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The Olympic torch – from Hitler to Headingley

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 26, 2012

The Olympic torch was carried down my road in Headingley, Leeds on Sunday. I have next to no interest in sport, but the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations reminded me that although I similarly have very little interest in the royal family per se, I am fantastically interested in rituals, commemorations and what they reveal about our collective interests and priorities. So, on the same basis, I turned out to see the torch go by.

There’s been some interesting debate recently about the particular ritual of the Olympic torch relay. Mary Beard has been pointing out since the run-up to the Beijing games in 2008 that this ritual was invented by Hitler, and using that fact to support her view that it is silly, a waste of money and should be dropped. Since then, other commentators have picked up Mary’s point and she herself has regularly reiterated it.

But all traditions have to be invented at some point, as Mary well knows, and they also change and evolve in response to contemporary needs.

My colleague Elizabeth Pender is working on the ideals and values associated with the Olympic games at the moment, and pointed out to me over lunch recently the huge contrasts between the way the Chinese used the torch-carrying ritual four years ago for the Beijing Olympics and the way the UK is using it now. As she said, the Chinese approach was distinctly imperialistic. They sent it all around the globe, on the longest route it had ever followed – an instant claim to Chinese pre-eminence. The torch-bearers were Chinese athletes and other notable cultural figures (actors, musicians, directors etc), making the relay into a display of the physical prowess and cultural achievements of their people, while of course they famously ran surrounded by uniformed security guards – an unmistakeable symbol of China’s strength, discipline and ability to suppress dissent. And all of this provoked considerable controversies along the route, as the torch-relay became the focus of protests against China’s human rights record, anger with the heavy-handed security guards, and a general sense from commentators that this wasn’t quite in keeping with the supposedly peaceful, non-political ideology of the Olympic games.

That’s the context in which Mary Beard first started voicing her opposition to the torch relay, and in the face of that particular iteration of it I can see her point. The claims to national pre-eminence inherent in the Chinese rally certainly bear close comparison with the ceremony invented by the Third Reich.

But the way the relay has been used in the UK this year is a vivid example of just how flexible and adaptable rituals like this can be. Here, the torch relay has explicitly and deliberately been used to foster and demonstrate localism and inclusiveness, on an entirely internal stage. Far from travelling round the globe, this year’s torch is being taken instead into the heart of as many communities across the UK as possible. The 8000-mile route has apparently been designed to pass within an hour’s journey or less from 95% of the population, so that there are actually huge numbers of people (including Mary Beard) having the same experience as me – of the torch going down their very own road. At that point, no matter how little interest you have, it becomes churlish to sit inside deliberately not looking out of the window – and so you get sucked in in spite of yourself, included in the whole experience, and drawn together with your immediate neighbours and fellow citizens across the country. The torch-bearers are local people, too – out of 8000 in total, 700 are athletes, but the other 7300 have been put forward by their local communities and chosen on the basis of their personal achievements and / or contribution to the area. And this has been really effective. I’ve heard very little criticism of this particular form of Olympic torch relay, but instead all sorts of heart-warming local news stories showing the torch being photographed at distinctive local landmarks and people turning out to cheer and enjoy the atmosphere as it goes by.

Nonetheless, the “don’t you know the torch relay was invented by Hitler?” meme itself remains very much alive. In fact, it seems to have become this year’s torch-relay comment piece de rigeur. And I am pleased to see this sort of conversation about the relay going on. The discourse which rituals like this provoke, whether anti or pro, is to me all part of their wider cultural value – and of course we should always think to ask where our traditions come from, and what that adds to or detracts from their value, as part of the ongoing process of deciding whether or not we want to perpetuate them.

I think this particular response to the torch relay, though, also reveals a distinct measure of what I think of as ‘ritual anxiety’ – that is, an uneasiness around the whole idea of ritual activities. It’s something I see in relation to all sorts of other ritual occasions and commemorative events, and particularly strikes me on Valentine’s Day, when a whole army of people emerge every year to complain that we shouldn’t need a special day devoted to something we should be doing all the time, that it is meaningless, too commercialised, misogynistic etc. But it also crops up in relation to Christmas (goods in the shops too early, probably not really the date of the historical Jesus’ birth), Easter (it’s a pagan festival really!, no it’s not), and almost any other ritual or commemorative occasion you can name.

