Essays: A Cambridge generation |
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A Cambridge generation

The first in a series of six plays about fifties Cambridge written by Frederic Raphael under the collective title of The Glittering Prizes (BBC2), ‘An Early Life’ starred Tom Conti as an energetic, sensitive, witty and passionate student, singled out by his Jewishness and alacrity of mind.

From the ample pre-publicity there were good reasons to think that Frederic Raphael had based this central character on himself. Whatever the truth of that, Adam Morris (for so the pivotal figure in the play was named, ‘Frederic Raphael’ having presumably been judged too direct) was certainly a good subject for a Bildungsroman — or would have been, had he not arrived in Cambridge with his Bildung already completed.

Normally there is no juicier topic than a bright young man coming up to university and getting his education. But Adam Morris seemed to have got his in the sixth form, leaving him nothing to do with his Cambridge days except (a) make the odd pardonable mistake, and (b) lose his virginity. The odd pardonable mistake lay in underestimating the nasty-looking aristocratic mother of his dying room-mate; from her he learned a lesson in self-denial. He lost his virginity, with enviable lack of fuss, to a beautiful student teacher.

Apart from these events, which were doubtless formative in their different ways, Adam was already uncannily intact — sardonic, wise, mature. He was crass about attacking people’s religious faith, but you could see his reasons. Otherwise he had the aphoristic subtlety of Montaigne. There seemed small reason for his being a student at all. He should have been doing the teaching. Cambridge, for better or for worse, is a place where young people grow and change. Adam was above that. Tom Conti played Adam in a style reminiscent of Peter Sellers pretending to be a lounge-lizard. So tentative and inwardly giggling a manner half-worked when Conti was being Madame Bovary’s husband last year, but didn’t work at all when he was being energetic, sensitive, witty and passionate, singled out by his Jewishness and alacrity of mind. When not emitting one of the clever things Frederic Raphael once said (or else would have said, but thought of too late, and so is saying now), Conti conveyed introspection by encouraging his eyes to glisten wetly, while smiling with secret knowledge.

The hard-to-take hero would have mattered less if the play built around him had given you more idea of what Cambridge in that period was actually like. Doubtless future episodes will. But here, in the instalment that was meant to set the tone, there was precious little sense of anything special going on — and fifties Cambridge, after all, was the time and place when all the hot-shots who have since dominated the media were getting to know one another. They were, or if they weren’t they are, self-consciously a Generation.

Only the contemporary habit of imitating Bluebottle’s voice gave us a sense of time, which was promptly undone by showing us a list of names on a St John’s College staircase done in Letraset instead of hand-painted. The sense of place was most conspicuously given by inviting the mastaba of the University library, the most hideous building in Cambridge, to loom in the background. (E. M. Forster has an excellent essay listing all the vantage points from which it can’t be seen.)

Nor were the epigrams any great shakes. Reviewing a book by Michael Frayn, Mr Raphael once talked about the Cambridge trick of smiling to recruit someone’s intellectual assent, and being intelligent to recruit his affection. This might have been a pseudo-observation (why isn’t it an Oxford trick, or an Aberystwyth trick?), but I could have stood for a few like it in the script. And instead of conflating and disguising the real-life illuminati, it might have been more evocative simply to name them, or even give them identity tags. A dull start.

Clayhanger (ATV) is so-so: better than bad, but less than a knock-out. A lot of it takes place around the dinner table. People like to watch actors eat (Ferenc Molnár wrote a whole play based on this principle) but there are limits. When the action moves elsewhere, the series looks under-budgeted: the Five Towns are less grimy than tatty, with lanes and alleys laid suspiciously flat and walls that shake if you lean against them. Until Janet Suzman arrived in episode three, Harry Andrews as old Darius Clayhanger had to carry the burden, or can, of being the salient figure. A doddle for him, since all he had to do was rant, but tiresome for us. Young Edwin, even though by episode four he had grown up enough to be played by Peter McEnery, was never in the running as the centre of excitement. It was from Hilda Lessways that the boost had to come if the show was to achieve orbit.

It hasn’t happened. Janet Suzman can work every miracle except looking callow. Trying to be that, she is arch. As the series progresses through time she will become more credible, but at the moment we have to watch the most womanly of women pretending to be girlish, which she does by crooking her elbows and talking with a coy trill. If she had less presence, she might get away with it.

How Green Was My Valley (BBC2) has got ‘Clayhanger’ beaten for atmosphere, although here again the main acting is a touch out of whack. Stanley Baker is on his home ground, but doesn’t get much opportunity to prove it, his part requiring him mainly to sit about in his braces looking tolerant. Siân Phillips is a superb actress, but physically too finely drawn for the role — she looks like a runaway countess. Still, the raw material is better processed in this series than it was by John Ford in the Hollywood movie, which had some famous moments but was raddled with sentimentality.

Peter Eyre did a good job of waxing flakily neurotic in Doran’s Box (BBC1), a Centre Play by Eric Coltart. He looked as jumpy as Hell. Unfortunately the play disappeared up its own ellipses — half the time I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and when I could, it wasn’t much. There was an interesting ‘Horizon’ about medical services in Tanzania, called A Fair Share of What Little We Have (BBC2). The Tanzanians have turned away from centralised medicine and big teaching hospitals, concentrating their resources on eradicating widespread diseases from the countryside. Several of these ailments were shown close-to and fought it out for the title of Bad Sight of the Week. Worms in human guts, etc.

On Read All About It (BBC1), A. J. Ayer indulged his bad habit of saying ‘Mm, mm’, impatiently while other people spoke, as if their points were too obvious to require putting. I found this wonderfully unendearing. Lord Chalfont, fronting Who Says It Could Never Happen Here? (Anglia) was also on characteristic form. Aided by Anthony Lejeune, Lord Shawcross and similar deep thinkers, he warned of the Communist threat to democracy. The warnings sounded like a threat to democracy in themselves. Lord Shawcross said that the next ‘five or fifteen years’ would see a totalitarian Government installed in Britain — probably a Communist one. So in four or fourteen years it’ll be time to get your skates on.

The Observer, 25th January 1976

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]