Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Winston Churchill’

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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A War with COVID19?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th April, 2020

War on coronavirus 1On both sides of the Atlantic, the rhetoric around the fight against the Coronavirus has become increasingly bellicose. Having initially tried to pass the whole thing off as a “Democrat hoax” President Donald Trump has now switched to wartime mode, though he can’t resist the temptation to take swipes at domestic political rivals, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, at the same time. In Britain, Boris Johnson — the author of a (not very good) book about Winston Churchill, among other things — quickly slipped into a Churchill tribute act when the virus started reaping lives here, though with a degree of Boy’s Own flippancy that would have made Mr Churchill wince. Now, of course, Boris Johnson is in hospital, having failed to shake off a bout of the virus himself and one can only wish him a speedy and full recovery. But even if Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is standing in for him at today’s COBRA meeting to discuss the crisis the language is still all about war. Even the Queen last night struck a note of wartime nostalgia in her national TV broadcast with an obvious reference to the (not entirely accurate) spirit of the Blitz, as well as making an allusion to Vera Lynn’s emotive song, We’ll Meet Again.

War on coronavirus 2Extraordinary measures unseen outside wartime have been brought in by the governments of Britain and many other countries, restricting people’s freedom of movement and association, in the belief that social distancing is the most effective weapon to stop the spread of the disease. And across the European Union border restrictions have reappeared after decades of open frontiers and nations are turning in on themselves. To an extent this is understandable, but battening down the hatches on a national level and evoking a wartime spirit could adversely affect international relations for years to come. Moreover, there has been a disturbing rise in right-wing nationalism, not least in some of the former Communist states of central Europe, and in the United States individual states are becoming rivals when it comes to things such as securing sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE). Surely the notion  of “we’re all in this together” should be international, indeed global, not just within national or state boundaries? COVID19 could have serious repercussions for the integrity and future of the European Union unless a more coherent common EU strategy to confront it is put in place. I know health is not usually an EU competence but in this instance it needs to be.  Meanwhile, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, has called for a global ceasefire in the myriad armed conflicts still ravaging various parts of the globe. No-one seems to be listening to him, alas, but they need to. Combatting COVID19 requires peace and international cooperation. So tone down the warlike rhetoric, guys, and adopt a more constructive approach.

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th July, 2019

GCHQ. AldrichOn 1 November the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) will be celebrating its centenary. The very fact that it is acknowledging this landmark is a reflection of how things have changed. Much of GCHQ’s work may still be top secret, but in an era of greater transparency, it doesn’t need to pretend it doesn’t exist. Moreover, the distinctive “doughnut” building in Cheltenham that houses most its UK-based staff has become iconic, even if it does not allow in visitors, unlike its US equivalent. Though the doughnut cost a small fortune, it has proved to be too small, thanks to the recent proliferation of hostile actors and threatening activities, from Islamist terrorists to drug cartels and cyber warriors. A cogent exposition of these is one of the most valuable parts of Richard J Aldrich’s updated unofficial history of the organisation, GCHQ (William Collins, £12.99), issued in time for the centenary. In nearly 600 pages, Aldrich (Professor of International Security at Warwick University) provides not just a chronological account of GCHQ’s development and its sometimes fractious relationship with counterparts both in Europe and beyond but also an overview of how dramatically the post-modern world has changed, thanks to technology, not least computers and satellites.

GCHQ doughnutThis would have been unimaginable to most of the people — mainly in the armed forces — who decided after the First World War that it would be useful if Britain had its own unit to develop codes and cyphers as well as to crack those of the enemy. Though the work started relatively modestly, the onset of the Second World War changed all that and Bletchley Park (a mansion astonishingly purchased privately by the man who was determined to see it up and running) became the ultra-secret hub of “sigint” work, home to Alan Turing and other pioneers in the field as well as linguists and code-breakers whose contribution to the war effort was duly acknowledged by Winston Churchill. Peace brought no real let-up to the activity, as the Soviet Union had become the new focus of prime attention and GCHQ became a key partner in Britain’s intelligence community, with outposts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Subsequently, GCHQ’s reach has gone truly global as well as monitoring groups and persons of interest within the United Kingdom itself. That aspect of surveillance has caused concern among civil libertarians and at times GCHQ’s activities have themselves come under sharp scrutiny from campaigning journalists such as Duncan Campbell. In an age of metadata we are all under various kinds of scrutiny, not just from governments but from giant tech companies as well. This situation raises all sorts of moral questions about the right balance between national security and individual freedoms, and Richard J Aldrich does not shy away from these. But one great value of this book is his fairly dispassionate approach to the subject of GCHQ; he is neither its champion nor its critic, but based on an immense amount of research he has produced a gripping account that leaves one with much food for thought. GCHQ has commissioned its own, official history to mark its centenary, but I doubt whether even in the age of transparency that could be as richly informative as this unofficial one.

