Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 24. First Tango |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 24. First Tango


Back in my London library, I checked all the references in my Goldhagen piece, which I entitled ‘Hitler’s Unwitting Exculpator’, and sent it off. Then began the notorious process of New Yorker fact-checking, by which one of the magazine’s vast graduate research team rings up the Professor of Political Science at the University of Heidelberg in the middle of the night to establish incontrovertibly that Germany is in Europe. But I try not to inveigh against the fact-checkers because often enough they save you from a howler. It’s the magazine’s style police, the ones who wreck your rhythm for the sake of a comma, who drive me nuts. This time Tina had them under the gun and the text was finalized within a week. When the piece came out, it generated a big postbag, most of it in approval. There were even family members of Holocaust victims who approved: they agreed that to say everybody was guilty was just another way of saying that nobody was. But the note of approval that moved me most was verbal. It came from Ian McEwan, who said, ‘That is what you should be doing.’ It moved me to anxiety, because I knew he was right. The time was coming when I would have to get back to bedrock. I still believed that my work in television was giving me a wider scope, but here was a reminder that it would take concentration to go deep, and there was only so much of life left.

By then, Watchmaker was installed in its permanent home on two whole floors of the Chrysalis building, not far from Lad-broke Grove station and a million miles from anywhere you would like to be. Inside our teeming complex I had my own little office with a door I could close and a z-bed inside on which I could stretch out for an hour’s sleep every day after lunch, thereby turning every day’s work into two. I needed the extra time because the work-rate kept on going up. Since I was still the only asset, the fifty or so toilers outside my door were all dependent on my health, so I suppose it was no surprise that they catered to my every whim, including a cup of tea every fifteen minutes. (When we were writing together, Bostock drank twice as much tea as I did: nobody knew at the time that it was a form of caffeine addiction. We thought we were high on our own inspiration.) It would have been nice to have been spoiled by such attentiveness but there wasn’t time. Apart from our office management squad, the key factor in holding the whole enterprise together was Richard’s secretary, Wendy Gay, an orchidaceous bombshell who dressed like a film star from the early 1950s, with high-piled spun gold hair, cinched waist, stiff petticoats and peekaboo shoes. At first acquaintance, the unwary tended to belittle her until she quietly corrected their spelling. She wrote short stories about the death of Jayne Mansfield but she was so full of smiling life that it was almost a joke. The best kind of joke, however: we were always glad to see her in the morning as she bopped around getting things done. In the evening she was still doing that. She made a point of telling me, when she thought I was being a sad sack, that life was very brief. Since she had seen scarcely thirty years of life herself, this was quite a perception.

There was another reminder of life’s brevity in Buenos Aires, where we almost got our director killed. All my other cameramen/directors won’t mind my saying that Robert Payton was the most accomplished of their breed I ever worked with, because only he had something they hadn’t: a spare silver camera box full of vintage wines. Rob had a gift for not lowering his standard of living when he was on the road. Emperor of the air miles, king of the upgraded ticket, he rivalled even Richard in collecting high-quality stuff. Unusually for a sybarite, he was also very quick on the uptake, so it was a rare lapse when he set up the camera on a tripod to film the gauchos taking delivery of their new horses. Out on the pampas, the gauchos form a camp once a year so that the older men can stun the youngsters with their skill at breaking in the postros, the next generation of their flying steeds. As noted earlier, horse-related activities are almost invariably tedious, but when a grizzled old gaucho on board an insane young horse comes thundering towards you it can be quite exciting. Too exciting, in this case. Ideally Rob should have had the camera on his shoulder, so that he could move with it. But he had his eye glued to a camera that wasn’t going anywhere. The old man on board the horse was waving his hat and shouting an imprecation which, we were told later on, was the dialect version of ‘This horse is out of control. Get out of there or die.’ Valiantly filming until the last moment, Rob finally took off and left the camera to its fate. The postro went straight through it, pausing only to turn around and start kicking it to bits while the experienced old gaucho left the saddle, hat in hand, described a high parabola and dived head first into the crowd of his cheering colleagues.

