We may be moderately outspoken at Reaction, but we’re not completely stupid, that is not stupid enough to start openly criticising Dame Judi Dench, who is a British national treasure, currently on an extended publicity round for her latest film. In Victoria and Abdul, out now, she plays Queen Victoria. The resulting film looks like the cinematic equivalent of eating lemon drizzle cake by the fire in your slippers. While you wish you had the courage to be bolder in your cake choices, you really like lemon drizzle cake and it is almost time for the latest episode of the Antiques Roadshow on the television.
Earlier, the Dench publicity train arrived at BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and inevitably one of the questions was about Brexit. Dame Judi is not in favour. Are there any people in the theatre or film in favour of it? Would they dare admit this if they had voted for Brexit? Presumably the actor’s union Equity would be right on their case with sanctions (“it’s Midsomer Murders for you, for five series”) if anyone dared try to say Brexit might not be a disaster.
“I shouldn’t even open this bag of worms,” Dame Judi told the BBC. “But the whole business of leaving Europe… There’s something about being inclusive that is more important than being exclusive.”
She recalled a celebratory performance when Britain joined the Common Market (if only it had stayed as a Common Market rather than morphing into an integrationist behemoth) in 1973, with an evening of performance with Sir Lawrence Olivier (Larry, lovely Larry) and fellow actor Max Adrian.
“There was opera from Italy and the ballet, there was everybody,” said Dame Judy. “Everybody was represented in Europe that evening. There was something so glorious about it.”
Well, yes. But the nature of Dame Judi’s complaint made me rather regretful and sad, because it is rooted in one of the great contemporary misunderstandings about European culture and Britain’s involvement. The implication of her remarks is not only that we are leaving Europe. And no, we cannot leave Europe, thankfully. That is a geographical, cultural and culinary impossibility. Europe is thousands of years old. The EU in its post-Maastricht form came into being as recently as 1993.
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Beyond that, the impression is created that from that night with Sir Larry and the young Judi Dench we became artistically connected to Europe in a way we had not been before. That is, sorry Dame Judi, national treasure, complete bunkum. We’ve been entwined for many centuries, and there is no reason that will stop now simply because we will no longer have MEPs and no longer have to listen to Jean-Claude Juncker.
Look at the deep cultural ties stretching back down the generations. In that context the EU, a set of relatively new governing arrangements that the British rejected, is a mere pimple on the backside of history.
Shakespeare’s work is inherently European, in terms of his settings and themes. English theatre borrowed in the 18th and 19th century from the revolution in style, staging, approach and sophistication that took place on the continent thanks to the work of people such as Carlo Goldini, the playwright responsible for Servant of Two Masters, adapted once again in London a few years ago as One Man, Two Guvnors. The small museum dedicated to Goldini’s life is in his childhood home in Venice. It is worth a visit. And there is a superb ice cream shop opposite.
Then there was the concept of the Grand Tour, rooted in the rediscovery of the superior achievements of the ancients and the renaissance on continental European soil. Was there theft and chicanery alongside the rediscovery? Yep. That was hardly a uniquely British black mark in human history. The point is the British revered non-British paintings, sculpture and architecture and drew inspiration. Our best painters, usually in the shadow of the Dutch, Italians, Spanish and French, travelled extensively hoping to learn.
In the 19th century, what became Germany produced, arguably, the greatest civilisation in human history. Its contribution in the musical sphere is as good as anything made anywhere at any time by mankind.
Indeed, in classical music, the relationship between Britain and Germany has long been close, as British audiences recognised the stellar German achievement.
It was a relationship interrupted by war, flowing from a bastardisation of German culture by Hitler, but then the links were quickly reestablished. Before the Second World War the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a British pioneer, toured Germany and was feted. The Berlin Philharmonic toured Britain for the first time in 1927. It went to New York a few years earlier.
It was Sir Thomas who in the 1930s gave sanctuary to Berta Geissmar, the Jewish exile who was assistant and manager to the unfortunately named Furtwängler (Wilhelm), the controversial but important conductor, when she had to flee Germany. She died in London in 1949, although I can never find out how or where exactly. Her memoir was written in the home of Beecham’s son.
A morose Furtwangler was later subjected to “denazification” after the War and cleared. His much more glamorous and flashy rival, with great hair, Herbert von Karajan – who really was signed up for the Hitler experiment – then went on to be the classical music superstar of the post-war period.
Then, in May 1950, only five years after the end of the war, the premiere of Strauss’s Four Last Songs took place where? In supposedly boring old Britain. The concert was organised by the impresario Walter Legge, the Shepherd’s Bush boy who a little later married the Prussian soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The conductor of Four Last Songs that night in the Royal Albert Hall was Furtwangler. The soprano was Kirsten Flagstad, the Norwegian star of the New York Metropolitan Opera House who had also had a tricky war. There is a poignant if low quality recording of the rehearsal, with Flagstad struggling to hit the notes.
Oh, and then Britain’s Beatles learnt their trade in Hamburg a decade later.
I could go on. But life is short.
Still, the idea that we were ever somehow in splendid isolation from the 18th century onwards, restricting ourselves to English lute music and grim plays about coal-mining deaths in the industrial revolution, until we joined the EEC and “became part of Europe” is just not how it was. We have long been European in cultural terms. It is a shame to see otherwise well-intentioned people become so anti-Brexit that they deal in luvvie myths rather than the more interesting historical reality.