Essays: The golden crumpet |
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The golden crumpet

IT’S a fair while since we all first sang our praises of The Golden Bowl (now finished its re-run on BBC2), and in the meantime it seems to have gone on flowering, with the videotape itself acquiring an additional brushed luminosity, or perhaps I am romancing.

Granted that Cyril Cusack’s role as the link-man Is thankless, that Daniel Massey must grapple with an insubstantial part, and that some of the American accents are forced and empty — was there ever a classic series more delicately done? ‘The Golden Bowl’ is television at the peak of the craft. And for the residual chauvinist pig still lurking in the enlightened psyche of the urban liberal male, there is also the outstanding beauty of Jill Townsend and Gayle Hunnicutt. When either is on screen it is a sweet violence to the eye. When they are both on screen together it’s like being pelted to death with orchids and hummingbird feathers.

Explaining it away hastily under familial pressure, one tends to characterise such a swooning reaction as aesthetic rather than sexist. Nor is this merely a ploy: everybody is interested in the problem of beauty. It’s just that we have such wildly differing ideas of it. ‘Miss World,’ one goes on insisting, is a cattle-drive, populated entirely by leucotomised boilers with unsynchronised elbows and feet like jeeps. The really important crumpet, one heretically proclaims, is on Call My Bluff (BBC2) where the attentive watcher can collect such ravishing specimens as Merle Park, Helen Mirren and (both in the same recent transmission) Joyce Hopkirk and Fiona Lewis. The last named, for example, has got something going with the camera that will never be dreamed of in the current Miss World’s girlish credo. A beauty contest might occasionally come up with a winner radiating symmetry and health like a box of Alpen, but personality (in which the obligatory, what-a-doll, detached sexiness ends, and the accidental, wreck-your-life, involved sexiness begins) will nearly always remain at the level of being nervous about meeting Michael Aspel.

A useful rule of thumb — but the thumb got broken this week by Miss London 1973 (Thames), which was won by Julia Vidler, whose off-beat comeliness was enough to amaze the jaded, enslave the pure, and start clocks. It is to be hoped that after the regulation screen chance in a horror movie she quickly retires from the beauty business, since the fact that she has got anywhere at all in it is just a fluke. She should have been ruled out from the beginning by her high spirits alone.

Her polite fit of developer-bashing was encouraging to hear, and linked up nicely with Sitting on a Fortune (BBC 2), a ‘Man Alive’ episode which I finally caught up with when it was repeated last Saturday. As always in such programmes, there was a young local councillor (for Camden on this occasion) whose articulateness, kindness and manifest good sense made you wonder why he wasn’t running the country at £1,000 a week instead of working himself to death for zero financial reward in the effort to stop a hunting-pack of bloody-mouthed developers ripping his borough to pieces before selling it back to themselves. Christopher Booker and Bennie Gray, intelligent men both, are convinced that the only hope is for councils to organise their own developing and so reap a benefit in amenities. But what emerged most forcefully — no surprise this, just a further instalment of the aching awareness we have all shared for years — was the extent to which the Government favours the plunderer against the plundered. To indicate just how well the Government thought everything was going, there was some full-frontal footage of Geoffrey Rippon enjoying a protracted spasm of complacency: not a pretty sight.

BBC2’s ‘Tuesday Documentary’ went with a rifle section of the Green Jackets for a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. The show was called Last Night Another Soldier... and was a gripper. The soldiers could not have been more ordinary. There was no pretence that they were anything except deadly afraid most of the time. They didn’t want to be in Ireland, but were in Ireland because they were in the Army, in which they didn’t particularly want to be either. Nor did they look to be any better than I am at telling Catholics and Protestants apart or caring about the difference.

Flak-jackets were issued on arrival. ‘Don’t like this one,’ said the section’s fat man, handing back a jacket with a bullet-hole in it. Later on one of his mates was to be seen wearing the same jacket. There was some interesting fieldcraft, which changes from war to war. In Ireland it means field dressings taped to the rifle and cap-badges blacked with boot-polish so as not to present an aiming-point in the dark. The section’s black man told of how he tries to stay calm in the norm of racialist filth the natives shout at him. There were the usual close-ups of local rep Mme Defarges and La Pasionarias shrieking their feverish routines. You could almost be sorry for Heath: how sweet it would be just to pack up and quit. Meanwhile, the troops are there as on a darkling plain, amid swarms of kids getting into training by throwing rocks while waiting to grow big enough to handle an Armalite.

On Thames a bigger war — yet briefer by hundreds of years — got as far as Pearl Harbour and the big Japanese push in the South Pacific. Banzai! fully maintained the standards of research that all the previous episodes of ‘The World at War’ had already set, and rather improved on the standards of commentary. The revisionist theory of the conflict in the Pacific — in which it is claimed that the policies of United States Imperialism gave the Japanese ethicists all the arguments they needed for taking over the Government — was barely touched upon, but it is a complicated question and perhaps best left aside. The footage from Nanking was terrifying — we saw a close-up of two of the 200,000 civilians who were massacred actually being shot in the back. A flawed but fabulous series, this.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin Say... (ATV)* was a hymn to youth by Bryan Forbes, whose preliminary encomium for Elton covered the range of the panegyric from agony to ecstasy. ‘Sometimes as bright and unyielding as the diamonds on his fingers,’ chanted the besotted Forbes, ‘sometimes plunged Into self-critical gloom. ... Jealous of his privacy, hating to be private. ... Inventing out of exceptional qualities an exceptional self. ... A copper-bottomed, coast-to-coast sellout. ... The genuine article, the superstar. ...’ Elton played a few nice tunes and Bernie explained how the words just come to him — though not why, since they are so feeble, he doesn’t send them back and try to think of better ones.

The Observer, 9th December 1973

*  “... Goodbye To Norma Jean And Other Things”