Essays: Chastity pants |
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Chastity pants

TELEVISION cameras were absent from the two most sensational news stories of the year, thereby disproving the hallowed theory that every event is a media event or else nothing.

There were no cameras watching when the German commandos triumphantly stormed the hijacked airliner in Somalia. News programmes had to make do with the same sort of Artist’s Impressions which appeared in the daily papers. Nor was there even a single lens present at the even more epoch-making moment when Mormon missionary Kirk Anderson succumbed to the blandishments of former beauty queen Joyce McKinney. Whatever took place, took place away from prying eyes. Yet the world is fascinated.

Fascinated above all by Kirk’s underpants. It appears that Mormon missionaries wear a special nether garment which renders it easier for them to remain pure when facing up to operational hazards in the field. Whether the chastity pants help ward off temptation, or else make temptation impossible to act upon once yielded to, or both, remains unclear. News reporters on all channels gave details of what was happening in court, but the chastity pants, if mentioned, were not described. Surely I was not alone in wondering how these nullifying knickers worked their trick.

Roughing out a few speculative designs in my notebook, I quickly realized that the garment, like a multi-role combat aircraft, would have to fulfil varying, and in some cases directly contrary, functions. It would be impossible to eliminate body wastes, for example, without exposing the potentially unruly member to the outside atmosphere. Once released, the aforesaid appendage could obviously get up to anything, unless artificially restricted. Some form of clamp was indicated. But in that case...

By this time my sketch looked like a cross between a tank turret and a swagged boiler, so I gave up. Television news programmes will come of age when we are told these things as a matter of course, and are not left in a fever of curiosity.

Rock Follies of 77 (Thames) came to the end of its exultant course. In the last two episodes the Little Ladies were embroiled in various processes of paying dues, going through changes, and getting it together. Actually the only thing that occurred was the inevitable: an unwritten law, that talent is destiny, was working itself out. Anna and Q went to the wall. Dee and Rox headed for the top.

The chief subject of Howard Schuman’s continuously excellent script was how the remorseless logic of showbiz success is really both those things — remorseless and logical. In real life there might be room for sentiment, but in the sentimental world of popular music everything is real.

Even at their most imaginative, all the details were authentic. Kitty Schreiber (Beth Porter) really would say, ‘We don’t want to flaunt our dirty linen in front of the Melody Maker,’ and the Melody Maker reporter really would shamble about making semi-articulate sounds. Close observation was the basis of the show’s inventiveness. ‘Rock Follies’ had its low moments, but on the whole it deserves its reputation as one of the most original television series ever made. And on top of all that, it had Little Nell.

‘Rock Follies’ Explored, as they say, the Medium, but Exploring the Medium was not its first concern. Its first concern was to tell a story. Any work of art which sets out in the first instance to Explore its Medium will never be any good. This ancient truth sorely needs to be restated in a week which saw Verdi’s Macbeth (BBC2) given a production whose transcendental lousiness was rubbed in by a swathe of Radio Times articles hailing it as a breakthrough. These strident claims — several of which were made by the producer, Brian Large, on his own behalf — added up to a confident assertion that the opera had at last been translated into television terms. In fact it had been translated into a disaster. It sounded all right, but it looked like hell.

Calling it ‘the first British television studio production’ helped distract attention from the awkward fact that within living memory Southern TV transmitted the Glyndebourne ‘Macbeth’ with brilliant success. I suppose Brian Large would have called that transmission stage-bound, but since it was a superlative staging anyway, and was shot with great subtlety, there was small reason to object. Besides, even if it is granted that an opera needs to be translated into television terms, Brian Large is not necessarily the ideal man for the task. Some of the more gullible critics might have cried up his production of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ (‘made television history’ — TV Times), but in fact it was a load of old rubbish compared with, say, the recent German television production of ‘Fidelio’, which really did exploit the flexibility of the camera, although with such delicacy that you hardly noticed.

There was no hope of failing to notice what Brian Large got up to with ‘Macbeth’. The settings and costumes recalled the Orson Wells film of the same name, a cheap rush-job which in turn recalled Eisenstein. The designer informed us, per media the TV Times, that he was ‘not too worried’ about where the action was supposed to be taking place and that he was bent on achieving a ‘Slavonic feel’, thereby avoiding the ‘Dark Ages thing’.

I can refer him with confidence to Verdi’s letters, where he will find the composer always careful to remind ambitious designers that the action is set in Scotland, not in Ancient Rome, and that they should therefore confine themselves to achieving a Scottish feel. The Dark Ages thing was exactly what he was after.

The banquet scene was set in a cross between an automat and a launderette, with a plastic pig rotating on a spit. Containing some of Verdi’s finest early music, this is a hard scene to muck up, but here was proof that it can be done. The final battle was feeble beyond belief. Banquo’s ghost (Verdi was particularly concerned that the Brian Larges of his day should not fart around with Banquo’s ghost) turned up as a head on a platter — suddenly it’s ‘Salome’! What Macbeth was doing with a Star of David** scratched on his chest I hesitate to think. But enough.

The second part of Eustace and Hilda (BBC2), adapted by Alan Seymour from L.P. Hartley, had excellent performances in the name parts. Christopher Strauli was so vulnerable, wet and exhausted you could hardly stand him, whereas Susan Fleetwood was vitality incarnate. She has the air of resembling what the Winged Victory of Samothrace might have looked like if only it had kept its head.

[ ** the figure was a pentagram, not a hexagram or the Magen David ]

The Observer, 11th December 1977

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket, but incorrectly dated “20th November 1977” ]