Four weddings but not yet a funeral
At the end of 1995 the late Martin Amis wrote about how he had visited the cinema several weeks earlier with his friend, Salman Rushdie. The film had been Four Weddings and a Funeral which he and Rushdie both hated, but which the rest of the audience loved. “In any postwar decade other than the present one”, observed Amis, “Four Weddings would have provoked nothing but incredulous disgust. A 1960s audience would have wrecked the cinema.” But gulled by the postcard locations and the costumes, by “the upper crust playing cute”, the 90s cinema-goers “can lapse into a forgetful toadyism and abase themselves before their historical oppressors.”
We get the popular art we need, even if the need is unconscious. In the sunny 90s, sandwiched between the fall of the wall and the fall of the twin towers, perhaps we could feel that those winsome, wealthy Richard Curtis characters might have been us. With a little bit of luck. Or at least that we were, very roughly, in it together.
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Thirty years on and the mood has changed. You cannot be in it together with Elon Musk or Sam Bankman-Fried. If our imagined past was Downton Abbey and a bit of noblesse oblige on the part of the aristocracy, our actual present is hedge-fund billionaires with private islands funding right-wing TV stations in the name of the working classes. It is Romy Coppola, 16, trying to charter a helicopter on her dad’s credit card. It is nepo-babies cocktailing on yachts while our kids are getting gazumped trying to rent over-priced, dingy flats.
Our unhappy masters
So Succession – the story of the tycoon Logan Roy and his squabbling children - has been the anti-Downton. It's pure fury, and never more furious than when it is funny. Just as The Thick of It (with which it shares some writers) captured the terror that politicians feel when contemplating the polis, so Succession reassures us by suggesting just how unhappy and unworthy the masters of our universe really are. We might identify with Lord and Lady Crawley and their blue-blood relations, but we wouldn’t want to be part of the world of the Roy family. We can’t identify with today’s super-rich – we hate them and feel contempt for their hangers-on. We want to see them brought low. Here, in this drama, we can have our revenge. It’s revolution by proxy.
Back in 1899 the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen invented the terms “conspicuous consumption” and “invidious comparison”. He suggested that for many consumption was not for pleasure or need, but for social status. And that comparison between ourselves and others becomes almost the entire goal in a battle that has no end. The last mansion bought becomes the baseline from which the buyer must still move on to something better.
In the four series of Succession the action famously flits from one impossibly gorgeous location to another. Weddings are held in Tuscan castles, family meetings on super-yachts, business summits in stunning Norwegian forests. The characters step, unencumbered by luggage or documents and carrying only their phones, from lobby to limousine, jetty to speedboat, private jet to waiting chopper - never taking a bus, a taxi, a train, checking in at an airport, waiting in a queue or going to a supermarket. They have everything.
And there’s no joy for them in any of it. No proper value is attached to any aspect, however lovely. The view is filled with sourness. In the penultimate episode of the last series aired last week, Kendall - the heir presumptive to the Roy business - looks around the magnificent interior of the cathedral where his father’s funeral is about to be held and at the mourners and says to his sister, “Oh man. So many fucking money-changers in the temple.”
In Four Weddings and even in the famous adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that Amis was also writing about in that essay, you’re invited to imagine being a guest yourself at a Scottish castle or of marrying into Pemberley. In Succession that’s never going to happen; you and yours and me and mine can only be the chauffeurs, the secretaries, the PAs, the waiters, the newsroom staff, the sound guys and the nannies. If you’re lucky you’d get to hold Roman’s coat, to take minutes of a meeting with Shiv, or be told to find the numbers of a top divorce lawyer. The rich treat the rest of us like nothing at all. And they’re never satisfied.
