Books: Glued to the Box : Master stroke | clivejames.com
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Master stroke

At a time when lovable Irish rogues are harder than ever to love, Frank Cvitanovich, with his film Murphy’s Stroke (Thames), somehow succeeded in making lovable Irish rogues seem quite lovable.Led by Tony Murphy, lovably played by Niall Toibin, the lovable rogues staged a caper by which a horse named Gay Future would come in first, instead of, as the world had been led to expect, last or never. They would thereby stand to make a profit of 270 grand. It was a measure of Cvitanovich’s psychological subtlety that you quickly found yourself hoping they would get away with it.

But then, all caper movies work on the same principle. The audience must pull for the lovable rogues, or else the entertainment has failed. The challenge resides in winning the audience over. Thus the movie becomes a species of heist in itself. There are two main ways to sucker the punters. First of all the caper, or heist, or in this case the stroke, should be of elaborate ingenuity, so as to stun the groundlings with its brilliance while not being too complicated for them to follow. Second, the villains perpetrating the con should be as adorable as possible.

Murphy’s Stroke scored heavily in both these departments and thus rated as a formidable stroke on its own account. But it left even the most successful caper movies behind when it came to the matter of atmospherics. Indeed these proved, in the long run, to be the point. Through a neat twist, the clever Irishmen were let down by an Englishman who behaved like a thick Mick. This made them gloomy, but you were made to see that they would have been that anyway, even if their brainchild had been safely delivered.

Murphy’s mob had been wasting their intelligence and energy on a poor cause. Cvitanovich didn’t have to hit you over the head with the metaphor: it was there in the desperate laughter. In the bar the pranksters sadly eyed the portraits of the great Irish writers lined up on the wall. Somebody started singing ‘The Mountains of Mourne’. Nobody in the gang raised his voice but you could hear the delirium of wounded national identity.

Without touching on any subject more violent than the anger of a hoodwinked bookie, Murphy’s Stroke succeeded in being one of the more penetrating television accounts of the permanent role Ireland seems destined to play in the affairs of Britain.

Rock Athlete (BBC2) is a new three-part series about people who climb rocks. The director is Sid Perou, who earlier, if my memory serves me right, gave us one or more programmes about people who go down holes. They are the same kind of people in each case, but they point in different directions. The ones who go downwards talk in echoey voices and have to be rescued by the Army. The ones who go upwards are less likely to end up as news items and seem to lead a healthier life generally.

United in possessing finely tuned physiques, the rock climbers are divided in their methodology. Some rock climbers believe that anything goes. They hammer expanding bolts into the virgin rock and link them up with ropes. Given the appropriate budget they would obviously build a marble staircase all the way to the top. A purer breed insists on ordinary pitons as the upper limit of artificial aid. The most pure breed of the lot goes straight up the rock face with no means of attachment except chalk on the fingertips.

Believe me, if you didn’t see this last bunch, you should have. They’re evolving. Their fingers are long and sensitive, like those of Vladimir Horowitz or certain species of climbing frog. Crouching in space, with fluttering fingertips they search the smooth rock for irregularities, like a blind man reading Keats. Sensitive toes propel them upwards. ‘Oof! Aangh!’ they say quietly. ‘Harf! Ungh! Hoof!’ Clearly they have left the English language far behind. The commentary, alas, was still stuck with it. Every climber was described as the most unique in creation. ‘More than anyone else he has extended the frontiers of the sport.’ But this was a programme so brilliantly photographed that not even dull talk could make it boring.

Getting a welcome repeat, Fred Dibnah, Steeplejack (BBC1) had all the excitement of rock-climbing plus high-grade chat as well. Fred, in his offhand way, is a natural talker. Since he does a lot of his natural talking 300 feet up a brick chimney on a windy day it will be appreciated that his words carry weight. ‘I feel better when I’m doin’ it,’ explained Fred, meaning that he feels better when he is a long way off the ground and moving on horizontal surfaces so restricted that one false step will entail a quick return to his starting point. ‘You’re dicing with death with the rotten old top of a chimney,’ he said, casually flicking a butt down its gaping maw. ‘Been a lot of men died muckin’ around with them things. Hah, hah.’

Fred’s vocation is to bring down old chimneys by the traditional method. He removes bricks at the base and replaces them with wooden props. Then he builds a fire to burn away the props, whereupon the chimney falls where he wants it. Dynamite does the same job a lot cheaper, with the result that Fred is feeling the pinch. But he fights back by pointing out just how thoroughly dynamite has been known to drop a chimney on the wrong spot. On one occasion, he informed us, the dynamiters dropped a cloud-piercing stack ‘straight through the middle of a mill just kitted out for a three-shift system. Hah, hah.’

Fred then showed how it should be done. The fire burned happily until the chimney, as if lulled to sleep by warmth, toppled exactly where Fred wanted it — only a few inches from where he was standing. At least five cameras recorded the event for posterity, which will be a dull stretch of time if it has no room for people like Fred. ‘I’ve got to go and climb up something,’ he mused: per ardua ad astra in a flat cap.

Brian Moser, of Disappearing World fame, has launched a new series called Frontier (ATV). The people of the Barrio in Ecuador are not well off. Moser and his team went to live with them in order to find out just how hard poverty can grind. This is better than a tip-and-run raid, but it makes you wonder if the people won’t perhaps feel worse off than ever when their new friends go away. While pondering that question you can work on your Spanish, since everything said is fully subtitled. You can also count your material blessings. The people of the Barrio haven’t got any.

‘It’s a very special night in Hollywood,’ said Olivia Newton-John during the course of introducing her all-star spectacular, Hollywood Nights (BBC1), and instantly you knew that it wasn’t a very special night in Hollywood: it was a very ordinary night in Hollywood, with a lot of averagely famous names you didn’t particularly want to hear from loyally pitching in to help Olivia in the doomed task of putting herself across as something more fascinating than a nice girl.

Ageless in the sense that she has never begun to grow, Olivia will always hold the microphone as if it were a lollipop, sing of love as if it were a case of mumps, look sultry as if she were about to sneeze. It is not one of the great ironies of history, only one of the small ones, that the squeaky-clean Olivia should have been chosen to star in Grease, a movie of such grubbiness that after seeing it I felt I like washing my skull out with soap.

25 May, 1980