A lot of this sort of commentary seems to spring from discomfort with the arbitrary, invented character of these events. We are asked to treat a particular day as special when we know that it isn’t really inherently different from any other day, or to take particular actions and rituals seriously when we know full well that they don’t have any concrete outcome – and indeed that someone just like us simply invented them at some point. None of that sits well with a modern mind-set that demands rational grounds for doing things. Then, of course, there is our awareness that rituals of all kinds have a long history of being used by repressive regimes, ideologies and religions as tools for boosting their own prestige and indoctrinating cowed and ill-educated populations into their preferred ways of thinking. That certainly doesn’t look palatable to the populations of modern liberal democracies, and is exactly what the ‘invented-by-Hitler’ meme conjures up.

But sometimes I think that the modern urge to respond cynically and suspiciously to rituals risks underestimating their social and emotive value, as well as the ways in which they can be re-appropriated by the masses of ordinary people participating in them. Few people in the UK are really so severely rationalistic as to eschew Christmas altogether, even if we don’t believe in its religious symbolism, or indeed belong to another religious tradition altogether. In the end, most people recognise that it’s a good excuse to connect with other people via a common experience and have a bit of fun, and that there is enough flexibility in the festival to access those parts of it separately from its religious content. In fact, Christmas is a very good example of a festival which has been widely re-appropriated, and is now as much a secular festival celebrated out of generalised nostalgia for the past (Victorian Britain, pagan midwinter festivals or whatever) and for the sake of present-day shared identity, as it is a religious one.

Similarly, with the Olympic torch relay, arguably what is more important than the invention of the ritual under the Nazis is the choice that was made to repeat it for the next Olympic games, held in London in 1948. It was at that point, in fact, and not in 1936, that it became a tradition rather than just a one-off event – and also that the London Olympic organisers established it as a flexible ritual, which did not have to be celebrated in the same way every four years. That is re-appropriation, and to me already renders the actual origins of the relay rather insignificant – and that is to say nothing of the constant re-invention and re-working of the ritual which has continued unabated over the subsequent 64 years.

Meanwhile, in Leeds the torch relay has been quite an event. The City Council and local newspapers have been busy promoting it, as have local businesses and organisations. When the torch arrived in Headingley itself, it called in first at the area’s best-known landmark – the Carnegie Stadium, which is home to both the Leeds Rhinos rugby club and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and where it was greeted by local MP Greg Mulholland. There was a big rugby game on at the stadium anyway, so taking the torch there was clearly a good way to involve lots of people in the relay. But the management also opened up the gates for free entry while the torch passed through, and stated explicitly on their website that “Headingley Carnegie Stadium are looking forward to extending a special welcome to families who’ve never been to the ground before.” So for them it was an opportunity to draw people in to an aspect of Headingley life which they might not previously have been involved with before – presumably with the hope that they would like it and come again.

I didn’t think very many people would be watching on my road itself, assuming that surely most people would go to see it in the stadium or along the main shopping street instead, but boy was I wrong! I could tell things were gearing up from about an hour before the torch arrived, when I looked out of the window and saw a lady living opposite hanging out some bunting, and by half an hour before the torch came past there were already rows of people lining what is normally a fairly quiet suburban road. At that point I got out there and started taking a few photos and chatting to people, and you could really feel a sense of palpable excitement along the street. The chap standing next to me had walked down from Far Headingley with his slightly reluctant son (who would rather have watched it on TV), and was keen to point out that we would never get the chance to see an Olympic torch relay going through our area in real life again. In other words, he wanted to feel that he was an active participant in a unique moment of our communal history – which seems also to have been one of the main attractions of the Diamond Jubilee. By the time the torch came by, the son was looking just as interested and excited as everyone else.