The payback from our masters that the writers procure for us is that their characters are perpetually unhappy and constantly tormented. Only the patriarch, Logan Roy, is personally fulfilled by his constant quest to win, to f*** the other guy over, to build companies that can be seen from outer space. The others - family and courtiers - founder in his wake. There is only one way the Roy kids can earn the esteem of their father – and that is to be as tough and bloody and as total a competitor as he is. And the whole point is that they can’t be. “I love you, but you are not serious people!” he thunders at them. And only the second part is accurate.
And it’s kind of true
The fact that Succession is sort of true (or as true as any biopic) allows it to be savoured all the more. A recent feature in the magazine Vanity Fair reported two claims that the Murdoch family – or parts of it – were perturbed by the way their real lives had turned up as plot points in the TV drama. One son, Lachlan – who is at the moment the apparent preferred successor to run his father’s main business - was said to have complained to Rupert that a second son, James, was “leaking stories” to the people at Succession. And when Murdoch pere, a year into his nineties abruptly divorced his fourth wife, Jerry Hall last year “one of the terms of the settlement”, according to the magazine, “was that Hall couldn’t give story ideas to the writers on Succession”.
The awkward consorting of the Roy family and their cable news station ATN with the far-right presidential candidate, Jaryd Mencken - and the way in which the man they imagine to be their creature turns out to be their nemesis - obviously parallels the disaster that befell Fox News in America this year, when their indulgence of Trump’s stolen election claims cost them $787 million in defamation damages and the loss of their top-rated screen host, Tucker Carlson.
The parallel has its limits. Logan Roy himself - a man of immense force, entirely the measure of his own worth and full of creative contempt for the world – is not Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch is quietly spoken, can be personally kind (he funded the expensive treatment for prostate cancer of a colleague of mine at The Times) and slips quietly into newsrooms rather than arriving in a flurry of fucks. Murdoch has been more constructive than Roy – without him there would have been no Sky, no live football on TV, no Premier League and probably no Times newspaper.
The myth of the apolitical Murdoch
But Murdoch is also more political. The myth is that he is only interested in what is good for his businesses – “it’s not the red or the blue but the green” as he famously said when he was deposed for the Dominion defamation case – but in fact he is extremely right wing and his politics leach back into all his news outlets. His influence is always edging the dial to the right of where it would otherwise have been. If not directly, then by default. Any writer or presenter even slightly left of centre knows they are there on sufferance. No right-wing writer ever has to worry.
Imagine for example Logan Roy’s reaction had the fictional president of the US decided to make a bid to purchase an entire country, say Bermuda. In August 2019 Donald Trump said he wanted America to buy Greenland. It was, as the prime minister of Denmark said, a ridiculous idea. I was writing the occasional Timesleader at the time (I left the paper at the end of February) and this one fell to me. And I agreed with the Dane and said so. But this version never got printed. My leader was spiked and a new one created in which Trump’s stupidity was treated seriously. It was explained to me by a colleague that the person in charge of leaders that day was looking for a promotion and probably believed that making fun of Trump would not help them.
Too much money and too much power corrupts those in contact with it. In the penultimate episode of this last series of Succession, at the tomb of his father, Kendall Roy asks Hugo Baker, the Head of Communications at Waystar Corporation to help him in resisting a planned takeover. “You can come”, he tells him “but it won’t be a collaboration. You’ll be my dog, but the scraps on table will be millions, millions. Happy?” And Hugo replies, “woof, woof!” In real life, of course, this never actually needs to be said. The woof is silent.
Logan Roy is dead and Rupert Murdoch is alive. But when he was born the Mensheviks were on trial in Moscow, Herbert Hoover was in the White House and the two ends of the new Sydney Harbour bridge hadn’t quite met up. There is an empire out there to be inherited and it must happen quite soon. But in Succession we see the limits of the hereditary principle applied to modern business. None of the kids are good enough. Why would anyone ever expect that they would be? And in fact do we really want anyone to have that much power?
The fact that none of the Roys are happy is cold comfort... The music is great, though.
Original and fascinating insight into our preoccupation with the Roys. Also worrying example of the way the right leaning Times can manipulate our thinking (even though I read it).