Essays: The amazing Mark |
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The amazing Mark

APART from the obligatory ration of programmes about brutality, torture and death, it was a slowish week in the land of the media, with little to crease your reporter’s forehead except a van-load of mail from readers all harbouring the delusion that I have been unkind to Mark Phillips.

Congratulating Mark on his latest clear round, I seem to have erred in the direction of flippancy, with the inevitable results, since when the Royal Family is in question some people lose their capacity to detect irony, or indeed deal with any tone of voice except straight exposition, preferably issuing from a digital computer. One reader points out my cruelty in suggesting that Anne’s baby will delight horse-lovers: people who do not love horses, the reader explains, will be equally delighted.

But most of the letters object to the way I compared Mark with the hoodlum Billy, saying that they were approximately equal as human material, but that their upbringing had made all the difference. I had thought this to be an unexceptionable, not to say hackneyed, line of reasoning, but can now see that I got it all wrong, and that Mark, far from being shaped by his circumstances, was a perfect gift from heaven, descending to earth in a star-beam and landing behind a gooseberry bush. Hence the radiant smile.

A new commercial for thin mints features some brain-curdling grammar. ‘I always think the best judge of character,’ breathes the voice-over, ‘is how someone eats their After Eight.’ What she means, of course, is sign of character. She is the judge of character. Since advertising copy is invariably written by bright-eyed graduates with double firsts in English, such elementary blunders indicate that the intelligentsia is rapidly losing the ability to write a coherent sentence.

The energetic and imaginative Richard Stilgoe, in his ‘Pigeonhole’ department on Nationwide (BBC1), is currently doing something to make the watching millions grammar-conscious. They are probably that already, to a great extent: nobody wants to talk badly, but who can help doing so, if the people who are supposed to know something about the English language can’t parse their way out of a paper bag?

We are all infected: the malady is democratic, like the language itself, which belongs to everyone, and so ought not to be abused by people who make a living from it. What is merely ignorance on the part of your average prole is professional misconduct on the part of a BBC2 link-man. In this respect, therefore, I shall continue to give no quarter. Neither does I anticipate receiving none.

Against all the odds, One Day at a Time (BBC1), Denis Cannan’s play about an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting, turned out to be gripping stuff. The raw material could scarcely have been less promising. Meeting in a dusty drill-hall, a group of reformed, semi-reformed and incorrigibly unreformed drinkers set out to occupy your time with their problem. The embarrassment factor nudged 100 per cent from the outset. Before you knew it, you were watching through your fingers.

But the thing was impossible to turn off. As the participants gave their first names and launched into their horrendous confessions, one by one they took shape as characters. The quietest lady of the lot emerged as the one going through the most agony. The galloping major with the clinking shopping bag was never going to make it. Some had been saved too late for any happiness. It was a room full of colliding stories — biographies weaved noisily around like phantom dodgems.

The key character was the young intellectual who did his best to join in, but was repelled by the God-conscious ritual and the unrestrained confessional urge. One of the script’s many merits was that this aspect was not played down: some of the speeches really were mawkish, and the man who slept through the entire meeting (one of the year’s least challenging roles) had a point.

But in the end you could see that our young sceptic would be unable to do without the solidarity on offer. The assembled sufferers — less bright than their new recruit but with longer experience of how drink tricks the mind — would soon convince him that he had been asking himself the wrong question. Why he drank wasn’t relevant. The thing to do was to stop drinking. If you stop drinking you might find out why you drank, but finding out why you drink will never stop you drinking.

The play talked more sense about booze than any television programme I have ever seen on the subject, documentaries included. Without succumbing to the confessional urge myself, I can say that all the right issues came up for an exemplary airing. The emphasis was on determining your own fate. In the struggle against the demon rum, self’s the man. Friends will tell you anything. You have to listen to the inner voice, and sometimes it’s hard to hear even that. You find yourself in two minds. But that’s just what you mustn’t be.

The Other One (BBC1) is an enjoyable comedy series about British innocents abroad. Richard Briers is the chump with delusions of adequacy (‘I keep on slipping into Spanish without realising it’) and Michael Gambon is his boring friend. Lightweight stuff, but at least palatable, which puts it in sharp contrast with Are You Being Served? (BBC1), still pursuing its innuendo-strewn course.

Of the week’s documentaries, The Treasures Of Porto Santo (BBC2) was the stand-out. Nobody got beaten up, tortured or bombed. Instead, marine archaeologists reproduced the diving engine of John Lethbridge, an eighteenth-century salvage man who made a fortune from Davy Jones’s locker. Lethbridge could work 10 fathoms down. Constructing a replica of his engine, exalted artisans showed by their faces that he was a man to be wondered at.

The Observer, 27th November 1977