Books: The Crystal Bucket : Exploring the Medium | clivejames.com
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Exploring the Medium

It needed Lindsay Anderson, director of The Old Crowd (LWT), to bring out a quality in Alan Bennett’s writing which had hitherto lain dormant — crass stupidity.

Previously Bennett had been the helpless, shackled prisoner of his wit, sensitivity and insight. Secretly he was crying out for someone to spring him loose, so that he could set about doing what the real, committed playwrights do — i.e., make large, vague and hectoring statements about Bourgeois Society, of which they know little, and the Human Condition, of which they know less. But no ordinary director could play Fidelio to Bennett’s Florestan. It would take a special kind of genius.

Lindsay Anderson was that genius. We have it on the authority of a charmingly gullible article in the Guardian that the first task Anderson set himself was to go through Bennett’s script and take out the jokes. The chief factor inhibiting a breakthrough into true seriousness was thus removed at a blow, leaving a nebulous story about some hazily defined types moving aimlessly about in a half-furnished house. With the script sounding like Bertolt Brecht’s rewrite of Hay Fever, it only remained to give it a television production that would make it look like D. W. Griffith’s version of Duck Soup.

If Anderson had brought nothing but his talent to the job, the show would have been all over in five minutes. Luckily he had something more formidable to contribute — the power of his intellect. Anderson is certain that Bourgeois Society is crumbling. His way of conveying this is to give you a close-up of a ceiling cracking. It would be a trite image if it were merely casual, but supported by the focused energy of the director’s mind it attains a pinnacle of banality that can only be called heroic.

Actors love Anderson. They give him everything. Such force of personality is not to be despised. But actors are not necessarily the best judges of a director’s quality. Like anybody else, only more so, they want to be needed. They tend to admire the kind of director who gropes for what he wants, since it gives them the chance to show him what they can do. Jill Bennett will probably go to her grave convinced that it was a great creative moment when, in rehearsal, they worked out the details of how she was to have her toe sucked. To the dispassionate viewer, however, the relevant sequence looked exactly what it was — a distant, giftless echo of Buñuel.

This was Anderson’s first television production. Characteristically he was eager to Explore the Medium. There were shots of the cameras to show you that television plays are shot with cameras, etc. By such means a few television directors built short-lived reputations back in the 1950s. Nowadays the tyro director is expected to get over that sort of thing in training school. Like good directors in any other medium, the good TV directors — Gold, Gibson, Lindsay-Hogg, Moira Armstrong and all the rest — rarely draw attention to their technique. If they did, they would have a better chance of being noticed by the thicker critics, but their work would add up to less.

The whole enterprise has been very instructive, which is why I have used so much space on it. The chief lesson to be learned is that even a writer as intelligent as Alan Bennett can fall prey to the delusion that solemnity equals seriousness. Only a lurking desire for respectability could have led him to deliver his work into the hands of Lindsay Anderson. The result was inevitable.

‘It really is extremely sophisticated for a television play,’ announced Anderson, warning us with customary hauteur that we would probably not be able to cope with the intensity of his vision. Actually, compared with even an ordinary television play like Cold Harbour, The Old Crowd was so unsophisticated that it could scarcely be said to exist.

As far as the text goes, Bennett must be given the benefit of the doubt. When the jokes went, the play’s point went with them, since with a writer like Bennett the jokes are not decoration but architecture. People like Lindsay Anderson can never learn what people like Alan Bennett should know in their bones: that common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.

Brian Gibson, a director of real accomplishment, was in charge of Denis Potter’s new play Blue Remembered Hills (BBC1), in which adult actors, led by Colin Welland, pretended to be children. This was a bold conceit on Potter’s part. Gibson helped him get away with it. An outstandingly tactful handler of actors, Gibson has been known to coax professional performances out of ordinary people, so there is almost no limit to what he can get out of professionals. I had never thought the day would come when I would find Colin Welland sympathetic, but in huge short pants and a brutal haircut, blubbing and shouting and making aeroplane noises, he was like one of your own callow embarrassments come back to haunt you.

The dialogue was Potter at his best, but doubts remain about how good that is. As far as I can remember from my own childhood — which took place, admittedly, altogether elsewhere — little boys are very specific about things like the names of aeroplanes. But some of the talk rang too many bells to be ignored. The my-dad-can-beat-your-dad routines were groan-provokingly authentic.

Helped by Gibson’s effortlessly fluent cameras, the dialogue echoed through a forest as big as the world. At the end of the play the merry band contrived to burn a retarded boy to death in a barn. Let’s hope this was fantasy and not one of Potter’s real reminiscences of childhood, otherwise the police might be getting in touch. ‘Mr Potter? Just a routine inquiry, sir. Couldn’t help noticing in your very fine play the other night ...’

4 February, 1979