- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 17, 2007

Lackluster politicians, a sense of a culture adrift from its moorings, a Middle East invasion turned sour. It is not too difficult to see why the revival of John Osborne’s play “The Entertainer” has been greeted as one of the theatrical events of the season. First staged at the Royal Court half a century ago, in the aftermath of that debacle known to everyone here simply as “Suez,” Osborne’s depiction of a faded, self-loathing music hall artiste has long been regarded as a pivotal moment in British theater.

In 1957, when Laurence Oliver’s character Archie Rice admonished his audience, in his best end-of-the-pier-show voice, “Don’t clap too hard — it’s a very old building,” he might have been speaking of the entire political establishment.

Given that Tony Blair — the most despised man in the country, or so it sometimes seems — is supposed to possess all the slick mannerisms of a vaudevillian, journalists were quick to seize on the Old Vic production as a symbol of the dying days of New Labor. It seemed all too apt that Robert Lindsay, the actor filling the Olivier role, had just portrayed Mr. Blair in a bilious television satire which showed the prime minister facing the prospect of a war crimes trial.

How disappointing, then, to discover the “The Entertainer,” far from some timeless analysis of post-imperial malaise, is in fact a creaking period piece. Half a century ago, no doubt, the sight of a down-at-heel family arguing and bickering over glasses of beer must have seemed subversive — to use that most fashionable piece of artspeak. My own impression, I am almost embarrassed to say, was that I was listening to a particularly bad-tempered and repetitive soap opera.

Mr. Lindsay’s louche song-and-dance routines offered mild diversion. But this was, all in all, one of the dullest nights I have had at the theater in some time, the sheer size of the Old Vic auditorium seeming to suck the energy from the stage. By the time we had reached the second interval (yes, there were two intervals to get through) my eyes were drifting longingly toward the exit signs.

Part of the problem is that Osborne’s jaundiced temperament corrodes all it touches. You get a similar sensation from reading his extraordinarily splenetic memoirs. Only in those volumes, verve of the prose makes it worthwhile trudging through the self-loathing, the drinking bouts and the desperately unhappy marriages. By the time he tells you of his desire to spit on the corpse of his late wife, the actress Jill Bennett, you feel an urgent need to make your excuses and leave. Yet his flow of words hold you, queasy but transfixed. If only the same were true of “The Entertainer.”

As for the Middle Eastern parallels, well, the Suez references have a ritual air to them. Since the British cultural establishment is all too easy to seduce when it comes to politics, any veiled allusion to Iraq will always be enough to win a round of applause. (One of the consequences of the debacle in Baghdad, I’m afraid, is that facile anti-Americanism is going to enjoy a new lease of life for the next year or two — at least until George W. Bush leaves office.)

But did I learn much about the way they lived then? Frankly, no. It’s certainly interesting to consider the ways Osborne’s demotic style might have paved the way for Harold Pinter. However, judged purely as a study of a fleeting moment in a country’s political life, the drama tells you less than many an unambitious, well-made film from the Fifties.

If Archie’s ambiguous position on the social ladder forms one of the play’s sub-texts, the theme of class plays a central role in Julian Baggini’s marvelous “Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind” (Granta Books). Here is one of those rare studies that addresses the complexities of the pecking order without once descending into diatribes or arcane sociological theories.

Osborne, who himself rose from obscure origins (his blowsy mother, Nellie Beatrice, is one of the models for Archie Rice’s long-suffering spouse, Phoebe) might well have enjoyed Mr. Baggini’s unpretentious efforts to understand how life is lived far from the metropolitan center.

As the editor and co-founder of a quarterly called The Philosophers’ Magazine, Mr. Baggini might not appear the ideal guide. After all, we no longer expect philosophers to engage with anything so mundane as work or leisure or holidays.

Yet Mr. Baggini — who is of half-Italian stock but appears to have grown up in fairly average surroundings — devised a simple but effective modus operandi: He would spend six months living in the most typical neighborhood, reading only the most popular newspapers, watching the most popular TV programs and generally leading an existence identical to that of his new neighbors.

You could say that George Orwell beat him to it nearly 70 years ago in “The Road to Wigan Pier.” But re-reading that classic today, you cannot help but notice that Orwell’s patrician tastes often led him to focus on the most squalid and deracinated extremes. (The filthy boarding house described in his opening chapter is a prime example.)

Mr. Baggini, in contrast, is much more interested in how average Britons build a sense of community in the blandest of settings. His journey takes him to a district of the Yorkshire town of Rotherham that is, statistically speaking, the dead center of the country. He makes friends in the local pubs, takes a holiday in Spain, goes shopping in malls and even uses a McDonald’s drive-thru.

Naturally, there is much he loathes. Yet by the end of his journey, he has shed many of his prejudices. Most importantly of all, he acknowledges the values that separate the majority of the population from the elites. Mr. Baggini calls the views of the former “conservative communitarianism,” a set of opinions which stand in sharp contrast to the “liberal individualism” of the latter.

He believes, in fact, that the British remain much more working class in their outlook than the rising tide of luxury goods would lead you to think. There is a lot of truth in that view.

Mr. Baggini himself unquestionably prefers liberal values, not to mention the kind of cosmopolitan cuisine he left behind at home. What makes him unusual is that he acknowledges the importance of honouring the virtues of what he calls the “national philosophy”:

“I would prefer liberalism’s universalism to conservative communitarianism’s parochialism. But in order to further a liberal agenda successfully, you have to recognize that you are going against the instincts of the majority. And you also need to realize that these illiberal responses are natural human responses… .

“That’s why the intellectual left has traditionally been baffled by patriotism and was late to see any problem with multiculturalism, other than simple prejudice. Its members see themselves as citizens of the world, above parochial concerns. When your values and way of life are not firmly rooted in the culture of your own country, they cannot easily be threatened if that culture changes. Only when they thought that liberalism itself might be under threat did some become worried.”

Not that the book is a Pollyanna-ish celebration of the happy medium. Mr. Baggini doesn’t hide his distrust of narrow horizons, convenience food and shopping mall culture. Yet he presents an unusally rounded picture of everyday life. Americans, deluged with stereotypical images of Britain as a nation of simpering Hugh Grant wannabes on the one hand and raving Islamic fundamentalists on the other, should seize this opportunity to discover a hidden England.

Clive Davis writes for The Times of London.

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