Essays: Beyond a joke |
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Beyond a joke

DON’T believe those stories about Gough Whitlam trying to insult the Queen. He was trying to amuse her, but he mistimed the gag. Comedy is dangerous stuff for amateurs to play with. For instance, there is Three Piece Suite (BBC2), starring Diana Rigg.

After only one of its scheduled six instalments, it is obvious that ‘Three Piece Suite’ is as funny as a broken arm. The fault is not Miss Rigg’s. She is a fine straight actress. Among fine straight actresses, she is a fair to middling comedienne — given a properly written funny scene, she would not get as much out of it as, say, Prunella Scales, but on the other hand she wouldn’t kill it either. She is, however, no comic: if the script is a bummer, there is nothing she can do to save it. In a half hour that passed like a year, she was given ample opportunity to prove all over again one of the eternal truths of comedy: the script is everything.

The same truth applies in other fields, but doesn’t show up so glaringly. The Age of Uncertainty (BBC2) has been a victim of its script. The tendency has been to blame the producer for his fussy effects and sympathise with Professor Galbraith for getting himself lumbered with them, but really, it isn’t as simple as that.

By the standards which Galbraith himself sets in his books and articles, the script of ‘The Age of Uncertainty’ is flat and sparse. But it is very difficult to tell a man of Galbraith’s eminence that he ought to go back to the typewriter. (Sometimes the programmes yield evidence that it might be difficult to tell him anything at all: was nobody brave enough to inform the star that there has never been any such publication as the London Illustrated News?) So the lack is made up for indirectly, by pouring on the visuals. The result is an eye-ache.

Nevertheless the latest episode was a fair presentation of Galbraith’s views on the big corporations. Not even the wealth of illustration could obfuscate his perfectly intelligible thesis that since the corporations do such a thorough job of socialising themselves, it might be sensible to pay off the stockholders in bonds and forget about capitalism altogether.

But as far as I understand it (which is about as far as the first quadratic equation) there is an exactly contrary view to Galbraith’s. Milton Friedman and others hold that the socialised industries ought to be sold off to the taxpayers in the form of stock. Galbraith gives no indication that there it even an argument over such issues.

Certainly the Friedmanite thesis seems borne out by British Leyland, whither Man Alive (BBC2) sent a camera crew. Yet as the striking toolmakers made obvious (and would have made even more obvious, had they been less clumsily interviewed), there was nothing bloody-minded about what they were doing. Differentials really matter to them. The interviewer did a meticulous job of neglecting to find out what a differential was, but finally it emerged. Good tool-makers don’t necessarily make fine phrases. A fluent talker could have put their case in half a minute. If they didn’t have one, the programme should have provided one.

But if ‘Man Alive’ made you feel bad about Britain, World In Action (Granada) for once made you feel good. Well, less terrible. They did a sharp probe into what happens when the daughters of Pakistani and Indian immigrants show signs of casting off the ancient ways. The parents understandably loathe the permissive society. Really there is not a lot to admire about what the girls are running away to. But how much is there to admire about what they are running away from? It can’t be a culture all that worth protecting, if it encourages fathers to beat up their daughters for wanting to be free of it. The young runaways looked cheap in their overdone makeup but far from pitiful. You could sense their energy and adventurousness. With due allowance for their parents’ grief, there was no gainsaying that the kids made the melting-pot look like fun.

Miraculously, it is starting to look like fun again even in America. Almost two and a half hours long, America Salutes Jimmy Carter (BBC2) was an Inaugural Eve Gala of high calibre. Outstanding artists from all fields were smoothly combined into an effortlessly flowing but continuously exciting pan-cultural jamboree. This was the kind of occasion which the Kennedy era was supposed to be famous for but in fact could never bring off: there were too many rich people in the audience and too much rhetoric on stage. The result was pure Women’s Wear Daily, with the jet set glad-handing one another and the ordinary folk looking on. But since the Carters are the ordinary folk, the stars are more inclined to remember that they have been invited along for better reasons than just to say hello to one another.

Usually when high culture and pop are eclectically mixed, the high culture is kitsch and the pop uninspired, but here everything was top drawer. At one end of the spectrum Frederica von Stade sang an excellent song by Allan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein (Lenny himself conducted, in the new, relaxed, Carter-era style) and at the other Aretha Franklin came on to get the house on its feet.

Aretha, slimmed down for the new epoch, was in shattering form. So were most of the other black artists, including Muhammad Ali, who read out a poem which contrasted with James Dickey’s in being penetrable, terminable and interesting. There was strong, but not awkward, emphasis on the regeneration of the South. The Alvin Ailey troupe danced. There was an excerpt from ‘Porgy and Bess.’ And just to show that discrimination had not gone into reverse, Loretta Lynn was there, singing a bracket of country numbers.

As a demonstration of unity, the show would have been very, very impressive even if its tone had been strained. But in fact it was as laid-back as a good picnic. Above all, it was funny. You couldn’t mock Nixon to his face because there was nothing inside him. Carter can take it. The stand-up acts were a stinging reminder that in Britain at the moment we haven’t got a comedy show on the air with a brain in its head.

But if intentional humour is in abeyance, the unintentional kind flourishes as never before. In its wonderful new series Romance, Thames gave us a dramatisation of ‘Three Weeks,’ by Elinor Glynn. Elizabeth Shepherd played the mysterious Princess and Simon MacCorkindale played Paul Verdayne. Borrowing her accent from ‘Ninotchka,’ and her wardrobe from ‘Flash Gordon,’ Miss Shepherd roped in the thick young hero with a web of liquid consonants: ‘Vot do you know of larv?’ she asked. He knew nothing, but he’d come to the right place. Within moments they were tussling on the tiger-skin. ‘I shall teach you ’ow to leave,’ she gurgled, an enormous yellow paper flower in each ear. But he didn’t leave, he stayed. Once again they were palpitating on the pelt.

The Princess’s boudoir attire would have bemused anyone less dedicated than Paul. At one stage her head sprouted wire spirals, like an old radio. At last it was revealed that she was really the Queen of Serbia. Broken-hearted she renounced him. They parted forever — she to her country and he to his career, which apparently consisted mainly of growing a moustache.

On Oscar Peterson Invites (BBC2) Anthony Burgess played piano. Things have come a long way since the heyday of Jim Crow. For just how bad things used to be, you could listen to John Hammond in All You Need Is Love (LWT). ‘Prejudice killed ... it really loused up a whole art-form in America for 25 years. Don’t get me started on it because I’m gonna sound like a fanatic.’ Now Aretha Franklin tells the President to stand up, and he does. It might not be everything, but it’s certainly something.

The Observer, 13th March 1977