By all accounts, his own included, the late Alan Clark MP was not a very nice man. Seen by some as vain, pompous and self-pitying, he was a mediocre historian, an ok parliamentarian and a great writer. He was, however, permanently convinced that he was destined for greatness and about to become a major player in government. In reality he never progressed further than junior minister.
In retrospect it’s not very difficult to see why he never made it into the cabinet. He always appeared to hold both his constituents and many of his colleagues in total contempt. He openly disagreed with the government’s defence policy on live TV, gave speeches in parliament while drunk and allegedly make some pretty racist comments. Not to mention the fact that he engaged in multiple affairs. At one point he was seeing a judge’s wife and her two daughters at the same time. His fondness for antique cars and dressing like a 1950s Agatha Christie character led many to compare him to Mr Toad.
As a result he was a pretty memorable figure; but what really cemented his place in British political history was his diaries. Released after he left government they were a no holds barred account of his time in the Conservative administration between 1983 and 1992. As well as his many sexual indiscretions, they also provided a useful insight into what was going on during the miners’ strike, the Brighton bombing and the Westland affair. Of particular note is the section covering the fall of Margaret Thatcher. Clark is incredibly forthright about events and himself. Unlike many of his colleagues he was very aware of his own weaknesses, but largely indifferent to them.
This six episode TV adaption covers not just the period of the original diaries but his later book leading up to his return to politics in 1997 as MP for Kensington and Chelsea and his eventual death of brain cancer two years later. The series proceeds in a roughly chronological order, each episode looking at a different aspect of his political life ranging from his relationship with his civil servants to how policy is created.
Alan Clark was an almost perfect example of the English cad. Had this series been made in the 1950s I’m sure Terry Thomas would have played him. As it is they’ve got John Hurt, who makes Clark seem much more sympathetic than he actually was. He’s ably supported by Jenny Agutter, portraying his wife Jane, who somehow managed to put up with him for thirty years.
There are flaws to this production. One is that it was obviously done on a ridiculously small budget, perhaps not surprising since it was made for BBC4. A very small cast of actors are used and they couldn’t seem to find a decent Margaret Thatcher impersonator as all the shots of her are from the back. Luckily the whole thing is kept aloft by John Hurt and in particular his wonderful narration as he chronicles Clark’s career misadventures and the beginning of the Conservative Party ripping itself apart in the 1990s. While the diaries are still well worth reading, the TV series is an interesting alternative and it’s always worth your time to see John Hurt play an utter bounder. Some still admire Clark for ‘telling like it is’. I’m not entirely sure that being honest about your misdeeds necessarily makes you a better person. History will probably be the final judge.
Here is a clip of the real Alan Clark talking about his views on defence policy (I’m afraid the sound is horribly out of synch but Clark’s answers are astonishing candid for a British politician):