17 November 2009

An example of rhetorical virtuosity from rhetoric denier Tony Benn

Readers from outside the UK have probably never heard of Tony Benn, and quite a few here will be too young to remember just how effective an orator he was. So, having looked at his 'rhetorical denial' in the previous post I thought it might be useful to show a video illustrating his rhetorical virtuosity in action.

This particular clip comes from a Labour Party conference in the early 1980s, when he was at the height of his powers and a prime mover in his party's electorally disastrous lurch to the left after Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 (on which, see also HERE).

It shows how he was so in tune with the way the audience was reacting that a slight response to his news about that day's record stock market fall was enough to prompt him to break off from what he was going to say and launch into an impressively constructed contrast, each part of which ends with the phrase ‘the wealth of the nation’:

BENN: For a moment between debates the stock market had its biggest fall was it within living memory 30 points – and uhh that is an indication that indeed it was rather appropriate that ITN was swinging
from the stock market where they’re gambling with the wealth of the nation
to Brighton where we represent the people who create the wealth of the nation.

The sequence also provides more examples of the way 'iconic gestures' come before the word(s) to which they relate, as discussed in earlier posts (HERE and HERE): Benn's swinging hand movements get under way quite a while before the word ‘swinging’ comes out of his mouth – whereupon his hands start moving to his left just before the words ‘stock market’ and to his right just before he say’s the word ‘Brighton’.

Then the slightest pause after ‘create’ followed by the coordinated downward movements of his head and hands are reminiscent of the precision with which an orchestral conductor brings in the whole of the chorus on time – and the audience starts applauding just before he's finished repeating ‘the wealth of the nation’.

But, as was typical of Benn, he didn’t stop there but carried on trying to ‘surf’ the applause - not that he says anything more important than "and that is also-" and "now uhh-") while the applause is still preventing his words from being heard - for more on which, see HERE andHERE).

One point of interest is that, as the applause gets under way, the camera switches away the from the audience to focus on Benn's former Labour cabinet colleague and arch-enemy of the day, Denis Healey, who had just narrowly defeated Mr Benn in an election for the party's deputy-leadership - but who seems to be thoroughly enjoying this particular line.

Another is the fact that a stock market fall as pitifully small as 30 points was treated as such dramatic news in those days!


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