Anyone familiar with Benn’s life and work will appreciate this film. Those who aren’t will learn a great deal. Will and Testament provides an insight into what made Benn tick and why he made the choices he did, in his personal and political life.
It is well-researched and using a mix of on-camera interviews together with a clever selection of archive footage, photographs and press cuttings, the film provides a detailed picture of a man who was, in many ways, ahead of his time. The film opens by introducing Benn, the husband and father – a role which seemed to him to be the most important. He admits, though, that his wife and children paid a high price for having a father who was a parliamentarian.
As a child, Benn had a highly developed sense of right and wrong – and any injustice would make him cry. As an adult, the atrocities of Hiroshima confirmed in him the desire to enter the political arena in an effort to bring about change. And the drive to try and make the world a safer place.
The film is a trip through British history, spanning the major events of Benn’s lifetime. It is also a poignant look at a life lived to the full by an intelligent and caring human being. It touches on the Second World War and the subsequent election of a labour government; the formation of the NHS; house building programmes and Benn’s rejection of his peerage. It covers the Thatcher years, the miners’ strike, New Labour, Benn’s controversial meeting Saddam Hussein and the Iraq war.
Harold Wilson said of Benn that he “immatures with age.” Yet surely it is this youthful passion and drive that made him the ‘legend’ he is considered to be by many.
Benn describes his diaries as providing a more human account of what went on in Parliament. Although events were recorded officially at Westminster on a daily basis, Benn’s own take on proceedings add colour and depth, capturing the emotion and anger, the humour and personality.
The most powerful influence on his life was his wife Caroline. She taught him how to live and how to die, looking on death as a great adventure – “she wasn’t frightened of it at all.” It was Caroline, according to Benn, who framed his retirement in terms of leaving parliament in order to devote more time to politics – which in many ways he did.
Benn reflects on the fact that over the years he has gone from being labelled ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ to ‘a national treasure’ – a label he takes as characterising him as a gentle, harmless old man. Though diminished physically at the time of filming due to a stroke, it is pleasing to hear him talk animatedly of having received a recent death threat. In his view this proves that he is still seen as being anything but harmless.
The staged surroundings used to conduct the interviews with Benn make for a slightly odd setting at times. The extras on the DVD reveal how the sets were created and filmed at Ealing studios. The producers had to work around the fact that Benn’s family home had recently been sold and he had moved into a flat nearby, but using sets allowed them to reconstruct his office and provided a suitable backdrop for comments from Benn.
There are inspiring and comforting words from the man himself during a final interview shortly before he died: he says he can’t imagine a better ending to life then the one he is experiencing. That’s just the way it should be.
Words from Benn’s son Hilary draw the film to a close. Taken from his funeral eulogy, he speaks fondly of his father, “…on his epitaph he wanted the phrase ‘He encouraged us.’ Well Dad – you did encourage us. And you did inspire us. Your encouragement and inspiration will never end.”
Top marks to Ruth Winstone and Skip Kite for taking the steps to help ensure this is true.
Tony Benn – Will and Testament is out now on DVD in the UK, released by Spirit Entertainment.
Reviewed by: Amanda Matheson