These are the Times - A Life of Thomas Paine

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BBC Radio 4, 26 July - 2 August 2008

This two-part biographical drama recounted the life of Thomas Paine, the political campaigner who was one of the architects of the US Constitution and who was heavily involved in the French Revolution. As with most ideologues, he remained an outsider all his life, regarded with suspicion by everyone – even his supporters – on account of his beliefs. Although posterity recognizes his achievements, it clear that Paine himself had a checkered career, being rejected by the British, French and Americans alike.


These are the Times was episodic in structure, tracing Paine’s career in America and France. The characterization veered towards the sketchy, save for the strong central performance of Paine himself (Jonathan Pryce). In this production he was portrayed as an old-fashioned socialist, committed to freedom without violence and democratic opportunities for all. Although firmly on the freedom-fighters’ side in the French Revolution, he was treated with caution: on several occasions in Clive Brill’s production he was described as “awkward” and “stubborn,” adjectives normally associated with a political rebel rather than an ally. Eventually he was accused of being an enemy of the state, whose work such as The Rights of Man was potentially seditious. How could someone like him be tolerated, when he argued so vehemently against Louis XVI’s execution, even though the king was so obviously guilty of treason? At this moment the play reminded me of that famous moment in Animal Farm when the narrator declares that some people are more equal than others in a revolutionary state.


Eventually Paine returned to America, where he was initially welcomed as a hero. Following the publication of The Age of Reason, however, he was subject to further indignities, being dismissed as not a ‘true’ American on account of his birth. Such comments have a particular resonance at this present moment, as Senator Barack Obama bids to become the first African-American President. One wonders how he will be regarded in Washington’s corridors of power.


Nonetheless Paine emerged from his life with his beliefs intact. In many ways he resembled a modern-day Old Labour supporter, in his passionate commitment to community values and state support. Although such beliefs might seem archaic in contemporary Britain, they still have a certain resonance as the country lurches towards another economic crisis, with increased poverty and unemployment. Perhaps another revolution, of the kind Paine envisaged, is needed to restore people’s beliefs in what he stood for – freedom for everyone.