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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Andrew Lynch's radio adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could be labelled as a reflection on how conditions for working-class people in Britain are better a century after the book was written by Robert Tressell. But the story is still very relevant today.
Socialist Frank Owen, an employee of Rushton's building firm, tries to convince his fellow workers of his political views, and also to get them to join 'the society' - ie the trade union. Unfortunately, his fellow men argue against him that politics is above them and "not for the like of us", and that the society is used by its leaders to spend more time in public houses. Owen argues that, to get better wages from transforming the society into a fighting body, you need to join it first.
The cast was well chosen by comedian and programme co-producer Johnny Vegas who plays Eastman. Owen is played by Andrew Lincoln of This Life and Teacher fame (even if his voice is not typical of a manual worker).
Bill Bailey plays boss Rushton and foreman Crass is played by Timothy Spall. John Prescott is well suited to the role of a policeman. One of the most memorable characters is Eastman's partner Ruth, played by Shirley Henderson, who suffers at the hands of lodger and holier-than-thou churchgoer Slime, as well as from the neglect of her husband.
In the story, some workers are employed at a cut rate but the client is charged for the trade rate. Ageing Jack Linden is sacked by Scrooge manager Hunter, played enthusiastically by star Paul Whitehouse as if a character from the Fast Show. Jack then has little choice but to enter a workhouse after failing to find another employer.
It is thanks to Owen that the mayor's house, the renovation project in hand, becomes a hotbed of political discussion between the decorators. Topics raised include immigration, free trade and protectionism, property prices and the causes of poverty.
Today, many working-class families are in debt, but to multinational banks rather than their butchers. Home repossessions are on the increase, as are council housing lists - shame no more are being built.
Owen explains to his colleagues that it is the businessmen, including the praised community leaders, who are responsible for poverty and not the solution to it. They are idlers who make money out of workers' labour.
The solutions offered by the community leaders include the charity of the church which, while also asking for funds for the chapel roof, holds a jumble sale to help the poor but will 'have' to keep a cut of the money raised due to associated costs - in other words make a profit. When Owen's son Frankie, an atheist like his parents, attends the Sunday church on the invitation of school friends, he asks why the reverend is so fat.
The benevolent society is so benevolent that Linden's family have to wait two weeks to find out if they will be granted enough food. In the meantime they get two lots of soup.
Tressell showed up the failure of 'charity'. Today charity has gone global - worldwide organisations working with the rich and famous, and within IMF 'restructuring' programmes. This charity may provide limited solutions to some but it does not prevent poverty and suffering.
The series is a condemnation of capitalism at the start of the nineteenth century, though not in as much detail as the book, which means the political argument is not as strong. One major part was left out - Owen's 'money trick', where he shows how the bosses make profits from the value created by workers.
The story is set at a time before council housing, unemployment benefits, employment rights, health and safety legislation, a national health service and other gains won during the twentieth century.
This might make some people treat the book and radio series as just a sentimental item. However, all these gains were won mainly through mass action and pressure involving trade unions and a Labour Party that involved and represented working-class people. The Labour Party used Tressell's book as agitation in the 1940s.
In Britain we have had over two decades of the Tories, then New Labour, attacking all these rights on behalf of big business. Some people, especially among immigrant and trafficked workers, now live in worse conditions than those shown in Tressell's novel.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is, to me, as important today as it was 100 years ago, and the need for a socialist society even more so. If the programme is ever rebroadcast or released on tape, it will be worth listening to if you missed it the first time. If you are yet to enjoy the book, add it to your reading list.
In The Socialist 31 July 2008:
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