There were of course plenty of people there to promote their businesses or make money out of the crowds, from big Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lloyds TSB floats with blaring music and cheer-leaders to a lady selling Union Jack (yes, I know) flags and a local ice-cream van which turned up towards the end. But hey, that’s all part of our society too. And meanwhile there was some surprisingly touching camaraderie – like the police motorbike riders, who were technically there to clear the crowds gently out of the path of the procession, mainly spending their time cruising past and high-fiving everyone. I know it’s a huge cliché, but I took the opportunity to get chatting to my next-door neighbours, who moved in a couple of months ago but whom I hadn’t spoken to yet – and of course found that they were lovely people whom I was really pleased to get to know.

The torch-bearer along my stretch was Susan Marley, who has campaigned extensively for cystic fibrosis research. I could tell it was her because she was the only woman out of five torch-bearers for the Headingley route – which, given that these people were put forward by their local community, is a bit disappointing, actually. Don’t the people of Headingley feel that more of their women are worth celebrating? Still, I was pleased to cheer her on, and she looked like she was really enjoying her well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

The actual passage of the torch was incredibly quick in comparison to the time spent waiting for it, of course. But the real attraction was never the torch itself anyway. It was the sense of being part of a something exciting with nationwide resonances, but happening right outside my house and involving my own local community – just as the organisers had always designed it to be. I’m glad the torch relay provided a focus for that, I’m glad I took part – and I don’t think that the connection with the Third Reich detracted from it. What I saw showed me that the ritual has transcended its origins – and that taking part in something which doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny can still be really enjoyable and worthwhile.

If you live in Leeds and would like to know more about the relationship between the ancient and modern Olympics, my colleagues Emma Stafford and Elizabeth Pender will be giving lunchtime talks on that subject on Thursday 28th June and Thursday 26th July as part of the Classics in our lunchtimes series at Leeds City Museum. Both are free to attend, and details of the first talk, on ‘Olympic Beginnings: preparing for the Games, then and now’ are available here. If you can’t make it to the talks themselves, you can listen to them afterwards as part of the Classics in our lunchtimes podcast series.

Posted in classical receptions, cultural identity, greek history, history, leeds, rituals and festivals, urban geography | 8 Comments »

Jonathan Miller and The Drinking Party (1965)

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 17, 2011

Oh dear – this blog has become rather neglected. My last post was in January – not good! I don’t even have a very good excuse, either. I mean, I’ve been busy writing papers and marking essays, but then academics are always busy with those things. I must do better in future!

Anyway, I spent last weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford attending the 10th Annual Fantastic Films Weekend, a hugely enjoyable event which I try to get to every year. The emphasis tends to be on classic horror films, but the definition of ‘fantastic’ is deliberately kept broad, and I often find that one of the most enjoyable elements of the weekend is the screenings of little-known gems from the museum’s archive of vintage TV recordings.

This year, one of the headline guests was writer, director and medical doctor Sir Jonathan Miller, who was interviewed for the festival audience by no less a figure than the academic and film critic Sir Christopher Frayling. To get us in the right mood for the interview on the Sunday evening, the festival line-up included three of the television dramas which Miller had directed in the 1960s: his 1966 Alice in Wonderland, his 1968 Whistle and I’ll Come to You, and (most exciting for me as a Classicist) a 1965 piece entitled The Drinking Party, which is an adaptation of Plato’s Symposium.

The Symposium is perhaps Plato’s best-known dialogue, presenting the conversation from a symposium (all-male social gathering over food and wine) at which each speaker was asked to give a speech in praise of Love. It’s hardly the sort of thing I would expect to see being used as the basis for a 50-minute TV drama these days, though. Miller’s adaptation actually took the form of an episode from a mid-’60s arts documentary series called Sunday Night, and sadly isn’t widely available, but this YouTube extract gives a good sense of the whole:

The basic set-up is that a group of young men gather on the terrace of a neo-Classical building (actually in the grounds of Stowe School), for a formal dinner in honour of their Classics master, played by Leo McKern, during which they adopt the roles of the characters in Plato’s dialogue, and deliver their speeches in a re-enactment of the original symposium. Both the script and the direction are the work of Jonathan Miller, and date from very early on in his career. But it is a very clever adaptation, knowingly and playfully translating to the world of the Oxbridge tutorial not only Plato’s words, but also the dramatic structure of the dialogue and the cultural setting of the Athenian intellectual elite. Not everything matches perfectly, of course – particularly the central concern of the original dialogue with (what we would now call) homosexual love. But I felt that even the mismatches were handled in a way that was true to the character of both the original dialogue and the 1960s Oxbridge setting.

