Essays: Caught on the hop by Frost |
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Caught on the hop by Frost

MY arrival at Heathrow last weekend, after a fortnight’s dissipation on the Continong, was timed to miss the Frost show by an hour and the Eurovision Song Contest by a day.

The second part of the plan worked perfectly, but Frost pulled a nifty switch, decamping from LWT on Sunday night while your critic slept and setting himself up for a dire Show of the Week (BBC-2) on Monday. Like Rommel reduced to a handful of cannibalised PzKw III’s and a few jerry-cans of captured petrol, he unaccountably chose to advance instead of retreat. The effrontery was paralysing.

One finds, when watching a show like this, that the under-nourished brain brims with imaginary conversations. One imagines some Light Ent big-wig backing the producer, Ian Macnaughton, into a corner and telling him that he has to take David Frost, a clutch of actors of no proven comic ability, a battalion of scriveners whose mediocrity ranges from the prentice to the established, and a minstrel of mind-calcifying banality, and make a show out of them.

One imagines Macnaughton saying: ‘Great, great! We’ll work it out on the floor, hen! Great!’ And one imagines an even bigger wig backing Macnaughton deeper into the same corner and whispering that David’s artistic adviser, Neil Shand, should be given a full-screen credit as a Creative Consultant. ‘What’s that, hen? Creative Consultant? Great!’ A feast for eye and ear, and any passing carnivorous birds.

I caught the second edition of BBC-2’s Access show Open Door and discovered — perhaps too hastily — that it tended to confirm my suspicions about the advisability of handing the tools of communication to the untrained.

The lack of training comes across more strongly than the message. Neville Shulman, whose seriousness is not in doubt, contended that professional television doesn’t deal with elementary facts such as the way people choose not to help one another. A producer would have told him that it deals with them all the time.

Equally, Shulman would have done better to read a script from autocue than to speak off the top of his head. That way, he would have got more in. After Shulman had stepped down, an outfit called Responsible Society came on and told us how porn was brutalising youth. More reluctant than they are to pronounce with confidence on cause and effect, I can only say that I believe their point to be stronger than most liberals do. They put it, however, abominably. With all this said, though, I think the door should stay open and the room within be made larger.

Onwards, with Man Alive (BBC-2), here to be seen calling itself ‘Herne Bay is Alive with The Sound of Music.’ Dealing with an amateur production of the aforesaid dubious classic, this cunning film brilliantly proved that the real difference between an amateur (pejorative sense) and a professional (commendatory sense) is that the amateur isn’t worried enough about being inadequate.

The gargling death-rattle of the church contralto — how well I remember it from callow days of yore! Now here it was again. Disgruntled members of the cast complained how the director had turned the democracy of their cosy little society into a dictatorship: innocents that they were, they were learning their first solid lesson about artistic reality. The director did his block with increasing frequency as the night loomed.

‘It opened up a new era for the Herne Bay stage,’ wrote the local reporter, who plainly has a big future as a Creative Consultant. ‘One could almost say that the Downs were alive with the sound of music.’ The sharp notes scattered like a scalded milk-bottle on a winter doorstep, the flat ones fell like ashes on Pompeii. Horrible and exquisite.

No bigger gulf, wrote Scott Fitzgerald, than the one separating the professional from the amateur in the arts. Worth remembering while watching Olga (Granada), a ravishing film brought back from Russia by John Sheppard. Personally I thought Olga Korbut pulled some emotional tricks in Munich that she wouldn’t have got away with if she looked her 17 years instead of 12.

Tourischeva and Lazacovitch are surely the more accomplished gymnasts at this stage. Where Olga excels already, of course, and where she will shortly set whole new standards, is in her flights into danger.

As all great swimmers must possess the quality of glide, the great gymnast must have the Nijinskyan ability to leap and pause. Here we saw Olga practising a new routine, flip-flapping into a high back dive that stayed up there for an age before collapsing into a pile of sponge rubber. A few thousand times more and she’ll have it. And on the asymmetric bars she’s got a terrifying new thing going where she drops from the high bar and hits the low one with her stomach convex instead of concave. Probably only somebody with her low mass can manage it without getting killed.

The programme had some kitsch elements (we had Leni Riefenstahl-type editing and the music from ‘The Onedin Line’) but couldn’t help being a knockout. In the age of electronic memory, the once-ephemeral sculpture of the art-sports is by now clearly the inheritor of the classic spirit. About five years from now, when Olga’s perfected programme on the asymmetric bars can be filmed inside a globe of high-speed cameras and translated from a few quick yards and seconds into its full volumes of time and space, we’ll be seeing what really came next after Bernini.

Midweek (BBC-1) did a good film on John Bloom, now selling cheap food to imbecilic revellers in Los Angeles and laying claim to a new sense of responsibility. Total Eclipse (BBC-2) was a play about Rimbaud and Verlaine (‘Won’t you sit down, Monsieur Rimbaud? Monsieur Verlaine will be along later’) that didn’t come near. For the man who wrote ‘Bateau Ivre’ to speak roughly is understandable: for him to speak without rhythm is a non sequitur. Steeleye Span was In Concert (BBC-2): two of my ideas of heaven are listening to Maddy Prior sing and watching her dance. The Labour Party starred in the ever-gripping Party Political Broadcast (all channels) and proved once again that they need a Creative Consultant.

The Observer, 15th April 1973