Essays: Carry on Creating |
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Carry on Creating

‘A STOLEN moment of passion produced a child named Mavis.’ Each episode of Best Sellers: A Testimony of Two Men (Thames) starts with a synopsis full of lines like that. The series is hopeless, but the synopsis is terrific.

In Clouds of Glory (Granada) Ken Russell, assisted by Melvyn Bragg, gave us a two-part study of Wordsworth and Coleridge respectively. Wordsworth was the tall, spotty one, played by David Warner. Coleridge was shorter and fell about. He was incarnated by David Hemmings.

The first episode was somewhat subdued for Ken Russell. When Wordsworth appeared, he was not attired in Nazi uniform. But the way he lurched towards camera instantly identified the film as being by Russell. After lurching towards camera, Wordsworth lurched away from it across the fells, shouting at them in blank verse. Dorothy Wordsworth, played by Felicity Kendall, flashed her fanny through a muslin négligée.

Cut to the French Revolution. Lying on top of Annette Vallon, Wordsworth addresses her in lyrical cadences while the camera gets a close-up of his skin problem. Suddenly the French Revolution comes bursting through the door. Disillusion.

Back at the Lakes, Wordsworth slowly recovers the urge to Create. ‘You moost eat, Willyum,’ says Dorothy, ‘and you moost start writing again.’ For Ken and Melvyn, the unimaginable thing is to stop Creating. The manifest truth that Wordsworth Created far too much obviously crossed neither of their minds. Points should be awarded, however, for their restraint in not sending William and Dorothy to bed together. The biographical details were left largely unaltered, distortion being confined to the fundamentals. Chief of these was the assumption that Wordsworth’s poetry had everything to do with the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings but nothing at all to do with emotion recollected in tranquillity.

With Coleridge Ken let it all hang out. Getting himself mixed up with the Ancient Mariner and Sarah mixed up with the albatross, Coleridge stabbed her through the heart with what looked like the nineteenth century’s only example of an aluminium anchor, which he had got mixed up with a cross-bow. That was just the start. The rest was a long tussle between Coleridge and the demon opium. The latter got the upper hand, but Coleridge fought back. He screamed. He fell down. He got up. He sent his books crashing to the floor. He sold his books for more opium. He did everything with his books except read them.

Nor did he spend much time writing. Apart from outright hysteria, the highest common factor uniting Ken Russell’s films about great artists is the way you never get any idea of the great artist sitting down to work. One of the things that make great artists great is their capacity to escape the confines of their personal lives and speak for us all. But in Ken’s view a great artist’s art is always just his personality intensified. Brave, committed and adventurous though he be, Ken is essentially a scandalmonger.

I liked Will Shakespeare (ATV) and am sorry to see it end. It had its crudities, but was blessedly devoid of scandal. Most of the events dreamed up by John Mortimer could easily be imagined as having happened. Events just like them, indeed, happen to everyone. Shakespeare’s uniqueness lay in the power with which he expressed the realisation that he was not unique. Merrily bashing out his lines of pewter, Mortimer was yet careful to give Shakespeare a believably ordinary life. Tim Curry brilliantly took the opportunity to portray a man of small outward show and vast inner resources. The scene in which Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth recognised each other’s stature was entirely convincing.

In the series of lectures on Multi-Racial Britain (BBC2), the outstanding paper was delivered by Dr Bhikhu Parekh. Previous speakers had aired most of the issues but he was the one who gave them shape. The triumph of his speech was its positive character. He did not content himself with merely denouncing the idea of repatriation as a trade in human beings. He argued, surely with good reason, that immigration had already been a boon and could well bring about a revival of this country’s waning energies.

Dr Parekh contended, again surely with good reason, that the English character no longer enjoys diversity. In the nicest possible way, but firmly and inexorably, he shifted the focus of attention to where it belongs. The clarity of his forensic manner was a lesson in itself. For people apt to delude themselves that Enoch Powell is a distinguished speaker, here was an example of what a truly distinguished speaker sounds like.

A Falstaff in the same enlightened army of which men like Dr Parekh are the commanders, George Gale went on Thames at Six (Thames) to denounce youngsters who wear Nazi arm-bands when they go to the pub. ‘I always leave immediately,’ growled George. It went without saying that for George to leave a pub is no casual gesture. ‘Thames at Six’ is probably a more interesting grab-bag than Nationwide (BBC1), although if you button-punch between them it is sometimes hard to remember which item happened on what.

For bad taste, ‘Thames at Six’ unquestionably has the edge. A few days ago it produced Judy Carne, fresh from her car crash and still suffering from a broken neck. A steel halo brace, weighing twenty pounds, enclosed her head like a silver cage. It was bolted directly into her forehead. Somewhere inside all this she was still being tirelessly vivacious. ‘They give me medicine for it. I’m really not in pain at all.’ Since ‘Laugh-in’, Judy Carne’s career has gone as haywire as Kathy Kirby’s. For famous people who fail to protect themselves there seems to be no mercy.

‘Nationwide’ featured an amazing collection of apprentice impersonators. From all over Britain, schoolchildren materialised via local studios to give us their imitations of the mighty. There were at least three uncannily accurate Margaret Thatchers, their eyelids fatigued with condescension and their voices swooping and whining like dive-bombers. A boy still in short pants did an Eddie Waring that soared into airy realms of abstract enunciation. He was better at it than Mike Yarwood, having noticed how Eddie’s voice abruptly gets louder or softer as he sways behind the microphone.

A girl did a dazzling Shirley Bassey, her mouth suddenly appearing under one ear. For the 10 minutes that the kids were on, ‘Nationwide’ was a better variety programme than anything the Beeb has recently been able to come up with later in the evening. There was even some sincere laughter from Frank Bough. You can tell when he is laughing sincerely. He looks normal.

In Rhythm on Two (BBC2) Marion Montgomery quietly demonstrated that she possesses Blossom Dearie’s touch, Cleo Laine’s technique, and an elegantly judged oomph all of her own. On Elkie & Co (Thames), Elkie Brooks demonstrated that a rock queen with half the equipment of Marion Montgomery can become ten times as big a star. Elkie used to be a raunchy singer with Vinegar Joe, a band that looked like an angry armpit. Now she has a wardrobe of frocks by Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes. She has been cleaned up, rubbed down, reined in and tricked out. Let’s hope it all pays off.

The Observer, 23rd July 1978

[ A copy of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]