Apart from his courage, technical acumen and tireless cunning in search of the petit bonheur, Rob had the precious, ego-free gift of trusting me when I thought I was on to something. When the gauchos sat down at a trestle table to eat, they were served with plates of meat straight from the fire. Their only eating utensil was the knife each of them carried at his waist. Each gaucho would hold a hunk of meat in one hand, stick the end of it in his mouth, and cut off a chewable piece close to his teeth with an upward swipe of the knife. The knife would go very close to his nose. I asked for one specific shot after another of different gauchos doing this. I had already spotted that one of the gauchos had the end of his nose prominently wrapped in sticking plaster, perhaps because of a boil. Rob got the shot without my even asking because he had already guessed that I would climax the sequence in voice-over by saying that this method of dining was a test of manhood.

Things threatened to be less interesting back in town. The way our hotel in the high-tab Recoleta district fleeced us would have been a story in itself, had we been able to tell it. Phone calls home were out of the question because of the mark-up, and the laundry service was so expensive that we had to do all our washing in a laundrette. But the hotel managers were offering us their bargain showbiz deal — the full whack was set at the spending levels of an Arab prince — and we couldn’t rat them out. Nor was there any filming my discovery of Henschel’s bookshop. Henschel has gone out of business by now but at the time he still tended his books personally. The bookshop was in a big room a flight up from one of the cross-streets leading off the downtown end of the Avenida Corrientes, and of all the bookshops in the world that I have ever haunted it was my top favourite. A lot of German Jewish refugees had come to Buenos Aires and later on a lot of Nazi refugees came there as well, so the stock was an enticing mixture for any student of European cultural disaster in the twentieth century. In the next few years I spent thousands of pounds in there and the results fill the shelves before me as I write this. But my discovery of the place would have made a dull sequence. There was another scene available, however, that filmed like a dream. It was the tango.

How a dance so complicated, refined and beautiful had come to being in Argentina is a question that still puzzles scholars. Little else about Argentina is notable for those qualities. As Juan Perón and his dreadful wife proved, they couldn’t even do populism without turning it into fascism — ‘We shirtless ones!’ Evita would cry to the peasants, rattling her jewellery at them — and the adventure in the Malvinas had proved that a whole junta of generals, otherwise quite efficient at things like electric torture, had been too dumb to realize that they were picking on a dragon. As previously noted, no country with an ample supply of meat on the hoof has much idea of how to cook it, but the way the most famous meat eatery in Buenos Aires presented its product left any restaurant in Nairobi looking like Maxim’s. We filmed a sequence where I lunched alone, from a mixed grill called an asada grande. Every cut and kind of beef in Argentina had been heaped on the plate after being incinerated with napalm. Though Buenos Aires fancied itself as the most European city in Latin America, the resemblances were notional in all respects, and yet out of all the uproar of pretension, inflation and macho posturing had come this poem of a dance.

On an afternoon recce at one of the daylight ballrooms I took one look at the dancing couples and had my big idea. We had already filmed me having elementary lessons so that I could chug about the floor in the required graceless manner while the locals provided a stunning contrast, but the question remained of how to shoot the story on the night. Here in the afternoon, with the windows full of sunlight and no romantic atmosphere whatsoever, the best of the couples were creating poetry. I could see that the Argentinian tango was nothing like the Hollywood version, in which rigid poses are dramatically struck while a rose is passed with stunning brutality from one set of teeth to another. The real thing was more like an ideal conversation. Like the local version of the Spanish language, which features a smooth, sumptuous, almost Russian ‘zh’ sound for the double ‘l’, every step was a smooth glide, one step sliding without a break into the next, the progress of one partner providing a silent commentary to the progress of the other. I watched one young man, about my height, performing a series of smoothly connected steps that sent his lovely partner through a whole linked sequence of attitudes you could have stopped with a still camera at any time and you would have had a picture to hang on your wall. She looked like a heavenly visitation and it was partly because of what he was doing. I knew I couldn’t do that, but suddenly I wanted something more illustrative than just cutting from him being brilliant to me being awful. Then I noticed that he looked, from the waist down at least, roughly the same as me. He even had the same shade of dark blue suit.

