Essays: Cops and sopranos |
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Cops and sopranos

PICKINGS were thin - it was the last week of the dead season. Next week we should start getting some new programmes — or rather you should, since your faithful reporter will be recuperating in sunny Italy. I wanted to be here when ‘Softly, Softly’ started up again, but you can’t win them all.

Kojak began on BBC1. As a curtain-raiser, a film called The Marcus-Nelson Murders was screened on the same channel. This film was announced as one not previously seen here — i.e., it had been shelved. At the start there was a voice-over in the original language, promising us a ‘dramatisation of one of the most controversial’ etc. What followed was a fairly standard New York fuzz opera with the budget upped to allow some location shooting. The script was about a miscarriage of justice being straightened out by a dedicated cop, Kojak. Abby Mann wrote the screenplay, and wrote it exactly the way he wrote epics like ‘Judgment at Nuremberg,’ only instead of good Germans and bad Germans there were good policemen and bad policemen. The thing was lifted — as far as it was ever going to be lifted — by Telly Savalas in the lead. Savalas spent years as a Hollywood heavy. Since the heavies always got better parts than the heroes, he had plenty of practice in handling dialogue. As Kojak he sounded good. And since every maverick cop must have a gimmick, and since Kojak’s gimmick is to be a snappy dresser, he looked good. And that was it. That was your curtain-raiser. Next night the series proper started to roll, and lo and behold the first episode was all about the Syndicate planning a hit.

Judging from the few I saw in America, all the other ‘Kojak’ episodes will be recognisable, too. The locations are, as they say in the trade, a plus; but it would he a grave pity if the planners succumbed to the delusion that ‘Kojak’ might replace the dearly beloved ‘Ironside.’ While never being to any degree interesting as art, ‘Kojak’ is that fatal touch too well made to be fascinating as schlock.

There was quite a lot of music about, of various kinds. As a further stage in his Pevsner-like tracking-down of the opera stars, Bernard Levin called on Grace Bumbry at her hideaway in Switzerland. The lady has a sensational voice with an ego to match. Levin never had to worm out of her the details of how she wowed Sol Hurok, electrified La Scala or devastated Bayreuth. All be had to do was lean back and let her rip. Personally I didn’t mind any of this: modesty isn’t of much help in the arts and in the realm of opera the peripherally situated ego is a rare phenomenon. Flagstad was a sweetie but I haven’t heard of many others. Miss Bumbry is in the grand tradition of the self-regarding diva. She was enjoying her wealth and the enjoyment was hard to condemn. Even Shaw used to concede that the fundamental socialist rule of equal incomes would have to be relaxed in the case of actresses, who couldn’t be expected to function without pampering.

La Bumbry was to be seen razzing through the hills in a red Ferrari Dino. Alternately she bowled along the lakeside drive in a white Rolls, on her way to shop for diamond earrings at a zillion francs the pair. Why should she be guilty about spending her lolly? she asked Levin plaintively — after all, she had worked for it. And work she certainly does. At present her voice is changing from mezzo to soprano, opening up a new range of interpretations. One by one she is now adding the great soprano parts to her store. As she was keen to underline, this involves unremitting labour. The vision-mixer’s trickery enabled us to see and hear her singing the two leading roles in ‘Aida’ simultaneously. Amneris (mezzo) was on the left of the screen and Aida (soprano) on the right. This was good value. Levin is a dab hand at cajoling the stellar presences.

A special called Till Tomorrow (BBC2) featured Don McLean. Made by an independent company, the show was riddled with reaction shots of adoring young females transfixed by the troubadour’s poetic gift. Actually he is pretty good, although self-contained efforts like ‘Vincent’ are the exception in his output rather than the rule. His songs are about something, he has a reason for being there and the audience has a reason for listening. All these factors made the programme one hundred times more vital than Julie Andrews and Jackie Gleason Together (ATV). No one expects the mums and dads to watch Don McLean. But Sir Lew Grade’s assumption that they will therefore want to watch Julie Andrews seems quixotic. She will be, I suspect, the first human being to be issued as a cassette.

Les Dawson starred in Holiday with Strings (Yorkshire), a Galton and Simpson fantasy made suddenly topical by the Court Line floppola. Les was off on a dreadful package holiday, flying with an airline so broke they were raffling the meals. The script was fairly average, but Dawson is easy on the eye: a roly-poly panic merchant who looks as if his whole life is booked with Clarkson’s.

Lorna Pegram produced and René Cutforth narrated an able programme called The Thirties Revisited (BBC2). The footage of how the working class was once required to live was as salutary as ever: the necessary connection was drawn between Busby Berkeley’s choreography and a Nuremberg rally, and the commentary had point. Film of Neville Chamberlain in action was, as always, conducive to mingled hilarity and grief. The summing-up of the arts was not as glib as it might have seemed to the uninitiated — Cutforth, after all, knew of whom he spoke. Throughout the epoch there was a terrible gap between what men of goodwill thought should happen and what was actually going to happen. It’s a touchy subject still, and was well treated.

About After the Parcel Exploded (BBC1) there is not much to say except that it’s a vicious fate to be blinded and maimed by a bomb that wasn’t even meant for you in the first place. Rage would seem justified, but the brave victim showed little. The second of the three Wynford programmes (Thames) was as good as the first. Vaughan-Thomas’s powers of evocation are remarkable. Joining the BBC, he was interviewed personally by Sir John Reith. ‘He got up from behind his desk. I thought he was already standing.’ His descriptions of a Parteitag in Nuremberg and of a bombing raid on Berlin (‘a light nightmare’) were brilliantly economical. He was in on the liberation of the Burgundy district: ‘Three days from cellar to cellar struggling our way northwards.’ Next week, Belsen. Not so funny. In the delectable micro-series Preludes (Thames), Lympany played Rachmaninov, putting the week’s pop and rock nicely in perspective. Not in the shade — just in perspective. And now it’s time to take it on the lam. I leave you, for four weeks, in the capable hands of Tom Stoppard.

The Observer, 1st September 1974