Books: Glued to the Box : Rebarbative reverberations | clivejames.com
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Rebarbative reverberations

Anyone who isn’t watching The Bell (BBC2) must be crazy. On the other hand, watching is no guarantee of staying sane.

Having read the novel when it came out, one remembered that Iris Murdoch had been brilliantly successful in evoking a religious community consisting exclusively of dingbats. Where the series has improved on the novel is in finding visual correlatives for the various forms of lunatic self-obsession. There is a chap in a beard, for example, who hardly ever says anything. The beard says it for him. It is an entirely shapeless beard that grows straight out from his face at forty-five degrees. His arms are folded proudly under it while he sits listening to one of his fellow inmates deliver the daily pious lecture.

One by one each of the devotees gets a chance to bore all the others for an hour on end, instead of just intermittently as usual. The competition is fierce, but Michael, played by Ian Holm, has no trouble emerging as the most tedious. ‘In each of you there are different talents, different propensities.’ One of Michael’s propensities is for lusting hopelessly after young Toby. But Toby has been eyeing the joyous poitrine of Dora, flighty wife of the particularly demented Paul.

If Toby is worried about his manhood, he has come to the right girl. She is restless, she is full-blooded, and she has a yo-yo for a husband. ‘It is, of course, a fact that you are indeed my wife,’ says Paul, sounding as always as if he is translating at sight from an ancient Chinese manuscript. ‘To say that you are my wife is to state the obvious.’ Understandably alienated, Dora flees into the night with Toby.

Down at the lake, Toby dives into the pitch-black water and attaches a cable to the bell. Together he and Dora winch the enormous bell out of the mud and hatch a plan to substitute it for some other bell due to arrive tomorrow. There is no reason why this plan should not succeed, since a religious community which has not been woken up by the roar of the winch’s motor is unlikely to notice a couple of young people carrying a two-ton bell ten feet high into a position of concealment. Pleased with their idea, Dora and Toby lie down naked together under the bell as it hangs suspended over the little jetty.

While Dora and Toby are boffing beneath the bell, there is a rustle in the shrubbery. It is the misanthropic Nick Fawley, he whose sister Catherine is about to become a nun. Now he has the power to break Michael’s heart and drive Paul loopier than ever. All he need do is let slip the information that he has just seen Dora and Toby copulating under the clapper. But when the big day of the bell ceremony dawns, it finds Michael and Toby hand in hand. Dora’s tabloid journalist boyfriend arrives from London. Pig-ignorant and crass (the plot’s solitary, fleeting contact with realism), the journalist tramples all over the community’s jealously guarded privacy. He is determined to report the arrival of the new bell.

Back in Fleet Street, that is the sort of scoop that every news editor dreams of — a red hot story about a religious community installing a new bell. Will Dora and Toby get out before they, too, go bananas? Will the leggy if lethargic Catherine disappear into the nunnery, or will she find her true destiny as a dancer with Hot Gossip? Is the quiet, thoughtful, infinitely boring James Tayper Pace the biggest head-case of the lot? Why does everybody keep using the word ‘rebarbative’? Next week it will be revealed to you.

Already a booming success, Wood and Walters (Granada) should be there for ever. The basic strength of the show is the avalanche of high-quality material provided by Victoria Wood, but on top of that there is the bonus that she is an engaging performer in her own right, and on top of that there is the further bonus conferred by the participation of Julie Walters, who can give even a dud line an interesting reading and who lavishes on a good line the sort of inventive attention that makes writers think there must be other compensations in the television business besides money. 

In the latest episode Julie was a security-conscious shop assistant carrying a machine pistol. ‘We don’t usually let obese people into the cubicles in case they sweat on the wallpaper.’ Fatness figures large in Victoria’s writing. ‘My mother lost three children before she was twenty,’ Julie confided. ‘They weren’t hers, of course.’ Another of Victoria’s preoccupations is marriage, which she seems to be mainly against. Her witty song ‘Don’t Do It’, sung by both girls with a live band in attendance, was obviously deeply meant.

Victoria was the guest critic on the latest instalment of the continuously interesting, and indeed by now compulsory, Did You See? (BBC2), hosted this time by Mavis Nicholson because Ludovic Kennedy was off with flu. Ludo fronts the show to perfection, but Mavis took over without a hitch, thereby indicating the robustness of the format. One of the programmes up for discussion was OTT (Central), which Victoria was generous enough to rate as highly original, even though it counts as a competitor.

When it was put to Victoria that OTT lacked edge, she asked why edge should be thought of as something a comedy show needed to have. At least one viewer gave a small yell of agreement at this point. The word ‘satire’ got into the minds of showbiz journalists back in the 1960s and no amount of subsequent experience has been able to get it out. At that time parallels between TW3 and eighteenth-century literature were drawn by hacks who thought a couplet was an article of clothing. Nowadays a new generation of hacks compare anything new with what they fondly imagine TW3 to have been like. Anybody engaged in television comedy, of however patently unsatirical a stamp, soon gets used to being asked why he is not more savage — the question invariably being put by someone who has no historical sense to speak of and scarcely two political ideas to rub together.

The cruel fact is that ‘satire’, as it is commonly referred to in the context of television, was, even at its funniest, almost always palliative. The true subversives are people like Victoria, who with such a song as ‘Don’t Do It’ has a good chance of actually changing how young people live, and in a direction their parents won’t necessarily like. As for OTT, encouraged by Victoria’s backing I stick by my judgment that it is an innovation. Indeed the only thing predictable about it is Alexei Sayle, who has a large reputation as a New Wave comedian, but whose routines so far have proved to be strings of stand-up one-liners distinguishable only by their frame of reference from the hit-or-miss patter of the average warm-up man. On stage he is more free to use foul language, but foul doesn’t necessarily mean strong.

The token male on Victoria’s programme, Rick Mayall, is also a New Wave star, but his monologues are thought right through. Mayall started off doing guest spots as half of an act calling itself 20th Century Coyote. It was clear even then that the television camera would lap him up, but he has since learned to give it even more to feed on. In Wood and Walters he impersonates a male chauvinist piglet called Mitch. His expressive hands tell a different story from the one coming out of his mouth, while his eyes search sideways for hidden threats, like Kenneth Griffith hiding from the Gestapo, or just waiting for a bus. The time for television comedy is now. Those days when the young David Frost read out other people’s gags were only a portent.

31 January, 1982