OLDIE CAM­PAIGN­ERS OF THE YEAR

The Oldie - - MEDIA MATTERS - Michael Coveney Harry Mount

‘Dubs was evac­u­ated from Prague, newly in­vaded by the Nazis, on kinder­trans­port’

Chil­dren, es­pe­cially lit­tle princes, get a raw deal in Shake­speare’s Richard III, not least from their par­ents. Queen Mar­garet un­leashes a vol­ley of jus­ti­fi­able abuse against her son’s killer as he si­dles mur­der­ously to­wards Bos­worth Field. It’s usu­ally a noisy out­burst but, in her most re­cent stage ap­pear­ance, at the Almeida The­atre in north Lon­don, Vanessa Red­grave was more ghostly than venge­ful, more de­ranged than dev­il­ish, bot­tle-feed­ing a baby doll as if mourn­ing the en­tire in­fant species.

She’s an ac­tress who holds a sheet of glass to her soul. In tragic roles, es­pe­cially, she is a con­duit of all our sor­rows and losses. That baby doll was her ‘lost’ son, ev­ery­one’s lost child – her own daugh­ter, Natasha Richard­son, died in an ac­ci­dent eight years ago – and she be­comes a re­ver­ber­at­ing spokesper­son for all be­reaved hu­man­ity.

In the tragic scan­dal of the child refugees, her an­guish and con­cern is at one with Queen Mar­garet’s or with He­cuba’s (a grief-stricken role she in­hab­ited with over­whelm­ing éclat ten years ago), or in­deed with Vo­lum­nia, be­seech­ing her ban­ished son Co­ri­olanus to spare the cit­i­zens of his home town in Ralph Fi­ennes’s great 2011 movie.

In real life, Red­grave re­mem­bers wartime evac­u­a­tion in Bri­tain. Her part­ner in im­pas­sioned protest, Lord Alf Dubs, was evac­u­ated from Prague, newly in­vaded by the Nazis, on the kinder­trans­port. His cam­paign with Red­grave, to do some­thing about unac­com­pa­nied child refugees in Calais and else­where, led first to a huge pub­lic pe­ti­tion and se­condly to his amend­ment to the Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 2016, of­fer­ing such chil­dren safe pas­sage to Bri­tain, an en­treaty ac­cepted by the Govern­ment in prin­ci­ple and in prac­tice.

Dubs was as­ton­ished when, in Fe­bru­ary, the Govern­ment sud­denly axed the pol­icy.

Set­tling in Bri­tain, Dubs was ed­u­cated at the LSE and has since de­voted his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, in lo­cal coun­cils and in Par­lia­ment – as a Labour MP for Bat­tersea from 1979 to 1987, and as a life peer since 1994 – to an area health au­thor­ity, a men­tal health trust, the Broad­cast­ing Stan­dards Com­mis­sion (which he chaired) and the Bri­tish Hu­man­ist As­so­ci­a­tion.

His adop­tion of causes is no more a self-con­scious tac­tic than is Red­grave’s of a par­tic­u­lar role; it’s a con­tin­u­a­tion of con­cern at the way of the world and a de­sire to do some­thing about it.

In Red­grave’s case, crit­ics failed to un­der­stand that the source of her ex­tra­or­di­nary power, the strength of the beam she ra­di­ates, was al­ways her po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tion. But, with pass­ing years, her rage and her up­set seem in­creas­ingly rea­son­able, her Trot­skyite fa­nati­cism, if that’s what it was, now cloaked in a cloud of em­pa­thy and hu­man­i­tar­ian gen­eros­ity of spirit, on and off stage.

Red Vanessa and her loonies, as Bernard Levin, who adored her act­ing, was wont to call them, were re­placed in our lex­i­con by the all-pur­pose ‘Left-wing luvvies’ tag. Today, her ac­tivism can more eas­ily be seen, cer­tainly with re­gard to the child refugees, as the stuff of com­mon de­cency and an ex­am­ple to all. And the same must be said of the af­fa­ble, mod­est Lord Dubs, Vanessa’s other and, she would no doubt say, bet­ter ’Alf.

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