Books: Visions Before Midnight — Overture to <i>War and Peace</i> | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Overture to War and Peace

Every other critic in town has by now completed his preliminary estimation of War and Peace (BBC2) and quit the examination hall, leaving this writer alone in draughty silence. At this rate people are going to start suspecting that I haven’t read the book. The smell of fear rises damply.

The Big Question stands out on the examination paper in letters of fire. Compulsively I footle with the little questions, half hoping that my sketchy answers will add up to something. It must be terrific to be a Marxist. And even better to be Nancy Bank-Smith: she just came straight out and said she hadn’t read the book. I don’t know much about Yasnaya Polyana but I know what I like — that’s the line to take. Only I have read the book. Except I can’t say that because people will think I’ve read it specially. Jings, look at the clock. And I haven’t even finished writing about Six Faces. Talking about Kenneth More when everybody else is on about Anthony Hopkins. I wonder what Kenneth More would have been like as Pierre. As Pierre Bezukhov, the legless Russian pilot. Concentrate… That new series, The Pathfinders (Thames), has got pilots in it, but they’ve all got legs. Mine have gone to sleep.

Six Faces (BBC2) has now clocked up two episodes, like War and… No, wrong approach. Six Faces has now presented us with two of the promised six aspects of its leading character, a worried businessman played by Kenneth More. More has never been among my favourite actors, first of all because of his unshakeable conviction that the expletive “Ha-ha!” delivered straight to the camera conveys mirth, and secondly because he has not done enough to quell the delusion, prevalent among the populace of the Home Counties, that he was responsible for the defeat of the Luftwaffe in 1940. Nevertheless, he is very good in this series, using a certain crumpled puffiness, or puffed crumpledness, to hypnotic effect: the complex pressures working even in sheer plodding ordinariness have rarely been better registered, and the series already bids fair to leave us pondering on all the weary little ways a salesman meets his death.

The Incredible Robert Baldick (BBC1) stars Robert Hardy as the Incredible, and should rate like mad: it’s a kind of take-home Hammer film wrapped in silver foil. The well-heeled hero is a piece of nineteenth-century fuzz dedicated to fighting evil in its more occult manifestations. He streams about in a special train — which should add the railway nuts to the horoscope consulters and swell the ratings even further. Precociously democratic, the Incredible has a pair of polymath servants who ask, ‘Doctor, what are we up against?’ and when he answers, ‘All in good time, all in good time,’ gaze at him in wondering worship instead of crowning him with fire-tongs.

Mrs Warren’s Profession (BBC2) showed that Coral Brown is as good at Shaw as Lady Windermere’s Fan proved she was good at Wilde. Other actresses, among whom Maggie Smith shall be nameless, should take a long look and painlessly absorb a few hints on how not to go over the top on the tube: The Millionairess (BBC1) would have benefited from a bit less irrepressible theatricality in the title role.

October 8, 1972