Narrative distance

One of the most striking features of Plato’s original dialogue is that its description of the symposium is presented at several removes. Plato as author purports to be writing down an account of the evening told to him by Apollodorus, who was not actually at the symposium himself, but heard about it from another friend, Aristodemus, who was present at the original gathering, although not strictly as a participant since he didn’t give a speech. Furthermore, the climactic speech delivered by Socrates also introduces another level of distance – while the other speakers express their own views on Love, Socrates instead reports what he had learnt from a woman named Diotima.

On one level, The Drinking Party can’t help but be far more direct than the original dialogue, since we see the characters making their speeches in live action on the screen. It’s actually perfectly possible that Plato, too, wrote with the idea that his dialogues would be performed orally, rather than simply read – but that isn’t how most people approach them today. They have become above all texts, and seeing this one delivered as a physical performance made for a very different experience. For one thing, it really allowed the performers to bring out the contrasting character of the different speeches. So Eryximachus the doctor’s speech is delivered drily and awkwardly, reflecting his very scientific approach and his obvious discomfort with both public speaking and the very theme of Love. And Aristophanes’ very famous speech about how human beings originally had two conjoined bodies, but were split in two by Zeus, and that is why we are all searching for our soul-mate, was delivered very much as a parody played for laughs – as appropriate for a comic poet. What’s more, presenting the dialogue in live-action form also allowed room for the reactions of the other diners, as the camera panned around to show them either listening with rapt attention, laughing, or looking bored as appropriate. It meant that The Drinking Party could function as a commentary on Plato’s dialogue, as well as a performance of the dialogue itself.

For all this vivid directness, though, The Drinking Party does offer its own sense of distance – but one created using techniques appropriate to the medium of TV, rather than the hand-me-down narration technique used in Plato’s dialogue. The dramatisation begins with a narrative voice-over, introducing the gathering, and explaining that this group of friends meet annually to read the Symposium together. In part, this was probably necessary to orient the original audience, but it also serves the same purpose as Plato’s introduction (explaining how he has come to hear about the symposium and its speeches) of reminding us that we are an audience witnessing a work of artifice, and not actual participants in the event. The speakers are also self-conscious about their own roles as performers, recreating the dialogue at second-hand – or indeed, third-hand, given that they are actors, playing the part of diners, playing the part of Plato’s original characters. They don’t simply behave as though they actually are the participants in Plato’s original dialogue, but stand there in their dinner-jackets with texts in their hands, sometimes needing to consult them and sometimes not, and slipping in and out of character to discuss their own performances, the meaning of the dialogue, and textual issues such as conflicting translations (at one point, one person’s text reports that Aristophanes has the hiccups, while another’s says that he is burping). Meanwhile, Aristodemus is present on screen, but, true to his role in the original dialogue as a medium between the original symposium and Plato’s report, he is described in the opening narration as the group’s photographer. And while Socrates is reporting Diotima’s wisdom about Love, he turns and faces away from the other diners, and away from the television audience, nicely conveying the extra level of remove which Plato uses for his speech.

