Kirsty Gunn: Dangerous appeal of glamourising one version of history

Gary Oldman's appearance was transformed to enable him to look like Winston Churchill (Picture: Focus Features via AP)
Gary Oldman's appearance was transformed to enable him to look like Winston Churchill (Picture: Focus Features via AP)
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Gary Oldman is a very good actor and I’m sure “Darkest Hour” is a terrific film – but goodness, life can be predictable.

From the minute his face, plumped up with prosthetic rubbers and make-up glues, started appearing all over the place in the run-up to the film being released, you just knew it was only a matter of time until the Oscar came around. How on Earth have they made Gary Oldman look like that! What an achievement! What a success! It was as though all the surprise and drama and intrigue around a film about Winston Churchill came from a single transformation effected by the props department. The story, the

representation of the man, the acting – if acting can even happen under all that kit – came later.

Last year another Winston Churchill was played by Brian Cox in a film that didn’t get half the propoganda-style blanket press coverage as “Darkest Hour” and the result was half the publicity. People just didn’t pay “Churchill” as much attention.

READ MORE: How we helped Gary Oldman become Winston Churchill

Yet Cox’s portrayal – without any of the special effects; he was heavier than usual, and with white hair and stooped carriage had all the manner, the solemn cumbersomeness of the original – was magnificent. He was acting a part, not dressing in costume, and with one gesture, a sentence, he was Winston Churchill. What’s more, the actor did something more than that. He brought to the character he played all the greatness of a Lear – with that fallen king’s raging madness against his impotence, monstrousness turned to pity as he turned and ranted and banged up against the walls of his own ego, pulling his wife, beautifully and quietly rendered by Miranda Richardson, into the depths of his own particular kind of hell. It was nuanced and moving and complex and deep. A performance of the greatest order.

And yet. The award goes to …

As I say, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Attention has always tended towards the story that has some sensational aspect or other to market it – whether it’s clever make-up or jaw-dropping plot, some external feature or other. The film business and the media has always been keen on the concept of the sell. “Sell me the concept in a paragraph or less! Sell me the idea! What is the project’s Unique Sales Proposition? Its buy-now feature? Tell me why in a sentence I should care.” These kinds of lines are bandied about in Hollywood Production Studios as much as they are in adverting agencies and the features departments of newspapers and radio stations and television channels. At the heart of it is the idea of glamour – seeing the word in its true context as well as in the terms we all think of it. For glamour is all about fixation, being powerless over the thing that has cast you in its spell. It’s about being caught in the thrall of some false beauty or loveliness so that we’re unable to think for ourselves. And what could be more glamorous than the movies?

READ MORE: Brian Cox sheds light on Winston Churchill’s difficult relationship with Dundee

I was thinking of glamour, not only when the Oscars were announced, but when listening to Radio 4’s “In Our Time” that began with the announcer, in a state of high excitement, it sounded, announcing “The Highland Clearances!” as though it were a new blockbuster. We were all to hold on to our popcorn and cokes and enjoy the show, is how he made it seem, rather than consider the solemnity of one of the largest and most directed periods of emigration in Scotland, and indeed, the UK. But the tone quickly changed as Melvyn Bragg introduced the panel and the programme started.

Tom Devine was speaking. In his quietly dramatic way he set out a context for the events that most of us are familiar with – “landlordism”, as he put it, that changed the game plan for the way the Highlands and Islands were managed, giving an overview of the way rural working people’s lives’ changed with the transition from the feudal clan system to an agrarian and then leisure economy.

But the context he was setting as he gave these facts was broader, more textured, way more interesting than just a re-telling.

It was he who made me think about this word glamour – and how pervasive it is. How indeed we are glamourised by certain versions of things, and tend to glamourise complexity ourselves, so that we become fixated on one version of events as being the only one.

Whether it’s Gary Oldman as the definitive Winston Churchill because he looks the part, or the Clearances being the great unacknowledged reason for Highlands and Islands’ slow movement to modernity, the reason Scotland herself can’t properly get ahead.

It’s the same sort of myth being peddled by the Brexiteers, Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ilk, who hark back to Churchillian notions of independence and a sort of bloody-mindedness of Blighty, the gung-ho can-do-ism around deprivation and austerity, as though these are qualities that describe us best. Forget that austerity means unemployment and poverty, with a growing divide between the super rich and the rest of us, or cuts to public services and a quiet fostering of racism and and inward-looking selfishness … No, it’s all cheeriness-in-the-blackout as far as the Leave campaign are concerned; we always did have a good song for when the bombs started falling.

It’s just another of those myths that are easy to peddle, a great “sell” that can be summed up in a couple of sentences. The Professor Emeritus of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh described the Clearances in such a way that you could see his real narrative was not just with what happened then, starting back in the Middle Ages and unwinding into the early 18th and then 19th century. No, his thinking was moving out from there, through crofting reform and changes in land use right through to the present, and into the future, too. It was he who used the phrase. “If I may,” he excused himself beforehand, “the glamourisation of the Clearances” – and I stopped still in my tracks to hear him. Anything that’s too glamorous needs a King Lear to tell us life is more complicated than a simple story of Churchill’s triumph in adversity or of hard-done-by-ism that’s easy to sell.