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Darkest Hour ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th February, 2018

Darkest HourJoe Wright’s somewhat fictionalised biopic of Winston Churchill (a tour de force by actor Gary Oldman, unrecognisable beneath remarkable prosthetic makeup that convincingly brings back to life Britain’s war-time bulldog) recounts the tense weeks of May 1940, when the Germans were sweeping west across continental Europe and the bulk of the British army was stranded on the French coast. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister who had declared Peace for Our Time after meeting Adolf Hitler in Munich two years earlier, was ousted but it was by no means inevitable that Winston Churchill would succeed him as Leader of the Conservative Party, as he had quite a lot of inconvenient political baggage, too, including several years as a defector to the Liberal Party and, more damningly, ownership of the disastrous Gallipoli landings in the First World War. In Anthony McCarten’s powerful screenplay, Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Halifax, are pitted against Churchill as proponents of peace negotiations with Hitler, to be brokered by Mussolini. Churchill gambled to stand and fight instead, saved by the successful evacuation of most of the 300,000 men from the beach at Dunkirk and the power of his own rhetoric, which roused and united the nation as well as the House of Commons. But the key to the success of Darkest Hour is the delicate balance between the bluster and bullying of the politician Churchill with the self-doubt and vulnerability of the man that existed behind the facade. Winston’s three important relationships in the film are with his wife Clementine (convincingly played by Kristen Scott Thomas), King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and his young secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) — all sensitively handled, at times with humour that pricks the tension of the dramatic times. Visually, the film is sumptuous, the atmosphere enhanced by Joe Wright’s characteristic tracking shots of Londoners going about their daily business. There is an almost dream-like sequence in an underground carriage when Churchill sounds out ordinary people as to whether they are ready to resist to the death. I found that jarred rather with the realism of most of the rest of the footage. But the evocation of determined national spirit will wow many cinema audiences during our own period of a different kind of political uncertainty. And Gary Oldman’s towering performance largely makes up for any historical shortcomings.

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Another Coalition but Which Coalition?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th January, 2015

UK political leadersA new UK national opinion poll from YouGov this weekend puts Labour on 32%, the Conservatives on 31%, UKIP on 18%, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens both on 7%, and Others on 5%. Once again neither of the two main parties has managed to muster the support of a third of the electorate, or two-thirds together. Amazing to think back to the 1951 general election, when Labour and the Conservatives got 96.8% of the vote between them. Interestingly, in that election Labour polled 231,000 more votes than the Conservatives, but lost the election. The veteran Mr Churchill was thus put back in office, with a parliamentary majority of 17. That was not the only time that Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system delivered an odd result. And I suspect this May it will do so again, but with the added complication of a fragmented political scene. No-one can predict accurately what the outcome will be, but unless there is a sudden slump in support for the “minor” parties, including UKIP, then no single party can hope to form a majority government and maybe not even a credible minority one either. So another Coalition is the most likely scenario. But a Coalition between whom? I suspect both David Cameron and Nick Clegg privately hope the current one will endure, but that certainly cannot be taken for granted. Labour could well end up the largest party and thus be tasked to try to put a Coalition together. A traffic light arrangement with Labour-LibDems-Greens is one possibility. But could the SNP be the joker in the pack? On a national scale, they only figure under a small proportion of “Others”, but in Scotland the SNP may well end up sending more MPs to Westminister than any other, at the expense of both Labour and the LibDems.

