‘He doesn't like the clubbable Commons': Filmmaker's quest to reveal the real Dennis Skinner

Dan Carrier talks to director Daniel Draper about his new film, a refreshing look at the ‘Beast of Bolsover’ – Dennis Skinner MP

Thursday, 31st August 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Dennis Skinner

Man about the House: Dennis Skinner

IN an age when politicians spout over and over such incomprehensible phrases as “Brexit Means Brexit”, “Strong and Stable” and “Ordinary Working Families,” when their political aims bend with whatever they feel will win them votes rather than based on solid ethical foundations, 85-year-old Parliamentarian Dennis Skinner shines like a beacon.

The MP for Bolsover, Derbyshire, has been in the Commons since 1970 and speaks his mind in the tradition of the greatest Parliamentary orators.

Now the MP, who prefers constituency work and holding the government to account from the back benches to appearing in newspapers or on TV, is the subject of a new documentary.

It represents something of a departure for the veteran Socialist and Republican and follows on from a brilliant and critically acclaimed autobiography, published two years ago.

Made by director Daniel Draper, Dennis Skinner: the Nature of the Beast, creates a rounded picture of the man.

The film came about after Daniel, a film graduate originally from Liverpool, read Robert Tressell’s seminal novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. It is a book that has inspired generations to look at the world around them in a different light – and set Daniel on a path to direct a new documentary about one of the left’s greatest ever parliamentarians.

Daniel and his company, Shut Out The Light, specialises in films about communities, music and news.

“I am a working-class lad and was brought up to vote Labour,” he says, “but I became truly politicised five years ago when I read Tressell.”

The book, modelled on the seaside town of Hastings and written in the Edwardian period, tells of a group of painters and decorators and uses their stories to show how wealth and capital, labour and the ownership of the means of production create class division in Britain. It is as relevant today as it was when Tressell wrote it – and shows why the need for backbenchers such as Skinner is as vital as ever in Parliament.

Daniel made a film about the book to mark the 100th anniversary of its publication in 2014 and, to do so, contacted Mr Skinner to ask for an interview. The MP, known as the Beast of Bolsover for his uncompromising and combative style, agreed.

Film-maker Daniel Draper

“We spoke and I did not see this side, this public persona, at all,” recalls Daniel. “You see an image portrayed by him by the media and on TV – but there is so much more to him than meets the eye. I sent him a letter and asked him if I could make a documentary about his life.”

Mr Skinner responded – at 8am on a Sunday morning.

“I had been out drinking the night before,” says Daniel. “I thought – ‘oh no way, it’s Dennis Skinner on the phone’. We ended up speaking for two hours.”

The politician’s autobiography came out two years ago, but he has always shunned publicity.

“He doesn’t like media types or the ‘clubbable’ atmosphere of the Commons – that’s why he never goes into the bars at Parliament. But we spoke and he said: ‘OK, let’s give it a go’.”

And in the film a better picture emerges of a person painted as a bogeyman by the right-wing press, a person who loves football and music, about the background that has forged a set of mortal values that guides what he does. His “spiky” persona, according to those who demonise him, is just not apparent.

“Everyone asked what is Dennis like? They can see him being quite short but frankly he was great to work with.”

And a lighter side of the man who is seen as fairly dour – he never forgets the challenges he faces on behalf of his constituents – appears. For example, he is persuaded to sing on camera – “I don’t think he really wanted to,” admits Daniel. “But he was a real gent, considerate, kind.”

The importance of Mr Skinner’s approach to being an MP is a crucial part of the film.

“He sees being an MP as a job, not a career,” adds Daniel. “He turns up to the Commons every day. He feels that if you didn’t turn up to a pit to work, you wouldn’t get paid, so how is going to the Commons any different from other jobs?

“He also believes he is fortunate to be elected and does not take his role for granted. He isn’t interested in patronage, he just wants to represent his constituents.”

And Mr Skinner’s ability to tell truth to power has never dimmed, despite the tides of political fashions often going against him.

“His stance is as relevant today as ever,” adds Daniel. “Yet he told us how in the late 80s, he used to go on Question Time regularly, but the producers were then told he did not represent the views of the Labour Party. But you can see how today he represents something more than the Parliamentary Labour Party. If you look at the membership today, you can see how Dennis is in tune with 500,000 people who are members.”

It isn’t just his unbending moral stance – as a Republican, his quips at the state opening of parliament have become legendary – but his often under-reported, eloquent style from the benches is another factor that makes him so endearing and such a good topic for a film.

“He cuts through the bullshit,” adds Daniel, citing how Mr Skinner is often ahead of the curve with his reading of the world, a prime example being the scandal of how workers for companies such as Sports Direct are treated.

Including interviews with the MP, and plenty of archive footage showing him at his best, the film not only reveals more about the life of the MP, but should act as a guide for those who represent us.

One can only wonder how much better Britain would be if our elected representatives could be a little more like the one and only Dennis Skinner.

Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast is in cinemas next week.

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