Greek love

And then there is the dialogue’s profound concern with love between men. This must have been a prominent issue in contemporary public debate, given that the adaptation was broadcast in the wake of the Wolfenden report (which recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality), and only two years before its recommendations were put into practice. (Not, as Terence Lockyer reminded me, the same year, as I had initially believed.) The narrative voice-over at the beginning sets the scene for this, establishing the alien cultural context of the dialogue by explaining that in ancient Greece, women were marginalised, and love between men was seen as the highest form of human affection. This is a time-honoured technique for dealing with cultural differences between the past and the present – essentially saying that they must be addressed because it is part of the historical truth of the past culture, but that to do so does not necessarily imply approval. But already the camerawork is gently subverting what the voice-over is saying by offering us suggestive angles on a distinctly homoerotic sculpture of two naked wrestlers placed at the centre of the table – and thus perhaps implying that homosexuality is not such a remote and alien concept after all.

The speech of Pausanias the lawyer (played by the ever-wondrous Michael Gough) discusses the same issues of cultural difference in attitudes to love between men – just as the original speech does in Plato’s dialogue. He sets out the legal and moral framework for such relationships in Athens, draws explicit comparisons with other cultures where love between men is accepted (Elis, Boeotia) or condemned (Ionia and barbarian regions), and particularly emphasises that the focus of debate in Athens is not the fact of romantic relationships between men per se, but the manner in which they are conducted and the motives of the two partners. Meanwhile, we are once again treated to a very nice view of the sculpted arses of the two wrestlers in the centrepiece. :-) Later on, while Agathon the tragedian makes a very romantic speech all about the youth and beauty and happiness of Love, we also see Pausanias / Gough looking rather maudlin, and casting Significant Glances towards Agathon over his wine-glass – perhaps signalling some kind of unrequited passion.

But it is when Alcibiades arrives that the issue is most explicitly addressed from a contemporary perspective. Plato’s dialogue at this point is all about the relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates, which (in the proper Greek style as set out by Pausanias) clearly mingles romantic and sexual attraction with the bond between pupil and mentor. Miller seems to have considered that this was a little too much for a 1960s audience to take if played straightforwardly, so this is one of the points at which the diners drop out of character to comment on the dialogue, rather than recreating it, allowing the young man playing Alcibiades to object that it is all rather ridiculous. But again, the alternative point of view is carefully, gently put forward too, as Leo McKern (now very much in the guise of the Classics master rather than Socrates as such) suggests to his pupils that Plato knew what he was doing, and was cleverly raising important questions – is hero-worship so ridiculous after all, and perhaps it is natural to show affection for another man whom you admire? It isn’t exactly positioning itself as a clarion-call for decriminalisation – and nor would I expect anything broadcast on the BBC in 1965 to have done so. But I felt that hints of a recognisable equality agenda were there if you cared to look for them.

Aesthetics and design

Meanwhile, all of this philosophising is set into the context of a very pleasing design aesthetic. I’ve already mentioned the grand neo-Classical setting, but not the soundtrack of baroque chamber music – perhaps deliberately matching the architectural style of the building and its contemporary use as a music studio? And the cameras are hard at work throughout, showing us not just the curved bottoms of statues, but dozens of lovely incidental shots of the small business of the dinner-table – wine being poured, waiters being beckoned, drinks being savoured, and so forth. Both the dinner and the speeches are also interrupted by torrential rain at the end of the third speech, which drives the whole party indoors. I happen to know from having spoken to Jonathan Miller afterwards (see below) that this was completely unplanned – but it is used to beautiful effect, giving rise to lots of fantastic shots of the rain dripping off umbrellas left propped up over the dinner table, and of the diners listlessly milling around within the building, waiting for the rain to stop so that they can continue with their evening. It also prompts the use of a different setting for the fourth speech by Aristophanes, which is delivered under the shelter of the colonnade, rather than around the table like the rest. If I didn’t know that this had been an unplanned response to an act of nature, I would suggest that it was a deliberate comment on the tendency for this particular speech to be excerpted from the rest of the dialogue, and treated as an independent text, separate from the rest. But, just for once, I know for sure that that is only my reading – not part of the original design.

So all in all, The Drinking Party was a real pleasure to see. But as I said above, the whole reason it was being screened in the first place was as part of the warm-up for the real climax: a live interview with its director at the end of the festival.

