Essays: A burning passion |
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A burning passion

MIRTH-QUELLING stories of unhappy children dominated the week, moving the average viewer to bless his own luck, while cursing luck itself.

Carol’s Story (BBC1) was a Midweek Special filmed by Angela Pope on behalf of the National Children’s Home, which is to receive the fee. One trusts it will be princely. Actresses re-created the life of a woman who had been brought up in deprived circumstances, sick for affection, and who was now passing on the same deprivation to her own children. It was a familiar story but sharply told, leaving you with a clear picture of unhappiness breeding itself in geometrical progression. The responsible social worker was doing his admirable best to reverse what looked dispiritingly like a one-way tide.

An ‘Inside Story’ called Mini (BBC2) dealt with an altogether less recognisable case, who superficially was not so depressing, but who in the long run got you down equally thoroughly. Michael, alias ‘Mini,’ is a handsome, clever, inventive 11-year-old with the enchantingly gravelly screen presence of the fifties child star George Winslow. Running dialectical rings around his earnest interlocutors, he performed for the cameras with the most astonishing ease. He is a natural actor. He is also a firebug, who on two occasions has tried to burn his own house down while his father was asleep upstairs.

At the Aycliffe Assessment Centre, dedicated attempts were made to uncover Mini’s motivations. ‘Why do you steal fire lighters, or is that a stupid question?’ ‘No, it’s a reasonable question.’ It is very easy to sit at home offering gratuitous advice when worried specialists and desperate parents are grappling with a problem apt to burst into flames at any moment, but I couldn’t help thinking that Mini was simply too bright for his surroundings. His parents, obviously good folk both, pathetically tried to put God into him, when it should have been plain that he wasn’t having any.

And the psychologists (who will read this with scorn) might have at least considered the possibility that Mini, on his own evidence, is more creative than destructive. The theatre is in his blood. A sawn-off Max Reinhardt, he arranged a song-and-dance routine for his sisters. Round-eyed, be recounted the overwlhelmingness of his pyrogenetic urge when he discovered a fireplace full of crushed-up newspapers, plus a virgin box of matches on the mantelpiece. ‘I thought: this is too much temptation. It’s got to happen!’ He’s a dazzling kid. the best company you could wish for. Unfortunately if you take your eye off him he’ll burn you to the ground. At the end of the programme he was being shipped away, for extended treatment. One way or another we shall be hearing from him again, I hope, or fear.

Looking for Clancy (BBC2) has been the telly equivalent of a good read: the Rise from Humble Beginnings to Fame, Disillusion and Death in the Street of Adventure, Jack Pulman’s adaptation of Frederic Mullally’s Fleet Street novel is solidly enough carpentered. The dialogue, though, is for prototypes rather than for people, and one has waited in vain for the main characters to spring into full life. A few plastic wrinkles under the eyes and a Fu-Man-Newcombe moustache do not suffice to make Robert Powell look much older, and when he is supposed to be young his hairstyle is anachronistic.

As Powell’s doomed pal, Keith Drinkel is as stolid as the script demands, which is more stolid than the viewer can take. The minor characters have better chances: a patrician raver in the second episode was particularly memorable, cavorting in the calico with Powell while her impotent Nazi-sympathiser husband watched kinkily through a trick mirror. But on the whole, for all the carefully studied costuming and design, the series smacks of Period rather than of the past. Compare it to your memory of ‘The Girls of Slender Means’ and the difference should be clear enough.

A one-off called The Melting Pot (BBC1), written by Spike Milligan and Neil Shand and performed with a copious admixture of improvisation by Spike Milligan and John Bird, was the worst thing to have happened to race relations since Pharaoh went sour on the Israelites. I ought to have hated it, but was left so panic-stricken with laughter that I don’t know where I stand. It was in such bad taste it was coming back the other way. Objecting to it was like debating against an attack of flatulence: it was a fart accompli.

Every minority group known to science came in for a drubbing. Milligan and Bird were two clueless Pakistani immigrants conned sideways by the natives. Milligan bought a pair of co-respondent shoes that had done only 13,000 miles. He jumped over a wall and crushed a cat. ‘You’ve killed my Nigger!’ screamed a woman. This was the signal for a black policeman to show up and say ‘Pardon me, but who has killed a nigger?’ There was a South African lady with enormous boobs and a house full of Edinburgh Arabs, Birmingham spades, etc., all trading racial bromides on the principle that a script which offends everybody is bound to be impartial. ‘The Melting Pot’ was a disaster, a catastrophe, the terminus. It would make a terrific series.

Helen Reddy had a special on BBC2. I liked some of the singing which fought its way through the over-production on her early albums, but as a rock queen she has always been a non-starter. Despite her feminist stance, she is show-biz to the core — the full, spangled, self-worshipping article. As a big-boned ex-Aussie she couldn’t help looking like Margaret Court, but she could have helped her preprogrammed smarmy patter (‘Oo! Whee! Wow! You’re lovely’) and general air of computerisation. Nor did her three backing singers look all that liberated.

In Edward the Seventh (ATV), Victoria snuffed it, seen off by the usual welter of expositionsville dialogue and weirdly accompanied by the presence of Felicity Kendal, who as Princess Vicky was supposed to be full of years, but who skipped about like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. So Bertie finally makes it to the top of the mound. But has the prize been wasted by the waiting? You can’t help wondering how it will all come out.

The Tribal Eye (BBC2) is great stuff. Objectivity could not entirely cancel Attenborough’s anger at the thoroughness with which the Spanish plundered the Inca cities above the clouds. But a last ember of the ruined civilisations still glowed. The shy vestige of an ancient Colombian tribe, we learned, has just told some missionaries to pack up and scram. Barbara of the House of Grebe (BBC2), a ‘Wessex Tale’ finely directed by David Jones, was a valuable repeat. Horizon (BBC2) was moderately encouraging about new housing projects in Newcastle, now that developers’ architecture is seen by everybody as an enemy of the people. The hidden message (which you first heard in this column) was: Thank God for the Crisis.

James Blades won the Twit of the Week award for his A World of Percussion (BBC2), joining Patrick Moore, David Bellamy and Magnus Pyke in the hallowed Hall of Nutters.

The Observer, 15th June 1975

[ An edited excerpt from this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]