Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I have lately been watching a great deal of television – the ‘haunted fish tank’ as I call it. My feet swell up in the summer and I don’t get out as much. Last night Consuela conceded that we should switch off the Harry Potter film that was being screened on one of the terrestrial channels, but did so rather grudgingly. I was surprised by this because, firstly, she has the complete HP canon on blu-ray and, secondly, she has her own player. Thus she can watch them as and when she chooses. But no! Apparently she enjoys the serendipity of what she calls ‘the Harry Potter experience’ whenever it occurs.
“It’s amazing,” she opines. “No matter how many times I watch a HP film I always see something entirely new in it!”
Ye gods and little fishes! Breathes there a soul so dead? I prefer the assessment of a friend who says that JKR’s work is like that other famous Scottish product, Tennant’s Lager, which once ran an advertising campaign with the catchphrase “It’s good but… uh… not that good!
I mean, it’s not as though the films are devoid of people who can act, given half a chance. Loads of really belting Brit actors are regularly in the cast. But apart from the compelling, chilling, utterly believable performance by Jason Isaacs and the undeniable charisma of Rupert Grint, all the big names ham it up dreadfully. Consuela and all the other o’ergrown wains who mistake this for entertainment must have their bullshit detectors unplugged at the mains. With pained, patronising smiles aimed at those of us who don’t ‘get it’ they say, “It’s for kids!”
If you want to talk about really good acting, however, look no further than the US tv series The West Wing. Until a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t seen it at all. Another friend has been drip-feeding me the boxed sets of each series one-by-one. I’m currently on series 2 and I am hooked. The biggest surprise is the standard of acting – if it were not for the fact that it is clearly set in Washington DC and all the actors have the appropriate accents I would not have realized that they were a team of American actors. American actors tend to overact, but in The West Wing there is no hint of the “Oh my God, darling” school of soap-opera performance that dogged Dallas and Dynasty. I am glad to say that I have seen more ham at a bar-mitzvah. Outstanding (so far – remember I am about five series behind) are Richard Schiff (Toby), Allison Janney (CJ), Dulé Hill (Charlie), and Marlee Matlin (Joey). Growing on me is Janel Moloney (Donna). Utterly amazing is Martin Sheen (President Josiah Bartlet) who manages to combine the superficial dumbness of George W Bush with the underlying erudition of Herbert Hoover, the charm of Bill Clinton, the king-like quality of Ronald Reagan, the work-ethic of Harry S Truman, the folksiness of Jimmy Carter, the oratory of Barack Obama, the hidden infirmity of JFK, and the one-liner wit of… of… well damn it think of a US President who could deliver one-liners and insert his name. Plus he gets to sleep with Stockard Channing. I am glad to say there is no hint in him of Bush Sr., Nixon, or LBJ.
John Spencer is in there too (Leo). Spencer is one of my favourite American tv actors, apart from the fact that he always plays himself. It’s enough that he is convincing when he does so. Irritating, however, is the character of Josh Lyman played by Bradley Whitford. Whitford plays it well but the character just gets up my nose. As does Emily Procter’s voice, I’m afraid. I’m ambivalent about Rob Lowe. A weak point came when series 1 ended in a hail of bullets for the sake of ‘drama’; the only reaction it got from me was disbelief that the Secret Service had allowed gunmen to take up positions overlooking a Presidential exit. D’oh!
It strikes me that actors must be queuing up to come on the show as ‘guest stars’. Regular guests so far have included Tim Matheson (who was utterly cool in Animal House) and Lisa Edelstein, and I am sure I have spotted Rocky Carroll, Jorja Fox, Corbin Bernsen, Richard Dysart (very briefly, so correct me if I’m wrong), Ethan Phillips (ditto), Ed Begley Jr., and George Coe.
Perhaps the absolute star of the show is the American Constitution. Granted that the show is fiction – for a start, who could believe that a Democrat with a liberal agenda could actually function as President of the United States? – it is very educative with respect to how Constitutional matters are made to work in the USA. It has shored up my respect for the Constitution and the basis of politics in the USA. That may seem a strange thing for an anarchist to say, but I declared my respect and not my support. I remain an implacable opponent of a system which guarantees so much that is directly inimical to what I consider to be right, moral, and proper; however I respect it as a noble attempt, but one that failed.
That too might seem strange – how can it be said to have failed when the USA is the most powerful, wealthiest country in the world? Well, was power and wealth on that scale the goal of its ‘Founding Fathers’? I would imagine not. If we are to believe them then liberty was their goal. Do I think that it has achieved that? Well we could argue all night about that, but the philosophical question I would put (and then subject to Socratic process) is: can there be freedom where there are extremes of advantage and disadvantage or, to put it another way, freedom without equality? The central government system that the Founding Fathers gave to America was, in many ways, ‘Westminster Lite’. It was a reformed House of Commons (Congress), House of Lords (Senate), and Constitutional Monarchy (elective Presidency), and as such it fixed constitutionally the vices of the British system and gave them a veneer of democracy. The proscriptions of the Constitution and the built-in ‘checks and balances’ gave rise to an inherently conservative political culture where almost nothing can truly progress. The Constitution did not prevent the culture of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the imperialism of White America, it did not protect Native Americans from cultural genocide (actual genocide in the case of some now-extinct tribes). It did not of itself prevent slavery which had to be eradicated after the costliest internecine war in history; and slavery having been abolished it never afforded equality to the races, such equality that now exists having been achieved by wresting it from the powerful, it could be argued, or at the mildest by pressure from those below who were prepared to suffer to bring it about. It protected the freedom to own guns long after the absolute need for them had diminished; the image we have of this freedom is that it is honoured more in excessive fetishism than in restraint, and that what was conceived as a freedom is seen now as a necessity for personal and civic protection (i.e. an armed police). It protects – nay, it can do bugger-all without the support of – the untouchable elite of corporate America, to the detriment of those who have little or nothing.
I’m looking over Consuela’s shoulder. She’s writing to JKR’s agents to suggest Harry Potter and the Voldemort Filibuster, a story in which HP is drafted into the White House staff to prevent He-who-must-not-be-named from wrecking something called ‘The National Brotherhood Act’.
I’m just away to get my wand, then I shall level it at Consuela and cry “Garnerus Exchangio!”, at which point it will become a proposal to the BBC for a serialization of The Moon of Gomrath. Clickety-click, job done!
 I’m sure you really wanted to know that.
 Put like that it sounds like a 1960s psychedelic band. Or a theme park (God forbid!)
 Sir Walter Scott. Well, almost.
 Quite. So why the hell are you watching it?
 Or ‘Channard Stocking’ as Consuela insists on calling her.
 Probably a nice guy in real life, but he creeps me out.
 ‘Standing in line’.
 Actually an interesting quote from Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing was to the effect that the USA “isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic”. That is in fact an incisive observation, and worth a whole book on its own.
 There is a very interesting book entitled Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America by Allen C Guelzo, which examines Lincoln’s legendary status as the Great Emancipator. That status had been brought into question by his letter to Horace Greeley in which he wrote that his “paramount object in [the Civil War] is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that”. The book reassesses both views of Lincoln. You can read a good review by Mackubin T Owens here.
 One day I hope that protesters from the Right who inveigh against ‘big government’ will actually wake up to the fact that what disadvantages them is in fact the whole concept of ‘statism’, and that their capitalist exploiters are hiding behind the smokescreen of their protests and smirking.
 A bit too ‘Tom Lehrer’ if you ask me!