Preview: Martin Amis's England | TV reviews, news & interviews
Preview: Martin Amis's England
The director tells the story behind this Sunday's controversial documentary
On Sunday night, you can hear Martin Amis sound off about Englishness. An advance selection of extracts from the interview were published in the Radio Times on Tuesday. The reaction from the press was instantaneous: Amis is always good copy. The writer’s reflections – out of the context of the film, which none of the journalists appeared to have seen – excited a series of predictable responses, constrained by the ideological straightjacket of both right and left – and, no doubt, the patriotic sensitivities of this island nation. The surprising thing is that, although the film will be broadcast on BBC Four, the production comes from France not the UK and was made, first and foremost, for a French and German audience. At the outset, the BBC weren't interested. They only bought the film once it was finished.
A couple of years ago, the French TV channel ARTE France, launched a series of films in which European writers would explore their sense of national identity. They had a pretty clear idea of whom they’d have, as the people in charge, Martine Saada and Bernard Clément, both had backgrounds in publishing: for “l’Angleterre” (which they confused, as the French always do, with the whole of Britain) they wanted Martin Amis, not Julian Barnes, Jonathan Coe, Ian McEwan or Hanif Kureishi, all of whom are highly esteemed on the other side of the channel. I guess they wanted something sharp and unforgiving, an attitude that would chime in with Gallic ambivalence about the British and “les anglo-saxons”. As all the other films involved several writers, I suggested that it would be interesting to have Zadie Smith alongside or against Amis. They decided against it. For them, Amis represented the essence of Englishness and would surely deliver.
You may not always agree with everything Martin Amis comes up with, but he’s never less than thought-provokingThe ARTE people were happy to work with me as I have a foot in both camps: I grew up more French than English until my mid-teens and, today, make as many films in Paris as I do in the UK. The idea of exploring Englishness appealed to me. I am both marked by it, as well as in some way distanced. There are plenty of ‘English ways” that baffle me, rather than inhabiting them as part of my nature. I suspected – quite rightly as it turned out – that Martin would share my sense that the complicated English “problem with pleasure”, as he describes it in the film, is in some way connected with a tendency to drink excessively and feel guilty about sex and fun. The idea of a "guilty pleasure" is, if you are French or Italian, a contradiction in terms, as pleasure is something that is sui generis enjoyed without afterthought. As Martin points out, all of this is connected with “centuries of Puritanism… and of course the weather. It’s masochist’s weather,” he adds. “What is the national vice? Spanking! Or so the French would have it.” Margaret Thatcher’s attack on dependency culture, according to Amis, encouraged fantasies about being roundly smacked. She had once playfully asked his friend Christopher Hitchens to bend over and hit him on the bottom with a rolled-up policy paper.
English fantasies about sex are all rather benign, according to Amis. His father Kingsley Amis had erotic dreams about the Queen – but nothing out of the Marquis de Sade: “What happens in these dreams of yours?” Amis asked him. “Well, nothing much” his father answered. “She’s sitting on my lap and I am feeling her tits and kissing her.”
Only the excessive consumption of alcohol, Amis suggests, comes close to releasing the sexual animal in us. Binge drinking isn’t about enjoyment but the quest for oblivion. The English drink, Amis claims, because they cannot get over the loss of imperial pride and because we have “become a second-, even a third-echelon nation.” The English abroad feel insecure and over-compensate by behaving badly: cue those football crowds, hen parties and stag do’s that leave a trail of piss and vomit in the cities best served by low-cost air travel.
The interview was filmed at Amis’s house in Cobble Hill district of Brooklyn. He was in the midst of working on his latest novel, to be published later in the year: another plunge into the horrors of the Second World War, and set in Auschwitz. Every surface of his garden-level workroom was piled high with books about the Holocaust and the camps. I found it hard to imagine what he must feel like, immersed in the daily lives of mass murderers.
It’s generally assumed that Martin Amis moved to Brooklyn because he’d had enough of Britain or wanted to escape from the recurring and wounding attacks in the tabloid and sometimes upmarket press. The truth is more prosaic: his wife is American and has family there. You sense that he misses his home country and something of this yearning comes across in the fond and at times patriotic way in which he talks about England. Sexual shyness and diffidence are part of a constellation of characteristics that Amis connects with the English sense of fair play. He has done his research, and in the documentary, he states that prisoners of war have always stood a better chance being captured by the British than by the Americans, Russians, Germans or, worst, the French.
For a film which he knew was being financed by a French TV channel, Amis wasn’t at all concerned with being diplomatic: Britain, he claimed with evident pride, had won the aerial battle against the Nazis, while the French had capitulated, collaborated and then, unlike the Germans, never properly faced up to their shameful accommodation with Nazi tyranny.
You may not always agree with everything Martin Amis comes up with, but he’s never less than thought-provoking and entertaining. As one who won’t adhere to the knee-jerk mantras of left or right, he has often excited the wrath of those who claim to hold the keys to upright decency, political correctness or ideological purity. This makes, to my mind, for much more interesting television. You sit up and watch, maybe rant and rave, rather than sink into the torpor of a right-thinking couch potato.
- Martin Amis's England is on BBC Four on Sunday 23 March at 9pm
- Watch a short extract
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