Tribute to Tony Garnett

This week: 1) Tribute to a revolutionary filmmaker; 2) A triumph over the British Stalinists; 3) Sir Keir Starmer’s political history; 4) The bad sex fiction awards

Tony Garnett, British producer of such memorable films as Cathy Come Home, Up The Junction, Kes, episodes of Z Cars, Days of Hope, the four-part mini-series about the 1926 General Strike, and many of the BBC’s Wednesday Plays, has died aged 82. He was also a lifelong Trotskyist.

In the course of his film-making, Birmingham-born Garnett gathered a large audience of film buffs who appreciated seeing something “different”. But it was the socialist views expressed in his films that truly established his reputation. He and Ken Loach, Kenith Trodd, Roy Battersby, Jim Allen, Irving Teitelbaum, David Mercer, Stuart Hood, Tony Richardson and John McGrath, all with strong links to Trotskyism, brought socialist politics to TV screens, theatres and cinemas.

He was offered a seat in the House of Lords, a knighthood and various baubles that the ruling class use to seduce and compromise men and women of talent. He rejected them all.

Garnett as a young filmmaker

Garnett’s arrival in London to pursue a film career coincided with his involvement in politics. He joined Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labor League and hosted Friday night discourses on Marxism at his Notting Hill Gate residence.

In a Saturday edition in 1971 of Workers Press, a Trotskyist daily newspaper in Britain , Garnett locked horns with George Matthews, editor of the Morning Star, the daily organ of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and its paymasters in Moscow. (WP, 31 July 1971). The Workers Press was a paper I worked on, and subsequently became its editor.

Garnett was replying to an invitation by Matthews to write an article for the Morning Star “to stimulate political debate” between the two rival publications. Matthews wrote to Garnett at Workers Press on 19 May 1971: “There is an urgent need to try to achieve more clarity and unity among socialists, both on immediate questions and the way forward to socialism. We would very much welcome an article from you, of about 1,000 words, giving your views of the future of the Labour Party and the way forward for the labour movement.”

On 1 June 1971 Garnett sent a copy of his article to Matthews saying: “I enclose my contribution to your proposed discussion on the future of the labour movement. Please let me know when you intend to publish it.”

On 8 July 1971, more than one month later, Matthews replied saying: “Your article ignores the main questions raised in my letter, and is primarily devoted to an effort to disrupt the left. I therefore do not propose to publish it. George Matthews.”

In controlled anger, Garnett replied four days later on 12 July, 1971: “You wrote to me asking for an article which would be part of a ‘a discussion in your columns on the future of the labour movement’. “Noting that you gave the assurance that ‘all, whether right, left or centre, are free to say exactly what they wish’.

“I do my best to make a contribution. Having read it, you refuse to publish it.

“Why is it that when I try to raise important questions about building unity, you fall back on what must surely be the most tired cliché in politics – that I am trying ‘to disrupt the left’? I want these questions hammered out in open debate, so that we can lay the foundations for the clarity and unity which you say is your aim.

“Your refusal to publish my article saddens me. Please think again. What are you afraid of? Your readers will be intelligent enough to make up their own minds.”

Matthews brought firm closure to the “debate” in a letter to Garnett four days later: “In view of the character of your article, I do not think we would be justified in printing it.” (16 July 1971).

Garnett triumphs over UK Stalinists

Under the headline, Article the ‘Morning Star’ refused to publish, Workers Press printed Garnett’s piece in full. The edition sold out as communists fought to buy copies that they might normally tear up and throw in the gutter. Garnett began his essay writing: “The readers of the Morning Star must be sick of cosy politics and the polite exchange of views. But the class struggle is not a college debating society. It is a matter of life and death.

“I regret the pain it will cause, but it is necessary to open up some old wounds.”

Because space is limited, this is a summary of Garnett’s main points:

  1. The task of the labour movement is to create a party which will lead the working class to overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with socialism.
  2. The party must be uncompromising in its fight against the ruling class and ruthless in its exposure of that class’s agents in the working class.
  3. The key to the judgement of a party is not its numerical strength at any one moment (for this will vary with the objective situation), nor its incantation of correct texts (for this may signify emptiness or cover betrayal).
  4. The leadership of the Communist Party has hidden its own guilty past and smothered it in lies. There are certainly some who believe the lies, partly out of blind loyalty and partly because they could not face the consequences.
  5. Our duty to the international working class is to unlock the door to the past, the more so because our comrades in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe do not have the opportunity.
  6. Let those who will, liquidate into the Labour Party. There might be a seat in the House of Lords as a reward.
  7. The Communist Party cannot long continue in its state of bad faith, but as long as it does it is a brake on the aspirations of the working class.
  8. Enough of this cuddling up to the “left”-talking trade union leaders and the TUC who are preparing to betray us more surely and consciously than they did in 1926.
  9. Time is short. I ask the leadership of the Communist Party to stop their philandering with reformism and their tortuous apologies for the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. They are only giving communism a bad name – let us leave that task to the bourgeoisie.
  10. I appeal to the readers of the Morning Star to take the Workers Press and read the two, side by side, as I have. They will then see which newspaper is fighting for the working class.
  11. Their political future, like mine, is in the balance. Because if this battle for the consciousness of the working class is not fought soon to the finish, the gates of fascism will be opened. Nearly all those who read this, along with the writer, would go through them and never be heard of again. Can we really allow ourselves, like Hamlet, to say, ‘The rest is silence’?

