Film review: Tony Benn – Will & Testament

Will and Testament, a film on the life of veteran socialist politician Tony Benn who died in March this year, has been having preview screenings in town halls across the country.

More than 300 people gathered to watch the showing in Manchester Town Hall, an appropriate setting amid ornate architecture reminiscent of Benn’s beloved House of Commons and murals depicting the triumph of democracy in the English Civil War.

As the lights dimmed, it was apparent just how unique a British politician it takes to get hundreds of Mancunians out on a cold September night eagerly awaiting a film about their life.

The film takes the form of an expansive interview with Benn, conducted over the last year of his life, filmed alternatively in the House of Commons, in a specially constructed recreation of the famous basement office he worked in.

Benn is often surrounded by stacks of paper and political paraphernalia and leaning against the worktop in the kitchen of the sheltered accommodation flat.

With frequent flashes of his trademark wit and favorite aphorisms Benn tells the story of his life and expands on the issues he feels most passionately about.

Archive footage from conference halls, election campaigns, protests and parliamentary debates over the decades, give an immediacy to the passions Benn evoked.

Much of this will be familiar to enthusiasts of political history, but photos from Benn family albums were a new prospect and gave endearing glimpses of the family man, adored by his wife and children behind the political icon and caricature.

The title Will & Testament is an appropriate one – given Director Skip Kite made clear the material is very much what Tony Benn wanted to focus on, which leaves some space.

For example, the bitter 1981 Labour Party deputy leadership contest, which culminated in Benn’s loss to Denis Healey by less than one per cent of the vote and a deep split in the party is never mentioned, nor are is attempts to win the party leadership.

In contrast his campaign to give up his hereditary peerage so he could remain in the House of Commons is vividly covered, with footage of Benn telling enormous cheering crowds in Bristol that they have defeated the establishment, the House of Lords, and changed the British constitution.

His verdict on the absurdity of the hereditary system drew one of the biggest laughs of the evening: “If I went to the dentist and as he began started my teeth he said ‘I’m not a dentist myself, but my father was a very good dentist’ I think I’d jump out of his chair!”

There is also a firm focus on Benn’s family, particularly his late wife Caroline.

He describes her as ‘absolutely the greatest influence in my life, no question’ as he lovingly tells the tale of meeting her at Worcester College, Oxford in 1948.

The death of his brother Michael, killed on active service during the Second World War, is also dealt with in depth, with Benn, his sadness still evident 70 years on, describes hearing the news by telegram.

Such a personal loss inevitably heightened the young Benn’s pacifist convictions, well-illustrated in the film from accounts of early Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament wars to his attempts to prevent the Iraq War of 2003.

Will &Testament is far from an impartial documentary but is instead a chance to spend a final intimate 90 minutes in the company of a much missed man.

This is a chance which will be seized with enthusiasm by the many people who admired and loved Tony Benn.

Image courtesy of Tony Benn Film via YouTube with thanks

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