Essays: Blue-bloods on parade | clivejames.com
[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]

Blue-bloods on parade **

Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the current incarnation of an earldom marching out of the far past on its way to the far future, had a Panorama (BBC1) all to himself. Fully equipped with knuckle-dusters, bother-boots and a fountain-pen loaded with nitric acid, I was all set to be objective about this programme, but in a kinky way it turned out to be kind of winning. Sir Alec saw politics ‘as a public service rather than a means to exercise power.’ Expanding on this point, he said that he saw politics as a public service rather than a means to exercise power. Or to put it another way, it was public service, rather than power, that interested him most in politics. Power was a thing to be eschewed: in politics, public service was what really mattered.

On the vexed question of the young Sir Alec’s academic attainments, his Oxford tutor was ready with a pithy summary: ‘He was interested in people and events.’ But dons are nothing if not precise in their language, and a few moments later came the qualifier by which judgement was subtly enriched. ‘He was interested in events and he was interested in people.’

Out in the Tory grassroots, the constituents were less guarded in their praise — especially the ladies. ‘Ah admah him because of his complete honestah and sinceritah.’ The ancestral lands, incorporating the River Tweed, rolled on as far as the ravished eye could see. Sir Alec’s success in brushing off the calumny of a scornful world, one reflected, might possibly have something to do with possessing such a large amount of it in which to retreat.

Lady Antonia Fraser had One Pair of Eyes (BBC2) and — if you’ll forgive the male chauvinist piggery — very nice eyes they were. If you could concentrate on them while ignoring the programme, you had a chance of retaining consciousness throughout. If you couldn’t, then the evening tended towards narcosis. The besotted director seemed suicidally intent on demonstrating Lady Antonia’s versatility: shots of Lady Antonia walking were succeeded by shots of Lady Antonia talking, these in turn giving way to a virtuoso passage of Lady Antonia walking and talking simultaneously. Already stunned, the viewer was in no condition to remain unmoved when the screen suddenly erupted with the image of Lady Antonia typing.

Lady Antonia was of the opinion, which the producer unaccountably encouraged her to deliver over and over while the scenery was changed around her, that biography is of central importance in the study of history. A friend, Christopher Falkus, found a way of putting it less memorably. ‘One of the tremendously ... corny things one can say about a novel,’ he said, ‘is that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. One can say the same thing about a biography.’ Lady Antonia nodded in agreement — as well she might, the point being irrefutable.

Climax of the show was some tomfool reconstruction of a dramatic escape from a castle, with the part of Mary Queen of Scots being taken by Lady Antonia whose viewpoint was represented by a hand-held camera. As the flurry of fancy editing subsided, Lady Antonia blushingly explained that the escape had not been real, but had been staged by the BBC: plainly she was worried lest we identify too closely with the action. She herself found it difficult not to identify with Mary Queen of Scots. ‘I also have a house on an island in Scotland,’ she confessed, ‘but not shut away. Rather the reverse.’

Similarly well-bred, Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire (The World of the Eleventh Duke, BBC1) shared Lady Antonia’s upper-class singularities of diction — ‘particuly’ in his confident elliptical approach to those words where some attempt to pronounce the constituent consonants is ‘populy’ supposed to be mandatory — but differed in possessing an ability to blend into the scenery like a chameleon. There is nothing to say about him except that Chatsworth is the most beautiful estate the mind of man can imagine and that he is eminently qualified to maintain it. If the place were nationalized tomorrow, he’d have to be hired to look after it, although perhaps at a slightly reduced stipend. Don Haworth’s script was a witty job which Derek Hart spoke like a gentleman. The decisive gulf separating the duke from his horny-palmed employees, in my view, is that while they wear baggy clothes bought off the hook, his baggy clothes are tailor-made.

[ The Observer, 8th and 22nd July 1973 ]

[ ** We don't have copies of Clive’s original column for July 8th or July 22nd 1973, nor can we confirm the pieces’ original titles. The text above is reproduced from their re-issue in the Picador collection Visions Before Midnight. It may or may not be complete — typically the versions there have been edited for length and in some cases entire paragraphs have been omitted.

If you have copies of the ‘Observer’ originals, we would be delighted to include them in place of this. Please contact us HERE. ]