Books: Visions Before Midnight — Chopin snuffs it | clivejames.com
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Chopin snuffs it

In the final episode of Notorious Woman (BBC2) Chopin croaked. It was a merciful release for all of us.

‘Dear George. So cruel,’ he wheezed on his death-bed. ‘So full of love.’ But terminal coughing stilled the soliloquy. ‘Aaagh! Glaaack! Eeech! blarf! blarf! blarf!’ You couldn’t help thinking that the poor bastard was well out of it. Left alone to cope with her daughter, Solange, George tried shock tactics in an effort to bring the giddy chit into line. She tried the split-word technique. (‘Your extravagance is be. Yond understanding.’) This having failed, she tried black-jacking her wayward daughter with a rubber cliché. (‘There’s a whole wonderful world outside.’) No dice.

But in her declining years George still had friends. Here, for instance, came a venerable figure, shuffling up the garden path. ‘You’re forgiven,’ Solange told her, ‘as long as you don’t stay up all night talking to Flaubert.’ This established that the figure was Flaubert. ‘You positively revel in being sixty-eight, don’t you?’ George asked teasingly, thereby establishing that Flaubert was of advanced years. But how to awaken in the minds of the television audience the realization that this venerable sixty-eight-year-old was the leading literary figure of France? ‘You’re the leading literary figure of France.’

‘Did you know that censorship began with Plato?’ Flaubert asked. For some strange reason George didn’t. She quoted Diogenes in retaliation, but it scarcely met the mood, so she took to her bed — if I understood the plot rightly — and eventually died of shame. I enjoyed this series hugely, for all the wrong reasons, and will miss it.

David Copperfield (BBC1) is as good as everybody says. It’s on a bit early for me, so I was tardy in seeking it out. Steerforth’s flaw is well conveyed by Anthony Andrews, and Uriah Heep, played by Martin Jarvis, is a miracle of unction: to hear him talk is like stepping on a toad long dead. But Arthur Lowe’s Micawber is better than anything. He follows W. C. Fields in certain respects, but is graciously spoken; and his gestures are as delicate as Oliver Hardy’s. Not that his performance is eclectic — it’s a subtle unity like everything he attempts. He is also at his peak in the current series of Dad’s Army (BBC1), which shows few signs of flagging inspiration.

Turner was commemorated, or perhaps incinerated, in The Sun is God (Thames), which was a good test of the tuning on your colour set, but left Turner himself looking rather sketchy. During a break there was a Shanida commercial which looked like part of the programme: death imitating art. Inside the News (BBC1) was a good series until this week, when sociologists were wheeled on to quell the spontaneity by pointing out the obvious. Panorama (BBC1) echoed Des Wilson’s recent heart-cry in this paper about housing. A landlord collecting £89 a week from five people crammed into one room did not want to be interviewed.

Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene did. They starred in their very own edition of Lifestyle (BBC2), whose fatuous title should have been enough to put them off. We saw their ‘little bolt-hole up in the Alps’, where they flee to get away from things like, well, Lifestyle. ‘I love this village because it’s a real village,’ confided Mary. ‘It’s a working village. There are no intruders except us.’ Us, and the production team making Lifestyle. A dynamic character with a dynamic cigarette held at a dynamic angle struggled with the problem of ‘creating’, to Mary’s desires, two types of perfume for the two different personalities coexisting in the modern woman.

Mary and Plunket were both insistent that work should be enjoyed, but never got around to tackling the problem posed by the millions of people who are well aware of this, but still don’t enjoy their work. ‘I’d certainly rather be poor and live in England than be filthy rich and live somewhere else,’ Plunket explained, forgetting to add that by ordinary standards he is filthy rich, does live in England and does live somewhere else. These people can’t possibly be as foolish as they allowed the programme to make them look. Lifestyle is galloping cretinism: a plague on it.

22 December, 1974