Howard Brenton's play reviewed by Ronald Porter

Posted by Helen Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ronald Porter is a regular contributor to the Conservative History Journal and I am delighted to be able to put his review of Brenton's play about Harold Macmillan on the blog. I hope this might become a new departure for other contributors as well.

NEVER SO GOOD [By Howard Brenton ]
Lyttelton Theatre
Reviewed by Ronald Porter.
For me it was a total disaster. A big let down. The play was wildly misleading and inaccurate and much of the acting was shallow and unconvincing. Docu-dramas never really work for me. I always find Reality and Truthfulness breaking in and ruining any attempt to convince me that was is going on before my very eyes - to use the late Arthur Askey's phrase - ever really happened.

Any play about the life and times of Harold - ' You've Never Had it so Good ' - Macmillan should have been interesting. There is certainly no excuse for poor historical research or big mistakes over the casting of the main characters.

Jeremy Irons, who played Macmillan, never really looked like him and he got that clever, sophisticated, complicated and contradictory personality quite wrong. Anna Chancellor, as his wife, Lady Dorothy, was equally unconvincing. I must admit that portraying a Cavendish - the Queen Mother was from the same stable on her mother's side - on stage, is always going to be difficult, though it should not be entirely impossible. Anthony Eden's 'half woman, half man' personality, so ably encapsulated in just those four words, by Rab Butler, was nowhere to be seen in the portrayal by Anthony Calf. And one of the most embarrassing pieces of acting I have seen for a long time was Ian MacNiece's performance as Winston Churchill, whom he got completely wrong. Churchill was made out to be a far too dumpy and ignorant version of Billy Bunter. There was very little of Greyfriars in the real Saviour of Mankind .

Had my friend and hero, Bob Boothby - or Baron Boothby of Buchan and Rattray Head, to give him his full title, which he rather enjoyed - been alive today, I am sure he would have ADORED the play. And spoken up for it. And encouraged 'all ' - his favourite description of the voters - to go and see it.
The play really went to town with him. Played by Robert Glenister, he was made out to be a far more crucial and important politico than he ever really was. In real life Boothby only had the most insignificant, walk-on parts, regarding the crucial episodes in Macmillan's life. Unlike what the play would have us believe, Boothby was never seriously or frequently consulted about any of the political or social issues of the day. He played absolutely no role whatsoever in Suez, the ousting of Eden, the succession of Macmillan in 1957, various cabinet re-shuffles, or the Prufumo or Vassal affairs. None whatsoever. Zilch.
True, he had a long and romantic liaison with Macmillan's wife, Lady Dorothy but the play treats it in a very superficial and unsophisticated way. The affair began on a golf course in Scotland in the early nineteen thirties and lasted until Dorothy died in the mid - sixties, after which Boothby went on the bottle ' big time ' for the next decade. The play tends to create the impression they were a couple of teenage flirts. They were nothing of the kind. It was much deeper than that, certainly on Dorothy's side.
As for Boothby, he certainly liked her and relished the upsets and heartache it caused his colleague and one time rival. But Boothby really liked ' the blokes ' best of all. Like a lot of Upper Middle Class toffs, he could never resist young, good looking, working class lads in their early twenties. Torn tee shirts and faded jeans act like an irresistible and sometimes fatal magnet for many a toff. Thanks to the Krays, he got a good supply of lads in the late nineteen fifties and the sixties.
Crucially, the play fails to mention that the couple had a daughter who was brought up within the Macmillan family as the child of Dorothy and Harold. At Oxford, in the early 1950s, the daughter got pregnant. Dorothy panicked. She was always ambitious for Harold and she realised that if the press picked up on the story, there would be a scandal and Macmillan's chances of getting to Number Ten would be scuppered for good.
So she forced her unwilling daughter to have a ' back street abortion '. It went horribly wrong . There were lasting physical and mental repercussions. The girl led a rather wretched life thereafter and killed herself in her Pimlico flat in the early 1960s. Harold was still Prime Minister at the time and Boothby was living it up, high on the hog - as usual - only about a mile away in his ground floor flat at Eaton Square. The play is absolutely silent about all this

The other errors and omissions in the play are too numerous to mention but here are just a few .
Harry Crookshank, played by Ben Addis, was a friend of Macmillan from their days at Eton and their spell in the Guards. He was to become, like Macmillan, an MP and a Tory minister. The play has him as Chief Whip during the Suez crisis. He NEVER held this job. Not even for five seconds. The Chief Whip at the time was none other than our old friend, Edward Heath. Why the play's author makes this key error is baffling.
Crookshank, who was an old 'shirt - lifter' [ the play keeps silent about this] like Boothby, retired shortly after Macmillan became PM and went to live in Pont Street 'with a sailor from Frinton'. He had been once Lord Privy Seal. As Churchill said of him , ' Harry is neither a privy , nor a seal. Though I sometimes wish he was the former.'
There was no trans - Atlantic telephone line between the White House and Number Ten at the time of Suez, as the play implies. Finally , Clementine Churchill never tried to stop Churchill from drinking while he painted his beautiful, semi - impressionistic masterpieces. Whisky and sodas were his favourite tipple whilst painting. She knew it and would never have been so foolish as to try and ban it. Even Arthur Askey would have known that .


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. I want the full text
    thank you

  3. Helen Says:
  4. Errm, full text of what? That is the full text of the review and we cannot provide you with the text of the play. Sorry.

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