Essays: The Bad Old Sounds |
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The Bad Old Sounds

A MORE than usually cretinous annual instalment of The Eurovision Song Contest (BBC1) started the week with a phut. The venue, situated somewhere in Paris, was enough in itself to inspire dread.

In the 4,000-seat Palais de Congrès, strobe lights and lasers roamed and blinked while rather fewer than 4,000 song-lovers assembled to appreciate this year’s offerings. Terry Wogan, the Beeb’s No. 1 front-man for such non-occasions, had an explanation for the empty places. ‘Not by any means full — possibly for security reasons.’ He didn’t consider the possibility that the wiser ticket-holders had taken one look at the décor and gone home.

When Britain hosts the contest there is usually some attempt to provide a bilingual pitchperson: Katie Boyle, for example, or Angela Rippon. But the French indulge in no such fripperies. Their own lady — called, according to my notes, Denise Valve** — stuck to the native language. Luckily for us, Terry was there to tell us what she was on about.

‘A man is born to do one thing,’ Colm C.T. Wilkinson of Ireland yelled desperately, ‘And I was born to sing.’ How wrong can a man be? ‘That’s a belter of a start,’ Terry averred. Jahn Teigen of Norway, sporting chic pink punk-pants and a 100-year-old face, ended his song with a mid-air splits, just as Freddy used to do when he fronted the Dreamers. It was all like being dragged back through time to an era that was never very interesting in the first place.

An Italian group, conforming to the now standard Abba-style two-boy two-girl line up, sang the classiest song of the night, ‘Questo amore’. Unfortunately the sound balance was out of whack. It was even more so for the British entry, ‘The Bad Old Days’, sung by Co-Co. The drummer’s vocal fills were twice as loud as anything coming from the lead singers. Were the Frog sound engineers trying to sabotage us? Not that ‘The Bad Old Days’ needed any sabotaging.

And so the evening ground on, with the dreadful familiarity of a recurring dream. In the great tradition of ‘Boom-Bang-a-Bang’, Denmark gave us a number entitled ‘Boom-Boom’. Israel ran on to deliver a jaunty nonsense called ‘A-Ba-Ni-Bi’, which is doubtless the Hebrew for ‘Boom-Bang-Boom-Bang’ and has the additional virtue of echoing the word ‘Abba’. Anyway, Israel won, but long before the votes were counted I switched over to The South Bank Show (LWT), where Melvyn Bragg was extracting, drop by drop, a fascinating interview from Harold Pinter.

It was exactly like getting blood out of a stone, except that stones do not make smoke. Pinter smoked all the time. You could tell that the interview was edited down from hours of film because in every shot Pinter had a fresh Balkan Sobranie in his hand. In the tight head-shots there was so much smoke pouring up from the bottom of the screen that you began wondering if his trousers were on fire.

Winning a charm contest against Melvyn Bragg is not easy, but Pinter never looked like losing. He made it disarmingly plain that he had no pretensions towards understanding what his own work means. Something in life creates a lasting image in his mind. In the course of time the image wants to become a play. The play gets written, after which it no longer has much to do with him. Beyond that he wasn’t able to discuss the matter. Questions about his themes and working methods consequently led nowhere. ‘I’m getting nowhere,’ declared Melvyn. ‘No,’ said the voice in the smoke.

Questions about his life, however, drew answers that told you a lot about Pinter’s peculiar verbal force. Describing how Fascists used to chase him during his East End childhood, he recalled some lines of dialogue with which he once extricated himself from a close encounter. It sounded exactly like a scene from ‘The Birthday Party’. His ear for what really gets said when things like that happen is what makes him an interesting writer.

The advantage of working entirely from instinct is that the incongruities of actuality are not smoothed down by reason. The disadvantage is that the instinct can’t tell a strong theme from a weak one. In a play like ‘The Birthday Party’ Pinter is dealing with a central experience — being hunted down and crushed by a superior power — that nobody in the twentieth century is likely to find trivial. But his love-game plays for television I find as wearisome as being told somebody else’s nightmare.

First-rate artists usually think as well as feel: they are invariably their own best critics. Pinter, a slave to his inspiration, can do nothing except ‘let it run ... let it happen’. It’s a kind of irresponsibility which often arouses, in at least one viewer of his work, a perfect fury of disapproval. But at least, as this halting yet strangely fruitful conversation showed, the irresponsibility is contained within a responsible man. Pinter was so obviously lacking in arrogance that I at last understood his proverbial sensitivity to criticism: being the amanuensis of a capricious Muse can hardly be conducive to self-assurance.

Dramatised documentary, or ‘dramamentary,’ was a well-represented genre this week. It made the usual kind of play look diaphanous by comparison. David Mercer’s The Ragazza (Yorkshire) went over ground already trodden flat by Pinter, Albee and Osborne. The writing had an elephantine sprightliness that defeated the best efforts even of Peter Barkworth and Francesca Annis.

The setting was Venice. The principal characters were a distinguished married couple. They talked about their difficult daughter. You could tell straight away that if the difficult daughter actually existed then the play would be all over in five minutes. Ergo the daughter did not exist. In due course the wife dressed up as the daughter. Who’s afraid of a plain-cover lover?

When invention gets tired, it comes up with nothing but old echoes. Dramamentary always has reality to fall back on: even at its worst, it is never short of content. Law and Order (BBC2) was brimming with activity in every episode It sounded real. Robbers said things like ‘We was grassed. Someone workin’ for the filth.’ Cops said things like ‘He‘s got a lot of previous.’ The harder this was to follow, the more authentic it seemed. Similarly with the visuals: rough, grainy, hand-held. It looked as real as it sounded. Whether it was real was the big question — one which no dramamentary by itself can ever answer. So you always need another programme, the programme about the programme.

But then there was Cold Harbour (Thames), a play by Peter Prince, directed by Stephen Frears. The story of a Chilean middle-class girl exile who marries a shambling British drug addict in order not to be deported. This was a brilliant effort. It had all the authenticity of dramamentary plus the self-contained air of authority which only art can ever possess.

[ ** Denise Fabre ]

The Observer, 30th April 1978

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