OLDIE CAMPAIGNERS OF THE YEAR
‘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.