Natalie BennettBecause of the electoral system, however, the headline figures shown in the opinion poll may not even be a rough guide to the number of MPs elected. For once the system might act in the LibDems’ favour, despite the huge drop in their vote share, because of the incumbency factor for many hard-working, respected LibDem MPs. In contrast, both UKIP and the Greens are likely to woefully under-perform in terms of MPs elected, thus making them less significant as potential Coalition partners. Caroline Lucas might hold on to her Brighton seat, despite some unpopular measures implemented by Green-controlled Brighton Council, but I think it is unlikely that Natalie Bennett’s Greens and UKIP will manage to elect more than half a dozen MPs between them. One of the ironies of UKIP’s continued strong showing since last May’s Euro-elections is that the UK has as a result now moved to a Continental-style multi-party situation, in which deals and compromises are becoming the norm. But we do not yet have a Continental-style electoral system by some form of proportional representation for Westminster (national) elections. Given the likelihood of some of the very bizarre and blatantly unfair outcomes that are possible this May for some parties under first-past-the-post I wouldn’t be surprised if the issue of PR suddenly shoots up the political agenda immediately afterwards.

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BBC World Service at 80

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd March, 2012

The courtyard at Bush House in London was transformed tonight thanks to a very high-tech marquee and a full-on operation by an Events Management team, complete with atmospheric coloured lighting, bars with chilled cabinets full of beers and white wine, and a modern pop music band playing well, but too loud for an event which should all have been about networking. The excuse for a party was the BBC World Service’s 80th anniversary, but this was also a funeral reception, as this month sees the beginning of the physical move of the iconic BBC World Service brand out of Bush House into “state-of-the-art” facilities in the new expanded Broadcasting House off Portland Place. Mark Thompson, BBC Director General, was predictably upbeat about the change, eulogising the integration of news and current affairs output, though as someone who worked at Bush House for almost 20 years, I was as sanguine as many of my former colleagues present about this (and also wondered how someone could have reached the pinnacle of a broadcasting career while uttering so many umms and errs when he speaks). Actually, this evening was the first of two parties: tonight targetted the great, the good and the has-beens. Current World Service staff were, by-and-large, channeled towards a ballot for tickets for a second event, to be held in the marquee tomorrow. (Former World Service head an all-round good egg, John Tusa, boycotted this evening’s reception in protest at this segregation, and the failure to invite all staff.) Yet it was still an impressive crowd tonight. Apart from diplomats and members of the House of Lords, who were there in profusion, we were graced by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who has truly found his niche, having previously bombed so tragically as Conservative Party Leader. He praised the work that the World Service has done over the past 80 years, and pointed out that just the other day London hosted a major international conference on Somalia, which is one country where disparate groups tune in religiously to the BBC to find out what is going on in their own country. Lord Williams of Baglan (my former BBC colleague and later UN official, Michael Williams, standing in for Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, who had to be at a House of Lords debate on BBC funding) was reassuring as he presented himself as the man on the BBC Trust who has a particular brief regarding international services. Moreover, there were some living legends present at the party, such as Hugh Lunghi, interpreter for Winston Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Yet this evening’s bash did feel like the curtain call for a wonderful institution and the people who worked in it. A goody-bag for guests contained a brochure which boasted that the BBC broadcasts in 27 languages; when I first started working in Bush House in 1983, this was over 40. Yes, there has been a welcome boost to the Arabic and Persian services in particular in recent years, not least in TV output. But much else has been lost. Not least of the losses is the unique Bush House ethos: that wonderful combination of expertise and truth-seeking. And as we guests were chased out of the marquee at 8.40, after the bars stopped serving drink (how different from the bacchinalean 70th event in 2002!), I couldn’t help thinking that I had been at not so much a celebration as a wake.


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We Don’t Need a War with Iran

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 4th December, 2011

The rhetoric between London and Tehran has been escalating alarmingly; a metaphorical bucket of cold water needs to be thrown over the situation before it bursts into flames that could otherwise cause conflict across the Middle East and beyond. There was no excuse for the protestors’ assault on the British Embassy copound in Tehran the other day; under the Vienna protocols, diplomatic premises are inviolate and host nations must help protect them. The fact that the Iranian Foreign Ministry apologised for the incident shows the government is aware of that, though the assault itself — in which there was some damage to the building, documents were scattered and embassy staff had to seek sanctuary in a safe room — means that at least someone in a position of authority in Iran sanctioned the protest. The British Embassy staff later left Iran and Iranian diplomatic personnel in London were expelled, receiving  heroes’ welcome when they returned home, underlining the theatrical aspect of the affair. But the context is much more serious than theatre.