Rob got the idea as soon as I explained it. On the night, in a tango salon full of carefully cast extras, we shot plenty of coverage of me lurching through the elegant milieu with a champion female in my arms. Though I was theoretically leading her, she was actually doing most of the steering, by squeezing me in the right places. She was so commanding that she could probably have made me do cartwheels, but the tango isn’t an athletic feat, it’s a visible meditation. I could, however, with her subtle guidance, manage just well enough to get along. Having secured the master shot, our next task was to do a close-up which gradually travelled down my body as I danced. Then we shot the good guy’s legs as he did a dazzlingly intricate set of giros, turning on the spot with much flashing of the spare foot while my partner’s pretty shoes whirled around him through the frame. This was timed so that it could be inserted between the shot travelling down my body and another shot travelling in the other direction. When the footage got back to the editing room, it would be possible to turn my lower body into a genius before panning back up to reality, at which point I could announce in voice-over that it was all a dream. I knew on the spot that it would all work exactly as planned. I hadn’t learned much yet about dancing the tango, but I had learned something about making movies. Fifteen years before, I would have had no clue how to achieve that sequence, even if I had been capable of thinking it up.

These were the little triumphs that I took away from the programmes I was making, and I still like to think that the results were worth the effort. Even the most acute critics rarely noticed how the work was done, because they themselves had not been through the slog. Like any other form of art, it had to be done first of all for its own sake. I didn’t mind that. The ability to plough a lonely furrow without much thought of immediate applause is one of my strengths, if I have any. There could be no question, though, that I was feeling the squeeze. As the programmes got nearer to where I thought they ought to go, the urge to have done with them and do something else crept further into my mind: it’s the weakness that goes with the strength, a restlessness born of the very ambition that gets things made in the first place. (The supreme case of that itch was Leonardo da Vinci, but he was a truly terrible tango dancer.) At least the weekly show still had a glaring gap: we still had no reliable way of ending it. Doing a final dance with the star guest was all right if the guest was Dannii Minogue or Victoria Wood, but if it was, say, Sir Richard Attenborough, then the effect could be less disarming.

Out of nowhere, our problem was solved. We had a stringer in New York whose life was spent collecting awful things for us off the cable channels: biker astrologists, transvestite psychics, body-building sexologists, stuff like that. He lived in a cold-water flat somewhere on the Upper West Side dodging cockroaches the size of rats while he survived on pizza. One night he was watching a cable channel unbelievably called Channel 69. Exercising their rights under the First Amendment, anyone at all could pay ten dollars and go on Channel 69 to do a number, because in America everyone is entitled to self-expression: it’s in the Constitution. Our stringer was halfway though a five-cheese pizza with extra cheese when he was suddenly face to face with an Hispanic woman in a green feather boa singing the Lionel Ritchie hit ‘Hello’ while she pounded away at a Yamaha portable piano. He had never seen anything like her in his life and for a while he thought there might be something wrong with the pizza, but when he recovered his mind he sent me a video by courier. The video had the artist’s name handwritten on the label. It was Margarita Pracatan.

I took one look at her in action and realized that it was payday. Against the evidence of his senses, I persuaded Richard that Margarita was a yodelling bonanza. The musician in Richard rebelled against the notion but the showman in him recognized that she had the screen presence of an avalanche. There was a new season of ten programmes coming up and we had a hole to fill. I suggested that we fly her in for a couple of days, shoot ten numbers, and fly her out again. If it didn’t work, it would cost us no more than an economy-class return ticket and a cheap hotel bill. On that basis, he agreed, and that’s what we did.

After she arrived at Heathrow, and managed to hustle her boa through customs without having it quarantined, we didn’t see much of the actual Margarita, because she went straight from jet-lag to the taping session and then back to the airport. But we tacked her first number, ‘Hello’, on to the end of our first programme, and she was an immediate sensation. Twirling her boa, shaking her spangles, hammering away at the helpless Yamaha, filling the screen to the very edge with her hair extensions, in every sense she was bigger than I was, and by the end of the first season I was a guest on my own show. I didn’t begrudge that at all. Enjoying the accomplishments of others is one of my few virtues and I regard my happiness for Margarita’s success as the clearest proof.

