What Shadows, Chris Hannan’s dramatic play about the build-up and aftermath of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, explores the fracturing of a family friendship, while nailing at the same time an important home truth about a politician attempting to manipulate the news media.
Seeing my mother make her principled stand in rebuking Powell for exploiting immigration, and then hearing her berate my father for having advised Powell on how to promote the speech, prompted some timely reflection on my part, a salutary reminder perhaps of my own culpability as a journalist.
Hannan’s production, which had its premiere at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (1.11.2016), has Ian McDiarmid in the lead role; George Costigan as my father, Clem Jones, former editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star; and Paula Wilcox as Marjorie Jones.
In my mother’s opinion Powell, to further his political career, had crossed an unforgivable line when he raised fears about Wolverhampton’s rising immigrant population, describing what he claimed was the plight of the last white woman living in a street near our home, a war widow who had been harassed by “wide-grinning piccaninnies.”
Whatever Powell’s apologists might say, my father’s role was proof, if proof was needed, that the speech was a calculated act, a deliberate use of language designed and timed to create the maximum impact – the inescapable conclusion to Hannan’s story line.
Like Powell, first elected MP for Wolverhampton South-West in 1950, my father was on a fast track to promotion after having been hired as one of his paper’s district reporters.
The two men became established friends, exchanging political gossip and in return my father gave Powell advice on how best to promote his speeches while circumventing Conservative party headquarters.
On the afternoon of the infamous Birmingham speech, my parents were looking after the two Powell daughters at our house a few streets away from the MP’s constituency home.
Hannan’s script captures the unfolding drama after Clem and Marjorie read through an advance copy of the text. My father admitted he funked it, and my mother faced up to Powell, telling him it was the end of what had previously been a close relationship.
Her principled stand, portrayed so vividly by Paula Wilcox, led me to wonder whether in view of the way she condemned my father for having advised Powell on his media strategy, she might have been equally shocked in later years, after her own death, to have discovered that her son had given advice to Nigel Farage on how to promote himself as the newly-elected leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party.
Mine was a limited role, but influential at the time, and in subsequent years Farage twice offered me the chance to become UKIP’s press officer. Initially I had re-assured the producers of Radio 4’s Any Questions that Farage, newly elected as an MEP in 1999, would make an admirable panellist, more than capable of holding his own. (After his debut in 2001, he complimented me for having helped him “get launched into broadcasting”.)
Later, after he had been elected party leader in 2006, I suggested that as far as political timing was concerned, UKIP would be far better advised to hold its party conference just before the start of the Conservatives’ annual conference, rather than afterwards, as this was more likely to cause annoyance and embarrassment to the Tory Party leadership.
UKIP’s emergence as a significant political force, and Farage’s skill in driving public anger over immigration, are all part of the unspoken subtext of the closing stages of What Shadows as it explores the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the anger of working-class voters who, like Powell’s constituents, felt they had been denied a political voice.
My mother was unforgiving for the way Powell had used the race card, and given Farage’s skill in manipulating the news media, I am sure in retrospect she would have been shocked at my naivety for having failed to realise the potential danger of a two-way trade between reporters and politicians.
Perhaps she was right when it came to the journalists in her family. (I am a third- generation journalist, and my son fourth generation.) In her opinion we were all recidivists, and, needless to say, our trade did not escape some harsh criticism in her book, Justice and Journalism.
What Shadows is set against the backdrop of a group of birch trees, with clouds scudding across the sky, a scene that could so easily have been Wenlock Edge in Shropshire, a favourite spot in the 1960s for Powell-Jones family picnics before the shattering of their friendship.
Hannan’s script gives Paula Wilcox some great lines about my parents’ life and the significance of these family outings: how Clem and Marjorie went skinny dipping during their courtship; how Marjorie warned Pam Powell to avoid the black bees’ legs in a pot of honey from the hives in our garden in Wolverhampton; and how my mother told the three Jones boys to always listen out for the song of the yellowhammer. She used to give us her own rendition: “A little bit of bread and no cheese” (with the high note on the “no”, and not the “cheese”).
Picture: Enoch Powell, Clem and Marjorie Jones, August, 1966
What Shadows at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, until 12.11.2016.