Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Cathy Brennan

When Brexit came to fruition on 31st January 2020, the ideology of British Exceptionalism – wielded by Boris Johnson’s government – had fully taken the steering wheel of the country. Just under a year later, and the UK earned the distinction of having the highest death rate from COVID-19 in the world. In this period, two folk heroes have emerged; a duo that embodies the nation and the values it represents. I am, of course, referring to Toby Young and Julie Burchill. 

Although both have been in the spotlight before (some may say their best years are far behind them) in a curious way, their haggard appearance today speaks to their stature as the British folk heroes of 2021. Young, whose mixture of Randall Weems-esque weasliness and Oxbridge entitlement gives him the look of a Tory MP’s cocaine-fetcher, is a prominent lockdown skeptic who wrote for the Telegraph in June that “the virus has all but disappeared”. He is also one of the founders of the Free Speech Union, which swooped in to aid Young’s erstwhile colleague Julie Burchill when her book contract was cancelled last December. 

Burchill meanwhile – a 61 year old commentator who managed to forge a 40 year career while maintaining the emotional maturity of a teenage gamer – tried to drum up publicity for her opus Welcome to the Woke Trials: How #Identity Killed Progressive Politics in the most cynical way imaginable: she decided to abuse the journalist Ash Sarkar with Islamaphobic tweets. Young’s Free Speech Union managed to get Burchill’s former publisher to relinquish the publishing rights back to her as well as paying her full advance for writing it, foreclosing any possibility of accountability for her bigoted behaviour. 

Burchill and Young think they’re truly sticking it to the “woke mob” with their antics but the reality is that they are boring. Burchill’s social media musings are indistinguishable from the ravings of a gammonated relative whose offensive posturing barely masks their own existential terror at an ever-encroaching grave. For someone who is treated as a firebrand by the decrepit middle-aged mass of British media, I expected somebody a bit more interesting. Then again, that probably speaks to the intellectual poverty of the British media class.

When Toby Met Julie is a television documentary that aired on BBC 4 in 2005. It tells the story of The Modern Review; a magazine conceived between Young, Burchill, and her then-husband Cosmo Landsmann while the three were on a trip to Thorpe Park. One suspects that when either Young or Burchill dies, the other will start a campaign to commemorate their journalistic love-child with a blue plaque outside the entrance to Stealth. The aim of The Modern Review as Young puts it in the doc, was to treat “low” culture seriously, a novel notion to an island nation that doesn’t import cans of Campbell soup. Many well-known British writers like Will Self, Nick Hornby, and Tom Shone, started out as contributors to The Modern Review.

The documentary is a piece of myth-making that tries to raise the profile of cultural criticism with Young and Burchill as the rambunctious protagonists; a prospect they must have relished. As the programme tells it: “they wanted to do something that’s old hat now, but was still unusual in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain; to write intelligently about mass culture: movies, tv, pop. Without sneering at all of it, and without being a candidate for Pseud’s Corner.”  The idea that Young and Burchill were pioneers in treating popular culture with intellectual rigour is laughable when one considers the intertwined legacies of Stuart Hall and Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. To accept such a position is to concede that Young and Burchill are intellectuals as opposed to chronic self-promoters.

There’s a cheap, by-the-numbers quality to the programme that will be familiar to those who watched any British television documentary in the 2000s. Talking-head interviews with relevant individuals, punctuated by tangentially related archive footage to position these figures as part of a larger historical tapestry. The bow that ties this all together is narration by Mark Halliley, perhaps best-known as the narrator for The Apprentice UK. Halliley also wrote and directed the programme.

What makes When Toby Met Julie entertaining to watch is that this thoroughly middlebrow foundation clashes with attempts at edginess. Quasi-intertitles mimic a 1991 photograph in which ‘The Modern Review’ was written by Burchill in lines of cocaine against a black surface. Presumably this stylistic flourish was created to titillate the BBC 4 audience that dared to stay up post-watershed.  There’s an aroma of desperation to these antics, similar in odour to a classroom recently vacated by Year 10s (a possible aphrodisiac to someone like Rod Liddle, apparently). It’s stuff like this that makes the documentary fun to watch and funny to think about, though probably not in the way Young and Burchill would have liked. 

