Essays: Compassion in transit |
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Compassion in transit

AN 80-minute BBC-1 documentary called The Block provided the week’s sensation — the hope being, of course, that the sensation would last a lot longer than a week and the ripples run all the way to shore. By next day the programme was being called the biggest thing to hit the housing debate since ‘Cathy Come Home.’

One supposes, with some reluctance, that this is the kind of effect to aim at — you try to generate a huge, collective bellow of outraged compassion, trusting that the resulting climate of embarrassment will move those responsible to live up to their responsibilities. Or — if it turns out that nobody is responsible — that those responsible for appointing responsible people will he moved to live up to their responsibilities. The chances of nothing happening seem to me very large.

Nevertheless, information has an absolute value and ‘The Block’ contained a fair amount of information. Chaucer House is run by the Southwark Borough Council as a transit camp for the homeless. The Borough of Southwark was keen for the BBC to point out at regular intervals throughout the programme that such dens of misery are by no means confined to the Borough of Southwark. Glumly, one nodded agreement. The word ‘alienation’ fitted the poor people on screen like a ratty old glove. Impassive ladies sat on the far, far side of desks from housing officers handing down the word about a new domicile, minus bathroom.

Not that the officers came out of the programme looking anything less than dedicated: the apparently invisible vérité camera found not a tinge of bloody-mindedness in anybody. The council’s vetting officer looked pretty rugged, but you couldn’t doubt he was the best man for the job, given the circumstances. It was the circumstances that were the villains. Those caught in them looked and sounded unattractive in the extreme. In this ‘The Block’ had it over ‘Cathy Come Home,’ which inadvertently implied that you could descend into the pit and still run a chance of bumping into Carol White. What you bump into, without let-up, is people with dead eyes.

On Line-Up the following night the programme’s producer, Paul Watson, told Michael Dean how he had asked for and received permission from the BBC to suspend his scheduled activities and move into the area to soak up the scene. No, the cameras hadn’t changed people’s behaviour a bit — they had too much on their minds. Yes, people had come to him with their problems — his education marked him out. Watson is obviously a complex character of great sympathies and abilities. Perhaps he’s the man to produce the TV programme we’re eventually going to need: the TV programme about how TV programmes change things.

Susan Fleetwood was in the latest episode of Granada’s ‘Country Matters’, A. E. Coppard’s The Watercress Girl, adapted by Hugh Leonard. This one came over stronger than their version of H. E. Bates’s The Mill, which got bogged down in the impossible problem of providing a visual equivalent for the total vacuity Bates established in his heroine’s thought-processes. Coppard’s Mary McDowall has more oomph, and your Susan Fleetwood is just the girl for conveying that. Superb on stage with her rangy, flowing movement, she’s got even more going for her on screen, including a marvellous mouth for hinting at naughty thoughts. The excellent Gareth Thomas had no trouble being credible about getting driven bonkers with desire. Before this, Susan Fleetwood has been available only in a single episode of ‘The Man from Haven.’ It’s to be hoped she’ll do television more often. Derek Granger’s enterprise in laying on an entire series of filmed plays is working out to some purpose, but I think the important wrinkle is not so much the film as the raw material — short stories, which flesh out more reflectingly than novels boil down.

On Tuesday BBC-1 played its autumn comedy ace My Wife Next Door, starring John Alderton and Hannah Gordon. The first episode didn’t connect as cleanly as one had been led to expect. Alderton and Gordon play two young divorcees who accidentally take up residence next door to each other. Shades of ‘Private Lives.’ Shades too, unfortunately, of the brand of dumb-bunny domestic sit-com usually featuring lan Carmichael being wonderful about the kids while Wendy Craig learns to boil water.

Alderton is without doubt the funniest young male lead in television today, with a line in delayed takes and out-of-phase burns that makes most of the recognised comedians look clumsy. Hannah Gordon has been terrific in good plays and good in a rotten series — the dreadful ‘Brett,’ in which she bore up nobly as the sophisticated French mistress of the thick hero. Alderton and Gordon are well matched but the situation’s incidentals were disturbingly twee at first blush: what on earth is all this baloney about Gordon suing for divorce because of Alderton cuddling-up to his prize moose-head? It’s the sort of half-arsed dottiness they dish out in West End comedies with titles like ‘There’s A Bead Up My Nose.’

Sets were poor, the back-drops cheap, there were too many musical links and stingers, and they’d even miked the audience right next to the lady with the cough. Most of these troubles will go away, but the dialogue won’t get more edge unless somebody decides it should. Still, they’re about six episodes ahead of us: perhaps they’ve given the show some spine already.

Yorkshire’s Home James was a first-rate little back-to-the-roots documentary about James Mason hieing home to Huddersfield and leaving behind all that mad stuff like world fame and Swiss taxes. Which is as far as the ironic tone can be pushed, since Mason’s brooding dignity as a man leaves little room for doubts about his seriousness. Two hundred family businesses dominate Huddersfield, Mason said, but the rich are still integrated with the community: no absenteeism at the top, and not much alienation at the bottom.

People hang on to their money and aren’t eager to go anywhere. Four-year apprenticeships are served without a murmur, ‘Settled people,’ insisted Mason in his velvet rasp, and you saw his point: especially considering that almost everybody in town playa a musical instrument, the place looks like a day-dream by Richard Hoggart.

Nevertheless, subversive thoughts niggle. Do the same untroubled attitudes as go with the wool trade come out of David Brown’s engineering works, nowadays the bigger employer? Those production lines don’t look as friendly as the looms. And how does Mason enjoy the conversation of the rich at that permanent party moving from house to house? Hard not to wonder. A good programme, though, and the photography, by the redoubtable Mostafa Hammuri, was faultless — the city looked as beautiful as the hills.

Suddenly last summary: Line-up featured a retired madam called Xaviera Hollander, who gave Michael Dean a detailed and strictly shameless rundown about her horizontal rise to fame, and, oddly, came over as the most pampered-looking up-market dolly-bird of the week. More angular was the interesting Jenny Fabian on Film ’72, declaring her adoration of sex and dope. Both girlies might have been brought into existence specifically to plague Lord Longford, who was himself electronically in evidence on a massive scale, showing — especially on Midweek — a notable incapacity to put up with contradiction, interruption, or indeed anything less than total corroboration abjectly offered. His credentials as an expert on humility seem to me diaphanous. On Controversy (BBC-2) Professor Richard Scorer said Concorde wouldn’t hurt the ozone. Some ozone experts said it would. Impasse.

The Observer, 24th September 1972