Essays: Cloth-cap heroes |
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Cloth-cap heroes

IN a Chronicle (BBC2) about Egyptian mummies, it was revealed that the dear departed, as a climax to the process of being embalmed, had his brains pulled out through his nose with a hook. I received this information with a sigh of gratitude. At last someone had defined what it feels like to watch Hughie Green.

The Egyptians had a rigidly stratified society even in death. Top people were elaborately wrapped and went first-class mail. The lower orders were rolled up in a mat and planted in any old dune. None of this could happen in modern-day Britain, where the class system has, of course, vanished entirely.

Television, however, is still fascinated with the whole idea. Hence the ever-increasing number of series about the not-too-distant, but on the other hand not-too-recent, past. Most such projects feature heroes in cloth caps. But the basic appeal lies not so much in the period decor as in the class-conflicts. Even a hack writer can botch together a playable scene when all the dramatis personae are wearing their origins and aspirations on their sleeves — or, in the case of the heroes, on their heads. More gifted scribes can conjure up richly meaty characters out of what are, when you get down to it, types. If the thing is done well enough, you don’t detect the whiff of formula.

When the Boat Comes In (BBC1) was very well done. It came to an end last week. Despite a brilliant central performance by James Bolam, I had always been inclined to patronise this series. Bolam wore his cloth cap with an air. He was a highly believable source of vital, militant, working-class energy. But the show always threatened to belong in the category of those which end with the roof of a coal mine falling on the hero’s father. As it happened, this one was an exception. It did not end with the roof of a coal mine falling on the hero’s father. It ended with the roof of a coal mine falling on the hero.

Subtract the charm from ‘When the Boat Comes in’ and you get Holding On (LWT), Mervyn Jones’s picture of working-class life in London from one World War to the next, by way of the General Strike and the Depression. Shelved for two years before it finally got on the air, this is a worthy series done from honest commitment, but its dedication to grinding humdrum has made it hard viewing on the whole. In the General Strike episode you were made to see how Churchill established himself as the enemy of the workers. Cloth-cap operas are at their best when they stand social values on their heads and show them to make more sense upside down. But to have your ideas shaken up is never in itself a sufficient reason for viewing. Scott Fitzgerald’s old rule still applies: start with a character and you might at least end up with a type, but if you start with a type you will end up with nothing.

Or with Wings (BBC1). A cloth-cap plot with a flying helmet worn awkwardly on top of it, here is a story which becomes ever more negligible as the episodes buzz by. The aeroplanes look human enough but the people exude engine oil. The RFC was a mirror of the class system, but unfortunately this series is nothing like a mirror of the RFC. As with ITV’s frightful ‘The Pathfinders’ (now shamelessly being repeated), the writing has no genuine relation to the historical period in which it purports to be set. The tip-off is the dialogue, which has a tin ear for time. Anachronisms abound.

But there is no point in getting angry. After all, it’s only television, where good stuff makes you forget the size of the screen, but nonsense is reassuringly confined within a space less than two feet across. A few days ago, by some mischance, I happened to see Sam Peckinpah’s new epic ‘Cross of Iron.’ Similarly devoted to class conflict, the script was even crappier than that of ‘Wings’ (‘It’s quiet.’ ‘Yes. Too quiet.’), but the acreage of visual psychosis dazed the mind and rotted the soul. I don’t envy Russell Davies his job. Nothing on telly this week was anything like so horrible — not even the mummies, not even Hughie, not even Magnus Pyke turning up unexpectedly on Just a Nimmo (BBC2).

Closer to now, with cloth caps less acceptable as heroic headgear, series about ordinary British life are harder to write. When they flourish at all, they do best as comedies. Now that the ‘Likely Lads’ are off the air, The Cuckoo Waltz (Granada) is probably the best of the genre currently available. The Hawthornes are ordinary, struggling young marrieds, but they look the picture of health and wouldn’t know a class-conflict if they saw it. The plots usually turn on whether it is better to be married, like Chris, or free, like his friend, Gavin. Since Chris’s wife, Fliss, iss — sorry is — played by the adorable Diane Keen, it’s an academic question.

Robin’s Nest (Thames) is along the same lines, except that the young couple run a restaurant and are not married. Since they behave exactly as if they are, the series scarcely deserves its reputation for daring, but let’s pretend that everything is as naughty as it should be. The hero, Richard O’Sullivan, employs the same style of laid-back mugging which won him fame in ‘Man About the House.’ The gag-writing is more eclectic than in ‘Cuckoo Waltz.’ Often groan-provoking, it has the occasional stroke of invention to repay your time. But even at their chirpy best, such programmes leave you wondering about whatever happened to the urban proletariat. Isn’t it about time that the economic crisis started creating a bit of suffering down there? Why aren’t we hearing about it? The sit-coms remain firmly encamped in the Affluent Society.

The non-humorous series try to deal with a bit more of the reality, but need twice as much inspiration if they are to snare your attention. This Year, Next Year (Granada), a new series from John Finch, of ‘Sam’ fame, traces some classless urbanites back to their strictly classified, cloth-cap origins in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s got more brains than Another Bouquet (LWT forever), but will that make you prefer it? Meanwhile Fathers and Families (BBC1), which I was careful to greet as something rather better than just the Beeb’s ‘Bouquet,’ turns out to be something rather worse. Too ambitious for soap opera, it is not observant enough to be serious. Anna Carteret, a fine actress, did her best to hold the latest episode together, but the dialogue was unspeakable.

The feature-length introductory episode of the new American fuzz import Serpico (BBC1) had some well-worn situations (car-chase under the El, loan shark doing his rounds) but some good lines (‘Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds,’ ‘You and me are joined at the hip until I get my 24 Gs.’). Why do their hacks write better than our hacks?

Omnibus (BBC2) did another in its series of Old Masters. The artist was Titian. The paintings looked beautiful. The commentary was boring as hell.

The Observer, 13th February 1977