It is a cliché too easily broadcast, but it is nevertheless the case that Corin Redgrave’s speech at the WRP’s central premises in Clapham on 14th October 1985 will live in infamy - ‘We are neither for or against corruption, we are for the socialist revolution.’, he began. The faction of which he was a leading member had decided to tackle the charges of financial and sexual misconduct against the long-time party leader Gerry Healy head-on. Redgrave’s opening was calculated to provoke outrage among many party members who, rightly of course, found the revelations shocking and repellent. Many victims of Healy’s sexual malpractice were present, and in many cases their partners, spouses or other family members. The very last thing Healy’s supporters wanted was a serious political discussion, in which there would have to be consideration of how a Trotskyist organisation had been transformed into its opposite (to use a phrase more Healyite than Trotskyist). How had it ceased to be a weapon of liberation and become a means of subjugation and exploitation of the revolutionaries themselves? Cliff Slaughter was later to say that the party had brought into itself all the qualities and methods of Stalinism. The most astounding thing about the meeting was that the pro-Healy faction actually won the vote against any disciplining of Healy. Redgrave’s provocation had succeeded in baiting Healy’s opponents into irrational fury, which naturally meant political incapability. It was a short-lived success however, and it is to the credit of those who survived the experience of the “Clapham Ragnarok” that Healy was eventually expelled and that some human and political dignity was preserved. The WRP and its International were shattered beyond hope of repair, but many of the best of its militants found ways to go forward. Their opponents find opportunities to sneer; I find the determined political survival admirable. As to Redgrave, however dedicated and self-sacrificing he undoubtedly was, his role in defending the indefensible Healy was so contemptible that it inevitably colours any attempt at an obituary. Caveat lector!
Born on July 16 1939 in London, he was christened Corin William (Corin after the character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, in which his father had scored an early success). His grandmother had vetoed William Corin, insisting that future schoolmates would mock the "W.C." initials. He spent most of his early years in Bromyard, near Worcester, growing up with sisters Vanessa and Lyn. Undoubtedly, as the ad hominem critics of the Redgraves insist, this upbringing had some idyllic aspects, but the Redgrave children were separated from their parents for long periods, as father Michael and his wife Rachel Kempson pursued their acting careers in London and elsewhere. One of his obituarists claimed that aged six he failed to recognize his father on stage. After a short and unhappy period in boarding school he went to Westminster School, where he won a scholarship to Kings College Cambridge; there his love of drama was to shape the next, highly successful, stages of his career as an actor.
Physical separation was not the only component of a difficult relationship with his parents. Michael Redgrave was an active bisexual, conducting frequent affairs with well known theatrical men. In the 1960s the liberal view of such activities now prevalent in London did not apply. It is easy to speculate that Corin Redgrave might have found in Gerry Healy all the qualities that Michael Redgrave failed to provide a boy. However, Michael’s bisexuality would seem to have been the route through which socialist ideas came into the family. Michael's first flirtation, when he was only 16, was with 25-year-old Oliver Baldwin, son of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Oliver gave Michael an interest in Leftwing politics, and he was to write 'I could not politically call myself anything but a socialist'.
(Baldwin was a fascinating character. Engaged as he was in almost constant political but not personal conflict with his father, he may have been a significant model for Corin. Eton educated, and after a brave record in WW1 in Armenia, involving imprisonment by both Bolshevik and Turkish forces, he took to journalism. He described himself as a Marxist, and often held forth at Hyde Park Corner. After joining the Labour Party he won the Dudley constituency seat in 1929 at the second attempt. He was a critical back-bencher in the Ramsay MacDonald Labour government, and refused to follow MacDonald into the National Government. (He had a very brief association with Moseley’s New Party, which lasted a whole day before he returned to Labour!) He lost his seat at the next election, and when he became a Peer on the death of his father, his political career was at an end. He was offered a diplomatic position in the Caribbean and caused a scandal by taking with him his (male) lover. )
Redgrave joined what was then the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in 1971, before it became the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) in 1973. He had been drawn into political activity by his sister Vanessa, who involved him in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He was later to recruit her into the WRP. He devoted increasing amounts of his time to the WRP and became an important leading figure, always allied with Healy (as was Vanessa). Tim Wohlforth (In Bob Pitt’s account of the life of Healy) describes being positively impressed by both of them, for their seriousness and dedication to the work of the party. Both the Redgraves, (and at the same time the Sunday Times journalist Alex Mitchell) were rapidly promoted into leading positions. By 1973, on the basis of about two year’s experience in the movement, the two Redgraves represented the SLL at the conference of the International Committee (the fragment of the former Fourth International led by Healy and Lambert).
