Essays: Blood, toil, tears -- and Burton |
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Blood, toil, tears — and Burton

SINCE everyone expected Walk with Destiny (BBC1) to be diabolical, the fact that it turned out to be average made it something of a triumph. To that extent, bad preliminary vibes can work for you instead of against.

The due expectations had mainly to do with the way we have all come to hope for so little from Richard Burton — a subject beyond my scope here, apart from saying that his was a large talent which took an age to throw away, and even when he thought he had completed getting rid of it, there was still enough left sticking to his fingers to handle the role of Winston Churchill, granted that Elizabeth Taylor was not in the same show playing Mrs Churchill.

Elizabeth Taylor being unavailable, Mrs Churchill was played by Virginia McKenna, who has recovered brilliantly from the destructive consequences of being a success in British films and is now conferring on our television screens some very good aristocratic performances of the Fine-drawn Anxiety variety, with emphasis on the delicate lines around the mouth. In this programme it was her task to be a staunch, sensible presence at Winnie’s elbow while he fretted through the thirties, fuming with impatience at being out of power and grimly warning an indifferent House of Commons of the Narsi threat. (Burton pronounced German words with a correctly Churchillian incorrectness.)

The historical picture was painted in broad strokes, with a roller instead of a brush. But against all the odds one was gripped, principally because one knew this fantasy to be not all that divorced from reality, since the reality had been so much like a fantasy. For all his faults, some of them terrible, Churchill really was the redeemer. You didn’t have to be British to be caught up in a story about a grail-knight who could see the future. I’m sure the show will do well in Japan, although I wouldn’t count on its rating high in, say, Dresden.

It would have been interesting to watch a further episode, to see how deeply Churchill’s later achievements might have been questioned. His military judgment was generally fallible and often lethal, but it is still dangerous to say so in Britain. He commanded enormous linguistic resources, but didn’t really write very well: that limited edition of his complete works would be as indigestible as the memorial medals would be unwearable, although apparently the Japanese go for both. As a leader he was a catastrophe at any time except wartime, and even during war he was the reverse of wise. But he could unite and inspire, and Burton caught that.

Burton, with his massive face, didn’t look at all like Churchill, who had smallish features, or even sound much like him, despite close attention to rhythms and impediments. But he possesses the quality of dominance, which is what counts. Subsidiary characters varied in authenticity. Most of them were cardboard, but so were most of the originals: dramas turn men into actors. Churchill’s doomed fight for Edward was great theatre then and is so still, especially if you believe that it is better to swear loyalty to monarchs than to men like Churchill.

Playing the same character, Warren Clarke in Jennie (Thames) ably brought out the little-boy aspect. This week saw the last episode of the series, which Lee Remick carried all the way on her shapely back — an item of anatomy which was suitably bowed by the end, while artificial jowls were attached to the side of her face like limpet mines. She was so heavily made-up she couldn’t move her head, but had to turn her whole body an inch at a time, like Gort in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still.’ Nevertheless the story had been amply enough told. Of Churchill’s mother it doesn’t matter if the portrait transmitted to us is mythical. Of Churchill, a figure vital in history, it does.

As it also matters with Chopin, who played his way into George Sand’s heart in last week’s instalment of Notorious Woman (BBC2). ‘I am irresistibly attracted to you,’ murmured George as the fiery Pole pounded the keys. ‘From the very first moment I heard your music, I knew you were special, unique.’ Played by George Chakiris with all the ostentatious vivacity that the original so notoriously did not possess, Chopin was at first wary of George’s advances, but later caved in, and with many a yodel of happiness (‘Hah hah hah hah hah hah’) they linked hands and crashed into the quilt.

Twenty minutes of the programme had elapsed before Chopin emitted his first cough. To kill time until it arrived, he had a few goes at the first Prelude, which possesses the merit, for dramatic purposes, of being extremely short. Indeed George didn’t think it sounded like a prelude at all. ‘Call it something else,’ she said helpfully. The Majorca interlude was appropriately grim, and with heroic restraint the script stuck to the facts even to the extent of not allowing Chopin to compose the rest of the Preludes in the midst of his suffering.

But writing can be scrupulous as to facts and still go hopelessly wrong in tone. The real Chopin was a natural aristocrat in a way which made Liszt look like a ruffian. It was said of him that he lent himself sometimes but gave himself never. George Sand wrote of him that his manners were so polite one was likely to take as friendly courtesy what was really a frigid disdain. He was an exquisite. As incarnated in ‘Notorious Woman’ he is the standard, sentimental picture of the bright-eyed genius as cheery democrat. To some extent such vulgarising is inevitable. since to bring a great artist to dramatic life entails ignoring the ways in which he was dead to the world.

Panorama (BBC1) told how the arts are being starved. It is a fashionable opinion that Covent Garden gets more than its share of public money — an opinion which needs to he contested, since shutting down Covent Garden would he a ruinous act of folly. But this opinion needs to be better argued than it was on the programme. The Arts Council’s General Secretary, in particular. needs better lines. There was a good World About Us (BBC2), about the Yanomami Indians of southern Venezuela, who are drug addicts engaged in perpetual warfare, raping one another’s women while eating grilled tarantulas. They fish by filling the river full of dope, whereat the prey floats to the surface, zonked. Great stuff, but the excellent Disappearing World (Granada) has by now led us to expect the bonus of talk, with subtitles.

The Observer, 8th December 1974