Bryant & May Awake
How woke should a fictional crime series be?
The recent term for the old awareness formerly known as ‘PC’, and before that ‘cool’ and before that ‘hip’, has been so absorbed into the mainstream that many entertainment products now feel as if they exist on one side of the line or the other.
Thumbing through my old DVD collection – which I can’t get rid of because most of my films exist on no streaming platform – I realise just how stark the divide is. Oddly, British films from the 1950s and 1960s seem to survive the woke test better than ones from the 1970s and 1980s.
‘I don’t know about woke but he often has to be woken,’ said Raymond Land about his detective Arthur Bryant, one of a pair of ‘old white males in a woke world’. When you’ve been writing a series for well over two decades, how do you incorporate social change into your books?
The answer, in this particular case, is that the books have been incorporating social change into the stories since the outset. I’ve needed to reflect the times when they’re written even if I get accused of liberal bias (a frequent charge).
When I suggested producing a complete edition of my short stories, my young editor looked at the dates (1984 – 2021) and wondered, ‘Is there anything here that’s going to come back and bite us?’
The answer – I think – is in the main, no. I grew up a hippyish liberal in central London, acutely aware that it was not like the rest of the country, and I’ve lived to see the country increase its maturity about race and gender (though not about not at all about class). I incorporated a diverse range of characters into my books not because I had an agenda but because it would have been unrealistic not to.
Although Bryant & May are old they’re not entrenched in their opinions. I’m now 68 and have more trouble relating to many people of my age than I do relating to their children. I believe in the young and am pleased to see much of the woke agenda in the UK, which, while not as extreme as in US academia, is still capable of surprising and making me think.
There will always be people who feel threatened by change, just as there’ll always be shallow students who’ll paint ‘Warmonger’ on a statue of Churchill (easier to do than to study the subject properly) but the majority seem forward thinking and pretty sensible. ‘Woke’ will continue to be needed so long as it does not threaten free speech.
If democracy requires realignment and adjustment, the continual questioning of the past is essential. Imagine how modern politics would be if no-one had investigated George W Bush’s tales of sleeper cells and WMD and found them all to be CIA fantasies?
Do I think a statue of a slave trader should represent a city in a public place? No, I absolutely do not. London’s statues of public figures are often problematic and abstract public art is usually anodyne, but in a modern world you can’t keep making excuses for policies we now recognise as abhorrent.
I don’t think books should be rewritten but should be prefaced with a foreword setting them in context. Museums frequently fail to explain their exhibits well, either bending over backwards to appear woke or completely unable to communicate why it was seen as OK to export treasures from other countries. The fact that it was often done with the full legal approval of the sellers is sometimes overlooked, and the picture is complicated. Other issues like pronoun identification or the dreaded ‘lived experience’ strike me as fads.The young often fail to see how privileged they are simply by having choices when most of the world has no such luxury afforded to them.
Few complaints are levelled against Bryant & May but recently someone suggested that Arthur’s rants against the French were racist. To which I respectfully point out that considering we once had French governance and and adoptive language plus a thousand year history of antagonising each other of course it’s racist and will hopefully always continue to be so. Even though we have more French residents than anywhere else. And we’ll always still be buying gites in the land of the cheese-eating surrender-monkeys.