As the Allies advanced towards Germany in September 1944, their supplies were brought all the way from western Normandy in a constant shuttle convoy known as the Red Ball Express. If you were making a realistic movie about this, three quarters of the truck drivers would be played by black actors, because that’s how it was in real life.
Similar rules would have to apply to any remake of Zulu or Zulu Dawn. It is an awkward but inescapable historical fact that there was no diversity whatsoever among Cetewayo’s Impis: they were all, resolutely, from the same African tribe. At the Battle of Crécy, on the other hand, every single participant was white European — even the misleadingly named Black Prince — so any movie version probably wouldn’t involve a call to Samuel L. Jackson’s casting agent.
You could go through all of history like this and make pretty sensible guesses on the ethnicity of the participants. Sometimes you might be surprised. For example, researching a novel I wrote set at the Battle of Arnhem, I found that at least one British unit had a black paratrooper (naturally nicknamed ‘Chalky’ by his comrades). So I included him, not because he was at all representative, but because I thought it was a quirk of history too interesting to resist.
Anyway, to Les Misérables and the casting of David Oyelowo as Javert. Can anyone point me to any evidence that there were black police inspectors in early 19th- century France; or that a gentleman of West African extraction was what Victor Hugo had in mind when he created this son of a galley slave? Otherwise, I’ll have to assume that this is another depressing example of the BBC’s woke quota targets — 15 per cent representation of black and minority ethnic actors on screen by 2020 — being given precedence over verisimilitude, artistic integrity and viewer satisfaction. Very few of us licence-fee payers, I am sure, would consider ourselves to be racist. But the BBC would appear to be on a mission to make us feel as though we are by forcing us to notice stuff we shouldn’t have to notice.
Still, I shall carry on enjoying Andrew Davies’s adaptation — but at least as much for the purposes of bracing masochism as for pleasure. Never was a novel more accurately titled than Les Misérables. Hugo works so hard to give his characters the worst possible deal that sometimes you want to laugh — the only laugh you’ll get — at the contrivance. Fantine, for example. How stupid do you have to be to sell your hair and front teeth before you go on the game rather than afterwards?
Andrew Davies — among others — has commented on what a dire travesty of the original the musical version is. The more I see of this epic, melodramatic gloomfest, the more I disagree. For more than a century, Les Misérables was desperately in need of a few jaunty numbers to counter the natural urge it induces to slit one’s wrists. Boublil and Schönberg did the world and Hugo a massive favour.
SAS: Who Dares Wins is back on Channel 4 for a fourth season (Sundays), more enjoyable than ever because this time half the contestants being put through the mill are female. The ostensible rationale for this is to celebrate the fact that women are now eligible to join the Special Forces. Underneath, though — at least this is what I’m hoping — it’s a subversive exercise by old-school military reactionaries designed to show why this is a stupid, politically correct policy that can never work in practice.
Most of the evidence from around the world shows this anyway. For example, a study conducted by the US Marine Corps found that mixed-sex units (containing fit, motivated, capable women) performed noticably more badly in combat-style tasks than all-male ones. No one is saying that women can’t make good fighting soldiers (the obvious example being the YPJ in Syria and Iraq); just that no matter how determined (or ruthless) girls might be, they are almost invariably let down by their physiology.
We saw this in Who Dares Wins, where in the thin Andean air, 10,000ft above sea level, the contestants had to lug huge logs up a mountain trail. And guess which sex it was that bore the brunt of the heavy lifting. Later in the series, the contestants have to box one another and one of the women gamely volunteers to go up against a man. Guess who wins. Really, no one likes to see a pretty girl having seven shades beaten out of her by a bloke. But maybe brave Louise was doing her sex a favour: you really want total equality? This is what it looks like.
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