Essays: An admirable Adriana |
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An admirable Adriana

IN Florence last Sunday I watched a production of Cilea’s second-rate but still rewarding opera ‘Adriana Lecouvreur.’ You couldn’t wish to see the piece better done. The singing, the costumes and the sets were a treat throughout. The audience looked like a mink ranch, but it was hard to begrudge them their good fortune if this was what they wanted to spend it on.

All full-time writers, even if they can’t tell a tonic sol-fa from a ton of sulphur, should stay in touch with music if they can, if only to remind themselves that compared with musicians they are in a low state of training. After the 1902 premiere of ‘Adriana Lecouvreur,’ poor Cilea spent something like 48 years in what is tactfully called a phase of decline, yet his solitary success will be loved by opera-goers for as long as civilisation lasts. All the musicians in the pit did their best for the maestro, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who in his younger days knew Cilea personally.

Doing your best as a musician usually entails waking up one day and realising you will never be a star. Most of the musicians this happens to nevertheless buckle down and learn to content themselves with making a contribution on a secondary level. Even that entails hard work. Something of what is involved was visible and audible in The Glazebrook Touch (BBC2), all about Steinway’s number one piano doctor, Bob Glazebrook. It is his task to keep the concert Steinways up to scratch. The programme showed him travelling about the world from piano to piano. Alfred Brendel was sitting at one of them and was as illuminating as you might expect from a man who combines the musicianship of genius with first-rate expository powers.

Second Chance (Yorkshire) reached its final episode in much better shape than when it started. Early on the series looked like being a long stretch of zilch, but Adele Rose’s thoughtful writing steadily gave Susannah York better opportunities to make a plausible job of being a divorced woman establishing her independence. The husband stubbornly remained a bit of a meringue — not like all of us bold male types watching. He ended up with a woman rather like the one he had lost. She ended up with nothing, since the men on offer didn’t fill the bill.

There were some doomy but plausible warnings from a close female friend that an exciting man would be hard to find and she might have to settle for a good man, if she could find him. No doubt there will be another series in which the search will continue. It will be welcome. A lot of people get into the same fix and if it’s not much help to see fictional people squarely facing a factual issue, at least it’s no hindrance.

To follow up their monstrously successful ‘Dad’s Army,’ Jimmy Perry and David Croft gave forth ‘It Ain’t ’alf ’ot, Mum,’ which pulled just as big an audience minus one. But now they have followed up the follow-up with Hi-De-Hi! (BBC1) and have immediately climbed back up to their former viewing figures. The series is all about the great days at Butlins, here called Maplin’s for purposes of disguise. Simon Cadell plays Jeffrey Fairbrother, a don who shyly embraces a new life as Maplin’s entertainments manager. His character is a very useful structural device, because all the other people at the camp must perforce queue up and explain what their work involves.

But the massive, well-greased hub of the action is the master of ceremonies, Ted Bovis, brilliantly played by Paul Shane. The marvellous thing about him is that he could very well be a holiday camp comic, except that no holiday camp comic would have such resources as an actor. With his hair arranged in a messily glistening Tony Curtis cut that looks as if a duck has just taken off from an oil-slick, he fills the lower half of the close-up with serried chins while his trained eyes search for campers who need jollifying and his mouth unreels an unbroken ticker-tape of triple-tested patter. Young would-be comedians are no doubt already tuned in and copy-catting furiously, but what they should watch out for is the ability to be outrageous with power in reserve.

The repeat run of Fawlty Towers (BBC2) drew bigger audiences than ever and deservedly so. Statistical surveys reveal that only the television critic of The Spectator is incapable of seeing the joke, which is that Basil Fawlty has the wrong temperament to be a hotel proprietor, just as some other people have the wrong temperament to be television critics. By putting the wrong man in the right spot, John Cleese and Connie Booth hit on the deep secret of successful farce. But of course it is not enough to hit on it: you have to work it up into a consistent script.

As you watched the episodes coming round again, the fact that you knew roughly what was going to happen gave you time to appreciate how the comic structure had been assembled. Basil didn’t just put his soot-covered hand on the Australian girl’s breast. He went up a staircase, along a corridor, into a cupboard, out through a window, up a ladder, back through another window, in and out of the same cupboard again, and then put his hand on the Australian girl’s breast, just in time for Mrs Fawlty to walk in and incinerate him with a look. The fearful symmetry of each episode’s grand design was reflected in the attention paid to the smallest detail, right down to Basil’s terrible tank-top with zip.

Any programme-controller would give his eye-teeth for a new series of ‘Fawlty Towers’ every season. Unfortunately eye-teeth are not hard currency, and hard currency won’t do the trick either. There isn’t enough of it in the world to buy more inspiration than exists, and since Cleese and Booth have managed to create at least half a dozen farces each at least as funny as ‘Hotel Paradiso’ it would be unreasonable to expect anything more from them along quite those lines in this lifetime.

There are just some things money can’t buy, although from the latest Man Alive (BBC2) you wouldn’t have thought so. Devoting itself to Britain’s rich, the programme pretended to be worried about how the rich get richer even during a recession. What it was really interested in, needless to say, was how they do it. Godfrey Bonsack gets rich by flogging gold bathrooms to people even richer. ‘What you do is enjoy yourself in my barse.’

A drone called Rupert Dean does it by checking up on his investments by telephone for twenty minutes each morning, before climbing into his barse as a preparation for lunch, which leads into an afternoon’s leisure during which he nerves himself up for a hard evening at Wedgie’s. ‘January I’m still shooting, basically, because it’s too cold to go skiing.’ The programme was deeply shocked by Rupert’s disinclination to do a hand’s turn, although how the economy might benefit from a less leisurely Rupert was not made clear. The Kilnsey Show (Thames) made you feel a bit better about Britain.

The Observer, 8th March 1981
[ An excerpt from this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]