In his later years amid the fracturing of Healy’s SLL in the 1980s, Garnett stepped back from politics – but not from being a Marxist.

He tried his hand at being a novelist and then wrote a carefully manicured autobiography, A Life Lived Behind the Lens. In it, his politics took second place to his private life. This was a shame because it didn’t do justice to his public life.

Sir Keir’s unmentionable political history

Sir Keir Starmer, frontrunner to be British Labour leader

Sir Keir Starmer is front-runner to replace Jeremy Corbyn and become the next leader of the Britain’s Labour Party. When Corbyn replaced Ed Miliband in 2015, the Tories and Fleet Street went into a furious hate campaign claiming that “Corbyn’s North London Trotskyists have taken over Labour”. The political witchhunting was relentless. An article a day demonising “Corbyn’s Trots” was almost mandatory in most UK media with Rupert Murdoch leading the way.

Now stories are circulating about Starmer’s involvement with the resuscitation of a Trotskyist group in North London during the late 1980s. Starmer, then 20-something, was an up-and-coming lawyer specialising in human rights and civil liberties.  After graduating in law from the University of Leeds with first class honours he undertook post-graduate studies at Oxford University’s St Edmund Hall College. Named “Keir” after Keir Hardie, founder of the British Labour Party, Starmer belonged to the International Revolutionary Marxist Tendency (IRMT) which published Socialist Alternatives. The group’s theoretical guru was Michel Raptis, otherwise known as Pablo. Starmer wrote for Socialist Alternatives and participated in discussions about how to bring down the Corbynista Stalinists who, in the 1980s, were emerging as a force in North London local councils, particularly in the Islington area.

If Starmer does win the leadership in July, turn off your hearing aids and the television because the Tories and UK media will denounce Starmer with a pile of witchhunting filth. PM Boris Johnson’s dogs of war have been set loose to sniff out every detail of Starmer’s involvement with the Trotskyist group. Johnson, former Old Etonian and Spectator editor, will adopt his usual methods of destroying the careers and reputations of his opponents: he will give off-the-record briefings to selected hacks at Westminster and they will do the dirty work on his behalf. They call it journalism.

The bad sex fiction index

In 2018 the London Literary Review published its 25th award for Bad Sex in Fiction. It was started by the magazine’s founder-publisher Richard Ingrams, a former editor of the satirical magazine, Private Eye.

Auberon Waugh, editor in charge of the Bad Sex in Fiction awards

The idea was adopted with great enthusiasm by Auberon Waugh, a notable contributor to Private Eye, The New Statesman, The Spectator and many other London newspapers and magazines between the 1960s and 1980s.

When he became editor of the Literary Review “Bron” assembled a team of judges, all writers, editors or publishers, and began a highly amusing assault on the humbug, hypocrisy, hyperbolic exaggeration and lies of sex authorship in fiction.

The judge in 2017, Frank Brinkley, remarked: “The purpose is not to root out sex in fiction but to draw attention to poorly written or redundant passages of sexual description in otherwise decent novels.

One of the judges’ favourites in 2017 was California-based American novelist Jarett Kobek’s The Future Won’t Be Long in which he wrote:

“We made love and we had sex and we made love. But reader, again, I implore you. Mistake me not. I am not your Pollyanna, I am not your sweet princess. We fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked. We fucked in the effluvia of our bodies, we fucked in the scent of it, in the sheer stench of it, in the garden of our human flowering. Stained sheets, stained clothes, stained souls, stained towels … Our fucking was a pulsing wave, a holy burst of geometry, a congress of wonder.”

Sounds ghastly to me. I think that the judges chose well …

Quote of the Week

Labor has always supported the coal mining industry and I believe it always will. Anthony Albanese is right – even if we can reach 50 per cent renewables, by definition the other 50 per cent will come from coal and gas.

  • Joel Fitzgibbon, shadow Cabinet minister, MP from the Hunter Valley, and right-wing candidate to succeed Anthony Albanese.


  1. very prescient of you, Alex, to nominate Joel Fitzgibbon as Albo’s successor…how long in to the piece?


  2. You mentioned soirees at Tony Garnett’s residence in Notting Hill, which perhaps leaves a slightly misleading impression, nowadays being where we associate the likes of David Cameron and Hugh Grant as living. Back then in the ’50s it was a much more vibrant and multi cultural part of London than now. It was where many Windrush arrivals lived cheek by jowl with students and poor whites, often in multi-occupied rented rooms sharing the use of limited but invariably disgusting kitchen and toilet ‘facilities’: I use the f-word loosely …

  3. Alex, A strong whiff of nostalgia here. Good stuff on Starmer. This has yet to surface in the papers. Maybe someone will tell the promising Nandy campaign.

  4. No cosy politics in Ken Loach’s recent film Sorry we missed you. Raw, tragic horror and right wing empty spin dominate survival in a working class family…which naturally splinters as human values struggle for understanding and acceptance in an empty work place dominated by the cruel values of Homo-economicus

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