Released in the aftermath of the death of stalwart Labour politician Tony Benn, Will and Testament is an insightful documentary into understanding post-war British politics and the ideas that shaped the man once dubbed ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’.
Far from the distant nature of many political documentaries, director Skip Kite has created an intimate feel to Will and Testament. Set primarily in Benn’s kitchen or by the fireside with pipe in hand, Benn discusses emotional subjects from being a politician and a father to the death of his wife; Kite has created a feeling of domestic intimacy broken only sporadically by clips from Benn’s past.
Through this intimate relationship Benn reveals that while a socialist, his beliefs are less rooted in Marx’s than the radical non-conformist Christianity of his childhood. This was to instil a belief that the only real questions in life are ones of morality and that the Bible is fundamentally a story of the prophets vs. the kings.
From Benn’s fight against taking his hereditary peerage, which archaically prevented him holding his democratically elected seat in the House of Commons, to more recent battles against Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons and the war in Iraq this moral belief is presented as the crux and testament of his political life.
Furthermore, going against the main stream opinion of the media, Benn offers an alternative picture of Thatcherism. Far from saving Britain, Benn argues that Thatcher increased class division in society, embodied in the Miners’ Strike of 1984, and that the economic growth of the 1980’s was a fantasy based primarily on North Sea oil revenue. Indeed Benn demonstrates the lingering effect of such Thatcherite policies by the annual funeral held every year in Durham Cathedral for the death of the Durham mining industry.
Nevertheless, while impossible not to regard Tony Benn with an avuncular affection, Will and Testament feels ultimately like a homage to followers of the Bennite tradition than a balanced political documentary.
Indeed this rose tinted view can be seen in the depiction of former Labour Leader Neil Kinnock. While a shift to the centre was underway in the Labour Party of the 1970’s, Benn and Kite ignore this factor, instead demonising Neil Kinnock as the great betrayer of the Labour Party and socialism by taking the party towards the centre in 1983. Yet even as one is supposed to feel an element of revulsion towards Kinnock and his ideology, Benn fails to mention his personal animosity towards Kinnock stemming from the latter’s role in preventing Benn becoming the deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1981 and thrashing him in the 1988 leadership contest.
Overall, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, Will and Testament is a definitive watch for any political aficionado and is a true testament to the life of Tony Benn.