They Came to a City: what happened to wartime Utopianism?

they_came_to_a_city_01Last week we we saw the film of J.B. Priestley’s They Came to a City shown by the BFI as part of their season of Ealing Studios films.  As entertainment the film lacked a certain something, but as a political and historical document it is of real interest.  It reflects the wartime desire of many Britons to build a better society once the war was over – as a sort of quid pro quo for pulling together as part of the war effort.  Does this have anything to say to us now?

The film, made in 1944 from a play produced in 1942, transports nine people drawn from across British society to a Utopian city, where life follows the Priestley’s distinctly socialist vision of the way life should be.  We don’t see the city itself, merely the reactions of these individuals to it: they are offered the choice of staying or returning to current society.

The film only offers hints of what this ideal society is.  Back in the 1940s people probably had a better idea about it than we do now.  It is an egalitarian society where people are focused on well-being rather than possessions, cooperate rather than compete and “do an honest job for the community for what the community thinks we’re worth,” to quote a later Priestley work.  People are happy, and capitalism, or its prewar incarnation, is banished.

The three working class characters, including the two principals, all like this vision and want to stay – or promote its ideals in the real world.  The capitalist plutocrat hates it: he is told that what he does for a living is criminal there.  Two of the three aristocrats also reject the city, for similarly predictable reasons: the male character giving a little speech about how he didn’t really like to have to deal with people at all.  The middle class couple is split.  The bank manager husband is keen to throw off the oppressive stupidity of his organisation; his rather neurotic wife is horrified: she wants a garden and children of her own, and doesn’t want to mix with “common” people.

The film is making two distinct points here.  First is that many people want this ideal society but are convinced that it is impossible or impractical to achieve, and so do not strive for it.  It is important to inspire such people with the hope that it is possible: which is what the thought experiment of the city does, and gives rise to film’s messianic conclusion.  The second is that the ideal society will be disliked by many people, and not just those at the top of society.  At all levels people pin their hopes on a vision based on the way society is: material possessions, status and so forth, and so resist changes to the way society works.  The opposite is also true, of course: some of the upper echelons of society will be as anxious for liberation as anybody else, represented in this film by the upper class daughter who breaks from her mother to stay in the city.

How does this look now?  The first reaction is to think that all the hopes have come to nothing, and that we are reduced to the cynicism that Priestley was so anxious to combat.  Putocrats flaunt their wealth; capitalist competition drives most of the economy; people remain obsessed with possessions and status.  Utopianism is dismissed as impractical.  You can imagine Priestley preaching to us today with the same fervour.

But that’s a glass half empty view.  Since 1945 much of the socialist vision has come to pass.  Social security, the National Health Service and free education are now all accepted foundations of modern society.  The proportion of economic activity not driven by competition: government administration and services mainly, is much higher than the pre-war level.  Even a shadowy idea of competition within the NHS is bitterly contested, with most people instinctively against.  Class distinctions may be persistent, but they are a faint shadow of what they were.  The overwhelming majority of Britons would identify with the (rather articulate) working class characters in this film, who seem distinctly middle class to us.  The aristocracy is an irrelevance.  The middle class characters look hopelessly outdated.  Apart from the working class characters only the plutocrat remains of our time – and he is a figure of humble origins made good.  And poverty of the sort taken for granted before the war has been largely banished – and people are much happier in all sorts of ways.

But it is not our way to reflect on these gains.  However close we get to utopia it always seems an infinite distance away.

Crimes and Misdemeanors: Woody Allen at the BFI

Last Friday we went to seen Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors in the BFI’s  Woody Allen season.  There are two more showings to go (including this evening), and I would recommend this dark comedy.

I am quite familiar with Allen’s earlier comedies (Sleeper, Annie Hall, etc), with Allen playing an engaging but ineffectual intellectual who manages to get the girl in the end.  In this film Allen plays that same character, as a New York maker of documentary films, but this time his life moves from failure to abject failure, as he competes with his shallow but successful brother-in-law, played by Alan Alda, and ends up with no girl at all.  Altogether a darker and more realistic observation of the nature of success in society – I nearly wrote “modern society” but this story is surely as old as civilisation itself.

But it is not the main plot of the film, just a counterpoint to another, even darker story about a successful ophthalmologist (played by Martin Landau), who decides that his unstable ex-mistress (Anjelica Huston) has to be bumped off before she spills the beans and destroys the rest of his life.  He succeeds, is wracked by his conscience, but comes through.  Amidst all this there is a lot of dialogue about the nature of God and morality – in a very Jewish setting.  This plays to a modern rather pessimistic view of reality, where just deserts can be avoided with a bit of care and luck.

The very Jewish nature of the discussion, with the trauma of the Holocaust very much part of the picture, put me in mind of the state of Israel – though there no references at all to it in the film.  There people also  ruthlessly resort to force majeure, including the loss of life of varying degrees of innocence, amid much talk of morality, which, in the end, seems to count for very little.  Life goes on.

PS If you go at the BFI, don’t bother with the programme notes except to look at the credits.  It consists of a dense review written 1990, a truly appalling examplar bad art criticism.  Hard to read, trying to be clever, and (almost) devoid of genuine insight.