Essays: Back to 'The Brothers' |
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Back to ‘The Brothers’

THIS week’s column must perforce be mainly an ode to the autumn schedules, which on the BBC are full of old series returning. Season of mists and mellow frightfulness.

Prominent among the revenants is of course The Brothers (BBC1). Now that it’s back I wonder all over again how life was ever supportable without it. In the final episode of the last series, Paul announced his engagement. In the first episode of the new series, he got married. His bride is a hooray beauty called April, played desirably by Liza Goddard. Needless to say, April’s quietly wealthy background will do Paul no harm in his rise to power. ‘I’ve never known a girl so undemandingly generous,’ he told Brian in a rare moment of emotion, adding weirdly: ‘I could even hear her eyes open when she woke up in the morning.’ Sounds like conjunctivitis.

Paul and Brian are now great friends. Brian lacks Paul’s capacity for success but plainly draws nourishment from being close to him. Since most men would like to be Paul, but are fated to be Brian, this makes Brian a natural figure to identify with. Paul’s role, as an entrepreneur, is to make money. Brian’s role, as an accountant, is to count it.

Even more natural to identify with is poor Edward, who didn’t even get to the wedding. He and Jenny rammed a cyclist with their car. Personally I identify with Edward almost as much as with Basil Fawlty: that uncontrollable rage at one’s own incompetence is all too recognisable. No wonder Edward hates Paul. Meanwhile Edward’s wife, the wan Jenny, is there to be identified with by all the women who would like to be April but can’t make it.

For all these reasons and more, watching ‘The Brothers’ is like talking to your analyst, only less expensive. The message of the show is that if the firm needs Edward and Jenny, then life needs you. Bill and Gwen are there to reassure the plebs that to stay ordinary is a way of being above it all.

Back too came Softly, Softly (BBC1) with a passable episode about crooks masquerading as terrorists. Among the new characters is a detective called Grant, who quickly found himself being taken down a peg or two by the Task Force veterans. You got the impression that they would have taken him down a peg or two even if he had never been up on a peg in the first place. Taking people down a peg or two is a full-time occupation in Task Force.

P-c Snow has put on weight, which gives him, in combination with his moustache, a Victorian appearance, befitting his latterday role as one of the grand old men around HQ — which is a splendiferous new building, dubbed ‘Thamesford Hilton’ by the wily Watt. In it, Harry the Hawk has been supplied with a large office, complete with impressive desk, beside which he is now wont to sit, being a Det-Chief Insp. Instead of the Hawk bursting in on people by opening their doors, other people now burst in on the Hawk. Otherwise everything in Thamesford is as it was.

But Within These Walls (LWT) all is changed, changed utterly. Googie Withers, erstwhile governess of Stone Park clink, his moved on! Her replacement is Helen Forrester, played by Katherine Blake. In short order the new governess set about convincing her staff that things would have to be different from now on: Googie had been running a slack ship. Stone Park had become ‘over-permissive.’ The staff looked horrified — was the atmosphere of love and trust built up by the beloved Googie to be utterly undone? Dr Mayes asked his new boss what he might call her. Helen? Miss Forrester? ‘Governor.’ Blimey.

But as the episode progressed, it slowly became evident that beneath Helen Forrester’s hard crust was an aching loneliness. It’s a kind of solitary confinement in itself, being head screw in a women’s nick. Especially when marriage has been ruled out by the demands of one’s career. You couldn’t blame Helen for lacking Googie’s warmth... By the end of the chapter, it was obvious that Stone Park would end up changing its new commandant much more than she would ever change it.

The first of 13 episodes concerning The Duchess of Duke St. (BBC1) was rousing stuff. Since some of the people who produced ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ are working on this new show as well, there has been a tendency to accuse it in advance of copy-catting the ITV classic, but really it is something independent and probably even rather better. For one thing, it gives you a much more deeply incised idea of just how tough life downstairs really was. ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ portrayed a society so cosily ordered that you couldn’t see it had to end. ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’ shows you why it was doomed.

Not that the heroine, Louisa Trotter, is a radical. Quite the opposite: her obsessive concern is not to change society but to climb through it, by working for the Best People. Proper. Played brilliantly by Gemma Jones, the character is based on Rosa Lewis, famous proprietress of the Cavendish Hotel. So we have the comfort of knowing that later on we will see her being a nob among nobs. At the moment she is taking the first steps on her path to the top. She sounds like someone Professor Higgins would have liked to get his hands on: ‘Pig ’eaded. Thass wo’ you are.’ But her Svengali is a chef, Monsieur Alex. Under the tutelage of this inspired tyrant she learns how to cook a seven-course meal for a table of 10 in a grand house, while being chased by Lord Henry’s favourite nephew, the unprincipled Mr Charlie.

Apart from guts and ambition, her only resource is the admiring presence of Mr. Trotter, a super-servant who makes Hudson look like nothing. Together they will conquer the world. It is usual in such enterprises for the period detail to be lovingly worked out, but it is unusual for the characters standing in front of the period detail to be interesting as well.

Thames TV’s satellite link-up with New York, an exchange visit featuring Dick Cavett on this side of the water and Eamonn Andrews over there, has been on every night of the week. The first evening was a catastrophe and I watched no more. The guests found it hard to get a platitude in edgeways, so involved were the hosts in communicating with each other. ‘Dick?’ ‘Eamonn?’ ‘Dick!’ ‘Eamonn?’ ‘It’s Eamonn, Dick!’ I’m told that the standard declined on subsequent nights. On What the Papers Say (Granada), quondam South African journalist Dennis Kiley gave an excellent analysis of what the Press in his homeland is saying — or rather not saying — about Soweto.

The Observer, 12th September 1976