To jump forward a bit, the enjoyment was put to a harsher test the following year. It was my mistake. I suggested that we do it right this time: fly her in for the whole season and back her up with a band. We had the excellent Harry Stoneham and his quintet as a resident orchestra and the musical aspect went quite well. Margarita had no real idea of standard musical rhythm but she had a brio — not say a rubato and a basso profundo — that was all her own, and anyway Harry, who had seen it all, could have provided the musical accompaniment for a banshee. The difficulties arose from the awkward fact that Margarita was high maintenance. She was even more exuberant when she wasn’t singing than when she was. ‘Darleeng!’ she would cry to a policeman. ‘I LARV YOU!’ Like many Cubans she sat down to dinner at midnight and was still dancing on the table at dawn. We had to provide one of our young men to look after her and she was using them up at the rate of one a week. The connection was purely Platonic but the guys had to eat amphetamines to stay with her. Just to use up some of her energy we sent her out on a theatrical tour. The audiences loved her, especially when she climbed down among them and sat on their laps. But there was a downside. She was making a lot of money and she did not always spend it wisely from our angle. She spent some of it on singing lessons: the last thing we wanted. But you couldn’t blame her. Despite the contrary evidence supplied by her songs in English, she could sing quite accurately in Spanish (things went wrong in English only because she would forget which word came next) and understandably she wanted to improve her gift, as all true artists do. The audience was puzzled, however, when she launched into a string of Vikki Carr hits in the original lingo. With Margarita in our lives, we could never relax — a frequent result when you finally meet your dream girl.

But the weekly show was now clearly in its most fully developed form. Though Bostock and I still had an indecent amount of fun writing it, there were no new techniques left to discover. (In the next generation, the brilliant Harry Hill would take the business of interacting with snatched footage to a whole new level, but the electronics he uses now weren’t available then even for a cruise missile.) The same should have been harder to say about the Postcards. After all, they had a different subject every time. Yet my own part in them was becoming predictable to me, if not to the audience. Quite often, in any form of creativity, you hit the point where you are walking in your sleep. So it proved with Postcard from Berlin. I pulled all my now standard tricks, including driving the bad car, dressing up for the bad party and eating in the bad restaurant. But the subject was so rich that the whole thing pulled itself together as if pre-ordained. A lot of this was due to a new producer, Martin Cunning.

He’s a media tycoon now and it’s no surprise, but he himself would have been surprised had he been told his future when he first came to us. So broke that he was sleeping under a bridge, he was so young that his long trousers looked like an affectation. He had a lop-sided smile that went halfway around his head, and his Scottish accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand a word. Richard and Elaine, however, both spotted him, correctly, as a fountain of ideas, which he advanced with daunting certitude and defended with bitter scorn. Generously, however, he paid attention to what I wanted to do in Berlin. This time I wanted to get the history in, because the history was everything. The Wall was down and some of the old Weimar Berlin had come back, but the Nazis were still a terrible memory. In the East of the city, though the skyline was thick with cranes, the old buildings still bore, all the way to the rooftops, the grey tidemark of the dreary empire that had retreated to the east before it boiled away. Somehow we had to get that in. It would mean doing a lot of narration while I drove the car.

The car was a Trabant from the communist era and it was perfect casting. We didn’t have to rig it to emit smoke, go backwards at the wrong moment and burst into flames. It did all that anyway. Up and down the Unter den Linden I drove, popping and banging through the Brandenburg Gate time after time. Goebbels had once ordered the Nazi torchlight parade to do the same thing while he improved the lighting. He was there ahead of us. So, of course, was Hitler. One of the best things we did in Berlin was to realize that the bunker where he spent his last days was a key location. There was nothing left to look at except a low bump in the wasteland, but the very fact that it looked like nothing made it mean everything. We got a long shot of me standing there in my blue suit on the apparently meaningless heap of dirt. But I knew what my voice-over was going to be. Finally it had come to this.

Hitler had never loved Berlin and I didn’t either. It was history I was in love with, and here was the place to talk about it, at its focal point. The great buildings are mainly a long way out of town, in the Mark Brandenburg, and most of the city was architectural blah: shop windows in the West, the old stone-faced apartment buildings in the East, block after block. But if I had been a young student again, and just starting off in Europe, I would have started there rather than in London or Paris. I would have had a room in Prenzlauerberg and sat at a table outside one of the cafes writing poems to the Russian waitresses. The story of the city in its dreadful modern times would have become mine. I tried to make it mine even though it was too late. The attempt to understand twentieth-century politics — by now I was writing about almost nothing else — had become one of my preoccupations, joining the urge to write poetry at the centre of my mental life. For a writer, comprehension is as close to being politically effective as he can ever get, or ever should. In the few years since the Wall came down, a seismic shift in the world’s political history had taken place, and I had played no part in it except, I hoped, to understand it.

