Essays: The Arts! The Best! |
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The Arts! The Best!

In Arena (BBC2) we got a chance to watch George Melly having a pee. He didn’t set the Thames on fire, but if the Thames had been on fire he might well have put it out. He was standing there a long time — talking as well, of course.

The subject of Melly’s spiel was Surrealism. Melly knows a lot about the British branch of this artistic movement, since he used to hob-nob with its founder members. Clad in leather hat and ankle-length leather coat, he squatly revisited the old haunts, telling stories of yestere’en. Students of Melly would have heard it all before, but it was still richly aromatic stuff. Reminiscence poured out of him in a golden stream. As an introduction to the current Surrealism retrospective at the Hayward Gallery the item more than served the turn.

The same subject received less engaging treatment in the first episode of The South Bank Show (LWT), starring Melvyn Bragg. Beautiful in a new three-piece suit, Melvyn vowed that his new programme would bring us ‘both the latest and the best in the arts of our times.’ A mind-boggling scope was evoked. ‘We’ll be filming Ted Hughes’s latest poem and Ken Dodd’s latest performance.’ There would be romance: the audience would be wafted ‘to Abu Dhabi with Edna O’Brien’. Lost in the dunes with the gorgeous, green-eyed colleen and her smoky voice! If this was the arts, where had they been keeping all this stuff all this time?

Melvyn’s guest critics were fully up to the standards of glamour established by his prospectus. Germaine Greer had her hair in a frizz and Gerald Scarfe sported a blue open-neck Yves Saint-Laurent shirt exactly matching his eyes. A touch of make-up ensured that his expanse of bare chest did not flare for the camera.

They all looked terrific. Unfortunately, they didn’t sound that way. Not a lot got said. Even old Germs was strangely muted. Melvyn introduced the forthcoming 'Julia' as an important event, perhaps even the film of 1978. Having by chance already seen this movie and been struck by its essential bogusness, I was expecting Germaine to be scathing, but instead she showed clear signs of having been affected by Melvyn’s diffident vocabulary. Gerald, on the other hand, didn’t think much of the movie, but somehow lacked the words to tell us why.

Neither Germs nor Gerald seemed particularly crazy about 'Flint', the David Mercer play due to appear the following night on BBC1. Melvyn hastened to assure us that the play was a worthy effort, whatever its flaws. You got the sense that he had one eye on how the Beeb might react to having a play slagged before it went out. The first half of the show closed with a desultory item about Surrealism. With George Melly micturating on a rival channel, Melvyn had to find another way of enlivening the discussion. While Germs and Gerald traded damp observations, three models stood about in the background with Surrealist things on their heads.

So far, so blah — but the second half saved the night. Melvyn interviewed Paul McCartney, who was even more engaging than you might expect. The item was a naked appeal for a wide audience, but there is no point in begrudging Melvyn his populist tendencies. Nor was he necessarily aiming at the lowest common denominator. More like the highest common factor: anyone seriously interested in music would have been glad to hear what McCartney had to say, although it might have been better had he said a bit more. But McCartney’s contribution guaranteed the show’s future success**, and I for one will be tuning in, if only for the romance. To Abu Dhabi with Edna O’Brien! To Ultima Thule with Margaret Drabble! To the Vatican with Marina Warner!

Stunned by its own publicity, Granada’s 'Laurence Olivier Presents' series was slow to find its feet, but its final presentations were must viewing, if you don’t count 'Come Back, Little Sheba.' The latest and last offering was Daphne Laureola, by James Bridie. A hit in 1949, the play has not been much thought of since, but on this evidence it is a crafty text by a playwright whose reputation should never have been allowed to fade so completely.

Joan Plowright played the leading role, Lady Pitts, as a cross between Lady Bracknell and the Madwoman of Chaillot, with overtones of Blanche Dubois. Slinging down the double brandies in a Soho restaurant, she invited all present home to tea. In Act II they arrived at her Hampstead fastness to discover that she had forgotten ever having met them. A good deal of philosophising ensued, especially when Olivier, as her aged millionaire husband, came wheeling in. Sadness prevailed. Suddenly the tone was recognisable: Anouilh, Fry, Rattigan. An unmistakeable post-war tristesse, luxury of language offsetting the reality of rationing. The rise of prosperity turned that whole strain of dramatic writing into a back number, but a lot of it was well written and actors were right to love playing it.

Kissinger on Communism (BBC2) featured the modern Metternich, introduced by David Brinkley and interviewed by our own Michael Charlton. Kissinger’s strengths and weaknesses were equally to the fore. His analysis of the global strategic pattern was masterly. He was undoubtedly right in asserting that communism, all other things being equal, would always be outperformed by capitalism. But when it came to explaining why, in that case, communism should be making such advances in capitalist countries, he was stumped. He called it a paradox. It has obviously still not occurred to him that his own foreign policy was responsible for making the other side look good by comparison. Kissinger burns down Cambodia, delivers the people of Chile into the hands of torturers, and then wonders why young people in the democratic countries become disaffected.

Don’t miss Men of Ideas (BBC2), a series about philosophy chaired by Bryan Magee. The introductory episode starred Sir Isaiah Berlin, world’s fastest talker. Whereas George Steiner can get seven vowels into the word ‘trigonometry,’ Sir Isaiah gets no vowels at all into the word ‘philosophical.’ Pronounced by him, the word comes out as ‘phlsphcl.’ The quickness of the mind deceives the tongue. Nevertheless there were longueurs, during which the viewer was left to ponder the eternal phlsphcl questions on his own account. One of these was the problem of whether Bryan Magee is John Fortune in a wig, or the other way about.

The rewarding series Caught In Time (BBC2), hosted by James Cameron, had some home movies of Mosley’s blackshirts on holiday by the seaside. The footage was not especially sinister. Cameron fitfully strove to draw parallels with ‘The Triumph of the Will,’ but really a closer parallel was Butlin’s in a flat season. Mosley bared his powerful forearms to the pale sun. His flock trailed after him down to the beach. It was a long time ago.

The Observer, 22nd January 1978

[ A shorter version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]

[ ** Melvyn Bragg acknowledged this in an interview with Clive included in the South Bank Show Originals, 2014 ]