Books: Visions Before Midnight — The QB VII travesty |
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The QB VII travesty

Spreading over two evenings, QB VII (BBC1) was a mammoth American opus about Hitler’s destruction of the European Jews. Done from the heart, with no expense spared — everybody from Lee Remick to Sir John Gielgud walked through — this was a television programme which was not afraid to plumb the depths of the human spirit. Not afraid, and not qualified.

The title was a tip-off. Big bad novels often have numbers for titles, market research having revealed that browsing yokels respond to figures rather than to letters when seeking out an easy read. Hence Butterfield 8, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse 5, Mila 18 — the last being the work of Leon Uris, who indeed also wrote the novel QB VII, from which one Edward Anhalt drew the teleplay for the programme under discussion. QB VII is apparently the standard abbreviation for Queen’s Bench No. 7 of the Law Courts, London, where Uris and Anhalt pretended that a Dr Sir Adam Kelno sued a Jewish novelist called Abraham Cady for libel after Cady had imputed that Kelno performed hideous operations on Jews in concentration camps. With many excursions through time to explore the personalities of Kelno and Cady, the story line unfolded in the courtroom.

Shorn of the flashbacks, the trial scenes would have worked well enough. In fact they had done so once before, when a much smaller programme on the same subject was made in England, its script based closely on a trial which actually took place, with Uris involved. Uris and Anhalt took the same real-life event as their departure point, but in adding their own explanations did a far more effective job than their less ambitious predecessor of leaving the matter in the dark.

The script throughout was worthy and giftless, like the dialogue put into the actors’ mouths in the star-strewn film Judgment at Nuremberg, another big bad production on the same theme, with an equally strident sense of mission. And just as, at the time, it was inadvisable to point out that Judgment at Nuremberg was a big bad movie without first laboriously establishing that you were not necessarily pro-Nazi, so now it is perhaps not wise to argue that QB VII was a big bad programme without also insisting that one is far from indifferent to the subject of the Holocaust. In fact one would like to believe oneself even more passionate on the topic than QB VII’s authors who, if they really understood its importance, would have had the grace to leave it alone, since their talents were patently not up to treating it.

From the first few minutes of the show, when the inmates of the concentration camps liberated in 1945 were described as ‘pathetic scarecrows of human beings’ you knew that nobody concerned with the production could write for nuts. However exalted in its aims, this was going to be hack-work. The casting was adequate in the leading roles — Ben Gazzara, who played Cady, and Anthony Hopkins, who played Kelno, are both good actors, although Hopkins increasingly took refuge in mannerism as the script left him high and dry — but the conceptions of character which the players were asked to embody were hopelessly cliché-ridden, despite everything the director, producer and writers could do to make them profound. Because of everything they could do.

For the student of schlock (and schlock merchants always produce schlock, especially when they try to be sincere) the role of Abraham Cady, successful Jewish novelist, was especially revealing. Whether or not Mr Uris identified with him, Cady was a classic example of the Hollywood writer’s fantasies about Integrity and Talent. For much of the first part of the show he was to be seen barging about spilling drinks, consumed with self-disgust at writing bad books. It is de rigeur in this fantasy for the writer to suppose that he writes bad books through choice, and that if he could only reject the swimming-pool and recover his Integrity he would be able to write good ones. It rarely occurs to him — certainly it never seemed to occur to Cady — that he writes bad books because he is a bad writer.

At the end of Part 1, Cady, consumed by self-loathing and shattered by the collapse of his marriage, went to Jerusalem, where he visited the Yad Vashem Memorial, at last grasped what the Nazis did to his people, and recovered his Integrity along with his faith. ‘I know what I have to write about now,’ he gritted, with the sub-Exodus soundtrack music welling in the background. ‘I want the reader to be there when they haul up the Star of David over Jerusalem and rekindle the Sacred Flame. I pray that God gives me the Talent to do it.’ In Part 2, God came through with the goods.

The problem was left in abeyance of how we could possibly respect Cady as a writer, if he had to recover his faith before he found out what Nazi Europe had been like. What on earth had he thought before? The universal catastrophe of ideological genocide was reduced to a specious conflict in the mind of a Hollywood mediocrity. The few powerful scenes could only emphasise this central inadequacy, although they did lift the show a notch above Judgment at Nuremberg, which left a generation of young cinema-goers with the impression that the Nazi regime did bad things to Judy Garland.

Chronicle (BBC2), hosted by Magnus Magnusson, featured a Danish family voluntarily returning to Iron Age conditions. ‘A box of matches was the only concession to the twentieth century,’ Magnus explained, as the Bjornholts squatted around the quern and ground the draves with a splon. The nubile Bjornholt daughters glumly bared their bosoms to the Iron Age breeze, thereby supplying the male viewer with an alternative centre of interest while their father chipped splinths. ‘They settled into the Iron Age routine of making food and making fire,’ said Magnus. The routine couldn’t have been routiner. Killing a chicken counted as heavy action.

We were shown the uncannily well-preserved bodies of people who had supposedly been ritually slain and dumped in the bogs, although the possibility was hard to rule out that they had suicided to escape the Iron Age tedium. Then it was back again to Dad, striding purposefully around in hair pants on the trail of edible klud. It helped to fight off sleep if you counted how many other concessions there were to the twentieth century besides the matches, although perhaps Mum’s dark glasses were authentic Iron Age artefacts, obtained from one of those caravans that blew in from Rome once every ten years with a cargo of beads.

2 May, 1976

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