Essays: Cleo in Cuckooland |
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Cleo in Cuckooland

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH’S lecture to the Royal Institution, entitled The Languages of Animals (BBC2), featured some absorbing stuff about how cuckoos get away with it.

It’s the shape made by their yawning beak — the D.A. calls it a ‘supernormal yellow gape’ — that does the trick. The host birds are already programmed to respond to this signal when made by their own nestlings. The cuckoo makes a bigger version of it, and never stops. The combined efforts of the host birds are not enough to fill such a cavity, and the entire avian population of the vicinity ends up by ferrying nosh. At last, I thought, snapping my notebook shut: a metaphor for the Tory hierarchs. That signal Geoffrey Rippon makes is a supernormal yellow gape.

Not that the Labour spokesmen have been any more convincing. On News at Ten (ITN) Robert Kee tried hard to make Tony Benn concede that the Government didn’t have much choice about the three-day week once the Central Electricity Board had told it how much power had to be saved. Benn said, truly enough, that the best way to get the miners back to work would be to give them the money. This, however, by no means answered Kee’s point, which concerned whether or not Benn was unjustifiably accusing the Government of staging a stunt to terrify the public. Kee got annoyed. Benn remained unruffled. The state of his feathers, though, I found an insufficient guide to his line of thought and I studied the shape of his beak with unalleviated perturbation.

Meanwhile, my favourite sit-com, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? returned to BBC1. After a long engagement, Bob had at last married the dreaded Thelma and flown off with her to honeymoon in Norway — as far as they could go, since Bob is so afraid of flying he won’t undo his seat-belt while airborne, and thus can’t go to the toilet, and therefore must confine all flights to a radius within his bladder-range. Thelma, in a T-shirt and trouser outfit with a vicious lightning-flash of sequins between the barbettes, looked ready to ease off on the shrike-like personality for at least one night of joy, but back at home trouble was brewing. The love-starved Terry was trying to seduce her sister Susan, using the nuptial couple’s future home to do it in. Things went badly wrong on the international phone, with the eventual result that neither lad scored on the big night. Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais continue to write with unfailing comic invention, and Anita Carey, playing Susan, is a bonus acquisition for a show that already had everything.

Clearly trying to do another ‘Dad’s Army,’ Jimmy Perry and David Croft have come up with something called It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum (BBC1). I’m not sure whether to let this grow on me or try to scrape it off straight away. The scene is India in 1945, with VJ-day still far off. A concert party of advanced ineptitude is entertaining troops before they entrain for Burma. No less amusing, it is assumed, are the local people. The whole thing is calculated to yield mirth in plenty. Unfortunately the air of calculation is precisely what comes over strongest. Windsor Davies, however, playing a neurotic sar’-major with imperialistic convictions, was very funny straight away. Judgment reserved.

The film Cleopatra dominated last weekend, occupying two entire nights on BBC1. ‘I’ve been reading your carmentary about your campaigns in Gaul,’ Cleo told Caesar. She probably dug the way he divided the country into three parts. Divided into two parts, this most dreadful of movies was even more fascinating than when I first saw it. All kinds of reasons have been proffered to explain its disaster, but only one reason has ever made sense: of the three principals, only two know how to read a line. Cleo’s every address to Seezer has a rare beauty of utterance that sends at least one listener into fits. ‘A woman who cannot bear children,’ she drones, ‘is like a river that is dry.’ Other characters, especially Antony (‘Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus’), have equally duff lines, but lack her uncanny ability to bring out the worst in them. ‘Mark Antony,’ she chirrups, when the purportedly bedazzled triumvir turns up early for a date, ‘how prarmt you are.’ Nay, but this dotage of our generals o’erflows the measure.

Albert Finney and Rachel Roberts graced the screen in E. A. Whitehead’s Alpha Beta (BBC2), which I found Strindbergian to a degree intolerable in current circumstances. The film from Stalingrad (episode 9 of The World at War, on Thames) was not much help either. At the height of the battle the German troops died at the rate of one every seven seconds. Nasty, but better to face facts than gloss them over: a World About Us on the Trans Amazonica road in Brazil told us a lot about how the Indians are dying off but remarkably little about the allegations — surely considerable by now — that a good proportion of the killing is in cold blood.

On Sporting Superstars (BBC1) David Vine said ‘the first thing they’re goana hit is the water-jump, and that could produce some fireworks.’ On Call My Bluff (BBC2) Lynn Seymour once again showed up in her bizarro-afro coiffe and crazy caftan, but this time Helen Mirren was ready: she tied a tablecloth around her head and came as Lawrence of Arabia.

The Observer, 6th January 1974