The Redgraves were influential in recruiting a wide layer of people from the worlds of theatre, film and TV, their contacts and influence supporting the status the SLL had begun to develop through longer serving members such as Ken Loach and Jim Allen. Among the major names that became involved with the SLL at this stage were Roy Battersby; Trevor Griffiths, John Arden, Margaretta D’Arcy, David Mercer, John McGrath, Colin Welland, Neville Smith, Tom Kempinski and Troy Kennedy Martin; Tony Garnett, Kenith Trodd, Roger Smith; Tony Selby, Jack Shepherd, Frances de la Tour, Malcolm Tierney, David Calder, David Hargreaves. A wider circle of star contacts was also utilised to raise funds and boost the influence of the SLL/WRP.
The significance of these contributors can easily be underestimated in the UK in C21, where media trivialisation has effectively marginalised culture, and “Britart” and “Britpop” have actively supported the process. In the late 60s and early 70s, some elements of the arts were seen by the ruling class as a threat to social stability. This was the era of “The Wednesday Play” and “Play for Today”, when TV drama regularly sparked political debate in the mass population. This layer of left wing intellectuals wielded an influence disproportionate to their numbers. The group of actors and actresses wrote and performed dramatic pieces for WRP rallies and meetings, on such historical topics as the Peasants’ Revolt.
I met Corin Redgrave briefly when the WRP attempted to intervene into the struggle to deselect Reg Prentice MP as the sitting candidate for Newham North East constituency Labour Party. He attempted to recruit the constituency secretary, Tony Kelly (who knew all he needed to know about Healy from the wily veteran Trotskyist Sam Bornstein). He was accompanied by two adoring young female comrades, who were aghast that we failed to recognise Redgrave. Redgrave found his turn to be aghast when offered a toke on a comradely joint; he made his excuses and left. Vanessa had taken an active role in the WRP’s election campaign in Newham North East. I remember her, megaphone in hand, shouting “Nationalise the superstores!” – a worthy enough slogan (though superstores were thin on the ground in East Ham) but rendered laughable by the fact that she was shouting at the East Ham Co-op.
It is undoubtedly the case that Redgrave’s acting career suffered during his time in the SLL/WRP. He claimed that he was “blacklisted”, and later “rehabilitated”. It is unlikely that the management of the BBC would be so clumsy as to operate a formal blacklist, and some of the other actors and actresses who were attracted to the WRP (in large part because of the Redgraves’ prominence and persuasiveness, but the much longer record of dedication by figures such as Ken Loach and Jim Allen should not be discounted) did not suffer comparable neglect. It seems more probable that leading right wingers in Equity, the actors’ union, would have used their influence against him, and also that the commitment of his time to the WRP made it difficult to promote himself adequately. His professional reputation was certainly damaged in 1974 when he attempted to evade his contractual obligation to go to Australia for filming; Edward Heath had called the General Election, and Redgrave’s priority was clearly to take part in the WRP’s campaign.
His first marriage, to model Dierdre Hamilton-Hill, which had produced two children, failed at about the same time, though they were not to be divorced until 1981. Hamilton-Hill provided some jaundiced recollections of the relationship. The family home was usually full of what she called “itinerant Marxists”, and Redgrave banned wine and French cuisine as “bourgeois”.
To the media the most notorious aspect of his involvement with the WRP was the affair of the “Red House”, as they delighted in calling it. He played a major role in raising the money to purchase “White Meadows”, a large house in Derbyshire intended to be used as a WRP training centre, and the purchase was made in his name. Before there had been time for much training to be done, it became the centre of a scandal and state-provocation in September 1975. The Observer newspaper published a report that an actress, Irene Gorst, had arrived late for the very first training course at the centre, targeted at actors and actresses exclusively. She had been subjected to harsh interrogation as to the reasons for her lateness, and prevented from leaving. Some accounts indicate that Gorst was Redgrave’s girl friend at the time, and that she was late because she had gone to lunch with a previous boyfriend. In the paranoid political atmosphere that Healy had instilled in the WRP, it was obvious that somebody arriving late could only have been meeting their controller in the secret state. It seems that nobody considered that would be the very last thing any competent controller would have organised.
