Books: Visions Before Midnight — The Turkey in Winter |
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The Turkey in Winter

One has tried to give Churchill’s People (BBC1) a chance, on the grounds that cheapo-cheapo telly will soon be the only kind there is, once the new austerity really starts to bite. Limitations will probably be liberating in the long run: Trevor Nunn’s Anthony and Cleopatra, for example, was a trail-blazing production because it suggested lavishness through economy, whereas most attempts at television spectacle suggest economy through lavishness. Churchill’s People, alas, suggests little beyond an outbreak of insanity at executive level. Somebody on the top floor has gone berserk.

Last week’s episode, ‘The Saxon’s Dusk’, starred John Wood as Edward the Confessor. Wood is one of the best, most treasurable actors we possess — a high stylist. Turn an actor like him, when you can find one, loose on good material, when you can find that, and lyricism will ensue. Give him rubbish to act and he will destroy himself like a Bugatti lubricated with hair oil.

The script being almost entirely exposition, the characters were mainly engaged in telling one another what they knew already. Since Edward was the centre of the action, he was occupied full time not only with telling people what they knew, but with being told what he knew in return. A certain air of boredom was therefore legitimate, which Wood amply conveyed. I myself had never heard dialogue like it, but Edward made it clear that he had been hearing it for years.

‘He’s making Robert of Whatnot Bishop of London, did you know?’ ‘A Frenchman to be Bishop of London?’ ‘He’s trying to make us a French colony.’ ‘But if I leave my nephew as my heir ...’ ‘Sire, Bishop Beefbroth has come back: the news is good from Rome.’ ‘Praise be.’ ‘The French Bishop is to be disepiscopated immediately.’ ‘That is good, good.’ ‘On one condition.’ ‘What condition, pray?’ ‘News from Dover, Sire!’ ‘Dover shall pay dear for this!’ ‘Your uncle Toxic, Queen of the Welsh, proclaims the Bastard heir!’ ‘This is the last straw. Where do you stand, Bostic?’ ‘Your half-brother Norman the Exhibitionist’s son, Cyril...’

And so on, world without end. Straining to convey information, the writing reveals nothing about the past of the English people, but much about the present state of the English language. ‘While we wait here waiting for the Assembly to assemble ...’ one poor sod found himself saying, and straight away his silly hat looked even sillier, since how can an actor go back through time if given lines mired so inextricably in the present? It was The Turkey in Winter. A two-line exchange of dialogue between a pair of shaggy nobles said it all. ‘Why do you not give it up?’ ‘Because I need the money.’

2 February, 1975

[ The original (and much longer) version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]