Essays: Beautiful bear-hug |
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Beautiful bear-hug

IN Russian — Language and People (BBC1 and 2) regular viewers have by now progressed far enough to accompany the intrepid team of presenters on a visit to a department store. ‘The store,’ announced the delightful Tanya Feifer, ‘was particularly well stocked the day we were there.’

Tanya, who is so pretty she makes you want to burst out cheering, has the kind of Slavic cheek in which it is difficult to tell whether the tongue has been inserted, but I suspect that at this point she might have been slyly hinting, for those with the acumen to catch on, that the Soviet authorities have been not entirely ingenuous in the way they have co-operated.

It was all too easy to imagine a squad of heavies from the KGB’s catering division arriving in the store a few hours ahead of the Beeb’s camera crew and stocking the shelves with such rare luxuries as meat. The unacknowledged but all-pervading fact about this series is that every foot of film shot on Russian location has been supervised by the Soviet authorities. Sequences incorporating the Kremlin in the background have been cancelled on the spot because prior permission had not been sought to film the Kremlin on that particular day. In other words, the usual fist-brained rigmarole.

Not only has all the location footage been vetted, but everything done here at home has been carefully toned down in order not to offend the tender sensibilities of the host nation. There is no lower price to be paid for filming in the Soviet Union. Total blandness is the bottom line of the deal, into which the BBC went with its eyes open, although doubtless unaware that its hosts would celebrate the launching of the series by invading Afghanistan.

So it may as well be conceded from the outset that ‘Russian — Language and People’ is, as far as it concerns the practical realities of life in the Soviet Union, a work of science fiction. With that question out of the way, one is free to praise the series for the thoroughness with which it gives you the feeling of the Russian language. It is a warm, luxurious feeling, like being hugged by a bear wearing a fur-trimmed brocade dressing-gown.

Tanya Feifer is a great help in this department. She gives those hushy consonants their full sensual value. Indefatigably gathering vox pops in and around Moscow, the Soviet star presenter, Tatyana Vedeneeva, makes less easy listening, mainly because of her apparent determination to say ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’ to every citizen of the Soviet Union individually. She rarely has time to say anything else, or perhaps she has not been given permission.

‘Russian — Language and People’ comes equipped, on the classic pattern of BBC foreign language programmes, with an embarrassing little serial-within-the-series. This time it is a love story. (In similar series about other languages it has usually been a mystery story, but there are no mysteries in the Soviet Union, where crime is a government monopoly.) Boris and Olga, or whatever their names are, have bumped into each other in the famous Moscow bookshop, the House of Books. ‘What a lot of books there are!’ exclaims Boris, thereby hoping to attract Olga’s attention. Olga looks surprised, as well she might, since Boris has neglected to add: ‘Every book except the one you want.’ In the House of Books the only books worth having sell out immediately. Queues form for books that have not yet been published. But Boris and Olga are too wrapped up in each other to bother with such questions.

Boris and Olga lose each other in the Metro, but we can be sure that they will meet again. Meanwhile one can press ahead with one’s exercises in pronunciation. In Russian the stress is arbitrary and the natives elide like mad, thereby adding an extra element of unintelligibility to a language which is at least as big as ours in vocabulary and even more idiomatic. But it is also wonderfully, wildly beautiful.

The same could be said of Kate Nelligan, currently playing the title role in Thérèse Raquin (BBC2). There are several things that can be said about Miss Nelligan, and at the moment the profile writers are knocking themselves out looking for new ways to say them, but the first thing to say is that she has the right kind of nerve to take a hack at a heavy role.

In ‘The Lady of the Camellias’ she did a startling job of not being obliterated by Garbo’s memory. As Thérèse Raquin she has another star predecessor to contend with: Simone Signoret played the role on film in 1953. But Signoret, like Garbo, had to do a lot of suggesting in the clinches. Nelligan is allowed to be more explicit. Add that fact to her looks and talent and you have all the reasons why she is able to invest these sex-pot characters with new life.

At present there are still two more episodes to go, so it is a bit early to sum up, but it can safely be said that even in Zola’s imagination Paris never looked so tacky. The whole screen is submerged in seaweed soup and liquid sulphur. Somewhere in the middle of the suffocating tedium Thérèse throbs with besoin. Finally she manages to be alone with her weedy husband’s virile friend. ‘Get your clothes off,’ she cries, ‘and come to bed with me!’ Clad fetchingly in well-laundered underwear, she drops on him from the ceiling. Blind passion never looked more believable. Or more fun, either.

The Best of Friends (BBC2) was a Frederic Raphael play in which Keith Barron and Norman Rodway enjoyably exchanged the sort of witty lines that Mr Raphael would use in conversation if he could think of them at the time. Horizon (BBC2) gave an engrossing account of the Voyager mission to Jupiter and beyond. The Open University has already done the same job even better, but only students and TV critics had a chance to watch. In the fate-temptingly titled Come on Cousins! (BBC1) Robin Cousins came second in the World Figure Skating Championships. Bad sight of the night was the East German judge, a lady of clock-stopping aspect called Walburger Grimm. No doubt she perked up when Hoffmann won the gold.

I’ve got to get off Barbara Woodhouse before it’s too late. In the last episode of what will undoubtedly be only the first of many series of Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way (BBC2) she was to be seen teaching puppies how to poo and pee.

The dog-owners were told that they could give any command they chose, as long as these two activities were clearly differentiated. ‘I use “Quickie!” for puddling and “Hurry up!” for the other function.’ At least one viewer came close to puddling himself on hearing this, but hysteria quickly gave way to wonder. If ‘Hurry up!’ is what she says when she wants the dog to perform the other function, what does she say when she wants the dog to hurry up?

Anyway, don’t be surprised if, after you have shouted at your child to hurry up, every dog in the district suddenly starts performing the other function. It will only mean that they have been trained the Woodhouse way.

The Observer, 16th March 1980
[ A shorter version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]