Books: Visions Before Midnight — Fortune is a woman |
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Fortune is a woman

Screen awards mean little, but it didn’t hurt for Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC1) to be singled out in the recent honours list, since the show has been a very present help in times of trouble.

Terry had a line to fit the week. ‘You’ve got your whole lives ahead of you,’ he told Bob, currently deserted by the steely Thelma. ‘You’re just at the dawn of your disasters.’ Here was a comic motto peculiarly appropriate to the tragedy unfolded by Children in Crossfire (BBC1), an unpretentious and paralysing documentary about what is happening to young minds growing up in the hot-spots of Northern Ireland. One glimpse of its nightmare footage would have made Pangloss into a Manichee — it radiated evil like a handful of weapons-grade plutonium.

Writer-producer Michael Blakstad’s approach was more impressionistic than statistical. I would have liked to hear more figures for once, but meanwhile what documentation there was was plenty to be going on with. The kids’ school exercise books were more than enough to convince you that their brains were in turmoil. Not only did doodles of tanks and planes abound — nothing unusual to my generation in that — but every drafting of life at home was complete with soldiers bursting through the front door. Toy guns are the first things the children build. They play in patrols instead of gangs, prodding suspects up against the wall for a quick spreadeagle and frisk. That they copy the intrusive squaddies rather than the indigenous gunmen is apparently no mystery — psychologists call it Identifying with the Aggressor. Naming the phenomenon, however, is clearly no solution to the problem.

Hyperactive by day, disturbed children scream in the night. Lulling drugs are prescribed: tots shamble eerily about, tranked. Farther up the age-range, there are pre-adolescents who can’t wait to get into the real fighting. A Protestant volunteer called Billy was interviewed. Glowing with pride from a brilliant career of beating up his schoolteachers, he was mad keen for any duty the UDA might require of him. Catholic equivalents were manifestly on hand in large numbers, but weren’t talking. This was a mercy: one such mutant was amply sufficient to scare the daylights out of you. He probably scares the UDA as well, since in the unlikely event of victory he will be no easier to dismantle than a booby-trap with a trembler fuse.

Like a minced hydra the hatreds renew themselves from generation to generation. In the face of such propensities to murder, it is hard to see how the troops can stay, and harder still to see how they can go. Possibly we are faced with a Thousand Years War, only half over. Analyses err, it seems to me, which see the disaster in Ireland as conforming to the ordinary pattern of anti-colonialist insurrection. This, surely, is a true Holy War, conducted between forces which show no discernible differences to the outside eye, and the real parallels are close to home, in European history — particularly, I think, in the history of the Low Countries. In that parallel lies the magnitude of the catastrophe and the one ray of hope. Those wars were clearly all set to last for ever, but there came a day when even they burned themselves out. Children stopped drawing the Duke of Alva and stabbing one another with toy pikes. The agony only seemed eternal.

A point worth remembering when contemplating Napoleon and Love (Thames). Already a third over but somehow seeming as endless as the Gobi, this series is a turkey of fabulous dimensions, able to trot for hundreds of miles before laying its enormous egg. ‘Darling!’ cries Thérèse. ‘Thérèse!’ yelps Josephine. Too good an actress to invest such blague with a single atom of belief, Billie Whitelaw plays Josephine with the effortless desperation of Rubinstein playing ‘Chopsticks’ — to her infinite credit, she has never been so bad in her life. ‘No one but you knows how to tie a cravat!’ she trills to Captain Charles, the sweat of embarrassment gleaming in her eyes like glycerine. ‘Put that line on my tombstone,’ laughs Charles (Tony Anholt, poor bastard) ‘and I shall die happy.’

Or was it Murat said that? I can’t remember. Anyway, Josephine laughs the Period Laugh, the one that starts with N. ‘Nha-ha-ha-ha!’ (Variations are ‘Nho-ho-ho-ho!’ and ‘Nhe-he-he-he!’). Charles is dressed as a captain of Fusiliers, or is it a colonel of Cuirassiers? He is frogged, freaked, fluked, furred and feathered. Peter Bowles (a good actor here drowning vertically, as a brave man should) plays Murat, who is dressed as an admiral in the Brigade of Horse, or it could be an air commodore in the Fleet of Foot: he is pleated, prinked, pampered, powdered and plumed. Asked, in one of the show’s typical directorial coups, to wheel past camera before delivering a flaccid epigram to some group of revelling young dancers going ‘Nha-ha-ha-ha-ha!’, Murat looks and sounds like a robot camouflaged with Christmas decorations.

When Murat and Charles, or is it Marmount and Muiron, are on screen together the exposition coils more densely than the smoke of cannon. ‘You realise that now General Blanque, liberating and plundering in the South, has decoyed the Austro-Hungarian archdukes away from Milan, the way is free for Bonaparte, in command of, to, after which…’ But they are interrupted by the silky rustle of a wanton chemise. ‘Darling!’ ‘Thérèse!’

Someone says ‘Fortune is a woman.’ ‘Nho-ho-ho-ho-ho!’ The camera does a sexy slow zoom through the candlelight, represented by ten million kilowatts scorching down from the gantry and lighting up the set whiter than a hospital’s bathroom — it’s an all-neon Directorate. We dissolve to the transalpine bivouac of the all-conquering Bonaparte, played by Ian Holm with a ratty haircut and one hand inside his tunic, doubtless clutching the fatal contract to which his signature is irrevocably affixed. ‘I am a Corsican,’ he declares, for the benefit of those in the audience who thought Napoleon was a Mexican. ‘We have second sight.’ Later on he started telling Josephine something about her stomach. It could be that he wanted to march on it, but I fainted before I could find out.

17 March, 1974

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]