Essays: The master builder |
[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]

The master builder

HAVING missed the first episode, I am still catching up with whatever is going on in Mackenzie (BBC1). Developments happen faster than the mind can sort them out.

It was an error, I can now see, to assume that the series was set in Scotland. In fact Mackenzie, though of Glaswegian origin, has now settled in London, where he is attempting to make it big as a builder. In Glasgow the chances of expressing his building talent to the full were necessarily limited. In London he will be able to build what is in him — a whole row of bungalows, for example. There is creative fire in his eyes, dispelling your suspicions that his thickness of accent might be accompanied by an equal density of mind.

It was also a blunder on my part not to spot that the series is set in 1958. The way that old Ford Consul keeps turning up should have tipped me off. Also Mackenzie’s mistress, the classy model Diana, wears outfits that might have been created by Norman Hartnell, although only during a black-out. All these clues should have been enough to establish the period, but I was led astray by Mackenzie’s haircut. I assumed him to be a fairly ordinary-looking builder from about now. It never crossed my mind that he might be a daringly advanced builder from the Fifties who signals his rebellion by wearing his thatch at a challenging length.

Andrea Newman’s great strength as a writer is that she sees the drama and passion in the lives of ordinary people. Her housewives carry on like Maria Callas. Her builders are driven men. Mackenzie himself is the Lermontov of his profession. He might die in a duel. His sons might stab him. But there is nothing he can do to avert his fate, for his mistress has bewitched him. ‘You’ve got magic hands,’ she breathes, ‘along with a few other magic bits and pieces.’ You can see why Mackenzie has thrown caution to the winds — he has never heard a woman speak so poetically before.

Mackenzie’s wife, a wan nurse known as Jean, appears to have no chance against this kind of competition. ‘I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person,’ she pipes, but there is no denying that the beauteous Diana has the breeding to go with the polish. ‘Her mother,’ someone explains, ‘was Caroline Venables, the great society beauty.’ But Diana is no layabout. She must work hard to keep up the payments on her hideous furniture. The furniture is distributed thinly around a dwelling which was created by Mackenzie. That, I have at last realised, was how they met. She was standing there in a pill-box hat with one foot in front of the other when along came Mackenzie and built a house around her.

Jean has a friend called Ruth. Married to a weed, Ruth finds solace in the arms of Diana’s father, a wise old Hungarian whose name, if I have caught it accurately, is Applecrumb. Ruth would like to tell Jean all about that but can’t. ‘I feel we’re all in terrible danger,’ she tells Applecrumb when they are in bed together (not all of them at once, just her and Applecrumb), ‘She’s your daughter and my friend. He’s my friend too.’ Ruth is putting it mildly, since at one stage Mackenzie was more than her friend. She, too, has run her loving hands over the boiled-potato skin of the priapic builder’s capable back.

‘If Jean has it out with Diana,’ muses Ruth, ‘I’m so afraid that David might with me about you.’ David is Ruth’s feeble husband. He lacks Mackenzie’s creative imagination. Mackenzie keeps on getting richer, but it has no effect on his manners or wallpaper. He goes on wearing his vest under his pyjamas as of old. By this time, however, the distraught Jean is beyond noticing her surroundings. She has called in the priest. To him she pours out her troubles, undeterred by the fact that he is wearing his hair long enough to invite instant defrocking. But if virtue is not rewarded, vice is certainly punished. Diana is bearing Mackenzie’s child. Another little builder is on the way.

Diana’s first instinct is to have an abortion, so as not to interrupt her career as a model, although the clothes she models are so badly cut that she could go on wearing them until she was in labour and nobody would ever know. Her mother has arranged abortions for her before. ‘Is it that builder person?’ But that builder person is outraged when he hears of the plot to kill his child. ‘It’s my child,’ he brogues thickly. ‘I want it.’ Diana looks appalled. Her mother looks intrigued. Her father looks drunk. ‘I could have eaten your Arp,’ he smiles fondly, meaning that he could have eaten her up, not that he could have consumed some surrealist work of art in her possession.

That is as far as my critical analysis has reached, but the series is expanding faster than one’s ability to deal with it, like a home-grown yoghurt. Some general comments, however, might not be out of place at this point. That Andrea Newman’s barbed wire entanglements should prove so wildly popular is no great surprise. She has the energy of the true primitive. Her characters aren’t even cardboard but you care what happens to them. My own prediction is that Mackenzie, while engaged in constructing some revolutionary block of purpose-built maisonettes, will fall off a ladder and be nursed back to health by Jean. Diana’s affair with her own father will end in his death and her suicide or vice versa. Diana’s mother will seduce the priest and the wimpy David will get off with Caroline Venables, leaving Ruth free to pursue her career as a dramatist. One day as she is passing Mackenzie’s abandoned building site she will see a bouquet of barbed wire...

I don’t know what the Greeks did to deserve The Greeks (BBC2). This truly awful series is narrated by its producer, Christopher Burstall, who, I am afraid, has developed a bad case of feeling obliged to give us Something of Himself. ‘Some time ago,’ he told us in the introductory episode, ‘I suggested making four films...’ In later episodes he has shown even greater reluctance to fade into the background. One respects his late-flowering enthusiasm for the Greeks but wonders if enthusiasm is quite enough. Some indication of a willingness to learn Greek, for example, would be an advantage. It is a difficult language to acquire late in life but not impossible, and there is nothing like some acquaintance, however slight, with the original writings to dissuade you from the notion that the Greek philosophers carried on like ham actors lurching around in frocks. 

Denis Healey was the first one of three guests in Parkinson (BBC1) last weekend. He was there to plug his book but also managed the odd bout of political exposition. ‘The most important thing,’ he explained, ‘is to get this Government out.’ This explanation left him no time, unfortunately, for a further explanation, the one about how the Labour Party is to make itself believable again. Before Denis could go into this, Siân Phillips came on and sang ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,’ thereby giving us no idea at all why ‘ Pal Joey’ has become a hot ticket. Then Lee Marvin came on and proved he was a star by speaking too softly for the microphone to pick him up.

The Observer, 28th September 1980
[ A shorter version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]