Essays: Bananas with the Duchess |
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Bananas with the Duchess

A WELL-TURNED Play for Today faced heavy competition from a gruelling Play for Yesterday, written by Strindberg, and an outright gruesome Play for Yesteryear, written by John Webster. To deal with the last first, The Duchess of Malfi (BBC-2) plainly stems from that unsatisfactory period in which Webster and Ford were estranged, Beaumont had not yet met Fletcher and Rodgers had walked out on Hammerstein. The piece has been tracking your reviewer around the world for years, begging to be overlooked. This time it was so well cast as to be unignorable.

Set in an all-purpose circa-1614 location which from now on I shall call Messina — after the drama producer of the same name — the festering melodrama benefited so hugely from the starring presence of Eileen Atkins as to be transmogrified into something almost interesting. Miss Atkins eschewed all gradual lapses into passion and simply went bananas from the first minute: her lop-sided mouthings and altogether unbridled looks I shall not soon, as the old-time critics used to say, forget. Miss Atkins speaks verse with a tautly fluent beauty, as she has shown us before in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ On this occasion she brilliantly concealed that there was very little verse to speak.

Michael Bryant grappled nobly with the character of Bosola, whose doom it is to stand about half-managing a qualm of conscience concerning each fresh horror at which he participates, connives or presides. The role is impossible — although I remember establishing, in some examination answer long ago, that Bosola’s powerless conscience is the whole point. The Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand were appropriately decadent and murderous respectively, the Cardinal’s mistress being equipped with a splendid pair of breasts which dropped into shot from camera left and hung about for some time. Compare and contrast with Kika Markham in the third episode of Six Faces (BBC-2), whose breasts bravely challenged Kenneth More to lie on top of them — which he promptly did, thereby obscuring my view. This sort of thing must cease.

Strindberg’s The Creditors (Thames) was awkwardly updated by Philip Saville and executed by a trio of actors of whom only Susannah York made any real headway, possibly by placing an enchantment, or hex, on the viewer. Miss York’s lyrical presence ensured a considerable, though not sufficient, distraction from the dialogue, which was never-never stuff — translator’s prose. The young artist postured, the philosophical friend lurked about, the little lady went through her routines as a castrating female, and the raison d’être seemed very far away. This reproof is not, however, a signal to stop trying: just a plea that such things should be done from the imagination and not out of the occasional, fitful desire to weigh in with a prestige programme.

Arthur Hopcraft’s ‘Play for Today,’ The Reporters (BBC-1) was so delicately paced and fastidiously written that it quickly led you to demand everything from it, and so feel disappointed when certain parts of it revealed themselves to be fleshless. The young reporter’s girl-friend, for example, was pointed to as his possible redemption, but the redeeming qualities were not actually written in, which left the actress in the lurch and the viewer sceptical. Similarly, the old reporter’s smashing landlady was a walking wish-fulfilment, offering a fairy-tale prospect of cuddly succour, if not complete reform.

These questions aside, though, the central concerns of the play were excellently dealt with. Robert Urquhart, with a voice like a dove drowning in Dewar’s, played a wrecked Fleet Street reporter beginning his last finish in a provincial town. An ambitious young news-hound, played by the precociously accomplished Michael Kitchen, thirstily inserted a siphon in the older man’s tank of experience. It was a love relationship, tenderly explored, and would make a good companion piece to a re-run of Dennis Potter’s play about a similar situation — Potter all rage, Hopcraft all plangency.

About Scoop (BBC-2) one’s feelings are mixed, from discomfort and alarm. Harry Worth is a funny man all right, but whoever dreamed that Boot was supposed to be funny? It’s what happens around him that’s supposed to be funny. If Waugh is one’s favourite comic novelist, and ‘Scoop’ close to being one’s favourite among his books, it’s a debilitating experience to find the compression of his writing prised open, the velocity of his elisions paralysed, and the elegant outlines of his characterisation scrawled over with crayons: and all of this is what you’re bound to get when the thing is put on in front of a studio audience. The decision, I understand, was taken at a high level. Just the right level to jump from.

Saving till near last the best show of the week, let me sing the praises of a ‘The World About Us’ episode called The Insect Man (BBC-2), which dealt marvellously with Jean-Henri Fabre. Devised and produced in Bristol by the cunning Christopher Parsons, this was a small-budget documentary with its whole talent-bill concentrated into one actor (Ralph Michael as Fabre) and its only allowed-for extravagance a few spare miles of film devoted to watching insects doing the revolting things Fabre says they’ll do if only you stick around. Updating himself to the present, which saved the expense of anybody else getting into costume, Fabre shuffled about the French locations finding tiny things to tell the astonished production team, all in shot and working well. The location footage was cleverly matched to special photography showing what goes on underground, with the larvae of the hunting wasps eating their way through a store-house of surgically slain locusts, spiders, etc. Saved by its innocence from awkwardness, ‘The Insect Man’ reached classic status by the direct route.

Man Alive (BBC-2) had an interesting story entitled Right, We’ll Do it Ourselves, about re-awakening the community spirit in what’s left of Stepney now that the old flat dirty slums have mostly been replaced by new tail clean ones. After ‘The Block,’ a sign of energetic hope induced a measure of relief, although no measure at all of complacency. World In Action (Granada) went to Russia, getting some extraordinary film of one of those language schools in which tots in pigtails stand up at their desks and start talking English like Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Since the country’s political continuity depends on the entire population being re-educated from day to day, it’s no surprise to find pedagogy turning into a science — but it’s still jaw-loosening to be confronted with the evidence.

Panorama (BBC-1) got a Fabre-like close-up of the Tory grassroots. A rush of information on this subject can confidently be expected. For the moment, suffice it to say that Alan Watson’s Robin Day routine gains in accomplishment by the week — those sideways glances across the horn-rims, for example, are right on the button. Recommended further exercise: fold hands on edge of desk and bounce tum-tum on hands while presenting top of head to camera. Stay with it, Al: it’s all coming your way.

The Observer, 15th October 1972