But the authorities had not failed to take an interest in “White Meadows”, and the Gorst affair was the pretext for a large armed raid on Saturday 27th September 1975. While we must always be cautious about the most paranoid Healyite excesses, there are circumstances surrounding the raid that have to be taken due account of. In his memoirs Staying Red: Why I remain a socialist” Norman Harding, whom I have met and am prepared to consider a reliable witness, describes how he was working in London preparing the party’s daily newspaper. Part of his routine was to go to Fleet Street to collect the very first copies of the Sunday newspapers. The Observer had an article describing the raid in some detail, even specifying the number of police involved, and stating that an arms cache had been discovered. This had been printed hours before the raid actually took place. The Gorst allegations had been in the hands of The Observer for two weeks and first appeared in this same article. Everything had been calculated to make front page news on the first day of the Labour Party conference; the star turn at the conference was to be the deselected and defeated Reg Prentice, warning the party against “extremist infiltration”. It subsequently emerged that the raid had been personally authorised by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, who was to leave the Labour Party and co-found the SDP. By the time Harding was able to telephone to “White Meadows“, the real raid was beginning.
The BBC TV documentary “True Spies”, episode 2, dealt with the raid. The following (edited only for readability) extract is from the transcript on the BBC website:
Special Branch recruited spies in every corner of the Far Left – each with their own number.
TONY ROBINSON. Lancashire Police Special Branch, 1965-81
Tony Robinson sync
starting off with 672 in the rails branch of Communist Party, industrial branch. Followed up with 735, Workers’ Revolutionary Party. Then I had 846 in the International Marxist Group. 919 Revolutionary Students Group 10.77 in the Young Communist League, and Michael - Leyland Motors branch - Communist Party.
The splinter group to be seen in was the Workers Revolutionary Party – the WRP. This was revolution with glamour – the vanguard of writers, directors and stars. Vanessa Redgrave was its leading lady. But MI5 believed the WRP was involved in more than just theatre – much to the outrage of its party members.
ROY BATTERSBY Workers’ Revolutionary Party, 1968-80
One has to say that we were legal, we were public, there were no secrets in what we thought. So in a sense you say well how does that make me a subversive. My politics are not about to bring down the state.
MI5 told one of its Special Branch handlers in the Midlands that it wanted intelligence on the WRP’s educational centre in Derbyshire, known as the ‘Red House’.
DENNIS. West Midlands Police Special Branch, 1977-98
DENNIS let's see what's going on behind closed doors, is this just a leftwing, Trotskyist, revolutionary party spouting out all the information you'd expect them to spout, or is there a hidden agenda?
To find out, Dennis recruited an agent to spy on the WRP. MI5 paid him £500 a month –in cash, tax free.
TOM. Special Branch Agent, 1977-87
Interviewer: Did they talk revolution at the Red House?
TOM They always talk about that, that was their main thing, revolution, that we need to change from this to that.
This was the immediate necessity to prepare for the threatening catastrophe which threatens the working class.
What was Vanessa Redgrave like?
TOM sometimes she can be very rude, and she would be outspoken, And many times it was say that we should get this government out. Workers’ Revolutionary Party should take over, and we can control the workers.
There were suspicions that the Red House was more than just a talking shop and that armed revolution was being plotted behind closed doors. [PAUSE] Special Branch raided the premises, looking for evidence.
they asked me what this door was and I said oh it's just an empty space, it's going to be for storage and stuff. And they then asked me could I get a stronger bulb for the light on the stairway and I went back into a bathroom and unscrewed a bulb, and by the time I came back out onto the stairs, looking down at this cupboard, they had the cupboard door opened and a Special Branch officer was leaning in, and he came out of the cupboard and I went "Eh! Look what I've found!" And opened his hand and from the top of the stairs I could see that he had three 2.2 shells in his hand, and I said literally "Where are they supposed to have come from?" And he said "Are you suggesting we planted them?" and I said "I'm not suggesting anything. I'm just telling you that they didn't come from inside that cupboard"
(Roy Battersby, the well known TV producer, had been instructed by the WRP to leave London and oversee the construction work at the centre.)