Screen-talk: Sir Christopher Frayling in conversation with Sir Jonathan Miller

This was absolutely fantastic. I’ve been a fan of Christopher Frayling for years anyway, so I would probably have paid the price of admission to see his knowledge and intellect applied to just about anything. But Jonathan Miller really did make a particularly rewarding subject, coming across as incredibly clever and erudite, but also immensely good-humoured and quite happy to have a laugh at his own expense.

Most of the conversation focused around Whistle And I’ll Come To You and Alice in Wonderland. We learnt all sorts of fascinating details about how Miller had approached both of them as stories, and what techniques he had used to bring them successfully to the screen. For example, he spoke about how he had deliberately sought to recreate a Victorian look for Alice…, using crumbling period buildings and replicating the look of contemporary photographs. Or how he felt unable to use any of M.R. James’ prose directly in Whistle…, because it was too dry and academic, and he needed his central character to be less sceptical, so that he could plausibly be frightened when he encounters the possibility of a ghost.

But along the way, we also learnt a great deal about the themes and ideas which he felt he had kept returning to over the course of his career – things like the grammar of dreaming, which puts commonplace elements into an illogical sequence; the difference between events (like one ball hitting another) and human actions (like a person wielding a snooker cue); the Victorian fascination with spiritualism and mesmerism; the importance of small, negligible details like people’s unconscious gestures while they are talking; and his fascination with the folds of drapery. Many of these interests, of course, relate back to his work as a medical doctor with a particular interest in cognitive and psychological disorders, which has obviously profoundly influenced his work as a writer and director. The term ‘Renaissance man’ doesn’t half take some abuse, but with feet so firmly planted in the worlds of both the arts and the sciences, Miller surely qualifies for it if anyone does. He seemed eminently capable of mastering almost anything he chose to put his mind to – and yet genuinely not arrogant or pompous with it, as his willingness to do impressions of chickens and Oxford dons during the course of the conversation made quite clear!

We were all quite entranced already listening to the two speakers on the stage, but after an hour Tony Earnshaw (the organiser of the festival) reminded them they they should leave some time for audience questions, too. Various people asked questions about Alice… and Whistle…, but I decided that, having enjoyed The Drinking Party so much, I should seize what would probably be my only ever opportunity to ask its writer and director a question about it. So I asked to what extent Miller had felt that he was contributing to the contemporary debates around the issue of homosexuality by making it at the time when he did. Actually, he didn’t say anything all that illuminating in response – only really that he felt homosexuality was a tacitly accepted part of Oxbridge culture anyway, so he hadn’t really needed to think too hard about it. (As should be clear from my review above, I think that answer belies the very careful handling of the issue which I believe is actually visible in the adaptation, but never mind! He did make it 45 years ago, after all, so I can forgive him for having forgotten the details of whatever judgements he might have been making at the time.) But he was clearly very pleased to have had a question about it, and said a few more things about how the production had come about, the setting he had used for it, and what he had been aiming to achieve.

Afterwards, too, as we were gathering our things and making ready to depart, he and Christopher Frayling were standing nearby, so I thought it would be polite to acknowledge how much I had enjoyed the evening, just by saying “thank you!” in their general direction. I wasn’t expecting anything more than that, but in fact Jonathan Miller responded by coming right over to me, and asking if I was a Classicist – a possibility to which he had apparently been alerted by earlier conversations over a fag with my chum Jennie Rigg (another indication of how friendly and unpretentious he is). So I replied that I was (though not a Hellenist), expressed enthusiasm for how much I’d enjoyed being able to see The Drinking Party, and took the chance to ask another question which I’d been pondering over – had the rain in it been something he’d planned on, or was it pure serendipity? And that is how I know that the rain was simply the work of nature – and indeed something that his cameramen had been cursing over, but which he had managed to turn into a positive boon.

I can only hope that The Drinking Party makes it to DVD some day – perhaps as a nice double-feature with a follow-up, also by Miller, from the same series entitled The Death of Socrates (if that even still exists). In the meantime, I am just very glad that I had the opportunity to see it.

Posted in classical receptions, greek history, philosophy, reviews, sexuality, television | 13 Comments »

 
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