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Patrick’s invisible lute

Fresh back from a tour of the outer planets, Patrick Moore was on Face the Music (BBC2). Resident host was Joseph Cooper, he of the silent piano. As always when Patrick and Joseph are in conjunction, the results were spectacular.

The screen was ablaze with inexplicable phenomena. For example, Patrick was unable to recognise a portrait of the Queen. Admittedly the portrait was by Annigoni, but it did look something like her. It made you wonder about all those times on The Sky at Night when Patrick confidently assures you that the minuscule smudge in the bottom left-hand corner of the photograph is a quasar at the edge of the universe.

But the high point came when Patrick got into trouble over another question and Joseph tried to give him a hint. Giving a hint to Patrick isn’t easy. The question involved identifying some musical instrument: a lute, if I remember rightly. Anyway, Joseph decided to mime that he was playing one of these.

Patrick, with his head in the Magellanic Clouds, did not catch on. Joseph increased his efforts, strumming frantically at the empty air. After the silent piano, the invisible lute! Patrick looked stumped. His face was a study — I mean on top of the study it is normally. Ask him about the period luminosity relation in cepheid variables and he knows where he is, but he is no good on invisible lutes. Joseph mugged and plucked. Patrick groaned and writhed. The viewer goggled in disbelief. Two great clowns were locked in combat. It was a needle-match for nutters, a Brands Hatch for buffoons, a demolition derby for dingbats.

Also on the panel, the new model Robin Ray remained calm. Calm was something the old model Robin Ray could never remain for a minute, but the years bring tranquillity even to the hysterical. The week before, on the same programme, Robin had failed to remember that the K-number of Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ piano concerto is 537. There was a day when such a lapse would have sent him into paroxysms of defensive laughter. But this time he just sat there, silently smiling: a fatalist. Robin Ray has acquired gravitas, a presence befitting his new role as front-man for the programmes being put out under the catch-all title The Lively Arts (BBC2). Humphrey Burton’s biggest project since he moved back to the Beeb, this series has already established itself, in my view, as a success.

And fronting most of its programmes is the new model Robin Ray. Only once has he fallen back on his erstwhile habits. After introducing a production, starring Teresa Berganza, of The Barber of Seville, he reappeared during the interval to help commemorate the composer by eating, with the help of his wife, some Tournedos Rossini prepared in the studio by the chef from the Savoy, or it could have been the Ritz. The chef from the Ritz, or it could have been the Savoy, explained the recipe step by step, for those of us in the audience who had a spare truffle within reach and were keen to have a go.

Robin clucked appreciatively between, and often during, mouthfuls. All this was numbingly trivial and had the sole merit of echoing with exactitude the merits of the opera itself — Mozart minus the brains. But apart from this one slovenly attempt to link high art with rich living (not only is there no connection; there’s an active antagonism), The Lively Arts has kept a high average in which Robin and Humphrey could be excused for taking some pride.

28 November, 1976

[ The original (and much longer) version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]