Essays: Bronsonised |
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YOUR reporter got back from Australia on Monday morning, concussed with jet-lag and half a day too late to catch the last episode of The Brothers (BBC1), which had been screened to its millions of grateful British fans while I was 35,000 feet above !he Indian Ocean watching a Charles Bronson movie.

Bronson’s starring vehicle was ‘Breakheart Pass,’ an American Civil War drama in which somebody died by violence every two minutes. It was without a redeeming element, yet I watched mesmerised, since it was so much better than Australian television. The full awfulness of Australian television is a subject I might go into at a later date, but for now suffice it to note that by just so much — so inconceivably much — as a Charles Bronson movie is worse than ‘The Brothers,’ by just so much again is Australian television worse than a Charles Bronson movie.

Most of Monday, when I should have been in bed making inroads into the long task of resetting the internal clocks to normal, I was phoning around town trying to pitch together, from fellow-students incoherent with grief at the passing of a great series, the full run-down on What Happened to the Hammonds. Finally I got the full story, but nothing could really compensate for having missed out on the action as it leapt from the tube live.

By Monday evening, as you will probably judge, I was in no fit state to assess the real quality of a lengthy American dramamentary called The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (BBC2). Perhaps it just seemed ponderously done. Cliff de Young looked right as Lindbergh and Anthony Hopkins was fairly distinguished casting as the kidnapper, Bruno Hauptmann. (It was a big night for Hopkins who, in the London area, was also starring in ITV’s movie The Looking Glass War — a lack-lustre effort only 10 times better than ‘Breakheart Pass.’) Despite reasonably lavish attention to the look of things, however, the Lindbergh show was nullified by duff dialogue. There is no excuse for a talentless reconstruction of what was, after all, a classically poignant event. Or perhaps I just couldn’t hear straight.

Monday night petered out in a tiny struggle between The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (BBC1), a Clint Eastwood Western al sugo only five times better than ‘Breakheart Pass.’ and A Much Maligned Monarch (ATV), Sir Lew Grade’s tribute to King George III, with the exposition provided by the current heir to the British Throne. Charles’s interlocutor was Alistair Cooke, whose presence was a tip-off that Sir Lew planned to recoup his costs in this country and score a profit in America.

Charles more than held his own with Cooke as a talking head, but ought to keep his hands out of shot — gestures are useless on television, since the visual overkill dilutes what you are saying instead of underlining it. Still, our future monarch did all right. It’s amazing, when you think about it, how many things he’s good at. He can fly planes, steer ships, swim under the ice, tell jokes, keep cool on camera... Zzzz. The floor opened up and I fell into Tuesday.

Still groggy but catching up, I saw something of young Elvis Payne in Brian Glover’s play Sunshine in Brixton (Thames). But the lure of Garbo in Camille (BBC2) was too strong. After all, one has seen this picture only about a dozen times, so it is still revealing its secrets. Garbo was such a gifted actress that the praise given her has never been adequate: she is really better than they say. The talk about the magic of her presence, though true, is misleading, since it distracts attention from her awesome technical subtlety. Look at the way she turns her head to register the moment when she becomes attracted to Robert Taylor — a task made doubly challenging by the fact that Robert Taylor, imitating a block of wood in pleated trousers, was only three times better than Charles Bronson.

By Wednesday time was a blur: global jet-lag takes days to die away. Survival (Anglia) had a special called ‘Bones of Contention,’ narrated by James Mason and reconstructing, with engaging awkwardness, Richard Leakey’s anthropological discoveries in Kenya. On the evidence presented, one found it difficult to see, when Leakey’s wife had assumed the responsibility for reconstructing an ancient skull from tiny fragments. why Leakey should come along when the job was completed and assume the credit for it. Doubtless one’s brain was fogged. The improvised dialogue couldn’t have been less riveting, but the raw material held one’s interest to the end. The skulls of our ancestors looked touchingly childish around the cranium and shatteringly powerful around the jaw — the early stages in the long evolutionary march leading up to Clint Eastwood by way of pithecanthropus erectus and charlesanthropus bronsonus.

Having poured scorn on Benny Hill’s self-congratulatory loveliness in the past, I’m bound to say that The Benny Hill Show (Thames) had its moments, with Hill convulsing himself less often than usual and putting some or the effort saved into diverting his audience. Hill’s drag acts are amusing enough in a Dick Emery sort of way, but really his Elizabeth Taylor was a lot less interesting than his Richard Burton — a penetrating effort which showed just how deep Hill could strike if he had a mind to, or had a mind. There was an inspiringly sexy dance troupe called The Love Machine.

Hill’s show even induced a certain amount of euphoria, instantly dispelled by Luke’s Kingdom (Thames), a period series set in the old Oz Colonial days, like ‘Ben Hall,’ except that unlike ‘Ben Hall’ it is drearily written and indifferently acted. Out in Australia it is being pre-sold as a masterpiece, with torrential media coverage for its British star, Oliver Tobias, who is not even twice as good as... Zzz.

The Man Alive Report (BBC2) was called ‘On the Fiddle’ and dealt with the possibility — well, the likelihood — that we are all petty thieves. ‘Mr X, how long have you been fiddling?’ a silhouette was asked. The silhouette had been fiddling for years, first as a dustman and later as a college lecturer. (This ascent through the career-structures was not explained.) His outline looked identifiable enough to encourage one’s hope that he might get fired — not for fiddling, but for being such a Pharisee as to go on telly and confess. There was some interesting stuff about fiddles worked by bakers, bus conductors and piemen. Apparently piemen rewrap old pies to get rid of the date-stamp and flog them to old people’s homes, spreading a little ptomaine in the twilight.

‘We’ve all got something wrong with us,’ confided James Burke in The Burke Special (BBC1). ‘Short of putting your head in a bag, a lot of you does get out.’ Piffle. But Just A Year (BBC2), about the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings one year later, was sad, awful and chastening. Back in the real world at last, I watched it with a long face.

The Observer, 25th April 1976