Books: The Crystal Bucket : Mother of Shirley Williams | clivejames.com
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Mother of Shirley Williams

Bad Sight of the Week was on Nationwide (BBC1): a keen bishop with a cover-up baldy haircut who smugly defended the Church of England’s mad scheme to abandon the Authorized Version and the Book of Common Prayer along with it.

People educated in polytechnics, the worthy divine explained, can’t understand such arcane verbal forms as ‘Our Father, which art in heaven’. His smile of condescension while he articulated these sentiments was further evidence for the theory, widespread among lay students of the Anglican Church, that no clergyman can nowadays attain high office who has not first given solid and continuous proof that he is ga-ga.

There can be little doubt that the Church’s evident intention to commit suicide originates right at the top. With the Archbishop of Canterbury himself evidently hellbent on extirpating the single greatest repository of poetic truth available to the faithful, there is not much hope of events being influenced by mere reason. All a nonbelieving but seriously concerned layman can do is point out the obvious, which is that these literary treasures, composed at a time when the English language was so strong that even a committee could write it, will stay current for ever, whereas no current version will stay good for a fortnight.

By now it is clear that the BBC is engaged in a vast conspiracy to make Shirley Williams Prime Minister. Her recent, highly successful chat series was only the first move. The second move, less direct but possibly even more effective, is to screen a lavish, thoughtful and touching drama about her mother’s life. The first episode of Testament of Youth (BBC1), besides taking Mrs Williams several steps nearer No. 10, was one of the best things I have seen on television for some time.

In fact it was one of the best things I have seen on television since The Girls of Slender Means, which was directed by Moira Armstrong. Testament of Youth is also directed by Moira Armstrong, and once again her handling of cameras is wonderfully delicate. Hers is the kind of technique that never draws attention to itself, which means that she has no more chance of becoming famous than Tony Palmer has of becoming obscure. But her unobtrusively fluent way of moving the camera from face to face at the right time makes an ordinary story subtle and a subtle one profound.

‘Mother of Shirley Williams’ having sensibly been rejected as a title, it was decided to give the series the same name as the original book. I have not read it, but soon shall, because Vera Brittain was obviously ideally equipped to tell two great stories at once. One story was about her own education as a liberated young woman. The other story was about how the First World War cut down the generation of young men of whom she aspired to be an equal. In Elaine Morgan’s literate adaption the two lines of narrative form a powerfully sad counterpoint. I imagine that in the book the plangent music is more desolating still.

But in the first episode the harvest had not yet begun. The crop was still ripening: beautiful young men playing decent cricket at good schools, they had untroubled brows, possibly because there was not a thought in their heads. Vera’s brother was one of these. The pater was in trade, but school was making a gentleman of the son — a smooth process which Oxford would complete. But what of the daughter? Played by the ebullient Cheryl Campbell, Vera had to fight for her freedom all the way against a dumb-cluck mother and a father fond of saying things like ‘Stoof and nonsense!’.

In fact Mr Brittain was a bit of a Michael Palin character. ‘Arm waiting,’ he announced, ‘to ear what were the meaning of thut little exhibition.’ Meanwhile brainless Mrs Brittain, a clear case of autolobotomy, was panic stricken lest her daughter’s inexplicable desire for education ‘spoil her chances’. Some of this came out like parody, but it is hard to see how it could not, since we have forgotten how true it used to be.

Far from regarding the male sex as dominant, I have always thought of it, in comparison to the female one, as bloodless, furtive and lacking in moral fibre. But as the week wore on the television set fell further prey to the delusion that the towering stature of womanhood was something I needed to be convinced of. Vera Brittain said her piece and sank back into the shadows, only to be succeeded by Dame Margot Fonteyn. In the first instalment of her big budget new series The Magic of Dance (BBC2), she stood revealed, feet turned elegantly out, as a natural pitch-person. The sheer joy of watching her walk about would have compensated for any verbal deficiencies, but in fact she talks a treat.

Of the performing arts, ballet is the one I have come to last, having been stupidly puritanical about it until recent years. But now I am sorry that I ever stayed away. There is a possibility, however, that my attitude is all wrong. In her excellent book After-Images, the American ballet critic Arlene Croce explains that the whole idea of ballet is to transcend sex and that any man who is aroused by looking at a ballerina is missing the point. I am afraid I have been missing the point in a big way, and that when I look at Dame Margot I go on missing it. She is an attractive woman and that’s that.

Only in her script did she leave anything to be desired. It ranged back and forth over space and time. Plainly it will go on doing so in future episodes. But there are penalties to be paid for not following a particular subject through while you are focused on it. Fred Astaire, for example, was a perfect object for her attention, but either no film clips were available or else someone had decided not to linger. A montage and an interview were all we got. Perhaps there will be a follow-up in a later episode, but what was required at the time, once the subject had been broached, was at least one dance from Fred and Ginger.

No complaints, though, about the ballet excerpts, which were lavish. Makarova’s arms in the Swan Lake pas de deux went half-way across the stage on each side. Seymour danced her final scene from The Sleeping Beauty with characteristic drama. A ballerina from the Dance Theatre of Harlem moved with such transcendental beauty that I started thinking Arlene Croce might be right after all. Nureyev, whom Dame Margot interviewed at length, was the lad who opened ballet up for the male stars. One is glad about this, but finally it is the ballerinas who are the fons et origo of the art.

11 November, 1979