Essays: Bad for biz |
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Bad for biz

THE New Year came in on great plumed and crested waves of kitsch and camp. Punch the buttons as you might. you were drowning in the perfumed effluent of rotten old Show Biz at its most outrageous. Things took place on the David Frost special (At Last the 1973 Show, LWT) which must remain forever nameless, but principally involved a lady giving forth with an overwhelming vibrato which could be silenced only by commercials, the enthralled Frost apparently being keen to have it continue.

On BBC-1 at the same time things were taking place at the Variety Club Awards (Top of the Year, BBC-1) over which veils of secrecy must be drawn with a heavy tractor: suffice it to say that Michael Aspel, groomed to the nines, went on reading out his bits of chat with the nerveless aplomb acquired from years of asking Miss Lapland how she likes London and hearing about some idiotic hobby in reply.

Crucially productive of grade-A embarrassment in this area was having the untoward — and indeed the unthinkable — happen right there on the screen in front of you. How can people be like this, you wondered moaning, and for an answer were clobbered with the rerun of A Star is Born (BBC-1), a titanically lousy movie whose degrading fragrance intensifies with the years and which enshrines yet another soubrette who never knew how to give less than her All. Eventually, of course, she died, tragically — her frenzied fans never even momentarily suspecting that their paroxysms of chic adoration might have had something to do with generating the atmosphere in which, being unable to breathe, she could do nothing but laugh and cry with increasingly panic-stricken gratitude.

But de mortuis, and anyway there was another stellar presence on the loose, and very much in command. She was the legendary, indestructible Dietrich (BBC-2), appearing for the first time in her very own TV special, entirely shot at Bernard Delfont’s gizmo-laden new theatre in which everything revolves around everything else. As we shall presently see, this ritzy culture-barn’s meandering appointments must include a hot-house the size of the Cenotaph, but for the moment let’s rest content with conceding that at first blush it didn’t look a bad launch-pad for an indestructible legend.

While a Burt Bacharach arrangement of ‘Falling In Love Again’ (complete with sour mutes on the trumpets) sounded longingly from the pit, the house lights went down and the discs of two limes randomly searched the fore-stage. The possibility that Emil Jannings might be about to appear was cancelled by a quick glance at Radio Times: nope, Marlene it had to be. Difficult, in that case, to imagine why the lime operators were having so much trouble picking up the spot at which the must inevitably enter — up-stage, prompt, like the script said.

Finally she emerged, and the fans did their collective nut. So ecstatic was her reception that it was obvious the performance she was about to deliver had already been taken as read, so there was no real reason why she shouldn’t have turned around and gone home again — especially considering that the tail end of her coat, composed of the pelts of innumerable small animals, had undoubtedly not yet left the dressing-room. But she had much to give, and proceeded to give it, making it obvious from the first bar that 40 years away from Germany had done nothing to re-jig the vowels which first intrigued the world in the English language-version of ‘The Blue Angel.’

‘I get no kick in a plen,’ she announced. ‘Flying too highee with a guyee in the skyee is my idea of nothing to do.’ Equally, mere alcahall didn’t thrill her at ol. Any lingering doubts that such sedulously furbished idiosyncrasy is an acceptable substitute for singing were annihilated by the tumult which greeted each successive rendition, the brouhaha being reinforced at key points by a lissom shedding of the pelts and a line of patter marked by those interminable coy pauses which in the world of schlock theatre are known as ‘timing,’ although they have little to do with skill and everything to do with a celebrity using prestige as leverage.

As the great lady went on recounting the story of her life in song and anecdote, the sceptical viewer was torturing himself with the premonition that there might never be an end. There was, though — although the final number was only the beginning of it, there being a convention in this branch of theatre that the star takes twice as long to get off as she does to get on. It was at this point that the floral tributes started hitting the stage, to the lady’s overmastering astonishment: perhaps she had been expecting them to throw book-tokens. The show threatened to fade on the spectacle of these epicene maniacs bombarding her with shrubbery, but as the curtains closed and the applause dipped she paged the tabs with a practised sweep of the arm and emerged to milk dry the audience’s last resources of pious energy. If she’d been holding a loaded Luger they couldn’t have responded more enthusiastically. They had no choice.

The first of ATV’s new series of Love Story was an interesting confection called ‘Two Tame Oats,’ written with sensitivity and penetration by Brian Wright. Middle-aged and missing out, Pat (the excellent Diana Coupland) and Stan (Tony Melody) start a secret life — three hours in a pub every Wednesday — away from the crushing mediocrity of their respective dud spouses. Suburbia was dexterously symbolised by a poodle peeing on a tree and evocatively characterised by dialogue about houses ‘packed with exploding people.’ Stan had the best lines because he was the talker, but the other characters were still written solidly. even the inarticulate ones. It was easy to see why Pat liked Stan: he made her laugh. Eventually they got to bed together, but circumstances ruined it. The play confined itself to dealing with the way guilt tends to disable adultery beforehand, and so didn’t get around to the more interesting questions of what it does after, or even during. But this was a fine little play whose sexual tensions were captured in some genuinely comic writing. ‘For goodness sake, Stan, we have grown-up children.’ ‘Fine. One problem less.’ The clock ticked loud on the wall: go now or never go. They didn’t.

4th M/F. Sh. Flat (ATV) showed young people having trouble finding a share of a room now that the houses of London are being withdrawn from the market. Stunning, for this reporter, to see how the kind of place he lived in 10 years ago has tripled in price. Lads and lasses bunk together now. The show featured a dishy blonde called Lee purporting to be in dire straits finding a place to share. Perhaps the camera-crew put people off. The mob I used to live with would have found her a corner, no sweat.

Fanfare (BBC-1) was a hello-Europe entertainment compered at Covent Garden by Lord Olivier, who gave the television world a searing lesson in how to read aloud — the number of TV people who can do this with any celerity being countable on the fingers of one hand holding a tennis ball. The mighty Schwarzkopf sang a Hugo Wolf song with fathomless artistry, and in general there was much in this entertainment that merited respect, so it was not surprising that the audience of well-heeled hoorays should have reserved their loudest bellow of appreciation for the use of the word ‘erection.’

Ironside (BBC-1) appeared in a neck brace as well as the wheel chair: required to move nothing but his eyeballs, Burr was well in line for the cushiest number of 1973.

The Observer, 7th January 1973

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]