Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for January, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th January, 2020

The Personal History of David CopperfieldOne would expect the director of Death of Stalin to have his own particular reading of Charles Dickens, and in that Armando Iannucci does not disappoint, in The Personal History of David Copperfield. As in the book, the central character is confronted with the good, the bad and the ugly in society, refusing to have his buoyant personality crushed. Iannucci’s rendition is singularly jolly with some slapstick moments, such as Aunt Betsy Trotwood (Tilda Swinton) knocking trespassers off their donkeys, though I did not find the film “riotously funny” as some others reviewers have. It stands proud largely because of the deft performance and multiple facial expressions of Dev Patel as the amiable young man David, but he is backed up with sterling support from Hugh Laurie as the dotty and delusional Mr Dick and an extremely creepy Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep. A high percentage of other performers are Asian or Afro-Caribbean; this really is effective, colour-blind casting. Dickens’s own characters are so memorable in their peculiarities that the actors are probably justified in exaggerating their foibles. Purists might protest that one or another isn’t how they imagined their favourite character to be. But the whole thing hangs together well and offers one of the most pleasant two-hour cinema sessions currently available.

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Little Women ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th January, 2020

Little WomenLouisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1868) is not just an American classic but one of the most memorable English-language novels of millions of people’s childhood. It certainly was of mine. And even though I have never re-read it, the portrayal of the four March sisters — each with her own distinct character — at home with their loving and lovable mother in New England while Father is away serving as a pastor ministering to soldiers in the Civil War (on the Union side) has remained vivid and alive in my mind. This was particularly true of the tomboy Jo, who aspires to be a writer and was clearly Ms Alcott’s favourite, too. Katharine Hepburn played her memorably in boisterous and gauche fashion in George Cukor’s 1933 screen adaption of the book. But in Greta Gerwig’s recently released version, Saoirse Ronan’s Jo largely internalises her frustrations with convention and her passionate creative urge and is profoundly more credible. Her performance is one of the best things about the film, which is physically beautiful and avoids the twee romanticism of many period costume dramas, even though love is one of the core themes of the story, along with sisterhood and individualism.

Louisa May Alcott’s novel is strongly auto-biographical and Greta Gerwig plays with that fact by merging the character of Jo with the author of the book, which ‘Jo’ succeeds in getting published at the end. The director creatively moves the story back and forth across time as well, though this runs the risk of leaving some viewers a little confused until they realise what is happening. Other liberties (artistic licence) include the replacement of the earnest German Professor Bhaer, whom Jo marries towards the end of the novel, with a fiendishly handsome young Frenchman. However, most of the other characters are fairly faithful to the book and Meryl Streep clearly has huge fun in her cameo role as the sisters’ rich and grumpy Aunt March.

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Sir John Curtice at the NLC

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 16th January, 2020

25673522-9B64-4F9A-9BF4-2D07A7BB582EI was pleased to have a last-minute opportunity to attend a presentation last night at the National Liberal Club by academic and TV election pundit Sir John Curtice (a long-standing member of the Club) on The 2019 Election: A Tale of Hope and Disappointment. One might correctly guess from the title that the talk was particularly focussed on the Liberal Democrats’ less than optimal performance last month. Far from taking off during the campaign — which was the case in several previous general elections, thanks largely to a higher media profile — the LibDems actually lost nearly half of their opinion poll percentage as the weeks went by. Certainly some of the Remain-leaning Conservatives who lent the LibDems their vote in May’s European elections, not least in Greater London, went running back to Boris Johnson, despite Brexit, out of (unnecessary) fear of a possible Jeremy Corbyn government. Many commentators at the time also attributed the fall in LibDem support to (1) Jo Swinson’s call to Revoke Article 50, rather than pitching wholeheartedly for a second EU Referendum, and (2) her claim to be a potential PM in waiting, despite the modest number of LibDem MPs (albeit supplemented by both Labour and Conservative defections). However, Professor Curtice said polling, notably from YouGov, did not support that assumption. Instead, he highlighted three conclusions about the election result based on his research:

1) It was not clear that the decision to back revoking Article 50 without a referendum was electorally costly;

2) Jo Swinson failed to make a favourable impression on voters and thus provide a point of attraction in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn;

3) The Party failed to communicate what a “brighter future” for Britain might entail.

Other points from John Curtice’s brilliant presentation which particularly struck me were that the Liberal Democrats drew most of their support from the educated middle class, but unlike the other parties had an almost equal level of support across all age groups.

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Oman after Sultan Qaboos

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th January, 2020

Sultan Qaboos 1The death of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said at the age of 79 brings to an end half a century of extraordinary one man rule that transformed the Gulf state from a conservative backwater into a modern country, which nonetheless retained much of its cultural individuality. Once the centre of a maritime empire, Oman had stagnated under Qaboos’s father, whose resistance to modernity meant that in 1970 there were only 10 kilometres of paved road in the country and the gates of the walled capital, Muscat, were locked at night. With the approval of the British, who had a military presence in Oman, Qaboos seized power in a bloodless palace coup and gradually opened the country up to the outside world, while deliberately avoiding the sort of brash modernisation taking place in nearby Dubai. Qaboos was an absolute monarch — and indeed resisted pressure from one of his uncles to cede more power to an elected assembly — but was viewed by most of the foreign diplomats in Muscat as that rarest of creatures: a benign dictator. When the so-called Arab Spring spread across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 there were some small demonstrations in Oman, though nothing like on the scale in Bahrain, for example. A couple of people were killed and others were arrested, but the Sultan largely quelled the unrest through some minor reforms and benefit packages. What was clear was that he still retained the affection, even love, of most of his people.

