Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast

How many MPs would sweetly sing for you? In this affectionate portrait of one of the longest standing English Members of Parliament, Dennis Skinner, we get more than one song from the man now known, courtesy of the Telegraph, as the Beast of Bolsover.

As straightforward in style as Skinner himself, the programme is filmed as a series of long interviews with its subject, intercut with contributions from family, friends and appreciative constituents.

Skinner’s story is rooted in the landscapes of Derbyshire. Images of the Derbyshire countryside and skies punctuate the film. Music from the first half of the 20th Century accompanies the story, including tracks from big band leader Bert Ambrose, and songs Skinner’s mother used to sing. There is poignancy to this. Towards the end of her life Mrs Skinner developed Alzheimer’s. Connection between mother and son was helped by the songs they would sing together. Mrs Skinner appears in the film, in archive footage, posthumously joining other family members interviewed more recently.

Skinner, a former miner, has a reputation for being forthright and obstinate. He is acknowledged to be a good constituency MP. He always returns his constituents’ calls, we are told. He is well-known for attending Parliament assiduously. His voting record, in the main, has put him on the sensible and humanist side of politics. His position on the European Union stands out: staunchly against, and voting accordingly since he became an MP in 1970. The film revisits some of his well-known moments in Parliament – filibustering Enoch Powell, and heckling Black Rod.

The indomitable MP’s reminiscences meander through key moments in his development as a politician, how singing in his youth laid the ground for his ability as a public speaker, and how social injustice honed his political stance. The film also takes in a brief tour, with archive footage and photographs, of the history of the Labour movement, the inception of the National Health Service, and the Miners’ Strike of the mid-1980s.

Skinner’s interviews in this film reiterate his already well-known political views, but also his methods and approach: how he goes about being a politician, and how he views the world. A conscientious constituency MP, and a resolute backbencher with quick – though sometimes pre-rehearsed -repartie. Skinner is known for having refused political favours and compromises – his backbench position enabling him to remain his own man. The interviews are also revelatory of his manichean worldview and his conception of socialism and politics. Both, he says, are very simple things.

This programme is more elegy than documentary. It is a useful historical document, thanks to the extended interviews with Skinner, and some interesting archive materials. Meanwhile, it does not provide any alternative perspectives on the man. The film eschews analysis and a wider context, and does not examine – at all – any concrete political issues Skinner may have had a bearing on, including the question of the European Union. Neither does Skinner provide any analysis or reasoning for his own work as a politician, beyond expressing a general commitment to social justice – a commitment borne out of his life experiences. Beyond its good sentiments, the film makes it challenging to see Skinner in the round, or understand his political legacy.

Director Daniel Draper
Producer Christie Allanson, Daniel Draper