Essays: Mr Bellini's Britain |
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Mr Bellini’s Britain

REPORTING from Chicago for Newsnight (BBC2) about American reactions to the Royal Wedding, Martin Bell spoke in rhyming couplets. People who think my stuff is bad should hear his.

Nevertheless he was in the spirit of the thing, which is the biggest thing of its kind since the last thing that was anything like it. Whether it is the Wedding of the Millennium or merely of the Century is something we will have to assess next week. Whether the media should not be concentrating their resources on subjects more germane to the nation’s problems is a question less easily dodged.

James Bellini, to do him credit, has chosen this season of alleged euphoria in which to mount what he would obviously like to be thought of as a searching inquiry into Britain’s social obsolescence. Called Rule Britannia (ATV), it has shown itself, after one episode, to be edgy, abrasive, sticky and hairy, like an old sweater once worn by John Pilger.

Bellini was pretty scathing about how the upper classes, of which Lord Cowdray apparently qualifies as the ideally illustrative synecdoche, have contrived, despite the industrial impoverishment of the country, to retain what he, Bellini, calls their ‘lifestyle.’ My own searching inquiries long ago revealed that anyone who can use a word like ‘lifestyle’ without smiling is unlikely to say anything original about anything, and so it proved here. There was some information supplied about who owned most of the land. Those viewers who were not in possession of this information already were no doubt suitably stunned to learn that the Crown and the Church vie with each other in possessing the largest swathes of sward.

Who owns the rest of the acres turns out to be hard for a searching inquirer to establish. It went without saying that for the land to be owned by large landowners was a bad thing, although when you consider the renowned efficiency of British agriculture perhaps it should have gone with some saying, so that we could make a start on judging for ourselves just how bad a thing it is. Meanwhile it was established that the Restoration had put an end to what Bellini called the Revolution. ‘The Revolution failed, and Monarchy lived on.’

Monarchy has lived on with such detrimental effect that one of Lord Cowdray’s 375 companies, namely Royal Doulton, is now busy cranking out Charles ’n’ Di crockery. Meanwhile industry crumbles and the streets fill with the unemployed. Another thing that went without saying was why an abatement in the level of monarchical razzmatazz would automatically prove to be a step in the right direction, although our searching inquirer did manage to say that if the Royal Doulton employees were not making Magic Couple memorabilia they would be unlikely to be making anything else.

Perhaps one is judging ‘Rule Britannia’ a bit early, but it shows all the signs of that misplaced self-confidence by which people who are symptoms of a malaise present themselves as diagnosticians. Britain’s social divisions, may it be suggested, go far deeper than can be realised by the kind of searching inquirer who gets indignant about Lord Cowdray’s umpteen companies or the number of Royal males educated at Cambridge.

The really damaging social division is the one that has left generations of intelligent young people looking down on industry instead of being involved with it. You can’t blame a man for not wanting to spend his life making cardboard boxes, but he should not be encouraged to make television programmes prating about Britain’s poor industrial performance. ‘What price democracy now?’ asked Mr Bellini, in the portentous tones of one who had never heard of the Weimar Republic. The answer, or part of the answer, is that it isn’t the failure of democracy that has got us into our present mess, it’s the success of it which is keeping us out of the pit.

Still, Bellini has a personable air. Bellamy has that beard. I used to have a beard myself, but one day, without quite knowing why, shaved it off. Bellamy, now available in Bellamy’s Backyard Safari (BBC1), retroactively clarifies one’s subconscious motive: a beard makes the mouth look like the kind of marine bivalve that spends too much of its time lying around open before abruptly engulfing something helpless.

In this column I make a point of never commenting on someone’s personal appearance unless it lies within that person’s power to correct it. In the case of Andrea Jaeger’s smile, for example, which I once described as looking like a car-crash, it should have been obvious that I was referring not to her teeth, but the metal braces on them, which have indeed since been removed, thereby revealing a perfectly normal set of gnashers. Bellamy’s beard falls into the same category of things mockable because alterable. One finds, however, that one no longer wants him to alter it.

One no longer wants him to alter even his diction. In this latest series he purports to be a homunculus chased by insects. He swims beneath nenuphars whose tendrils ‘dangle dahn inner ver depfs.’ Looming creatures which threaten to absorb him and digest even his beard are referred to as ‘paht plant, paht animoo.’ For the pronunciation of the English language Bellamy is a minus, but he is a clear plus for botany, since he obviously rates among childish viewers as a cross between Rolf Harris and Merlin. A pity he doesn’t sing, though: he would be an ideal subject for Elizabeth Schwarzkopf** Masterclass (BBC2), a compulsory series in which the great singer teaches young pupils the fine points of operatic interpretation.

Great singers aren’t always capable of passing their secrets on in aphoristic form: Lotte Lehmann, for example, wrote a book which is so unilluminating it can easily be mistaken for a tract on spiritual uplift. But when a great singer is as consciously an artist as Schwarzkopf, then almost every sentence she utters is worth a critical essay. ‘That much sound has to be in the resonance even when you’re producing the words.’ ‘Don’t hit the top notes, incorporate them.’ ‘Don’t let single notes sort of agh, eegh, oogh, ugh, anywhere. OK?’ ‘The mouth open doesn’t help a bit. In fact it will take it away.’ This last instruction would have done nicely for Bellamy.

Gerald Savory’s A Ferry Ride Away (Thames) was a home-grown version of ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone,’ but this time the lonely English lady was based at one of our seaside towns and the young Italian stud was imported. Played with banked-fire intensity by the excellent Lynn Farleigh, Heather double-crossed your expectations by having a whale of a time, with no regrets. Sports Special (BBC1) sensibly concerned itself with a truly sensational Test match, in which Botham successfully pioneered a new method of defeating the Australians by hitting the ball repeatedly out of reach of their fielders.

The latest instalment of The Editors (BBC1) was rich with unintentional entertainment, as Neil Kinnock continued the attempt, so courageously begun by Roy Hattersley the previous week, to brand the Social Democrats as a media darling. Kinnock, through no fault of his own, is even more of a media darling than Hatters, and thus had even less chance of making the charge stick. Shirley Williams had merely to point out that leaving the Labour Party entailed the cancellation of two television series she had been all set to front. That made her the martyr. There was no room for the Labour Party to be a martyr too.

The weathermen got a show of their own called Under the Weather (BBC2), in which the Beeb’s chief weatherman explained how difficult it was to contain the full excitement of his subject within the brief allotted span. ‘The real problem is condensing all this into the one or two minutes at my disposal.’ You got the sense that he was thinking along the lines of a full hour, with a guest appearance by Petula Clark.

[ ** Elisabeth Schwarzkopf ]
The Observer, 26th July 1981