Tony Benn: Will and Testament

Tony Benn: Will and Testament

It’s an unenviable task attempting to portray the life of a man so scrutinised, so criticised and so treasured, as was the former Labour MP, Mr Tony Benn, that Skip Kite’s eloquent and sensitive epitaph doesn’t attempt to; he leaves the honour to man himself. During his time on the political stage, Wedgie Benn; staunch socialist, dogged democratic, impossible idealist and dedicated diarist, was considered an irksome subversive by his own party, contemptuously vilified by the media as ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ and held aloft as a messianic figure by left-wing idealists and radicals. It is this latter sentiment that writer/director Kite articulates in Tony Benn: Will and Testament, which unapologetically takes a reverential pilgrimage through the socio-political landscape of the 1930s to the present day, with the prophet Benn as narrator of his own biography.

The film unfolds through a brisk episodic structure in which anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist Benn recounts the undulating landscape of his political career. Archive footage melds with collages of personal photographs and artefacts interwoven with present day philosophical musings and poetry excerpts by the man himself. The film doesn’t indulge in soporific nostalgia but rather chronicles the life and times of a man who was participant in some of the 20th century’s most significant events to become a controversial yet respected political tour de force in Westminster. Despite his detractors, Benn never wavered from his commitment to the principles of British democracy and socialism, acknowledging his own misgivings and refusing to wallow in pessimism. Yet, there is almost a despairing tone to the film as past events interweave with present day social ills and despite Benn’s optimism that humanity can heal itself to create a better world, you cannot help but feel that history is just one continuous vicious cycle of the same mistakes.

The DVD contains some welcome extras, such as Benn’s succinct yet effective 2013 Christmas message, his final ever television interview and a montage of unseen intimate photographs. The director’s commentary itself does not add any real intrinsic value, if anything becomes a hindrance, which Kite readily admits. It would have been fitting to include Benn’s Ali G’s now infamous 2000 interview, which cemented him into the annals of popular culture. One evident political omission from this panegyric testimonial is Benn’s 1981 defeat to Denis Healy in the deputy leadership contest and which had a profound effect on Benn. Given the film’s intention to delineate the ‘slings and arrows’ Benn endured, not least within his own party, this grave disappointment surely was worthy of a mention.

Tony Benn’s forty-seven years as a Member of Parliament was a political battleground for the Labour leader-that-never-was. As current Labour leader Ed Miliband sees his popularity plummet in the opinion poles, unable to shake of the ineffectual bumbling status portrayed by the media, he could do worse than sit down one evening with a nice cup of tea, puff on a pipe, watch Tony Benn: Will and Testament and recount what Wedgie once proclaimed, ‘Whether you win or lose a battle, in the long run, it doesn’t matter, the question is, did you fight it hard’?

Tony Benn: Will and Testament is available on DVD from 3 November