The embassy assault was in reaction to Britain’s racheting up financial sanctions against Iran in the wake of a somewhat ambiguous report from the IAEA about the real nature of Iran’s nuclear programme. The government in Tehran disputes claims that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons capability, and there needed to be more incontrovertible evidence to the contrary before Britain raised the stakes in this increasingly dangerous stand-off. Passions are running hgh in the Islamic Republic among those who feel the country is surrounded by the US and NATO forces and is living under the threat of a pre-emptive strike from Israel. Israel, meanwhile, is nervous about President Ahmadinejad’s claim to want to ‘wipe Israel off the map’. Germany has reportedly sold (at a discount) submarines to Israel that are capable of launching nuclear missiles. The final, explosive element is the intensifying civil war in Syria, whose despicable régime is a firm ally of Iran. The combination of these ingredients makes a regional conflagration, into which Western powers could be drawn, only too plausible. At this juncture, everyone concerned would be well advised to bear in mind Winston Churchill’s dictum: “Jaw jaw is better than war war”.

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London’s New Europe House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 7th December, 2010

I managed to squeeze 20 minutes in at the official opening of the new London offices of the European Commission and European Parliament at 32 Smith Square last night, before having to rush off to chair the Executive of London Liberal Democrats at Cowley Street just a short walk away. Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the Commission, had originally been billed to appear, but in fact was detained by business in Brussels, presumably helping save various EU members from bankruptcy, including his native Portugal. However, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague, did attend, despite being urged to stay away by Conservative bloggers such as Jonathan Isaby. Mr Hague — who brought a portrait of Winston Churchill to grace the room in the refurbished building that will be named after the war-time Prime Minister, who spoke up for European union before deciding to distance Britain from the nascent institutions that would eventually become the EU. The fact that William Hague was there is a tribute to the way that the Liberal Democrat partners in the Coalition government in London  have softened the Tories Euro-scepticism. Nonetheless, Mr Hague did have a stern message of belt-tightening for the Eurocrats and MEPs present: ‘Just as this Government is bringing excessive spending under control here in Britain  — control that has required some very difficult decisions — so we look to all EU institutions to join us in effective and rigorous control of spending.’ The irony was not lost on those present that 32 Smith Square used to be the Conservative Party headquarters and is perhaps most famous as being the backdrop for Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory celebrations. As one mischievous wag commented, ‘Lady Thatcher would turn in her grave, were she dead.’

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Merry Christmas from Nick Griffin (God Help Us)

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd December, 2009

Jolly seasonal posters have started appearing on hoardings around Barking in East London, showing British National Party leader Nick Griffin toasting everyone with a glass of wine and wishing them a Merry Christmas from himself and the BNP. If anyone had any doubts that the party was going to fight the parliamentary seat seriously at the forthcoming general election, such doubts must now be dispelled. The BNP has already caused outrage by associating itself with Winston Churchill (a politician who fought against fascism all his life) and the Battle of Britain. Now the wretched racist crew is trying to co-opt Christmas — the celebration of the birth of a prophet who preached love and tolerance, the very opposite of many BNP messages. It’s enough to make one puke. Doubtless this latest BNP manoeuvre will be condemned by Church leaders; it certainly should be. And it should galvanize other political parties to redouble their efforts to show the Barking electorate that Nick Griffin and his mates in no way represent the Best of British.

(photo: Helen Duffett)

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The Tories Just Don’t Get It on Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th October, 2009

George OsborneThe Conservative Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, looking all serious in long trousers at the party’s conference in Manchester yesterday, solemnly trotted out the new Tory mantra: ‘We’re all in this together!’  The deliberately Churchillian echo was designed to conjure up wartime nostalgia, of getting everyone to put their shoulders to the wheel at a time when Britain stood alone. The glaring flaw in this analogy is that in the current economic, rather than military, crisis, Britain does not stand alone — and it would be fatal if it did. On the contrary, the country’s best chance of emerging from the downturn strongly is to work more closely with our 26 EU partners. But the Conservatives are effectively doing the opposite. They have insulted and enraged the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, by leaving the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP, and they still mutter about torpedoing the Lisbon Treaty. Even Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who ought to be a natural Cameron ally, is instead championing former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair as the potential first President of the European Council (God help us). No, the Tories just don’t get it on Europe. And their Little Britain mentality on the world stage will not save these islands of ours, but rather risk sinking them in an increasingly competitive and globalised environment.

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