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia had partly been made possible by the ability of the leaders to communicate by computer. Harold Pinter had bought a computer for Vaclav Havel. The new President was lastingly grateful to Pinter and took care to be gentle every time he had to tell his fellow playwright, during one of Pinter’s visits to liberated Prague, to go easy on his tirades about the ruthlessness of the Americans when everybody listening to him was still getting over the ruthlessness of the Russians. But Pinter, though his geopolitical picture was essentially a prop doorway through which he could make entrances in profile, had his heart in the right place, and giving Havel a computer was exactly the right thing to do. I bought a computer for Rita Klimova. Though she died of leukaemia not long after the victory, she had been a vital figure in her country’s recovery of its freedoms. But all I had done was write a cheque.

Later on I wrote a few more cheques for the Viborg, the outfit, headed by Olga Havel, that devoted itself to the endless task of looking after some of the thousands of wrecked people left behind by a regime so dedicated to pollution that the children’s milk was full of acid rain. Olga had already suffered enough but she volunteered to suffer some more because she thought it was her duty. With the aid of my good friend Diana Phipps, who had now returned to her homeland in her original role as Countess Sternberg, Olga coped nobly with the heartbreaking task of bringing a measure of redress to a river of human ruin. Very feminine and graceful in appearance, she had an iron soul and could be quite tough with fools and bores. I was dining with her once at a restaurant beside the river. The steak was a challenge — unlike in Argentina, it had probably never been very good even while it was alive — and she caught me picking my teeth with a fingernail. She handed me a toothpick. I liked her for that. But financing a computer and a couple of oxygen machines for blue babies was as close as I ever physically got to being effective in the biggest set of European events in the late twentieth century. Mentally, however, I was right in the middle of it, and never more so than in Berlin. This, I finally realized, was why I had been collecting and reading all those old books that had been scattered across the world.

What I loved about young Martin was that he could go with my ideas even when he could not foresee how they would add up until we got the footage home. He could read my heart, if not my mind. It was easy for him to let me have my head when one of the Trabi’s regular nervous breakdowns happened at a set of traffic lights in the West as night fell on a long day’s work. A sports car full of party girls slowed down to heckle me and I thought of a sequence on the spot. We enrolled the girls, rigged more lights, and went on shooting for an hour so it would appear that the car full of raving lovelies stopped beside me, told me to follow them to a party and then, when the lights changed and I put my foot down to roar off after them, the Trabi went backwards before conking out. A baby spotlight clipped under the dashboard lit up my face to show me doing my patent resigned-loser look. It was an expensive hour but the results would obviously be worth the graft.

It was far less obvious that the outcome would be worth it when I asked for a whole afternoon of filming in the Ploetzensee prison, where the conspirators of 20 July 1944 were executed after the failure of their plot against Hitler’s life. Once again, like Hitler’s bunker, the location looked like nothing. But I knew what had happened there. I knew that the sluice in the middle of the stone floor was where the blood had gone after victims were guillotined, and that the rail high up at one end of the room was where the hooks had been from which the July conspirators had been hanged to strangle slowly in nooses of thin wire. Martin got the point, and okayed the extended static shots which would give me the space to tell the story when we got home. I was already writing the commentary in my head, though, while we were filming in the execution chamber. I never wrote anything more carefully in my life. The brightest of the conspirators had known that they would probably fail. But they went ahead anyway, because they thought it was a ceremony. I respected that ceremony. To understand, and to express, why their practical failure was a spiritual triumph — that would be my contribution. Increasingly I was becoming aware that such understanding was all I was good for. But I never belittled the privilege of being able to express it in a mass medium. I though it was one of the things television should do, and precisely because the audience had not read all the books. Ideally, I thought, an entertainment programme of any kind should bring the human world in, not shut it out: and history was the supreme example of the human world. This conviction, however, was on a collision course with the oncoming celebrity culture, which would have no concern with the past, and exist only in the present. But I was slow to accept that. Like a hedgehog on the highway, bathed in the lights of an oncoming truck, I persisted in believing there might be room for both of us. The Postcard programmes meant a lot to me. Readers today might wonder why. Later on the format became a staple, with every known comedian sent off to be astonished by a City of Contrasts. But it was less usual then, and I thought it my best chance to say something serious in a entertaining way. I still have critics who suppose that I can have no reason for doing that except to show off. But I never struck myself as an egotist: more as someone with a sense of duty who might fail to fulfil it if his concentration lapsed. Although there again, I suppose, only an egotist would think that. Quicker to plead guilty.