Essays: Blowing a Bloomsbury |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Blowing a Bloomsbury

A WEEK after the event at least one viewer is still chuckling at the sublime outrage with which Richard Hoggart, in an absorbing 2nd House on Class (BBC2), reacted to an old clip of John Betjeman (as he then was), Nevill Coghill, A. L. Rowse and Lord David Cecil sitting around in Oxford congratulating themselves on their own degree of civilisation.

In just such a fashion D. H. Lawrence had reacted to Bloomsbury, not so much because he was a Northern boy and the Bloomsberries were privileged, as because they weren’t as clever as they thought they were but couldn’t take the fact in when he pointed it out — they always thought he was moved by class animus. (Significantly it was Keynes who finally admitted that Lawrence had a point. Keynes really was bright.) The Coghill camarilla airily discussing the basis of their own distinction — they were agreed that it was Oxford which gave them the opportunity to nurture their own excellence — were a diverting example of the same kind of complacency. Hoggart, another Northern boy, was simply echoing Lawrence’s impatience with it.

Hoggart started to point out what was plainly a fact — that the claims these men were making for the intellectual productivity of Oxford were absurd — but there was no time to pursue the argument further in the full richness of its potential. It really was marvellous to watch A. L. Rowse talking about the disinterested quest for Truth while his friends lolled about nodding wisely, forgetting to add or else never having noticed that for A. L. Rowse the Truth had usually been any foolish notion that happened to pop into his head.

You could say Betjeman had distinction, and all four men had undoubtedly seized the opportunities offered by Oxford to cultivate their eccentricities to the full, but that was about it. What we were looking at was not a concentration of mental power but a mutual admiration society — a club. And it was surely the knowledge that such clubs are still with us that led Hoggart ever so slightly to blow his cool.

For the rest of the programme he remained detached, but never less than interesting. The subject matter consisted of excerpts from television programmes since the year dot. Melvyn Bragg, more abrasive lately, extracted Hoggart’s opinions of the attitudes revealed by the murky old films and tapes as they spooled unsteadily past. Even where attitudes were self-evident, the guest’s opinions were still illuminating. In a 1956 ‘Panorama’ Max Robertson interviewed two different lots of schoolboys about their future careers. One lot were from a secondary modern and the other from a grammar school.

There could be no doubt in the world about which group Robertson felt at home with. When one of the sec. mod. boys announced that he saw his future in ‘tiling and slabbing’ Robertson repeated the words as if, Hoggart observed, he were ‘holding a dead fish out’.

An ancient programme called Can You Tell Me? featured a lady called Phyllis Digby Morton — who regrettably was before my time — handing out advice to the socially uneasy. Showing his rare gift for combining general argument with specific detail, Hoggart pinned down the show’s genteel aspirations by identifying the lady’s trick of saying ‘deteriating’ for ‘deteriorating’ as a mark of the upper classes. A 1957 extract from ‘The Grove Family’ showed the Beeb still unable to reflect the class structure any way except unconsciously: the family had a caricature Northern grandma and a daughter from RADA.

‘Coronation Street’ was the big breakthrough, with observation helping to create believable types, if not individuals. Bragg and Hoggart were agreed that television nowadays did a much better job of showing what was actually going on in British society. A clip of Billy Connolly appearing on the ‘Parkinson’ show vividly demonstrated the real life that was always waiting to be discovered once the fantasies had been cleared away. But, Hoggart warned, ‘the reality of class has hardly changed’.

Perhaps he was right about the country at large, but in the land of the media — especially in television — class has altered radically. For example, here were Richard Hoggart and Melvyn Bragg up on the screen discussing the subject with each other, instead of having their opinions relayed to the audience through Max Robertson. Despite their lowly origins, they showed no sign of unease. If, as members of the communications élite, they could be said to belong to a new class, they certainly no longer belonged to any of the old ones. And if it was true that what was on television had changed, then things in television must have changed too, since it is axiomatic that there is never a significant alteration in what happens on screen without a proportionately large alteration of personnel behind it.

Over the span of time covered by the ‘2nd House’ survey, the standard of the acting in television drama improved enormously, but really this reflected not so much an increase in what the actors could do as a complete change in who the writers were. It used to be as if the whole of television drama had been written by N. J. Crisp, whose creations — Dangerous Knowledge (Southern) is currently testifying to his untiring prolificity — are throw-backs to the era when characters untraceable to any origin spoke dialogue devoid of any substance. It is a tribute to how television has come on that a Crisp project now looks so thumpingly behind the times. (And it might be a testimony to how television has not come on that there are still so many Crisp projects to be seen, but don’t let’s be greedy: a large part of the audience is going out of date all the time, so it’s only fair that their favourite programmes should go out of date along with them.)

By relative standards, shows like Dad’s Army and Porridge are miracles of observation, and even by absolute ones they are astonishingly good: the best of each (and both are getting repeats now on BBC1, thereby providing a feast of viewing) will never look entirely like period pieces, but will always retain their capacity to surprise. Compare the floundering abstractness of ‘The Grove Family’ to the subtleties of social nuance in ‘Dad’s Army’: it’s a clear advance. But beyond that, Captain Mainwaring’s social pretensions are the stuff of an eternal British comedy. A classless country in which those pretensions were no longer understood would probably be the poorer for the improvement.

The BBC2 production of Gianni Schicchi must have set Puccini spinning like a bobbin in his tomb. It went without saying that Zero Mostel could not equal Tito Gobbi’s singing of the name part. What might not be generally realised is that he could not equal Gobbi’s sense of comedy either, so the whole point of hiring a non-singer was lost. What this perfect little opera needs is not a mugger in the title role but subtitles along the bottom of the screen, so that it can be sung in Italian and sound beautiful, since it is supposed to be a work of art in which comedy and lyricism are in fruitful tension, and not one in which the first overwhelms the second.

After being driven to near-despair and perhaps even impotence (‘Yes I know,’ said his latest girlfriend, ‘but come to bed anyway,’) Hadleigh (Yorkshire) was saved from bankruptcy by the skin of his aristocratic teeth. A great relief, since Hadleigh as lord of the manor is of some interest, whereas Hadleigh broke is scarcely even a travesty.

The Observer, 6th June 1976

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]