Essays: The comic truth |
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The comic truth

THE way Mrs Fawlty says ‘I know, I know’ in Fawlty Towers is getting into the language. You can hear people copying her all the time.

It might be argued, of course, that this frightening mannerism was in the language already. All John Cleese and Connie Booth did was to notice it, write it down and get Prunella Scales to say it. The transfigurative element lies in the way she says it. She sounds a bit like Lord George-Brown — the voice shifts abruptly to the upper nasal cavities like a stereo signal switching from one speaker to the other. In addition she wields a terrible laugh, beginning with the sound of a pneumatic drill and ending with the tide going out. Ordinarily I am proof against comic turns which come on week after week to be greeted with torrents of applause for saying nothing except ‘Can I do you now, Sir?’ or ‘Mind my bike.’ But Mrs Fawlty is a different case. Her mere presence ensures that Basil will quickly be driven to the extremities of his identity crisis.

In ‘Fawlty Towers’ humour takes off for the Empyrean from an airstrip firmly constructed in reality. That the wife should possess all the emotional coherence, and the husband be continually falling apart, seems to me not just an elementary role-reversal but a general truth of such power that it is only in comedy you will see it stated. In my experience there is usually an absolute difference in the integrity of selfhood between women and men, with the men driven from pose to pose (‘an unbroken series of successful gestures’ was Scott Fitzgerald’s ideal of personality) and only the women enjoying a sure knowledge of what it means to be themselves.

The second episode of The Glittering Prizes (BBC2) was better than the first episode by the distance between successful and unsuccessful melodrama. Like almost everybody of my acquaintance I watched it fascinated, although unlike them I am without the advantage of being able to discuss its nuances with me. If left alone I suppose I could talk the matter over with myself, but nobody will leave me alone: they keep coming up to me and launching on a fulsome precis of the second episode of ‘The Glittering Prizes,’ with copious references to the first episode, plus a disquisition on the genius of Frederic Raphael.

What do I, they ask, as a professional TV critic, think of ‘The Glittering Prizes?’ And then, after I have conquered my better judgment and opened my mouth, they insert a stout stick between my jaws, back me against the wall, and tell me what they think.

The second episode showed a gaggle of star students intermingling their love lives. The strength of the writing lay in the clarity with which the above-mentioned Great Truth was recognised. Women are more of a piece than men, especially early on: the difference is particularly great during the years when bright people are busy being students. Raphael showed us a girl student outstripping in comprehension the boy who got her pregnant — they were equal in brains, but only she could be said to have a heart.

These scenes were well written and Angela Down was superlative in them. For a while you could see a person, and even conjecture about what that person might become. Certainly she seemed to deserve a less melodramatic fate than ending up with the solid man who wanted to lead an unexciting life. If she was too good for the posing rotter, wasn’t she too bright for the plodding square? Still, at least you could speculate.

Concerning the alleged high-steppers, speculation was less rewarding. Mark Wing-Davey played a hustling man of the theatre. Somebody told me that this character was supposed to be Jonathan Miller, but no resemblance could have been intended, since than Jonathan Miller nobody could be less ruthless.

Whoever he was based on, the opportunistic schlepper was too melodramatically conceived to be real. He lurched about declaring his intention of never returning to his humble origins. As the initial impulse propelling his quest for the top, this was plausible enough, but to indicate the basis of a man’s motives isn’t sufficient to explain him. Here, as elsewhere in the series so far, you wanted to learn more about the influence of Cambridge itself. Apart from the dinner jackets and the flash chat, there was still no reason why the story couldn’t have been set in a teacher’s training college.

Bouquet of Barbed Wire (LWT), by Andrea Newman, is a semi-interesting mini-series about a man’s involvement with his own daughter. Dad is played by Frank Finlay, an actor so interesting that it is advisable to watch him whatever he is involved in. Last week he got involved with his secretary, the dishy Deborah Grant.

In A Third Testament (BBC2), Malcolm Muggeridge was on about Kierkegaard, whose opinions he found much to his taste, especially the one about the masses being wrong even when what they say is right. Kierkegaard was used as a stick with which to beat Marx, who was supposed to have initiated the folly of thinking numerically. A dispassionate observer might have pointed out that one of Marx’s reasons for writing as he did was out of revulsion at the inhumanity of industrialists who were already thinking numerically on their own account. But Muggeridge’s late-flowering spirituality is beyond such considerations. He even managed to convince himself that Kierkegaard shared his contempt for television, presumably by clairvoyance. To appear on television and explain the futility of television to the masses whose opinion is not worth having — truly this is the work of a saint.

The Brothers (BBC1) has returned, praise Allah. Sporting a wizard-prang RAF-style moustache, Brian is back from the nut-ward. Can he hold down his old job as company accountant? ‘We live in a fast world’, warns Paul. Edward and Jenny are in danger of losing the child they are fostering. Jenny is reacting by going mad. Perhaps she was always a bit strange — a suspicion reinforced by her taste in lampshades.

I very much liked Grease Monkey (BBC2), an oratorio about restoring an old Matchless motorcycle. Didn’t much care for Trilby (BBC1). Was Decision — Steel (Granada) the dullest documentary in history? Couldn’t tell. Passed out during the opening discussion. ‘I didn’t say ... the decision ... sorry ... over and above that which ... mmwrgh...’

The Observer, 1st February 1976

[ A brief extract from this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]