a new job lined up. Good luck to him if he has. But for the rest of us, “politics as usual” is also suspended to a large degree. So far there has been a lot of cross-party unity in handling the coronavirus situation, for example with regard to social distancing and the need to support the NHS, but the government is likely soon to find itself the subject of increasingly searching questions and indeed open criticism. Why has Britain had more fatalities from COVID-19 than any other European countries? Why were care home staff not properly provisioned? But whereas in the past, Liberal Democrats in particular would get their messages across by putting it on a leaflet and sticking it through people’s letter-boxes (to paraphrase the late Cornish MP, David Penhaligon), that sort of activity has ceased. One wouldn’t want to run the risk of inadvertently infecting anyone via contaminated paper. Similarly, door-to-door campaigning has become an impossibility, at least for a while. So politics has increasingly moved online. Meetings, coffee mornings and even “pizza and politics” now mainly take place courtesy of Zoom and we get our news through our tablets and SmartPhones or computers as much if not more than via the television and the Press. So even if the elections do take place next May as planned, the nature of politics will have changed. The way the Houses of Parliament run will probably have to as well. Why not move to electronic voting, for example? So as we live through what we all hope will be the final weeks of lockdown, let us use the time constructively to consider what should be the “new normal” in politics as well as in our lives.

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