Books: Visions Before Midnight — Rough justice |
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Rough justice

As always there was trouble in other countries, but it was a quiet week domestically. The screen crawled with patrolling cops. Statistics show that most television police emanate from America and used to be actors: Ironside (Raymond Burr), Madigan (Richard Widmark), MacMillan (Rock Hudson), Cade (Glenn Ford), what’s-his-name in Streets of San Francisco (Karl Malden), and now Kojak (Telly Savalas). These, and others so obscure I can’t remember their faces, constitute a pax Americana of dreams. We are importing an ethic which was already a fantasy in its land of origin. The disturbed viewer is left longing for the home brew. Whatever happened to Z-Cars? Where is Softly Softly? Bring back Harry the Hawk! I never thought I’d find myself saddled with so square an emotion as pining for the indigenous culture.

But even if the man who makes the pinch comes from outside, the trial still tends to be held here. Justice (Yorkshire) has now finished another series. It will be sorely missed in our house. On Friday nights it always overlapped Ironside (BBC1) by about half an hour. We never punched the button until Justice had ended. Anyway it was refreshing, after seeing Harriet through a difficult court case, to switch over and watch the Chief’s team working on a problem which you had to reconstruct while they were unravelling it. This gave the programme an element of unpredictability.

Not that Ironside really needs anything beyond its archetypal situations. Fran is no substitute for Eve, whose hairstyles were masterpieces of the metallurgist’s art, but Ed’s light-hearted interchanges with his lovably gruff boss are still there (some psychopath tried to put Ed in a wheelchair of his own a few weeks ago) and Mark goes on grappling with the eternal problem of wringing a performance out of the two lines of dialogue and five reaction shots he is allotted per episode. (Mark’s two lines are usually ‘I’ll make some coffee’ and ‘Guess I’d better make some coffee’, and the variations of emphasis he can get into them are like something Beethoven turned out for Diabelli. His situation demands comparison with that of another token black — the one in Mission Impossible who gets no dialogue at al, just the reaction shots. All he can do is pose like a corpse in a photo booth.)

Harriet’s excuse for leaving the screen is reprehensible. She has ratted out of the sex war by marrying her doctor. If this means giving up the bar it will be a cruel blow for the feminist cause, not to mention for certain sectors of the James family, by whom she has been applauded devotedly as she runs rings around all those bewigged chauvinists bent on incarcerating her clients. After a hard day of duffing-up opposing counsel and shaking the complacency of fuddy-duddy judges, Harriet would clomp back to her chambers and kick her male clerk around the office. The way this pitiful factotum cringed at the sight of Harriet’s crocodile-skin shoes was greeted with a purr of satisfaction from sources close to the present writer.

25 August, 1974

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