Books: Visions Before Midnight — More like it |
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More like it

A high quality Play for Today called All Good Men (BBC2) covered familiar ground in an unfamiliar manner. Trevor Griffiths wrote it, and the faultless direction was by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Venerable Labour politicians who have compromised their early principles are standard stuff (Alan Bennett’s Getting On is a key text here) but Griffiths has the resources for a fresh look. Bill Fraser was the politico, racked by coronaries on the eve of being elevated to the peerage, scourged by his radical son who believes him to be a class-traitor, and loving a daughter whose love in return has been drained of all admiration.

Into this grim scene wanders Ronald Pickup as an unprincipled telly-man with a Winchester background. He keeps saying ‘Ah,’ with what the daughter (an altogether excellent performance by Frances de la Tour) calls ‘that I’m Not Important style of arrogance’. He’s the catalyst for a family explosion, culminating in the son’s producing some devastating evidence (echoes of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Ibsen passim) that his father had already sold the pass back in 1926.

The son was the most convincing fictional radical to reach the screen in recent times — the kidnappers in this week’s edition of the egregious Barlow (BBC1) showed you the usual standard — and was played to the hot-eyed hilt by Jack Shepherd. He quoted chapter and verse from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, unintentionally giving you the sense that Mr Griffiths had been reading that book very recently himself. Influences obtruded throughout the evening. But so did some real writing, and the play got its symbolism over in a single line about squirrels killing a tree by nibbling the bark. Other playwrights please copy.

Such a solid, exploratory and humane effort makes it all the more necessary to declare The Pallisers (BBC2) a bit of a dud. I shall watch it though, but without much hope of finding it successful on any level, either as a classic serial or as a Forsyte sudser. Leaving aside the massive pre-emptive publicity, it’s a minor event. A lot of money has been put into it, and years of Simon Raven’s time, but the acting takes place in the range from minor league to outright inadequate, and the direction only occasionally rises to the uninspired.

Action being thin in Trollope, the author’s verbose running commentary is paramount in establishing the characters, such as they are. Bereft of that commentary, his stories don’t count for much. Trying to get the characters across without enough dialogue or proper scenes to help them do it, the actors are at sea, and fall back on an all-purpose Period style which is diverting to analyse but tedious to watch in the long run.

I’ll come back to this project after a few more episodes, when there is more to bite on. For the moment, there is Burgo’s hat, and his cigar, and there is that bloke who in Z-Cars plays a detective inspector, and there are pairs of people walking around explaining the plot to each other so that we can overhear, and there is a good deal of racy innuendo from Mr Raven to jazz things up, and there is Susan Hampshire. A lot, an awful lot, depends on whether you go for Susan Hampshire.

My colleague, Tony Palmer, did a documentary on Hugh Hefner, called The World of Hugh M. Hefner (Yorkshire). Mocking Hefner is easy to do, and in my view should be made even easier: as editor of Playboy and controller of its merchandising empire, he emanates an intensity of solemn foolishness which is no less toxic for calling itself liberating. I would have enjoyed the show more if Palmer had been in love with his subject less. There was a tendency to take the Hefnerite nexus of activities at its self-proclaimed value. Siegfried’s Funeral March crashed out heroically on the soundtrack where ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ would have been more appropriate, and the camera drooled like a Pavlov dog as it was led about in Hef’s de luxe ambience.

‘I live the kind of life surrounded by beautiful things, female and material.’ Hefner’s use of language was extraordinary. Approving new layouts for the ‘What kind of man reads Playboy?’ series of ads, he said he liked the one ‘where the man is showing off the artefact to his date.’ Further afield, in such outposts of Hefner’s empire as the London Playboy Club, the film-making got more sardonic. There was no gainsaying the fact that to make it as a Bunny a girl needs more than just looks. She needs idiocy, too. Otherwise there’d be no putting up with the callous fatuity of the selection process.

An aspiring Playmate was given a ride in a limousine, and told that she should feel honoured, because being given a ride in a Playboy limousine was really exciting. What did she think? ‘It’s rilly exciting.’ Did she feel honoured? ‘I rilly do.’ We were shown the finer points of the Bunny Dip, which is the technique a waitress uses to bend down without springing out of her wired costume like an auto-inflated life-raft. ‘Our notion,’ averred Hefner, ‘was that a total man ought to have a part of his life that could be described as a playboy attitood.’ Total Man, showing off the artefact to his date.

3 February, 1974

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