Quentin Letts is theatre critic and parliamentary sketchwriter of the Daily Mail.
Since 1993, film fans have watched ‘Groundhog Day’ and innocently swallowed its lightly moral lesson: don’t be rude to strangers. Now the tale has been turned into a stage musical, premiered last week in London, and its director has spotted an EU angle. Yes, ‘Groundhog Day’ is apparently about Brexit.
You may recall the plot. American TV weather reporter Phil Connors (played in the film by the peerless Bill Murray) takes his salty metropolitan ways to rural Pennsylvania where every February they hold a festival involving a groundhog. From watching the animal’s behaviour, villagers claim to be able to predict the likelihood of an early Spring.
Phil Connors thinks this is rot. He groans at the chintzy niceness of the ‘good folk’ of Punxsutawney. Connors fancies himself bigger and better than the community. By some unknown force he is compelled to re-live the same Groundhog Day over and over again until he becomes a more loving, consensual citizen.
London’s Old Vic is giving the ‘Groundhog Day’ musical its first, short run before a possible move to Broadway. The show (not bad, but not as good as some of the gushing reviews have claimed) is directed by Matthew Warchus, artistic boss of the Old Vic. In its programme he identifies a parallel between Brexit and ‘Groundhog Day’ owing to its theme that ‘no man is an island’.
That line from John Donne has become something of a Leftwing cliché. No man is an island, ergo everyone must collaborate and pool sovereignty. John Donne said so. It must be true.
Are islands not rather good things? ‘Insular’ may be a prejorative word but the the phrase ‘island race’ is a great deal more positive and was used by Churchill as the title for a rousing volume of British history. Islanders, by and large, have a stronger sense of self-sufficiency and communal culture than people who live on continents.
Matthew Warchus would apparently have us see Groundhog Day’s weatherman Phil Connors a sort of Nigel Farage of the isobars. Connors certainly stands apart from the Punxsutawney groupthink. He is selfish, chauvinist, witty in a wiseguy sort of way. You rather suspect he’d do quite well if invited to take part in ‘Mock the Week’ or ‘Big Brother’.
Let us examine the unspoken politics of ‘Groundhog Day’ a little further. Punxsutawney is a suffocating place. Might that not be true, too, of Brussels and its European institutions? The civic leaders of Punxsutawney are top-hatted chumps, living an archaic self-delusion. Might that not equate with the likes of Tusk, Schulz and Juncker? The dozy townsfolk unquestioningly accept what they are told. What sheep! Respectful Righty that I am, I would not dream of comparing the voters of France, Germany and Italy etc to sheep, but if Mr Leftie Warchus wishes to do so, good luck to him.
In his Old Vic production, furthermore, the forces of law and order – the Punxsutawney police officers – are laughably inept, dropping their guns and being open to favouritism, even corruption. Heaven forbid that this should be true of the fine, upstanding constabularies of, say, Belgium or Greece. Europhile Mr Warchus may not have intended it this way, but perhaps he is on to something.
Where his theory breaks down is that in 21st Century Europe, anyone claiming to discern weather patterns from the movements of a groundhog would be castigated on Twitter. That self-appointed grandee Dick Black from the ‘Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit’ would write a letter to The Guardian. His little munchkin Roger Harrabin would opine pompously on the Today Programme and the BBC Trust’s editorial standards committee would censor any programme that tried to report the groundhoggers’ activities without a long explanation that such behaviour was a departure from the ‘settled position of most climate-change scientists’. Meteorologist Phil Connors would be a hero for expressing scepticism about weather folklorists.
Let us hope the investors risking their money on any Broadway run of ‘Groundhog Day’ do not spot this fatal danger.