Tony Benn: Will and Testament – a reflective politician not afraid to say he made mistakes

What kind of politicians do we want? Those who can admit mistakes? Or those who believe to the end that their actions were justified and appropriate?

What was missing in Ian Paisley’s interviews with Eamonn Mallie screened on BBC One NI earlier this year was any kind of self-reflection, any kind of realisation that he’d made mistakes and that Northern Ireland would have been better-served by different decisions and actions.

I’ve made a million mistakes in my life – I’m not ashamed … that’s how we learn (Tony Benn)

Tony Benn in 2008Tony Benn is in sharp contract in the autobiographical film Will and Testament  he explains that his early support for nuclear energy which at the time he believed to be cheap, safe and peaceful was misplaced as he later discovered that it was expensive, dangerous and supplying plutonium for US warheads.

The only time I saw Tony Benn in person was in the Elmwood Hall as part of a ‘BT Talks’ event at Belfast Festival. The former MP, trade unionist and socialist who renounced his inherited peerage spoke with passion and fervour, captivating the audience with his anecdotes, asides and reflections on the problems in the current political system.

A diarist who abandoned written notetaking and instead recorded his memory of and reflections on the day into a tape recorder before going to sleep each evening, Tony Benn amassed a considerable archive of his life throughout the war (RAF), parliament, the miners’ strike and beyond.

Over a hundred minutes, the film producers combined interviews with the politician in his humble kitchen and inside the House of Commons chamber with archive photography, news reel and TV reports.

Once an interesting politician that the media liked to quote, Tony Benn was later demonised.

When the media turns on you, they’re a very powerful assassination squad …

… a statement by Tony Benn that reminded me of Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People (a powerful play coming to Belfast as part of Belfast Festival). Tony Benn’s family suffered as the media camped outside their house, ringing the doorbell through the night and taunting his children to say something newsworthy. His wife Caroline understood.

During the film Tony Benn spoke about the influence of his parents. But his fondest words were reserved for his wife who he said taught him how to die through her four year illness with cancer. It was Caroline who suggested that he “leave Parliament to devote more time to politics”. He bought the bench he proposed to her on in Oxford and placed it opposite her grave.

While the film jumps around between locations, much of the imagery is beautiful, and the moments of silence in the narrative allow the story to breath. There’s no reference to his opinions and pronouncements on Northern Ireland and the role of Sinn Fein.

Will and Testament is a fond and personal nod to a politician whose life and principles could never be summed up in 100 minutes.

There’s one last showing of Tony Benn: Will and Testament in the QFT on Sunday evening (5 October) at 8.50pm followed by a recorded ‘satellite’ discussion from earlier in the day in London.

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  • Nevin

    London and Dublin will do and have done side-deals with loyalist and republican paramilitaries; Tony Benn would have left us to their tender mercies.