Books: Visions Before Midnight — The Hawk walks |
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The Hawk walks

Election coverage crammed the videospace on my return — a grim welcome. Panorama (BBC1) on Monday night featured a triangular interchange between Michael Foot, Cyril Smith and Jim Prior. When somebody waved a finger at them for a one-minute wind-up, they combined into a soaring ensemble like the trio from the last act of the Rosenkavalier. ‘One of the factors ... I’d just like to say briefly ... I think Mr Foot ... I’d, I’d, I’d just ... what it means ... All I’m saying ... i’d just like to say briefly ... wha-wha-wha ... one of the factors...’ The tone for the week was set.

ITV news staff pulled their plugs, perhaps to pre-empt the oncoming longeurs; but still there was little rest. Taking desultory notes (‘Cyril Smith fills the screen like Federico Fellini metamorphosing into a mountain: his shoulders start above his ears’) your reporter sweated out the hours until his beloved Softly, Softly (BBC1) was cranked up into its rightful, majestic slot in the middle of Wednesday night. Readers with long memories will remember how much I had been missing this seminal show in the dreary months before the hols, when the screen was crawling with American actors pretending to be cops and Evans, Snow, Watt and Harry the Hawk were nowhere to be seen. As some people need to wrap a pair of knickers around their heads, I need to see, every week, Snow stand to attention when Watt comes into a room, and Harry the Hawk opening and closing doors. I must have it.

The episode rolled and Harry opened a door in the very first shot. Evans gave a lift to a pair of teeny scrubbers on their way to a pop concert starring Smiling Slim Slavey and the Slavers. They used expressions like ‘the bread, daddy’ to emphasise Evan’s squareness, their hipness and the programme’s up-to-dateness. Cut to the village hall (marked VILLAGE HALL), where preparations for the concert are in progress. The programme’s budget dictates that there must be long expository conversations between Smiling Slim and his sweating roadie, explaining why there is only one roadie, and an eventual audience, by my quick reckoning, of thirty-six extras: ‘the boys need the airing, they’re still not pulling together sweet enough.’ Cut to PC Snow, telephoning. Still on the phone, he stands to attention when Watt comes into the room, informing him that ‘there’s what high believe is called a gig in Elverton ’All tonight’.

At the concert, where youthful abandon is represented by a lone scrubber clutching Slim’s knee, Slim sings a few numbers and is electrocuted. Evans and Harry the Hawk solved the crime. It was the old caretaker who did it. Unable to stand the noise, he pulled out one of Slim’s cables. Unfortunately it was the one that earthed the mike. Another contemporary problem has been tackled by Task Force. (Harry the Hawk can also currently be seen on ITV, rippling his jaw muscles in the Mac Market commercial.)

A deeply satisfying experience, that episode, even if it meant having to miss most of Worldwide: China Today (BBC2), on which Frank Gillard called Tibet ‘an autonomous part of China’ without mentioning, as far as I could tell, that China invaded it first. Another fierce clash was between Twiggs (BBC2) and Father Brown (ATV). I have always liked Twiggy and was sorry to miss her act. Next week I’ll be tuned in, since Father Brown is nothing extraordinary. It will rate because of its puzzle plots, but judging from this one episode it will have little of the cranky period charm of Lord Peter Wimsey. Instead, evenly lit sets and stock performances. Kenneth More, the only actor I have ever heard utter ‘Ha-hah!’ to indicate mirth, gets by with a few finger-wagging tricks. He didn’t say ‘Ha-hah!’ this time, but he did say ‘Hah!’. The crime — some buffer getting stabbed in the back — might have stumped Harry the Hawk, but Watt would have solved it in nothing flat. There was a pretty girl, her French fiancé who turned out to be a marquis, an obstreperous American secretary, a wastrel brother, an unrequited suitor, a faithful dog and the corpse. The last two contended for the acting honours.

Porridge (BBC1) is closer to life, even though (probably because?) comic. Reassuring a black Scots fellow inmate, Ronnie Barker lists all the famous people who were illegitimate: ‘William the Conqueror, Leonardo da Vinci, Lawrence of Arabia, Napper Wainwright, ...’ ‘Napper Wainwright?’ ‘He was a screw at Brixton. Mind you, he was a bastard.’ A rock solid script, by Clement and La Frenais. Good comic writing depends on a regular supply of real-life speech patterns — the main reason why success tends to interfere with talent, since it separates the writer from his sources.

6 October, 1974

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