Books: Glued to the Box : Man of Marshmallow |
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Man of Marshmallow

A thin week started with a fat weekend, which included two movies by Andrjez Wajda, Man of Marble and Man of Iron (both on BBC2). The second, I thought, was a lot better than the first, but either separately or together they told you a great deal.

During the rare periods of tolerance in his country Wajda makes films in batches. Of necessity some of them are a bit scrappy. For much of its length Man of Marble looked like the story of a girl who had been driven mad by the responsibility of owning the only pair of flared jeans in Poland. There were films within the film to prove that official films about bricklaying are boring, but the films within the film were so very boring that the film proper got boring too.

When the girl reappeared in Man of Iron she had calmed down, forming part of a much more integrated story, of which the main thread dealt with a drunken journalist who had sold his soul to the regime, was sent to infiltrate the initial Solidarity strike at the Gdansk shipyard and there, perhaps too late, got back in touch with his own soul. ‘If we don’t put things in order,’ said one of the man of marshmallow’s superiors, ‘they will come and do it.’

They have not come yet. There is a school of thought which says that the Polish Army is doing the job for them, but even under the harshest military rule, so long as it is Polish military rule, there is some chance of the Poles retaining their historical memory. Every year, at a certain date, the Russian newspapers tell the story of how Dubček was a CIA agent. They will undoubtedly tell the same sort of stories about Wałęsa. But in the countries which they tell such lies about, the truth only tastes all the sweeter. That’s why Wajda’s great first masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds, gives off its heady perfume of romance. It isn’t just because of Zbigniev Cybulski’s dark glasses or the little flames burning on the bar counter to mark the passing of the doomed young heroes. It’s because the texture of reality is more satisfying than any simplification which can be made of it.

Another big event of the weekend was Aida (BBC2), in a production beamed to us from San Francisco, where they have a stage which can take two hundred extras in the triumph scene and still not buckle under the strain when Pavarotti comes striding on as Radames. Nor could the girl in the title role be accurately described as a sylph. A few weeks earlier Samson et Dalila (BBC2), designed and produced by my gifted countrymen Sidney Nolan and Elijah Moshinsky, had entirely ravished the eye, not least because Shirley Verrett had looked the part as well as singing with such maddening beauty that Samson was no longer able to keep his hair on. Television transmissions of that visual standard rather spoil you for the suspension of disbelief which in the opera house is so often necessary.

But if the principals look the part it should be thought of as a bonus, not a basic. The best-looking Aida I ever saw was Sophia Loren, star of a Cinecittà movie version in which somebody else supplied the voice and a large disc of white cardboard represented a full moon over the Nile. Second best-looking was Galina Vishnevskaya, appearing at Covent Garden in a frock of her own devising. It was a scarlet sheath slit to the lower ribs and she did a lot of Egyptian posing on one knee, thereby distracting attention from the fact that her vocal manoeuvrings in the upper layers of the tessitura were a trifle approximate.

Other Aidas at the Garden have been given the Dress with the Stripe. It has a white stripe going down the middle and is meant to make large girls look narrow. Combine that with the regulation pair of platform sandals and a new soprano fresh in from Finland is likely to be thrown. Perched one night in the top row of the gods — your ears pop going up the stairs — I sweated with sympathy while a visiting Aida, hugely in evidence even at that distance and obviously mortified by the striped dress, forgot all the words of ‘O patria mia’, fell off one of her clogs and made an unscheduled exit sideways.

There was comparatively little of that in San Francisco. Pavarotti looked like R2-D2 wearing a roulette wheel for a collar, but when he opened the small hole in the bottom half of his large face the sound that came out must have brought Verdi up out of the grave saluting. Having soaked up a quarter of an hour of applause after each aria, Pava would either embrace Aida for a duet or else crunch off to the dressing room for a leisurely plate of pasta.

The blandishments of Amneris had no effect on him. This was a bit of a wonder, because although on the substantial side herself, she had a torchy voice and a cleavage calculated to make a sacred crocodile roll in the mud. Amneris, amid much noodling from the oboes, offered Ramades her all, but he nobly chose to croak in the dungeon with Aida at his side.

The production, by Sam Wanamaker, looked utter nonsense on the tube, but no doubt was more impressive in the opera house, although to make the ballet scene look less ridiculous you would have had to turn the lights off. In the old Covent Garden production, now alas replaced by something no more tasteful but much less fun, the ballet dancers indicated their African provenance by wearing baggy brown leotards and in the triumph scene the warriors came shambling down the ramp, headed off stage for a change of helmet, sprinted around the back of the cyclorama, climbed the ladder and came shambling down the ramp again, short swords held valiantly upright. Meanwhile the music was thrilling you to bits.

In Dallas (BBC1) the cast finally got the news that Jock would not be back. Theoretically he would return home from the Interior of South America in order to attend the annual Ewing Barbecue, but we all knew that he wouldn’t make it, since the actor playing him had been for some time no longer among the living — the reason why Jock had gone to the Interior of South America in the first place. Nevertheless there was much talk of Jock’s imminent return. ‘Everybody, that was a cable from daddy ... He wouldn’t miss the Ewing Barbecue for anything.’

Miss Ellie concurred. ‘Jock’s going to be there.’ The Barbecue began and Jock had still not arrived, but Lucy, dancing with her nose buried in Mitch’s navel, was confident. ‘My granddaddy is coming back from South America. His plane’s due in two hours.’ Then Miss Ellie got the phone call. She stood silent. It took a while for her children to notice, since she looks equally tragic if told that the laundry has not been delivered. ‘Jock was flying in from the Interior by helicopter. It crashed. They say ... they say ... that Jock is dead.’ Is JR falling in love again with his own wife? Is Dusty impotent, or just afraid that Sue Ellen is no longer in control of her mouth movements?

In The Star-Maker (Thames), which was malodorously spread over two nights like a witch-doctor’s poultice, Rock Hudson played Danny Youngblood, film director. ‘I’ve got to find out if I’m me,’ said various starlets in succession, ‘or just a figment of Danny Youngblood’s incredible imagination.’ Rock finally checked out on the casting couch. On Nationwide (BBC1) Frank Bough asked a girl streaker who had just pointed her bare chest at a rugby match whether she was an extrovert. ‘No, I don’t go around throwing my clothes off.’ Nobody was going to accuse her of being undignified. She reminded you of Herostratus, who suicided in order to become famous.

10 January, 1982

[ This piece can also be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]