Essays: The nose trick |
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The nose trick

BACK from Las Vegas with what should have been decisive evidence that the Americans are all crazy, I switched on the set and came face-to-face with Britain’s very own Barbara Woodhouse, starring in Barbara’s World of Horses and Ponies (BBC1). It was a bit more than the already boggled mind could absorb.

Already established as the world’s leading authority on dogs, Barbara now emerges as even more magically authoritative about horses. She can get a horse to do anything. All she has to do is breathe up its nose. As yet untrained, the pony stands waiting, its knees slightly atremble. Barbara approaches confidently, bends down, applies her capacious mouth to its wet nostrils, and breathes up its nose. After that, the beast will do her bidding, and so would you. Apparently Barbara learned this technique in Argentina from a Guarani Indian who is either a very rich horse-trainer or has spent much of his life in hospital, I didn’t quite catch.

Breathing up the pony’s nose is a form of praise. Barbara is keen on praise as the foundation of her reward system. ‘We always do praise.’ She also does sugar. Sugar cubes are handed out with a frequency that makes you worry about the horses’ teeth. But they are not always handed out. Sometimes they are mouthed out. ‘Would you like to take a piece out of my teeth?’ Barbara asks the horse. Since the horse has just found out by the empirical method that Barbara is strong enough to push it sideways, it is in no position to demur.

The horse nods. Barbara leans forward intimately with a sugar lump poised in her bared teeth. The horse bares its own teeth and takes the sugar lump. From behind your chair you watch the programme end. ‘Barbara Woodhouse,’ says a voice, ‘suggests that you do not give a pony sugar from your mouth unless you know the pony very well.’ Or else, the voice forgets to add, you will get half your head bitten off and no horse will want you to breathe up its nose ever again.

No doubt The Borgias (BBC2) also breathed up horses’ noses, along with all their other debaucheries. Out in the middle of the American desert, with nothing to watch on television except hysterical evangelists and the sort of used-car salesmen who slap each offering vigorously on the bonnet to indicate that it will not fall apart when you insert the ignition key, I often wondered how the Borgias were getting on. The answer is that they are getting on famously, especially with one another. After only three episodes, each Borgia has already been to bed with all the other Borgias. It is like an Andrea Newman series wrapped in red velvet, with ermine trimmings.

Pope Rodrigo Borgia is played by Adolfo Celi, looking like Lord Weidenfeld dressed as Father Christmas. The Pope is the only male Borgia without a codpiece. All the other male Borgias have codpieces. There is Cesare Borgia, Juan Borgia, and their tennis-playing youngest brother, Bjorn Borgia. On the distaff side, Lucrezia Borgia wears pearl-encrusted brocade when she is not in bed with His Holiness. Exhausted from breathing up Lucrezia’s nose, the Pope has trouble with his diction. Referring to a trip taken by Juan and Cesare, he says: ‘They got nipples together.’ Eventually you figure out that he means they go to Naples together.

Cesare and Juan got nipples together and Cesare kills Juan on the way. Thus Cesare takes another step towards supreme power. The intricacies would be hard to follow if the dialogue were not so explanatory. ‘As Vice-Chancellor of the Holy Church, should you not be here to welcome the King of France?’ The arrival of the King of France and his bad shave is indicated by an expensive sequence showing several extras carrying spears into Italy. ‘All Rome is darkened by a great fear.’ It seems there is no hope, but the Pope copes. He employs soft soap. Nope, he doesn’t just mope. But Juan’s death breaks his heart. ‘By the bones of Christ!’

Producer Mark Shivas has probably several times been heard to say something similar by now. ‘The Borgias’ is a pretty ramshackle vehicle to be bearing his illustrious name. But you have to take a chance, and it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. The material is, after all, potentially very strong, and not just on the level of the family that sleeps together slays together. Cesare had a political intelligence sharp enough to fascinate Machiavelli, who, in examining the implications of Cesare’s success, raised permanent questions about the compatibility of means and ends.

Meanwhile the biggest and still the best ever Renaissance in the arts was going on full blast. For a series, the subject is ideal: any amount of strong characters and events, opportunities for visual splendour thick on the ground, and above all no literary masterpiece to clog the works. Dreaming up a story line of your own is not as easy as it might seem, but it’s a breeze compared to adapting a great book.

If Brideshead Revisited (Granada) is not a great book, it’s so like a great book that many of us, at least while reading it, find it hard to tell the difference. In my own mind there is no doubt: Evelyn Waugh is the most important modern novelist in English and ‘Brideshead Revisited’ is one of his most important novels. But the irascible young have a point when they call the book a ruin, so for the moment one should perhaps acknowledge their point. Yet if the book is a ruin it is a magnificent ruin, with the remains of a strict architecture beneath the ivy.

Waugh was severely correct in his use of the English language. It was a nasty surprise, then, to hear the television version of Sebastian Flyte asking, ‘Would you care to dance with my friend and I?’ John Mortimer, the adapter, is almost certainly aware of the difference between the nominative and the accusative. Derek Granger, the producer, is likewise an educated man. Yet somehow the solecism slips through, showing up all those prodigies of set-dressing for what they really are — props at a séance in which a lost spirit resolutely declines to appear.

‘Would you care to dance with my friend and I?’ ranks as additional dialogue. Most of the words, it must be conceded, come straight out of the novel. But so much of Waugh’s original narration is read out over the pictures that you can’t help wondering why they didn’t just read out the whole book, and thus solve the evidently nagging problem of how to retain its nuances of style. Somebody obviously realised that ‘Brideshead’ without its texture would lack substance too. So they borrowed some of its texture, as a man hard of hearing but good at whistling might reproduce accurately the loud parts of a song.

Frederic Raphael’s Byron (BBC2) had a strong script. Mr Raphael himself featured largely, wearing an open neck shirt like the late Dr Leavis. Byron was played by an actor far too thin for conveying Byron’s weight problem. On the other hand he did not look particularly vigorous either. A disembodied actorly voice was entrusted with the task of reading out Byron’s Spenserian and ottava rima stanzas. They were made to sound listless. Mr Raphael emerged as being more intelligent and energetic than his hero, which might be true but was surely not the intention.

The Observer, 1st November 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]