Probably the best example of this quixotic quest for edge is during an interview with a cigar-toting Will Self as he’s describing the drug-fuelled social environment at The Modern Review: “when large quantities of alcohol and stimulant drugs come into play these sort of things can kick off.” Suddenly, archive footage of a mortar being fired and other war footage from the 90s is played alongside Will Smith’s ‘Boom! Shake the Room’. They even sneak a quick cut of Toby Young’s face into this montage. In a way this sequence represents Young and Burchill’s mindset better than any interview with them could hope to achieve. There’s this earnest attempt at shock and offence that merely comes across as laughable. It is the mark of a perpetual contrarianism.

This contrarian mindset inevitably finds itself rather snug in the confines of British exceptionalism. Burchill, described in the documentary as “a Stalinist-turned-Thatcherite” is now a Brexiteer and wrote a pro-Brexit play in 2018. People Like Us was panned by theatre critics. According to Claire Allfree’s one-star review in the Metro, Liddle attended the press night and was “braying loudly every time the Brexiteers scored a so-called point.” The play itself was written and read as a “riposte” against the establishment of British theatre, and so the critical drubbing it got could be seen as a victory by Burchill. She also is a pronounced philo-semite which manifests itself in an uncritical support for Israel. Being pro-Israel or a Brexiteer are not in and of themselves contrarian positions, but the manner of her posturing support would suggest that Burchill’s motivations are driven in part by a deeper desire to be seen as separate from the crowd. This can be evinced by the extreme way she expresses these positions. Her pro-Brexit stance, it seems, is borne more out of a disdain for “metropolitan elites” and the social mores of middle-class liberals, rather than a sincere political conviction. People Like Us was more about the friction between members of a North London book club than a genuine exploration of the political and social forces that animated Brexit. 

This psychology of contrarianism can also be seen in Young. In his case, the evidence lands closer to the backyard of cinephilia. In the prologue to his memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (which was later adapted in a rom-com with Simon Pegg playing a fictionalised version of Young) he describes his idiosyncratic attitude towards popular culture as a journalist at the time:

The attitude of all my friends towards celebrities was completely phony. They might claim to be indifferent, but they became forelock-tugging serfs the moment a famous person entered the room. They worshipped at the altar of celebrity just like everyone else; they were just too embarrassed to admit it. Consequently, I made a point of erring in the opposite direction. I hammed up my obsession with A-list stars as a way of letting my friends know I found their pretence at insouciance totally unconvincing.

Channeling Holden Caulfield-style individualism, Young and Burchill’s contrarianism stems from a bitter desire to appear unique. What marks them both out as contrarians as opposed to a true individual is the disingenuous way they hold their views.The only true motivation in holding them is to feel superior to others. To stand out from the crowd is to stand above them. This kind of thinking is incompatible with acting on behalf of a collective, whether that is through membership of a European Union, or accepting the necessity of a national lockdown during a public health emergency. 

Last summer was marked by large anti-lockdown protests in Trafalgar Square. Even the wearing of face masks is met with incredulity from journalists like Peter Hitchens and members of the public. They know this goes against medical advice and other forms of authority; that’s the point. They can live out the fantasy of being a heroic individual struggling against collective tyranny, no matter the harm that comes to others. Toby Young and Julie Burchill, through their decades as public figures, have embodied living flesh-and-blood versions of that fantasy, and it is in this moment of British history that they have truly become our island folk heroes. They stand alone, like Britain did in the Second World War once you discount the Soviet Union, the USA, and all the countries Britain had colonised. They are solitary figures who, through sheer force of personality, forged their own path in the spirit of Brits like Winston Churchill and Oswald Mosley.

While I was watching When Toby Met Julie, I became increasingly uncomfortable as I noticed similarities between both myself and them, as well as between Cinema Year Zero and The Modern Review. I’m sure Ben, Tom, and Kirsty won’t mind me saying that there is an anti-establishment attitude in CYZ’s stated approach to film criticism, based on our own disillusionment with an environment that frequently produces a lot of ill-informed opinions and samey writing, as recently illustrated by the anaesthetising discourse cycle around Parasite (2019). 

The narcissistic desire to stand out as a writer, and to tear down what we don’t like in the writing of others, has its uses in improving the quality of a wider discourse. But by watching and reading Toby Young and Julie Burchill, I came to realise that such an approach can easily turn you into a genuine asshole. Thankfully, both myself and CYZ still possess the youth that gives energy to our fiercely held convictions. It is important for us to hold onto those beliefs with sincerity and only change them when our intellect requires us to, not to change them through careerist thinking or merely as a means to assert our own individuality.