Books: Glued to the Box : I am a tropical fish | clivejames.com
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I am a tropical fish

Bringing The Shock of the New (BBC2) to an end, Robert Hughes put a metaphorical foot through that notorious pile of bricks in the Tate. ‘Anyone except a child can make such things.’ From the visual aspect the series was a bit of a scrap-heap, but Hughes’s script was of welcomely high quality.

The new job of art, said Hughes, is ‘to sit on the wall and get more expensive’. Its traditional job was and is something more exalted. ‘To close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and thus pass from feeling to meaning.’ The only reason I tear these pearls from context is to illustrate that television need not necessarily be a slaughterhouse for the English language. On the contrary, there is every reason to think that well-chosen words will receive a better hearing on television than through any other medium. The reason why so much of the language you hear on television sound like ducks talking is that the people doing the talking are, from the aspect of linguistic sensitivity and accomplishment, ducks.

None of this applies, of course, to Miss World (ITV), which has now changed channels as if to prove, where no further proof was needed, that tackiness is an international language understandable anywhere. In the BBC version there used to be national dress, evening dress, swimming costume, interview, guest star, decision. On ITV the same format was pursued to the last detail, even down to the master of ceremonies, Peter Marshall, who showed all the signs of having been passed through that famous BBC processing-room where front-men go to be deprived of charisma.

The Albert Hall was once again the venue. Out came the girls in national dress. Miss Bahamas wore a somewhat ill-judged hat, twenty feet across and twelve feet high, composed mainly of fruit and vegetables. Miss Australia was ‘a student in communications’ and Miss Somewhere Else was ‘a student of human relations’. Miss Hong Kong looked like a fan dancer, but turned out to be a cop. The one before Miss Mexico forgot her own name.

Miss Uruguay also forgot everything, but after a protracted struggle managed to recall where she had come from. Miss Singapore had her speech down word-perfect, but there was something wrong with the punctuation. ‘I am a tropical fish. Import-export agent.’ All of this was so recognisable it was soporific. The only original note was struck by Anthony Newley, but he was electrifying. Singing a medley of his own songs, he gave the most brilliant impersonation of an egomaniac I have ever seen. Only an ice-cool professional brain could have produced such a natural impression of a man in chaos.

Wrinkling his forehead and pouting in mock self-adoration, he unfalteringly kept up the hilarious pretence that his songs were immortal and that he had a divine mission to sing them. Alternately roaring and mumbling, he threw sweets at Bruce Forsyth and a lot of other people, some of whom threw them back with what seemed uncalled-for violence. Stunned, the judges crowned Miss Germany the winner. Miss Germany looked aghast, as if a mistake had been made. It had: a few days later she abdicated.

Making his directorial debut, Jonathan Lewis did a good job with Tim Rose Price’s Rabbit Pie Day (BBC2), a brief but rich dramatic treatment of a topic whose moral implications most of our more famous playwrights — especially those younger ones who are supposed to be up on politics — would have been guaranteed to miss. The Second World War was coming to an end and Britain was faced with the question of what to do with the Russians it had liberated from the Germans. Stalin wanted them back. Eventually, despite much evidence that to repatriated a Russian was the same as sending him to his death, they were all sent home.

As the play brought out, Russians were already suiciding in the British camps at the mere prospect. Barry Foster played a grey British officer in charge of a camp. At first, cut off by the language barrier and his own understandable conviction that guarding a mob of vagrants was not the most vital contribution to the war effort, he was ready to believe that the politicians had everything in hand. A messy suicide induced doubt.

Gradually it became clear to him that by doing his duty he would be conniving at mass murder. But the orders were coming down from the highest level. (They were coming down, in fact, from Sir Anthony Eden, but the play tactfully refrained from pointing the finger.) In the end, complicity seemed the only possible course. In a peaceful-looking scene which we had come to understand was really an act of violence, the Russians were lured into the trucks and packed off to Liverpool.

Obeying the elementary moral rule that we should be hard on ourselves and as understanding as possible about everyone else, it is wise to assume that we would have behaved no better. As it happened, there were several cases of British service personnel who refused to co-operate. But to write about one of them would have been to write about a hero. As Mr Price deduced, it was more interesting to write about an ordinary man, the better to bring out the tragedy.

Rabbit Pie Day was not particularly strong on dialogue, but it was still a script of high distinction. I labour the issue only because I have lately been so often forced to point out that some of our more famous playwrights have no clothes. Letters come in which tell me that I have no time for television drama. But if playwrights are cried up year after year and year after year it turns out that what they have to say is mainly wind, somebody must be serious enough to take them lightly.

In being thus dismissive, it helps if there is some solid work to point to. The solid work is there, but nearly always is too quiet to be obvious. Elaine Morgan’s adaptations, for example, are miles more interesting than almost everything produced by the name playwrights, whose alleged originality is so often the merest clamour.

16 November, 1980