Joanna Lumley, Bourdieu and excellence

The British actress Joanna Lumley was being interviewed on an arts radio programme this week about her career as well as about her recent intervention on behalf of  Gurkhas living in Britain. Despite loyal service in the army, Gurkha veterans had been denied citiLumley - Woolaszenship by the Home Office, and Lumley had championed their cause to try and overturn the decision. On one notable occasion she completely dominated a press conference jointly held with the Home Office Minister Phil Woolas to such a degree that she was lauded in the press and on television, and people wrote to her admiringly asking her to stand as an independent MP, even to become Prime Minister. What was it that people had experienced and recognised about her leadership and why did they go on to compare this unfavourably with the performance of both Woolas and the Prime Minister?

When asked about the incident during the interview Lumley recounted how there was a lot of chaos going on in the studio after she had emerged from a two hour meeting with Woolas. The BBC and Sky News camera crews were fighting with each other about who would stand where and there was a lot of noise and commotion . As she pointed out, both she and Woolas were used to going in front of the cameras, but it was something about the background chaos and the fact that no one was clearly in charge that led her to step into the vacuum and improvise successfully to make her case clearly and to do so with much greater coherence than could the Minister. Woolas, hedged around as he was by the ifs and buts of a politician, and unable to improvise in the same way, came off second best and was made to look wooden. He was unable to match her in making the most of the emerging possibilities to put his position, and it looked as though he was accepting policies made up by Lumley. She lead, and he wsa obliged to follow.

What Lumley demonstrated, according to Bourdieu’s theories of social practice, was ‘the art of the necessary improvisation which defines excellence.’ In other words, she is completely immersed in the practice of performing in front of the camera to the degree that she does not need to think about it. So alive was she to the possibilities that were available to her that she was able to act into them, without necessarily having a pre-prepared script and without necessarily knowing what she was going to say before she said it. There was nothing inevitable about the situation she found herself in but she was able to impose her reading of the potentialities of the situation on others.

It is precisely this skill that is often lacking in many politicians, particularly the current Prime Minister, who is visibly uncomfortable with the ebb and flow of interaction and only seems to be able to cope by repeating robotically a much rehearsed line. The contrast between the two obviously caught the imagination of the public, which is why they were provoked into calling for her to be Prime Minister. The yrecognised excellent leadership when they encountered it.

Wisely, in the interview Lumley declared that one good performance on behalf of the Gurkhas, about whom she cares passionately, does not qualify her either to be the Prime Minister, or even an MP. And perhaps this is the trap that even talented politicians like Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair eventually fell into. Their ability to read the fast changing flux of the situation they found themselves in and to improvise into it is not failsafe. It does not imply some unique insight into the human condition that both politicians seemed to think they had towards the end of their careers: it was if they thought they could always walk on water. Success did require perceptiveness on their part and an ability to impose meaning on the patterning they found themselves in with others, but it also required luck and the general trends of circumstances to be tending in their direction. Oftentimes, however, no matter how powerful we are, we are caught up in social processes that go against both what we want and what we expect.


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