What’s yet to be told about Donald Trump, the most famous open book, if not open mind, in the world? Astonishingly, it turns out, rather a lot. Despite literally 24-hour media analysis over the past four years, a clutch of global investigations, a billion column inches, we are learning more from one little series simply through truly great access and a sober nonpartisan approach.
This first episode of The Trump Show (there are three, due to end their intriguing run just in time for the election actual) featured interviews with major players from that ribald first year in power, when Trump was first doing everything a president should not do – apart, one might argue, from keeping some promises to voters. Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Omarosa Manigault Newman, Anthony Scaramucci – all staffers, suddenly culled within that first year, mainly through petulance – looked back less in rancour than bemusement.
Spicer told of being ordered to exaggerate the size of inauguration crowds, an early, fat falsehood that swiftly led to Trump’s first declaration of war against “hostile” media. Newman, a one-time Apprentice contestant adopted by Trump as an aide, confided to us how the president-elect seriously considered, for long hours until she could dissuade him, taking the oath of office with his hand on his own bestseller, The Art of the Deal. The Mooch shrugged and said he was, basically, caught out bang to rights guv. He lied about leaking anti-Trump vitriol to a journo, but someone lied better. Bannon, if now a little flyblown, still exudes a kind of mephitic energy.
We also learned, a little, about how the rest of the condemnatory world got it wrong, in persisting in the belief they were dealing with a vaguely rational politician rather than a (not untalented) impresario in which the greatest show on Earth was himself. Former French ambassador Gérard Araud: “As good French intellectuals we were trying to understand what was behind Donald Trump.” Way wrong question! The New York Times had called it 93-7 for Clinton, not the first time that august paper was going to underestimate Trump, along with an oppositional world whose very spleneticism worked for Trump throughout. On one hand there was truth, endless detail, legalese, right on their side, certainly the spirit of the law and every interpretation since Franklin, and a solid ethical framework. On the other, a bulbous showman shouting, endlessly: “Look at me! Look at shiny shiny coin coin!” Knife to a gunfight. The experiment might soon be over, thanks be, and might have been looked back upon with a certain curiosity had he not also gone so far – one man’s ego against the hard-wrought soul of a nation – as to set America’s social, civil and racial rights back about 50 years.
White Riot was a wonderful retrospective on Rock Against Racism, film-maker Rubika Shah’s 2019 tribute to the now greying radicals who constituted a vital fightback in the mid-70s against racism in Britain. With Martin Webster and the National Front kicking their way into the headlines, such illustrious musos as Bowie, Clapton and Rod Stewart didn’t want to know. It was left to “Red” Saunders, Roger Huddle and a tiny dedicated team based in a Walthamstow typesetters to start RAR in a crucial time for potential protest from the young. Punk in particular could have gone either way – a few bands, notably Sham 69, had significant numbers of NF and Britain First supporters.
This was all told with delightfully nostalgic graphics that evoked the spirit of fanzines, of rough-cut linocut outrage and humour, and of a world where you had to physically write to your musical hero, physically print pamphlets, drum up support with shoe leather on the streets. It culminated in a RAR/Anti-Nazi League 1978 concert in Victoria Park, east London, where the National Front was polling 23% in 1978. The Clash, Steel Pulse, the heroic Tom Robinson, who spent the 70s singing to spitting yobs how he was glad to be gay, and, crucially, Sham’s Jimmy Pursey were also on stage, a rock-solid rebuke to race hatred: as were twelvefold the expected audience. One fine remembered day: there should surely be a blue plaque somewhere in Walthamstow, for first energising the young, white fightback at a pivotal time in our culture: heroes all.
Drama Out of a Crisis, a celebration of 50 years since Play for Today first aired, told, I’ve suddenly stupidly realised, almost the same story but from the perspective not of music but of theatre and film. The two are symbiotic in recounting the tale of how the left-liberal movement refettled perspectives back then: the one through grassroots activism, the other through intellectual TV drama. The days of Dennis Potter, Kenith Trodd, Mike Leigh, the formidable producer Margaret Matheson, and plays that aired on Thursday nights to large audiences. They explored, sometimes subtly and with memorable effect, sometimes with clunking messaging, race, sexism, snobbery, homelessness or end of empire, all of new interest in the decade preceding Thatcher; and, crucially, explored them in our living rooms and those of 8 million others weekly.
Some were little short of genius, and live on. Some so-so; some, now, in reductive hindsight, tiresomely one-note propagandist. But there can be little doubt that, for every mind that they solidified in reactionary opposition, they changed at least three, to admit, on a family sofa, the concept of moving from the past to a more accepting world. Which is, I’ll sternly argue, the world in which we now find ourselves.
The Bridge is, sadly, not a new outing for Saga Noren and her dirty-olive Porsche but an “exciting, intriguing new” reality show, in which a dozen chiefly young contestants try to win £100,000 by building a 250-metre bridge across to a wee island in wild Wales. It could, indeed, have been intriguing, had more than a couple of them possessed any kind of expertise, or self-knowledge, or a greater understanding of maths or physics than of social media; or, indeed, chosen to build an actual “bridge”.
Instead, they’ve opted (within the rules) to build a kind of lashed-together pontoon, which will mean that, rather then getting their brain muscles busy with such mysteries as cantilevers and torsion, they’re just cutting down trees and tying them together, badly, in the water. The producers have, of course, fallen back on sowing dissent, with jealousy, betrayal, intellectual snobbery already evident. It is all somehow dispiriting, not least in the way the women in the group, so far, seem to be so meekly, incuriously subservient to the men in everything but the taking of offence on behalf of others. Some of them are spiky enough that this state of affairs can’t last; I just don’t know whether anyone will still be watching.