Muscat opera houseQaboos had been ill for several years, reportedly with colon cancer, for which he sought treatment in Germany and Belgium. Yet he did not designate someone to take interim charge, or indeed publicly announce a successor. Although he had one, brief marriage which ended in divorce, unlike most rulers in the Gulf he fathered no children, nor does he appear to have had any wish to. He thus sometimes appeared a somewhat isolated figure, though that did not prevent him stamping his own ideas on the country and determining its direction. Though Oman is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it has resisted some potential areas of closer integration, such as a common currency, and in foreign affairs Qaboos avoided lining up with Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Iran. Oman was also a pioneer in the region in opening lines of contact with the state of Israel. Despite his military training (at Sandhurst), the Sultan’s bent was largely artistic; one of most remarkable legacies is Muscat’s beautiful opera house together with a full symphony orchestra.

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Jojo Rabbit ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th January, 2020

Jojo RabbitFew 10-year-old boys would choose Adolf Hitler as their imaginary friend, but in Taika Waititi’s wacky comic drama Jojo Rabbit, it’s wartime in Germany and little blond, blue-eyed Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffiths Davis) is in love with uniforms and swastikas and dreams of graduating to the Hitler Youth. However, it is clear from his behaviour at the Nazi equivalent of a boy scout camp that he doesn’t have the instinct to kill, let alone be inhumane. Meanwhile, his beautifully-dressed, superficially dreamy mother (Scarlett Johansson) apparently indulges his boyhood fantasies while in fact hiding not only her real views but also a dangerous secret in the attic. The war is already going badly, but this does not stop the authorities in their hunt for conspirators, Communists and Jews, all of whom are dragged off to prison camps or shot or even hung in the village square. In the film, the Gestapo (and the imaginary Hitler, played by Taika Waititi himself) are idiotic buffoons, yet their intent is frightening. Thus the film walks a tight-rope between black humour satire and an understanding of the horrific reality of life in the Third Reich. There are numerous hilarious moments, but also many sobering ones, including the grotesque pictorial characterisation of Jews.

Making fun of Hitler was of course brilliantly done by Mel Brooks in The Producers, which for me is one of the greatest comic movies of all time. Jojo Rabbit isn’t in the same league, but it does make one think more about the realities of Nazi Germany, even when scenes and characters are exaggerated to the point of parody. A lot of the credit for the overall success of the film rests with young Roman Griffiths Davis, who is not just endearing but also displays a wonderful range of moods and expressions, as his coming-of-age takes the form of moving from idolisation of the Fuehrer and the pomp and ceremony of Nazism to literally kicking Hitler out of the window.

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Dangerous Escalation in the Gulf

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd January, 2020

49A0EB41-E8AC-4F7A-9DF1-5A1214C2A9E4The US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, reportedly on President Trump’s direct order, is a dangerous escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf that could all to easily develop into all-out war. Donald Trump has been itching to hit out against Iran ever since he came to power and last year a direct US strike was called off at almost the last moment. Meanwhile the Americans have been ratcheting up sanctions against Tehran, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, in which major European states including Britain were instrumental, has been seriously undermined by a US withdrawal. Not that all the blame rests on American shoulders, of course. Despite Iranian denials, a drone and missile attach on Saudi oil installations last September was almost certainly inspired by Tehran. And Iranian special forces — including General Suleimani’s Al Quds brigade — have been active in fighting in Iraq and Syria, sometimes in conjunction with regional allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. But there is a real danger that tit-for-tat retaliatory acts will spiral out of control, while all affected parties claim they are the victims of aggression. Britain and France, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, potentially have an important role to play in defusing the situation, though President Macron is seriously weakened by ongoing domestic unrest and Boris Johnson may be too close to Donald Trump to be seen as a mediator. Significantly, Washington did not warn London about its planned assassination strike, despite the fact that there are UK troops and civilians in Iraq and surrounding countries. All could be potential targets for reprisals if the British government comes out in support of the US action. Instead, it should listen to the wise words of caution from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair made the wrong call over Iraq in 2003 and that lesson should not be forgotten.

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Brexit Is Like a Bereavement

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st January, 2020

811E1755-3E16-49AA-83F7-84DD6BFB3051The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has called on Britons to heal their divisions as we enter the New Year. This exhortation is, I suppose, a little more sensitive than those people who have been saying ad nauseam, “You lost. Get over it!” But the Archbishop’s choice of words does not seem to acknowledge the fact that for many Remainers (who in 2016 were 48% of those who voted in the Referendum), Brexit is like a bereavement. We are witnessing something we cherish — our European citizenship and countless other benefits of EU membership — not just dying but being deliberately killed. This is not something one can just “get over” by pulling oneself together. The pain — and it is a form of mental pain for millions of British citizens, as well as for the estimated three million other EU citizens in this country — will not dissipate quickly. Indeed, for a while it may get worse, as one by one our European rights and benefits are stripped away, from freedom of movement to reciprocal free health care, from high common health and safety standards to directly elected representation in the European Parliament. I for one am in mourning for what we are about to lose and those who do not care a fig about such matters, or who espouse some new-imperialist fantasy of a “Global Britain” conquering the waves, need to understand that for many true British Europeans, Brexit is as traumatic as losing a member of one’s own family.

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