Essays: Bonjour twistesse |
[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]

Bonjour twistesse

THE BEEB having fielded a reasonably adequate substitute for ‘The Brothers’ — I refer, of course, to Rough Justice (BBC1) — the pressure on ITV was redoubled to come up with a reasonably adequate substitute for their own all-time smash-hit sudser, the one and only ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire.’ Clearly an impossible task, yet with The Foundation (ATV) they have done something to accomplish it. The first series finished on Friday, but you can be certain that it won’t be the last.

Sensibly there has been on attempt to recapture the basic ‘Bouquet’ gimmick, by which every character concerned went to bed with all the others, so that you ended up with a genteel version of those Marquis de Sade fantasies in which the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker find themselves being roped into action. The ‘Foundation’ plot is more of a reversion to the trusty ‘Plane-makers’ format. Big business, rich living, tough at the top, etc. The decision-makers, etc.

For some reason, even though the Beeb is constantly attempting versions of its own, this format flourishes best on ITV. The only time the Corporation ever got it right was with ‘The Brothers,’ and there they cheated by transposing the idea downwards, so that the high-flying executives looked and sounded lower middle class, or even plebian. ‘The Foundation’ is the format in its pure state, with all the principal characters placed firmly in the equestrian order or above. Apart from a token brace of loveable proles who seem to have been included mainly so that their up-market acquaintances can gain some ethical credit by being nice to them, the only unusual element in the set-up is that the decision-maker furthest to the forefront is wearing skirts instead of trousers.

Davinia Prince, played by Lynette Davies, is a business-woman of flair and determination. But her tremulous lower lip, which under the stress of emotion droops to reveal a glistening row of tiny teeth, is the clue to her susceptible heart. Against her better judgment, she is in love with a married man, a foreign wheeler-dealer called Philippe, pronounced Philippe. ‘Do you know how you make me feel, Philippe?’ she muses as they lie together in her luxurious bed with only their heads sticking out. ‘I theenk so. You make me feel the same way.’

Philippe likes making love with the light on, a sure sign of Continental sophistication. In fact, he is so sophisticated that he is sometimes hard for the ordinary viewer to understand. ‘Do you know the French word, twist?’ I didn’t, but realised on reflection that he meant the French word triste.

Davinia and Philippe ought to be eternal lovers, but are doomed by circumstances to a fleeting affair. It is inevitable that they should feel twist. To match her slightly atavistic, early 1950s grooming (think of Ann Todd in ‘The Sound Barrier’ and you’ve got it exactly), Davinia discreetly flaunts a Rank-starlet version of patrician elocution. Not even her passion for Philippe can put a dent in her refinement. ‘Ay can’t control it,’ she whimpers. ‘The trouble with being in love is all you do is feel, feel, feel!’

Lest Davinia fly too high for the rest of us to identify with her, she is provided with a sister, Katherine. Straightforward, no-nonsense, unstuffy Katherine. Katherine the school-teacher. It might be a private school, but still we can see that Katherine’s origins are nothing grand. It follows that Davinia’s aren’t either. Although she might now be up there with Them, nevertheless she started off down here with Us. And while Katherine might not have Davinia’s privileges, she hasn’t got her problems either. ‘Do be careful,’ Katherine staunchly advises her beautiful sister, ‘Try not to get yourself hurt.’ Davinia is lucky to have so wise a confidante as Katherine. After all, Katherine’s advice might easily have been the opposite. ‘Do be careless. Try to bugger yourself up as much as possible.’

There is no secret about why soap operas make compulsive television. They simplify life. It is not so much a matter of simplifying events as of simplifying character. Most of the events in ‘The Foundation’ could easily happen in real life — Davinias are continually fighting their way up from nowhere for the privilege of falling into bed with Philippe and feeling twist. But in real life the matter of character is never so elementary. In a soap opera, character is destiny: everything anybody does is determined by his nature. In real life we are stuck with the existentialist responsibility of remaking ourselves every morning. It is we who are the real decision-makers. By the time Friday rolls around we are worn out from taking the rap. Hence the charm of being able to reach out and switch on Davinia, who is always and only what she is.

Nor does Mastermind (BBC1) ever change. Magnus Magnusson is back with yet another series of the programme in which local wiseacres from all over Britain volunteer to sit in ‘the familiar black chair’ and lay their heads on the block. To retain their reputation of local wiseacre, all they have to do is not go on the programme. But if they go on the programme, one of two things must happen. Their reputation must be either enhanced or else destroyed.

It is all very well if your performance turns out like that of Mrs Sue Jenkins, who in the last show scored a massive 16 on her special subject. But suppose you have spent half your life turning yourself into a world expert on, say, postage stamps, and then go on the programme to find that all the questions are about what kinds of glue on postage stamps are injurious when licked. Something like that happened to one of Mrs Jenkins’s rivals, who knew all there was to know about musical instruments but found himself asked about the pieces of music they were first used in. His little world crumbled.

Goldoni’s Arlecchino (BBC2), more commonly known as ‘The Servant of Two Masters,’ was on BBC2. A co-production by RAI TV/Polytel, it was billed in the Radio Times as possessing ‘all the fun and the fireworks of the Commedia dell’ Arte.’ Not for the first time I found myself wondering just how much fun and fireworks that really means. On this showing, not a lot. A nervous attempt had been made to distance the work by showing us the goings-on backstage, but this mainly served to underline the already glaring fact that the goings-on on the stage itself were irredeemably wearisome.

Are the Americans the new Japanese? This thought was prompted by a news item showing two men running flags up a flagpole on top of the White House, so that the flags could be sold off as flags which had flown over the White House. Each flag flew over the White House for less than a second. It was evident that neither man ever though of pretending a few of the flags had been run up the flagpole. Each flag was taken out of its box, run up the flagpole, run down again and put back in its box ready for shipment. After the Nagasaki atomic bomb people fought their way through fire and flood just to save the Emperor’s photograph.

The Observer, 4th September 1977

[ A shortened version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]