Books: Visions Before Midnight — Lord Longford rides again | clivejames.com
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Lord Longford rides again

After two dull episodes, Monty Python (BBC2) was suddenly funny again, thereby ameliorating the viewing week no end. The pressure on the now Cleeseless team to be as good as ever has perhaps been a little fierce, but that’s showbiz.

Anyway, the laughs came and everybody relaxed including BBC2’s linkman, who cheerily postluded the show with a burst of the very same scripted heartiness which Michael Palin had just finished satirizing. ‘Well, ha-ha, depressions lift and gloom disperses next week, ha-ha, with another visit from Monty Python.’ Or perhaps the lads had written the links too, as well as some of the rest of the week’s programmes, such as Face Your Image (BBC1), starring Lord Longford.

Format-wise, the intention of this wonderfully rewarding show was to confront the great man with people’s real opinions of his character. What in fact happened was that his chums lined up to flatter the life out of him, so that the only possible area of revelation consisted in seeing how the avowedly self-effacing peer would hold up when stimulated repeatedly by electrodes placed in the central ego.

He came through the ordeal with scarcely a tremor. When told how amusing and interesting he was, he took it in good part. When told that he was not only more amusing and interesting than was generally realized, but also far wiser, he bore his anguish like a man. Auberon Waugh, A. J. Ayer, Father D’Arcy and numerous others wheeled successively before the lens to exude Hosannas and deploy palm fronds. No severer test of the subject’s fabled humility could have been devised. Shyly he was forced to admit that he probably knew more about penology and a few other subjects than anybody else and that perhaps his outstanding gifts could have been used better in the Cabinet, but beyond that he would not go.

The whole deal would have run like an investiture if it had not been for Richard Ingrams, inky editor of Private Eye. Ingrams contended that Lord Longford’s prison visits were confined exclusively to inmates who were famous. He further contended that ‘programmes like this are probably not a good thing, because they pander to Lord Longford’s great love in life, which is publicity.’ Abruptly it became apparent that the possibility of Ingrams perpetrating these enormities had not, as far as Lord Longford was concerned, been in the script. Lord Longford, it emerged, had agreed that Ingrams should be on the programme, but that he should be allowed to say these things was a bit much. ‘He’s been to my house!’ piped the wounded noble. But by then it was apparent that all the others had been to his house, too. Face Your Image was consequently a bit of a misnomer. Brush Up Your Self-Esteem would have been closer to the mark.

Reflecting, not for the first time, that Lord Longford’s struggle to attain humility would be somewhat eased by a self-appraisal which faced the fact that he is one of the most conceited men alive, your reporter fell to musing on the conundrum of why the Pakenham dynasty, a family tree of proportions both stately and discreet, should be lit up like a pin-ball parlour in this one branch. What is it that drives the good lord and his beautiful daughters to attempt the common touch by going on the tube, where they prove conclusively to the watching millions that they are about as down to earth as the yeti?

Lady Antonia Fraser’s portrayal of Mary Queen of Scots lingers in the memory, and only a few weeks ago, in a programme which the election forced me to leave unremarked, Rachel Billington was to be seen expounding her life style as a Novelist. ‘Every home should have one,’ she crooned, pointing at her housekeeper. Bevis Hillier and similar exotica crowded her lawn for cocktails. There was a Bentley to get about in. ‘You see,’ she breathed, ‘my dream is real.’ One wondered if she had ever heard of Marie Antoinette. But she must have done, from her sister.

‘Have you forgotten that we have finally persuaded Honoré de Balzac to come to supper?’ Most of the dialogue in Notorious Woman (BBC2) is like that. George Sand’s circle of intellectuals are an uncommonly witless lot: you would hear better things on Rachel Billington’s lawn. The production has the deadly enthusiasm of Hollywood jazzing the classics. An aesthetic discussion between Balzac and George turns into a dance. But the series has its attractions, which I will touch on in greater detail when Chopin appears on the scene. Will he spit tomato sauce on the piano keys while composing the ‘Preludes’ in Majorca? Watch this space. At the moment, George has just agreed to hurdle into the hammock with Prosper Mérimée.

17 November, 1974