Essays: Banker Barkworth |
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Banker Barkworth

MY ABSENCE last week was due to a quick trip to Rome, which is now blessed with about a hundred different TV channels. It was a relief to get back here, where there are only three.

We still need the fourth one, however. The idea that it should be an outlet for independent productions is very sound. The first episode of Telford’s Change (BBC1) gave you a sample of the kind of energy a private consortium of talents might unleash. Produced by Mark Shivas, written by Brian Clark, directed by Barry Davis and starring Peter Barkworth, the series has apparently been concocted outside the Beeb’s walls and flogged to the corporation only when finished.

Certainly the show looks like a labour of love. The production values are opulent. This is lucky, because the writing is short of dazzle and it is even possible that the story line is irredeemably devoid of verve, depending as it does on the thrill-a-minute life of a banker. Impersonated by the aforesaid Barkworth, the banker is called Telford. His life is undergoing a change. He also gives change. Perhaps he is planning to start his own stock exchange. Anyway, the title is apposite.

Barkworth’s legendary and undoubted subtlety as an actor has never been better demonstrated than by the way he injects drama into the spectacle of a banker picking up a telephone. Even when the telephone is on his desk, Telford looks thoughtfully dynamic picking it up. If he is telephoning from an airport, his athletic grace is breathtaking as he enters the booth, lifts the receiver, dials, and shoves in the money. A philosophical tower of strength, he is the Gene Tunney of the telephone.

Often away on the Continent, where he speaks perfect French, Telford must perforce leave his beautiful wife, Sylvia, to her own devices. Since most of these are labour-saving, she has time to help run the Arts Council. Played by Hannah Gordon, Sylvia is a model of energy as well as elegance. But it cannot be gainsaid that her marriage is drifting towards the reef.

The reason is because her husband is a banker. No matter how much he loves her, his first love is the bank. When he is with her, it might seem as if his heart is with her too, but really he is longing for tomorrow’s challenges. As we have seen Paul Newman and Steve McQueen dreaming about the roar of engines, so we see Barkworth dreaming about the whisper of accumulating compound interest and the little beep a Japanese pocket calculator makes when you enter a small cumulative percentage. Those laugh-lines around his eyes crinkle thoughtfully. Sylvia sighs. She knows that she must lose him in the morning.

Telford has Values. ‘Look at that,’ he says, gazing accusingly at a bleak conglomeration of Euro-buildings. ‘The whole place looks as if it was built yesterday by a giant who freaked out on Lego.’ It isn’t a very good line, and Telford is given a lot of other not very good lines just like it. Barkworth does wonders with the duff dialogue, but there is no getting away from the fact that we are looking at the same old ‘Power Game’ format. It’s a hundred times better than ‘The Brothers,’ but that’s why I liked ‘The Brothers’ — because nobody talented was wasting his time on it.

Callas (BBC2) should not be allowed to pass unremarked, since it achieved the difficult feat of being crushingly boring about one of the most exciting women of modern times. Doubtless against his better judgment, Franco Zeffirelli was the narrator. ‘There has been perhaps only one faithful companion to Maria throughout her life — her loneliness.’ The recent birthday tribute to Mickey Mouse was full of lines just like that.

There was scarcely a hint of technical analysis to help you understand precisely what it was that made Callas vocally unique. Instead there was ritual obeisance to her sense of drama, with the suggestion that this depended largely on her physical presence. In fact Callas would have been a revelation even if you had never clapped eyes on her, since the passionate intelligence with which she shaped her phrases was enough on its own to establish her as an artist of genius. The sheer sound she made was not always beautiful — not as the sound that Sutherland makes is always beautiful — but the way she put the notes together carved a line of light into the air.

We heard nothing about the technicalities of how she did it. On the other hand we heard too much of how she threw away her career so that she could ‘fulfil’ herself ‘as a woman,’ her own words for hanging around with Onassis. Really that sort of thing is never a mystery — apart, that is, from the mystery of why creative personalities should in so many cases be insecure.

Callas wanted to be loved for herself. Onassis proved that he loved her for herself by being entirely uninterested in her art. That’s the trouble with being divinely gifted: the gifted person tends to feel inadequate in all other departments. Onassis would probably still have got her even if he had been broke, just by following Rule One for all seducers: praise the beautiful for their wit and the clever for their looks.

The White Tribe of Africa (BBC1), fronted by David Dimbleby, is a new series about the Afrikaners. In the first episode the tribe under discussion impressed you and depressed you in about equal measure. Obviously they were, and in many cases still are, a sturdy and independent people. But the more they assured Dimbleby that the odds their ancestors had faced were overwhelming, the more it became clear that the overwhelming odds must have had some sort of right to the land. If all those Zulus were such terrific warriors, how did it suddenly turn out that black men were too childish to be given a say in running their own affairs? Dimbleby sensibly allowed the speakers to refute themselves.

TV Eye (Thames), on the other hand, or on another part of the same hand, was in Rhodesia. A white Rhodesian missionary was brave enough to say that he had been giving medical aid to the guerrillas. He also insisted that he had seen the results of torture by the security forces. No doubt he will have to pay for those remarks. Meanwhile a lot of white Rhodesians are moving out, some of them towards Blackpool.

Immigration is the subject of a highly instructive new series called Our People (Thames), which I recommend. The format is tiresome but the facts uncovered are always useful and often flabbergasting. As an immigrant myself, I am not pleased to hear that people with no better credentials than mine are being held in prison for a year at a time with no charge. If I were black or brown instead of off-pink I might be in there with them.

The Beeb is being naughty about the way it announces Morecambe and Wise at the BBC (BBC1), a series composed of what the link-man calls ‘highlights from the successful years of Morecambe and Wise at the BBC.’ Another worthwhile repeat was Count Dracula (BBC2), the best adaptation of the toothy aristocrat’s life story which has ever appeared on any screen, large or small.

On Top of the Pops (BBC1) Legs & Co are fast catching up with the standards of eroticism set by Hot Gossip. Nobody in this arousing contest has yet sprained a pelvis, but it can only be a matter of time.

The Observer, 14th January 1979