The astonishing stories behind today’s culture wars: Radio 4’s Things Fell Apart reviewed

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

Mosley Must Fall; Things Fell Apart

BBC Radio 4

Martin McNamara, the writer of Mosley Must Fall, a play on Radio 4 this week, must have had a jolt when he opened the papers to find old Oswald back in the news. Oxford University is said to have accepted £6 million from a trust set up by the fascist leader’s son, the racing driver Max, using funds passed down through the family. Cries of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ have been echoing down the High in Oxford for many years now. If Mosley must fall, too, then this play may prove particularly timely.

Although set in Whitechapel, east London, in 1936, the story consciously teeters over live issues, including immigration, the polarisation of society and the threat of violent protest. The main characters belong to an Irish family living on the path Mosley and his supporters are planning to march down in their latest recruitment drive. Should they stay home and close the curtains or should they take part on one side or the other? Maureen McEnroe (Maggie Cronin), the mother of two grown sons, can hardly bear to engage with the question: ‘What did I say about politics at the table?’

Much of the play is taken up with their discussions and arguments over the best course. There is talk of Mosley leading ‘a holy war’ and defending his country against ‘foreign interlopers’. There is talk of the Civil War in Spain and of Generalissimo Franco stepping in to ‘halt the desecration’. It isn’t until two thirds of the way through the drama that we actually get to the march, which descends predictably into a punch-up. We hear some soundbites of Mosley, but he is largely absent, standing, like his Blackshirts, safely aloof.

I’m reminded of Nancy Mitford’s novel, Wigs on the Green, in which ‘The Captain’ never actually appears, but still influences much of the action. In Mitford’s case, removing Mosley from the narrative was partly an act of peacekeeping, intended to appease her sister Diana, who went on to marry him. In the case of this engaging play, Mosley’s absence feels more ponderous. It’s true that, as the head of the British Union of Fascists, Mosley excelled at stirring crowds into chaos, before slinking into the background. The fact that he remains there throughout the play reinforces the idea that he was far smaller than the movement he created. As a concept, this works, but as a dramatic choice, it feels overly conscientious. We needed Mosley, if only to realise his insignificance as an individual.

Jon Ronson, the Welsh journalist and filmmaker perhaps best known for The Men Who Stare at Goats, has launched a new podcast featuring more than a few controversial marches. Things Fell Apart is subtitled ‘strange tales from the culture wars’ and seeks to uncover the unlikely origins of the debates raging today. The first episode traced the pro-life movement to the ambitions of a boy growing up in the Swiss Alps. The second, which aired this week, centred on a woman who staged a protest against the introduction of a new set of school textbooks to West Virginia in the 1970s.

The stories were astonishing. The boy in the Alps was Frank Schaeffer, the son of a fundamentalist American Evangelical pastor and art historian, who longed to be a filmmaker like his idol Fellini. When his father suggested he gain some experience by helping him to make documentaries, Frank agreed. The success in the Evangelical community of a segment in which his father discussed the ‘evils’ of abortion led them to explore the subject in more depth. The films, for which Frank created a dubious installation of dolls floating on the Dead Sea, caught the attention of the press. The resulting conflict snowballed.

It can be hard to prove that any single event is responsible for a culture war when most disputes arise from various origins. The links between cause and effect are sometimes less direct than they appear. Ronson’s ability to source a story and run with it is nevertheless compelling. I was particularly impressed by his interview with Alice Moore, the woman who tried to block the distribution of textbooks citing their ‘inappropriate’ content. A poem printed in one, Ronson gently suggested, was not encouraging people to have sex on a bus, as she feared, but despairing that the world had descended to such a point. As he said of her reaction, what mattered, and still matters now, is not intention, but impact. He was as surprised as I was to discover that the offending verses, which caused such a stir after Moore read them aloud on US television, were written by Roger McGough.

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