Books: The Crystal Bucket : Blood and guts |
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Blood and guts

Half satisfying and half frustrating, the first episode of Jonathan Miller’s The Body in Question (BBC2) left you hungry for more in some respects and in others shouting for less.

Paradoxically it was in the blood-and-guts department that the programme was at its most gripping. Dressed in his dissection outfit, Miller stood benevolently alert behind a table piled with human offal. Leavening scientific inquiry with nervous humour, he combined the roles of Vesalius in Padua and Hawkeye Pierce in Korea. Meanwhile the assembled organs played dead, but it emerged through various hints that they had once been the insides of a lady of a certain age. Or anyway I think it was a lady — sometimes when I had my hands over my eyes my fingers got in my ears. Apart from the inevitable soot stains in the lungs, the subject seemed to have departed this life in reasonable shape. Grasping an appropriate tool, Miller picked up the heart and made a power-dive into the left ventricle. Fantastic Voyage! ‘It’s years since I’ve done this,’ said Miller reassuringly. He wasn’t being reassuring about what might happen if he did the same to you. He was being reassuring about his own talents, which we might think were super-human unless he reminded us occasionally that even he sometimes forgets what he has learned.

The gall bladder disgorged bile. The bile was supposed to be green, but on the screen it looked dark blue. Either the organ’s owner had been a Martian or my set was out of whack. The latter possibility seemed more likely, since recently Frank Bough had been looking like Joshua Nkomo. While I thus mused, Miller was turning his attention to the liver. It was immediately clear that the liver was to be the star turn. It was large, plump and full of potential, like a whoopee cushion. Miller sliced into it. It looked remarkably healthy. In fact it looked good enough to — wait a second.

Cutting up dead meat according to traditional procedures, Miller was obliged to keep things simple. Having to hold knives kept his hands still. But after doffing his apron he was free to argue. The explanatory hands were back in action, swooping all over the screen like a manic pilot recounting a dog-fight. ‘Being embodied is the only intelligible way of being personified,’ Miller explained — a viewpoint lent force by the fact that its proponent is as embodied as they come. Wearing a wide-angle lens, the camera sat face to face with the sage’s embodied personification while it filled the air with fingers a foot long.

Unfortunately the arguments themselves were often insubstantial. Miller has a poet’s gift of metaphor: he is marvellous at seeing similarities. He also has the poet’s tendency to mistake a metaphor for a rigorously considered proposition. Wittgenstein said that we should not be seduced by language. Miller has been seduced even by Wittgenstein.

What do we mean, Miller asked, when we say that we have a stabbing pain? It was exactly the kind of awkward question that Wittgenstein was always putting. Miller asked a policeman who had been stabbed what it had felt like. The policeman said that it had felt like being hit with a cricket bat. Miller retired satisfied, supposing his point made. But Wittgenstein would have asked the policeman what he thought being hit with a cricket bat felt like.

Miller can’t help seeming to toy with ideas, since he is incapable of ignoring any of them. T.S. Eliot said that Henry James had a mind so fine no idea could violate it. Few bees are unable to find at least a temporary welcome in Miller’s bonnet. Miller is justifiably outraged by the narrowness of modern specialization. He is convinced that all the intellectual adventures, whether scientific or artistic, are essentially the same adventure. This conviction is both true and valuable. We are very lucky that so brilliantly energetic a man exists to hold it. But there is also such a thing as being a prisoner of your own versatility.

It has been said that Miller is a Renaissance man. Certainly he has the gifts. But really it was intensity of effort, rather than universality of range, that characterized the men of the Renaissance. Even at their most fiercely competitive they were ready to leave some departments of knowledge and achievement to be taken care of by others. Leonardo was a throwback to a previous age. Unable to resist a challenge, he carved in ice and painted his greatest masterpiece on a wet wall, where it has been crumbling ever since — a lasting, although not alas permanent, warning to every genius in a hurry.

Genius in its cups was the subject of Dylan (BBC2), a two-hour dramatized examination of Dylan Thomas’s death throes. Remarkably poised for a work devoted to this particular subject, it was all the more frightening for that. Ronald Lacey turned in a bravura performance composed largely of sweating, hawking, spitting, lurching, dry-retching, dribbling and falling down. Somehow he managed to convey a central dignity holding the whole mess together. At the end it didn’t seem entirely impossible that a woman looking like Gayle Hunnicut would be on hand so that he could die in her arms.

Miss Hunnicutt grows more subtle with each performance. She found a hundred ways of looking quietly desperate while Dylan roamed in blind search of a booze-filled teat. She looked in love with what he had been and in some sense was still, even though the man on show was a perambulating disaster. The programme rang with the passing bell and the poet’s thrilling voice. Mr Lacey did a good enough imitation of the latter to make it seem credible when the student audiences were shown to be in ecstasies as he recited ‘Fern Hill’.

Scripted by Simon Raven and introduced by a Wodehouse-Playhouse title sequence, the first episode of Edward and Mrs Simpson (Thames) had a jaunty air. A beautifully dressed production with all the right clothes, cars and locations, it is already suffering slightly from the fact that Edward Fox has too formidable a presence to be quite believable as a Weak King. Fox’s great gift, steadily becoming more pronounced as he matures, is to body forth hidden depths. All Edward ever had was hidden shallows.

Still, Fox gives the role all it can take, if not all he’s got. He makes with the flared nostril, the flexed upper lip and the mellow bellow. Cynthia Harris looks just right as the lady who did us all such a favour by separating Edward from his throne. It is hard to tell whether she is acting badly or else giving a very good impression of the kind of American woman who sounds like a bad actress.

12 November, 1978

[ This piece also appears in our Observer TV column chapter ]